Presented at Sudbury Memorial Church, UCC, Nov 11, 2012
Scripture: Mark 12:38-13:2
There’s a tiny island about halfway up the western coast of Scotland. It’s a small, desolate place: bare of trees, covered mostly with scrub and sand. Ancient rises of eroded granite make up much of the island; covered with a few patches of grass, some flowers and one or two small streams. Many years ago, I journeyed there, taking a ferry to the Island of Mull, then a long meandering bus ride along a single lane road, passing by empty hills and the occasional farm; and then – finally – a short boat ride to the Island of Iona.
I wandered there for a few hours, strolling out of the village, past the monastery and its ancient graveyard: broken and fallen stones marking the anonymous graves of ancient heroes, kings and saints. I passed sheep grazing under the bright blue sky, then crossed the narrow island, arriving at an ancient stony hill overlooking a small beach that faced the vastness of the Ocean.
There I sat, meditating for a long while, remembering the monks who came there nearly 1500 years ago, and their long labor to bring the Gospel back to much of Europe. Their labors ended what we now know as the “Dark Ages” that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. I thought of the many Scottish luminaries that history tells us are buried in the graveyard I’d passed, including Duncan and Macbeth. I remembered reading about the monastery’s destruction by the Vikings; then it’s re-establishment in the 12th century, only to be abandoned again during the Reformation, and finally reborn in the 20th Century as a community dedicated to working for Peace and Justice.
I sat on that windswept hill, enveloped by the sound of the waves breaking on the shore, the smell of sea and flowers, the seabirds calling, the wind whispering among the sand and grass. A sense of awe and majesty surrounded and filled me as I sat there, alone in that empty place, pondering my own uncertain future.
Let us pray…
Lord, open our eyes and hearts here today. Work in us to set aside our truth for yours. Open my mouth, Lord, that I may be a faithful witness to your Gospel; that your Holy Spirit, working through my voice, and in the hearts of all of us here today, is made manifest. We rejoice that you walk with us Lord, in good times and in bad, in times of fullness, and in times of emptiness. Work your truth in us now, that we may see and walk the paths you’ve set for us. Amen.
Most sermons on the Widow’s Mite present one of two viewpoints. The first is that the Widow gave all she had to the Lord, and that we should therefore not hesitate to do the same, and not boast about it. This interpretation is very popular, especially during Stewardship drives!
The second view focuses on social justice, contrasting the widow’s gift of all she had with the pride and arrogance of the scribes and merchants, dwelling on how the rich and powerful mercilessly exploited the poor, and reflecting on how Jesus’ ministry took a firm stand against such oppression.
Both of these views have justification. As a Christian, I believe we are called to give all that we have and all that we are in the service of the Gospel. I also believe that seeking to promote justice for all, at all times, is an undeniable component of our faith; one that proceeds out of our love for God and for our fellow creatures, guided by the teachings, example, and mandate of Jesus Christ.
But in hearing such sermons, I’m always left with the question of “So, what else?” Somehow, they seem incomplete. We forget that this woman is described as a “poor widow” – meaning she had no one to care for her, no home, and no resources to fall back on. People like her, in that time and place, had no hope for the future. She expected something to happen, what was it?
In giving her mite to the temple treasury, this woman had given all she had. She’d emptied herself of her last tiny scrap of worldly hope and placed everything in God’s hands. Everything else had been taken away from her, as we learn from Jesus’ statement that the scribes “devour widow’s houses.” Her actions are those of someone who sees nothing but emptiness on the path ahead of her. She had nothing left, and no hope of salvation. She had emptied herself, a different kind of emptiness from what I experienced on Iona, but emptiness nevertheless – and it is in emptiness that we find God.
So, I wonder, wow did all this help this woman encounter God? From Mark’s narrative, it sounds as if she never even knew Jesus sitting there, never heard him speak about her. She probably shuffled off into the crowd, and was quickly lost to the sight of him and the disciples.
For Mark, this poor widow’s story is not just a lesson in the arrogance of many who are rich and powerful, nor was he pushing for a successful stewardship campaign!
