As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The President of the United States calls for tightened security because of immigrants who are considered “dangerous alien enemies” and possibly terrorists; there’s a national flap over disrespecting the national anthem with one celebrity staging a protest by refusing to participate; crowds at a rally right here in America are found chanting that the figure they oppose should not merely be jailed but killed; a great load of secret memos have been brought to light to tarnish a woman who had been a rising star; media outlets pounce on every new development; and plenty of “fake news” has been promulgated by an agent of a foreign government to destroy a national figure. All of this happening in the year of ’17 . . . not 2017, but 1917.
The celebrity in question was the famed conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Karl Muck. And, as the Boston Globe detailed in a marvelous feature article in last week’s magazine, Muck was wrongly accused of refusing to play the national anthem at a BSO concert. With war passions running high, Muck’s German background made him the perfect target. When he was pressured into playing the national anthem at Symphony Hall, his good friend and renowned philanthropist, Isabella Stewart Gardner, got up in the middle of it and walked out in protest. But even though the entire affair was the result of a misunderstanding, magnified by intentionally planted false news stories cooked up by a journalist who got his tips from British intelligence, the American public rose up in acrimony to demand Muck’s removal, some even chanting, “Kill Muck! Kill Muck!” He was eventually fired from the BSO and taken to an internment camp in Georgia, along with other German immigrants. His secret lover, a famed concert soprano, was exposed by the “hacking” – if you will – of a trove of love letters and memos from Muck. It is staggering how, in the heat of inflamed righteous passion, innocent people can be totally destroyed by innuendo and slander.
So what has all this to do with a scripture passage about a widow giving her last coin to the offering? Or even more puzzling, what has it to do with your life and with the fate of this church and of this world? Keep listening; maybe you’ll find out.
You’ve probably heard enough sermons on this passage about the “widow’s mite” to choke a big, muddy pig. I’ve preached a ton of them too. They’re always sermons about how this poor woman who only had a mite, gave it as an offering, and so we should follow her example and give our money too. Well, I’m not preaching that sermon this time, and my sermon title is not a typo. If you’ll excuse the play on words, I’d like to share a few thoughts about the might, the amazing power, displayed by this woman of faith – a power that could change your life, and change the world.
I want to begin by sharing my unshakeable conviction that what you are about here – here in this church – is the most important thing going on in the world. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not.
What’s the biggest problem we’re facing in our world or in our nation today? Is it a fragile economy in which the disparity between the rich and poor keeps growing and threatening an eventual breakdown of the social order? If so, what’s the solution? Some say it’s more government regulation, some say it’s less. Some say it’s socialism, some say unrestrained capitalism. Here’s the honest truth, as deeply as I can peer into it: no government regulation, no expanded freedom, no economic system, no “ism” can solve this problem, because every system can be beat, every regulation can be skirted, every law can be loop-holed, every structure can be manipulated. The only thing that can finally bring economic justice and optimal prosperity to the greatest number of people is if the minds and hearts of human beings are changed on a massive scale, and mutual and community interests, fairness, and generosity, overshadow self-interest and greed.
Is the greatest problem we face today the overuse of resources that threatens our environment with pollution and global warming, and raises the specter of wars being fought over food, water, and land? If so, what’s the solution? Maybe we’ll find some miraculous technological fix that will allow us to continue our global population growth and increasing use of natural resources without dire consequences. But something tells me mother earth has clear limits that will be imposed one way or another. We need, at least, new minds and hearts, recalibrated to learn perhaps from our American Indian brothers and sisters to live more in harmony and partnership with the land and the trees, and the sky. We need to rethink our values, and our definitions of a good life and good communities.
Is the greatest threat we face from radical religious fanatics, bent on carrying out holy war? If so what’s the answer? Will more bombs and tanks make us secure? Will squadrons of unmanned drones armed with guns and missiles do the trick? Not according to our best military and diplomatic authorities. The only way to bring security in the long run is to win the battle to change minds and hearts. And if the minds and hearts of our enemies are going to change, I suspect it’s going to involve some changing of our own minds and hearts.
In places around the world regions of ethnic minorities are attempting to secede from their nations, lives are being snuffed out every day by those who are convinced they are doing the bidding of God, and politicians are gaining popularity by railing against refugees. And here in America we’ve heard that members of the Freedom Caucus in Congress are calling the Meuller investigation a potential coup d’état, a declaration that will surely send right wing extremists to their gun cabinets. At the same time I personally know liberal Democrats who have completely cut off ties with close friends because they are Trump supporters.
Hardness of heart has set in across this world and in our nation. And what you are doing here in your little corner of the world is learning how to soften your hearts and serving in your own way as an example of what it means to live with a generous heart. You’re not coming up with new economic policies; you’re not inventing new energy technologies; you’re not putting forward new strategies in international relations. You’re one small outpost of a whole huge network of revolutionaries, doing the daily, weekly business of changing minds and hearts, starting with our own. It’s the only thing that’s ever going to make a real difference in this world.
