Sermon – November 8, 2015 A Penny for Your Thoughts

Scripture Lessons: Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:38-44
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In our household, when the kids swept their rooms, if there was change on the floor, it simply want into the trash can with the rest of the sweepings. They weren’t interested in coin. To them, it was not worth bothering with. To their parents, who emptied the trash, however, it was another matter and the coin was routinely rescued from the rubbish bin.

What’s two cents? You can’t even use it to buy penny candy anymore. Two cents. It’s an inconsequential opinion added to a conversation. Two cents. Worthless. Useless. Inconsequential. That’s what they thought in Jesus’ day, about the widow’s contribution of two cents and, frankly, about the widow herself. Worthless. A nuisance, even. But Jesus shows us the value of the two cents and of the widow.

Now it is no random detail that the woman Jesus singles out is a widow. You see, there is a “thing” in the Bible about widows. Widows were perceived as being worthless, bothersome, a nuisance, a burden. If they had any means, which most did not, they were preyed upon for their wealth, as was mentioned in the lesson we heard this morning. But most widows were simply dirt poor and at the mercy of others given the way society was structured. A widow was vulnerable. And, according to our scriptures, a widow was important to God.

There are numerous references in the Bible to the need to take care of those who are widows. Here are a few examples:
Exodus 22:22-24 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Deuteronomy 24:17 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.
Exodus 24:19-22 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
Exodus 27:19 “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
Jeremiah 22:3 Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.
Zechariah 7: 8-10 The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.
And from the New Testament:
James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Almighty, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

These are just a few examples of Biblical dictates that require taking care of widows. Evidently this is mentioned over and over again because it was an issue. Widows were not being cared for and so the people had to be reminded again and again of the need to do so.

There are numerous references in the Bible to the people of God being taken to task for neglecting to take care of the widows in their midst. Again, an indication that this was an ongoing problem.

So we see that widows are more than just women whose husbands have died. They are also symbolic of God’s care for all, especially those whom society has made vulnerable. While humans are cajoled to take care of widows, and reprimanded when they neglect that responsibility, we see again and again in the Bible how God shows care and compassion for widows:
Deuteronomy 10:17-18 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.
Psalms 146:9 God watches over the strangers; God upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked God brings to ruin.

We also see God’s care for the widow in the story of Elijah feeding the widow at Zarapheth and saving her son. In Acts there is a story of the raising of Tabitha who cared for widows. We see God’s care of the widow in the story of the raising of the son of a widow in the Gospel of Luke. And in Jesus offering salvation to the woman at the well, who was likely a widow. God’s esteem for widows is evident in the role of Anna the prophetess, a widow, identifying the baby Jesus as the Messiah.

In stories in the Hebrew scriptures as well as the Christian scriptures, we see God’s care and concern for widows. They are a symbol of vulnerability and justice. God’s care for the widow shows God’s alternative value structure to that of the world which sees these women as worthless. God shows they are worthy of saving and have a constructive role to play in God’s community.

The story of the widow’s mite incorporates all these aspects of the widow in scripture. This widow is considered worthless by the community around her. Her gift is considered worthless. Yet Jesus cites her as an example for the leaders to follow. She is the last person who would have been considered worthy of emulation as the model for those who considered themselves worthy. In this story, the widow is used to show God’s intention to turn societal convention on its head, and to invert the values of society.

This widow defies all expectations. She does not allow herself to be confined to the identity assigned to her by those around her. She is not limited by cultural expectations. She is not defined by the negative messages of those around her. She will not let herself be controlled by the attitudes of the religious leaders. She defies all of this. And walks up to the treasury in full view of everyone, not cowering or sneaking or abashed, and puts her two cents in the treasury, all she has. With this simple act, she topples the reality that those with status and power and wealth have carefully constructed.

Today, corporations, politicians, the government, religion, and society try to control our thoughts, our lives, and our identities. And they can do this for a penny – just give some kind of economic incentive, just make it look like it is saving you money, or making you money, and we are easily brainwashed. These institutions are pretty good at constructing and controlling reality and we let them do it. But the story of this widow shows us that the gospel of Jesus Christ is far more than money. It is power. It is self identity. It is dignity and respect in spite of the messages pervading the cultural context around us. It is pushback. It is freedom.

As Christians, we believe that people are defined by God. Dignity is a divine birthright for all people regardless of their religion or lack thereof. Each and every person is sacred and invaluable. For us, everything is not defined by money, in economic terms. People are not pawns in power games or economic units. Life is sacred. The gospel is a message of freedom from the constructs and delineations and categories that so ofter drain and diminish life. The gospel is freedom from being controlled by the opinions and perspectives of society.

This past week we heard that the number of “nones” is going up in our country. Nones, not nuns. Nones are people who claim no religious affiliation. There are more and more people in the US who do not consider themselves religious. To me, this is not a surprise at all because in many ways the church has let itself be defined by the culture and so is anachronistic, irrelevant, arcane, and even laughable.

This week, there was a big article in the paper with a large picture about the Episcopal Church installing its first African American as presiding bishop. [Tampa Bay Times 11/2/15] Yes, in a way this is to be celebrated. But in another way, it is embarrassing. Given everything in the New Testament that is anti-racist and anti-bigotry, and given the blatant diversity of the early church, it’s sad that this is a big deal over 2,000 years later. The church should have been way past this a long time ago and it is a travesty worthy of repentance that it is not. When the church is patting itself on the back in 2015 for authorizing a black person to a position of power in the church, when the country already has a black president, this is embarrassing and its no wonder there are a growing number of nones. This kind of thing makes the church look passe and irrelevant. Which, sad to say, it often is.