As we heard from Jesse earlier, this moment marks the end of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus has come to the point where the path ahead of him no longer has any turns or exits, he had emptied himself, just as this poor widow has, and placed everything in God’s hands.
Now, let’s meditate for a moment on the two verses that immediately follow this scene, at the start of Chapter 13…
As Jesus left the temple later that day, one of the disciples noticed the grandeur of Herod’s temple, and said “Teacher, I can’t believe the size of these stones! Look at these magnificent buildings!”
Jesus answered, “Look closely at these magnificent buildings. Someday there won’t be one of these great stones left on another. Everything will be thrown down.”
So, Jesus was saying that this woman’s gift, her trust in the temple, will come to nothing, just as all human works eventually fail. Her money is being wasted.
But, remember that the disciple, in speaking to Jesus, refers to the building as “Herod’s Temple” – not “God’s Temple.” Mark is saying that the temple itself – Herod’s Temple – is just another monument to the pride of mankind, not the sole channel that links us with God.
Even so, Jesus says nothing about the worth of this poor widow’s gift to the temple treasuries, all we are told is he noticed that she has “given all she had” and that he valued that gift… It was the giving that was valuable, not the cause that it was given for. Jesus’ condemnation of the temple, nor its’ eventual failure, affected God’s appreciation of this emptying of herself in devotion to her faith.
In those days, there was no safety net. Yes, the Jewish Bible said that the people were to provide for the widows, orphans and poor, but this was never adequate to the need, and the Bible is full of condemnations of the peoples’ failure to fulfill this mandate at all; or for allowing such things to happen to begin with, as with Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes for “devouring widows’ homes.” In this time and place, once you lost your home, as this widow had, life was certain to be brutal, painful, and short. That’s what she was facing when she gave up her last two coins. She was accepting that her life was empty, that there was nothing left for her to hope for.
So, the Widow had expended all of her resources and was ready for the end, she had emptied herself. She had no more to give; and Mark tells us Jesus pointed this out as his last public act. And so it was for Jesus, too. This was the end of his ministry, he knew he would be dead in a couple of days. Just like this widow, he too had emptied himself, and knew that the end of the road was all too near.
We all experience times of emptiness. Sometimes it is a deliberate and peaceful emptiness, like the atmosphere St. Columba and his monks found on Iona, at other times the result of pain and loss, like it was for the widow. In all cases, though – encountering that emptiness involves letting go of what was, of breaking free from the worldly concerns that limit in our horizons, the limits that obscure our view of the infinite Grace and Love of God.
Iona was just this for Columba and his followers. He had been a rich and powerful son of Irish Kings, but had been exiled. He didn’t start on the journey to Iona because of some earnest desire that God placed in his heart, but because all he had in Ireland had been lost, he had lost, and he had nowhere else to go but where God led. He had become empty, just as the widow had, just as Jesus had, and just as we all do. Columba sought out emptiness, knowing that only there would he and his followers be able to discern and fulfill the plan that God had for his life and ministry. Only there would they have the solitude that would enable them to recharge and be ready for each step of their long labor.
Nearly every major figure in the Bible encounters such emptiness, and comes to love it; whether they get there from deliberately emptying themselves, or because they are forced to accept it. That’s where they, and we, find God. It’s there that we realize that all we build on this earth, no matter how well we build it, will eventually fail. All of our works, all that we love in this world, are doomed to pass away. But, we also learn the Gospel will never die. Emptiness removes the distractions that have been obscuring our path into the future. It is through emptiness that we encounter God, and it is there that God reclaims us. It is there that we are healed, and learn, all over again, to accept and return God’s love for us.
And so I now understand what I was feeling on that lonely beach one breezy afternoon, years ago. God is with us, always has been, always will. I have experienced emptiness more than once, and in different ways, as have we all, and no doubt will again. In such moments, when we cast aside all that we have, giving up our own agenda and leaving ourselves open and empty, as the widow did and as Columba did, and as Jesus did, we find God has been there all the time, waiting for us. It is in the emptiness that we learn all over again that the Holy Spirit is not just blowing past us, but is within us, always and forever.
Copyright (c) 2012, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and provides a link back to this site).