And a prime example of the kind of change we’re about is a poor widow woman who walked into the courtyard one day while Jesus was hanging around by the treasury. Her story isn’t primarily about the money she gave. It needs to be heard in the context in which it’s set. Jesus had been talking about the pride and self-interest of the religious leaders of his day – the ones who, as Jesus said, “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Truth is, I wear a long robe when I preach, and have the best seat in the sanctuary, and some would say I am at times inclined to long prayers. So I, for one, need to be a little cautious and reflective about my motives and values. Perhaps we all need to.
The problem with the scribes, the ones in the long robes with the long prayers and the big gifts, is not simply that they had a bad attitude, it’s that they missed the point! Their values were in the wrong places. They thought it was all about them! They were putting their trust in prestige, their confidence in a system that set them apart with comfort and privilege, their faith only in themselves, and their money only where their mouths were, not their hearts.
I remember as a boy coming to church with a fist full of pennies on my birthday. When it was your birthday you brought to church the number of pennies that represented how old you were and put them in the bank one at a time while everyone sang, “Count Your Blessings.” I guess the idea was that there was at least one blessing in each of our lives for each year we had lived. But the truth is we share in so many blessings that are ours in this world, in this nation, in this place we live – blessings, at times, too many to count! From the simple beauty of a sunrise to the penetrating giggle of a baby, from the underappreciated gift of three meals a day to the rarely mentioned extravagance of a place to lay our heads at night, our inheritance as children of the earth is wondrous!
We also share in the rich fellowship of church. I doubt that there is a person here (with the possible exception of a visitor or two) who cannot testify to the joy and life-giving goodness of all the laughter, quarrels, tears, labors, and hugs that get passed around here. I’m sure those blessings are found on these Sunday mornings in the pews or at the coffee hour, or in smaller groups, committee meetings, choir rehearsals, at a church dinner, working together on church projects, or a dozen other places. And when we take the time to sit here, look around, and count up all the blessings that are ours, recognizing all the many people who make such miracles of grace happen, we are doing an exercise in humility, we’re tempering our pride, and allowing gratitude to deepen our souls and give us generous hearts.
And if those hardened hearts that predominated in our nation one hundred years ago had been softened by generosity, truth might have had an opportunity to prevail, and Karl Muck might have been saved from utter humiliation. And that generosity of heart just might save us who find ourselves in similar circumstances.
And so you and I share the privilege of the “poor widow” – the woman Jesus pointed out who dropped her two pennies in the offering. It is the privilege of sharing in something far grander than ourselves, and having something of ultimate worth to give ourselves to. It is the priceless treasure of knowing that the power of God’s Spirit is loose in the world, and any common one of us can have a stake in that power and that Spirit simply by throwing the meager weight of our existence into the fray on the side of good. It is the might of the widow’s mite. Her gift was blessed by Jesus not because of the gift itself, but because it represented the fact that this impoverished woman “got it!” She understood. Because she gave all of what little she had, it was apparent that she had some sense of the greatness of what she was participating in, and a profound humility at the undertaking. It was clear that she was the sort who brought those last two pennies to the treasury with a quiet little smile – a smile that reflected a candle glow within: the light of joy at having found something worth giving her all to, of knowing that there were other poor widows bringing their pennies, and many more who were helping to keep the faith, proclaim the word, give hope to the downtrodden, and speak truth to power. She had discovered the profound joy of shared love, genuine compassion, living generously. And in all that there was a kind of strength the scribes could not comprehend. It was the might of the poor widow, who had found something to be part of that ignited her spirit and rekindled her passion. That, my friends, is a treasure.
The kind of example that Jesus was pointing to in the act of this woman is more than a matter of coins. It is a participation in the divine sedition of the Kingdom of God; and it is joining in league with all those others throughout the world whose souls have been ignited, and who come to the altar with quiet smiles to give themselves for that which is greater than themselves. Those quiet smiles and acts of simple goodness and humility are a shared experience, a communal act.
I’d like for you to think about that poor widow and her mighty act of selflessness, and I’d like you to smile. Because you are part of a powerful force in this world, a force that is greater than systems, and polices, and laws, and armies, and inventions. It is the might of widows and workers and chambermaids and children and families and fund managers and truck drivers and teenagers gaining a new mind and a new heart, learning to share a commitment to giving themselves to the cause of truth and beauty and love – the work of the Spirit of God in the world. And I’d like you to consider that your choice to be here, to share in this community of faith, to sit together and weekly count and recount your blessings, to commit a significant portion of your resources for the ministry and mission of this church is an exercise in saying “no.” It is saying “no” to the deadly hardheartedness that is growing out there like a cancer because you know that generous hearts will change the world, and it is an exercise in saying “no” to halfhearted living because you know that a half a heart will not make a difference. And this is not a solitary gesture, but it represents your participation in something grander than yourself. It represents your small piece of God’s great design for humanity, your mighty act of changing the world, one heart, one mind at a time – beginning with yourself.