As preached at Grace yesterday (and perhaps in a few other places along the way), this week's sermon is found on Sermons That Work.
In Ghana, as in many West African countries, the Christian churches have some very different traditions. Our diocese had been in a companion relationship with the Diocese of Accra in Ghana and several people I know have been over there to visit. The first thing they noted is that worship takes as long as it needs to take … which usually means several hours! They don’t have that “Thou shalt not preach past kick off” rule there. Another tradition is how they give their offerings. They don’t just sit in the pew and wait for a plate – they dance their offerings up the aisle. That’s right, they dance. Now I know if I tried that here at Grace Church I would likely be preaching to an empty house next week, so rest assured we won’t try that here. But what they do at the offertory is everyone, and I mean everyone, leaves their pews by the side aisles, goes to the back of the church, and one by one they dance forward with their offerings. Of course, money is offered, but other things are offered too – a farm tool for blessing, a bolt of cloth for a dress, food for those who need it. One of my friends who witnessed this noticed that some would dance forward and prostrate themselves in front of the altar or even lay their torsos on the altar for a period of time, and then return to their seats. When my friend asked one of the members what was happening, she was told, “They are offering themselves to God – it is all they have to offer.” They offered themselves because they had nothing else to bring.
Today’s gospel reading is popularly known as the story of the Widow’s Mite from the old King James translation. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem and we are now back in Holy Week. Our Church year takes us to Holy Week twice: once in the spring when we observe Holy Week and the events in the life of Jesus and once in the fall between All Saints Day and the Feast of Christ the King when we focus on the teachings of Jesus during that week. So Jesus is now in the temple and to understand this story, we need to encounter it within the context of the whole chapter which begins with two other teachings. The first is when Jesus is asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus asks for a coin of the realm and inquires, “Whose picture is on the coin?” The response is, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answered (again from the King James), “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesars and render to God that which is God’s.” Now if we stay with a surface reading, we can get caught up in all sorts of machinations about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God which is sheer foolishness. It all belongs to God … even Caesar belongs to God! So Jesus’ point is that nothing really belongs to anyone – it’s all God’s.
The next query comes from the Sadducees who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They ask Jesus about a hypothetical woman who marries a man but he dies before they have children. So she marries the man’s brother, in compliance with Levitical law, and he dies without having children. And she does this seven times over (yes, it’s the “One Bride For Seven Brothers” story – not to be confused with the “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” story). The Sadducees ask, “When she dies and gets to heaven, whose wife is she?” Jesus proceeds to tell them they don’t get it because people are not given or taken in marriage. Essentially, this is a property question! In first century Palestine, a woman was property of her husband or father. Jesus tells them that she’s nobody’s property – she and her husbands belong to God.
Now we enter the Temple complex and Jesus is sitting opposite the treasury and watching how people are giving their money. Our English translation omits the word “how” but it is in the Greek texts. As people entered the Temple complex, they passed by the treasury box which a large box with a funnel-shaped opening on the top so that people could throw their coins in and they would filter down into the box – rather like tollbooths on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. You would hear the sound of the coins as they were thrown into the treasury. Now I have traveled a bit and brought with me some “coins of the realm” of various countries: a Pound Sterling from Great Britain, a couple of 10 Franc coins from France, a couple of 2 Deutschmark coins, and two Austrian 10 Groeschen coins (mind you, these predate the Euro). Now in the case of the Pound, Franc and Deutschmark coins, they are substantial, heavy coins. The more they are worth, the heavier the coin. This was true in the Roman Empire too – a denarius was a substantial coin but lighter in weight than a talent which was worth more. So let’s say the Pound, Franc and Deutschmarks represent the wealthy throwing in their offering – it sounded like this (drop the coins on the floor) a pretty substantial sound. Then along comes the woman with her two lepta, much like these aluminum 10 Groeschen coins, and she throws them in (drop the coins on the floor) … did you hear the difference? Jesus did! He heard the difference as well as saw it. Two lepta were not even enough to purchase a pigeon for the minimum temple sacrifice (that required eight lepta). In essence, she had nothing … and she threw it all in. And Jesus tells us this widow gave more than anyone else because the rest gave out of their abundance – they gave out of what was left over – but she gave everything she had. In English it says, “everything she had to live on” but the Greek says “her whole life!” She put in her whole life. She laid down on that altar!
And this is what God asks of us – to offer and present our selves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God – because we don’t own anything. It all belongs to God and what we give back is merely an acknowledgment that we understand this truth. God does not want our leftovers – our leftover time after everything else comes first, our leftover talents when we’re all tired out from what we’ve wanted to do, or our leftover treasure. God wants all of us – body, soul, and possessions – to be utterly dedicated to God’s work and people. God wants each of us to lay down on that altar and may we have the grace and humility to do just that.