The Gospel has freed us from the cultural constraints around us and we have ignored that freedom and instead chosen the shackles of society. The church should be way ahead of society, bringing society along, making a witness.

Friends if the church seems our of touch, passe, a relic, this is not because of the gospel. This is not because of the teachings of Jesus. This is not because of the witness of the early church. The story of the widow shows the power of the gospel to free us and transform us and empower us to model a new reality, the reality of God, in the midst of our skewed human society. We are to be yeast, light, salt to the world. Making a difference. [You’ll hear more about that next week.] The Gospel is a message of freedom and hope. Yet the church is seldom perceived as the bearer of that radical Good News.

I know that many of you are on Facebook, which I am not, and I’m told that our daughter, Angela Wells, pastor of the Burlington United Church of Christ Congregational in Massachusetts, is a prolific poster. So, maybe you have already heard these stories, but they bear repeating because they show the way the church is perceived as not only irrelevant but harmful.

Angela’s husband, Martin, was invited to the wedding of his boss, a woman who was marrying another woman. The boss took Martin aside and talked with him about the wedding and she expressed sensitivity to the fact that Martin’s wife was a pastor and she may not be supportive of this same gender wedding. The boss said she knows Martin is progressive in his thinking but she didn’t assume that his wife was the same way. After rattling off the numerous instances of UCC support of gay rights he told his boss that there were gay people in their church and Angela had performed gay weddings. Then he looked at the boss and said, “Where do you think I get my progressive ideas? I get them from Angela who gets them from the church.” The boss started to cry. The church is just not perceived to be a champion of freedom and dignity for all people.

In another situation, Angela was meeting with a family from the community about a memorial service. An elderly person had died and they were not part of a church but wanted a service at Angela’s church. One of the adult children involved was transgender. At the meeting about the service, the transgender person asked Angela if she was ok with the situation. She replied, “I just want to know what name you want me to use when I speak with you and what gender pronoun you prefer.” The person started to cry.

Frankly, this makes me want to cry at the pathetic state of the church and its reputation in society. The Gospel is a message of freedom and empowerment for ALL people. It is hope for the widow; it is hope for the world. Yet the church seems to be known for being judgmental and narrow minded. It can be seen as a derelict relic. No wonder there are so many nones.

And the great travesty is that society desperately needs to hear the gospel of freedom. Society needs to see the hope of a different reality and alternative future. People are hungry for transformation. I saw a bumper sticker this week on a car which said – and I realize this is off color for a sermon and unconventional and perhaps offensive but it strikes a chord – the bumper sticker said, “Bernie Because fuck this shit.” People are sick and disgusted with the way things are. And the church has an alternative. The church has a message of freedom and dignity and justice for all people.

This week we heard about the death rate going up among some middle aged white people. This was a complete surprise. Up? Why? Drug abuse, addiction, alcoholism, and suicide. These are expressions of desperation. This is hopelessness. This is people who share the sentiment of the bumper sticker but they have given up.

And the church holds back its two cents; it’s message of hope and an alternative world view, and lets the money of corporate America do all the talking, define the terrain, determine the value of a life, and set the course for the future. We have a message of hope and transformation that people are literally dying to hear. We have a message that frees us from the social constructs that deny life and hope. We are heirs to a tradition of power that defies the opinions, stereotypes, and stigmas around us. This widow will not let the people around her, even the religious authorities, define her, tell her who she is, or tell her what she is worth. Her faith has freed her from that power over her. With her two cents, with her all, she puts her trust not in money, not in people, but in God and God’s intentions for reality and creation.

Society wants to define us. Our faith frees us from the constraints of these definitions. We hear the stress put on STEM these days. Science, technology, engineering and math. And those pursuits are important. My husband is a science teacher. Now the Gates Foundation has put forth the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” to encourage the design of a toilet that can serve the 2.5 million people who do not have access to plumbing facilities. We’ll see what results. All l know is that the lights for a park that are fueled by dog waste were developed by an artist not an engineer or a scientist. Our faith compels us to break out of the limiting constraints that society is trying to impose upon us.

In our crazy days of selecting a presidential candidate, there is much fodder in the news. This week, when one of the presidential wannabes was asked a question, the candidate’s reply included this sentence, “I have to admit that I don’t know a great deal about that, and I don’t really like to comment until I’ve had a chance to study the issue from both sides.” [Tampa Bay Times 11/5/15, “Carson stumbles on Cuba question”] There’s the problem. Not that the candidate is uninformed, but that the candidate assumes there are two sides. Why only two? Most issues have more than two sides; many perspectives and facets. To assume there are just two sides is to simplify an issue, to already choose sides, to ignore the multiplicities of realities. It’s assuming a construct that is not helpful and limits the way that positive solutions and responses can emerge.

Our faith calls us to expand our thinking and not be limited by the labels society uses and the constructs society imposes. Corporate America wants to control our thoughts for a penny. Save a buck, make a buck, and we listen. We tune in. It’s on our radar. The widow shows us what two cents can do. Two cents defy all the power structures and economic assumptions of the day. Two cents defy every stereotype, stigma, and social construct. They don’t expect this widow to be generous. They don’t expect her to give. They expect her to be needy, pathetic, and dependent on others. With two cents, she breaks out of the prison they have created for her. She defines herself. And she declares her freedom to love and serve only God. And it only takes two cents. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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