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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

November 8, 2015

 Gratitude is Always a Choice

Psalm 127; Mark 12:38-44

            The first part of Jesus’ passage this morning is about folks who love to wear long robes, sit in the best seats in the house, and offer their religion for all to see.  I am well aware who best fits that description!  So you will forgive me if I skip to the second part of today’s passage, to the part where Jesus, we are told, was standing in a place where He could watch in the Temple as people made their offerings. 

            I guess Jesus thought that the offering was a very important part of the experience of worshiping Almighty God.  I guess Jesus thought that you could see a lot about who folks were by the way they made their gifts, that indeed you could tell a lot about the kind of living folks really were doing through observing the kind of giving in which they engaged.  Now please note: Jesus does not say there is anything wrong with the wealthy individuals who gave “large sums;” presumably it is better to be a rich person who gives generously than to be one who gives miserly or not at all.  But the one who catches Jesus’ eye is described in this text by Mark as a “poor widow.”  It is all we know about her.  We wonder: How did she become a widow?  We wonder: How long has she had this designation?  Of course, it is good to wonder about the text of scripture, even to ask questions of it that can never be answered.  Two things we know for sure: This woman was no stranger to loss and the suffering, the grief that comes with losing a loved one.  And we know that this woman was no stranger to poverty.  Jesus catches her, as it were, in the act of doing something very beautiful.  She puts two small copper coins in the offering receptacles.  The Greek word for them is “λέπτα” (“lepta”), and two “lepta” were worth about a penny.  Jesus is moved by her gift.  He says, “Many in here have given large sums out of their abundance, but she has given out of her poverty everything she had.”  Literally, in Greek, the words are “όλον τόν βίον άύτης” (“holon ton bion autes”) – “the whole of her life.” 

            Think about it.  A poor widow could have very easily assumed, “I’m a recipient, not someone actually expected to make gifts.”  And we would all say, “Of course we understand that.”  She could have simply focused upon her loss, and made her status as a poor widow the story of her life, her complete identity: “I’m a poor widow, I’ve been a victim.  I am someone for whom life has not fallen in pleasant places, and, surely, I get a pass when it comes time to give.”  But this woman must think of herself differently than others, including Jesus, thought of her upon first appearance.  I don’t think this woman thought she was “poor,” and I don’t think her life was completely defined by her status as “widow.”  I don’t mean that she ignored those realities.  No, I mean she realized that her life was more than simply what she had lost or what she lacked.

            We will never know completely why this woman moved Jesus as profoundly as she did.  But I am wondering “Why?”  “Why did she make this gift that included ‘the whole of her life’?”  She must have really trusted in God; she must have felt incredibly grateful to God for all that she had and for all that she was.  She must have felt blessed by God to make this kind of major gift.  That is part of what I love about this particular story.  Anytime there is a capital campaign going on, the first conversation is always about “major gift prospects,” and in this story, the wonderful thing is that it is her tiny gift that turns out to be the most major gift given in the Temple.  This woman caught Jesus’ eye, He noticed her, and it makes me wonder: What does Jesus see when I make my gifts to the church, to my alma mater, to this community, to the things I care about in the world?  What does Jesus see in my giving that tells Him about my heart?

            Let us look at another woman in another time and place.  She is really a fictitious woman, her name, Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock in last year’s blockbuster movie, Gravity.  Dr. Ryan Stone is in space, as far away as she can get from this earth, because she wants to escape from the pain, the unbearable pain of this world.  She has lost, we learn in the course of the movie, a four-year-old daughter in a freakish accident, and this tour of duty in space is exactly the escape from the pain and tragedy of her life that she needs. 

            If you have not seen the movie, I will tell you quickly the story.  Some space debris unexpectedly comes at them while they are working on a space station, and all of the members of her party, except for two of them, are killed by that sudden storm of space debris.  The two of them find themselves separated from the space station, and separated from the only place that they can go in order to be saved, in order to get back to earth.  In the course of the movie, her colleague George Clooney, a spaceman just being himself, finally does a beautiful thing – he lets go of the link to Stone, realizing there is only enough power left to save one of them.  At some point along the way, something happens inside Dr. Ryan Stone as she finds herself in a Russian capsule attached to the space station that offers her the only chance she has to get home.  This movie is one of those movies where Murphy’s Law happens: again and again, if something can go wrong, it does, and usually it is worse than you imagine.  You are on the edge of your seat the whole movie!  Suddenly Dr. Stone realizes that all her options are played out, and she despairs.  Desperate, she starts talking out loud, “I’m gonna die, aren’t I God?  Oh, I know we’re all gonna die, but I’m gonna die today.  Funny, that you ought to know.  But the thing is, I’m still scared, I’m really scared.  Nobody will mourn for me.  Nobody will pray for me.  Will you mourn for me?  Will you pray for my soul?  Or is it too late?  I mean, I’d pray for myself but I’ve never prayed in all my life.  Nobody ever taught me how.  Nobody ever taught me how.” 

            Almost as soon as she offers that prayer, suddenly she makes contact with earth and the possibility of a long shot saving return to earth emerges.  And, of course, her capsule makes it back to earth.  She barely gets out of the capsule as it fills up with water and sinks to the bottom of the sea in an obscure bay halfway around the world.  And as Ryan Stone swims finally to land, and lays upon this earth that she wanted to get away from, but now embraces like it is her home, she says the only thing she has left to say, the last words spoken in the film, “Thank you.”  She gets up like a child struggling to walk, and you have the sense that with that “thank you,” life is going to start anew for Dr. Ryan Stone.

            Jack Stotts was a Presbyterian minister.  He went to Austin College in Sherman, Texas.  He ended up the president of not one but two seminaries, Austin Seminary and McCormick Seminary in Chicago.  His first call as a pastor was to a tiny church in Taylor, Texas.  (I once preached for a weekend in this tiny church.  When I got there I thought, “This is not exactly a Billy Graham Crusade that I am going to be leading!”)  They were conducting their annual stewardship campaign – you know, where you expect the preacher to deliver the “Sermon on the Amount” – and he had done his job that Sunday, and folks made their pledges.  Jack got a call that night from the Session when they gathered.  There was a problem, and their new pastor, fresh out of seminary, had to solve it.  A widow in the church, a retired schoolteacher, had made her pledge, and these elders realized that it was too much.  They said to the preacher, “We know her.  She can’t afford to give this much to our church.  Your job is to go out and to thank her for this gesture, but to assure her that we could never accept so generous a gift from her.”  Jack said, “I was a young preacher, and I didn’t know any better, so I simply did what they told me.”  He knocked on her door, and explained why he was there.  He said, “The gift that you’ve said you’re going to make to the church is too much.  You need to make it smaller, more affordable to you.  But we really appreciate the gesture.”  She looked at him, and said, “Would you deprive me of my joy?” 

            This woman, this “poor widow,” gave all that she had to give.  She gave “the whole of her life.”  And Jesus noticed her gift.  Frankly, I think Jesus saw something in her gift that reminded Him of a gift that God was asking Him to make.  And in a sense this woman tells Jesus something about His life, His future and His own giving.

            Open your eyes, dear friends, it is amazing what God can show you!

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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