A Mite in the Emptiness (II)

There’s a tiny island about halfway up the western coast of Scotland. It’s a small, desolate place: bare of trees. 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 Scottish farm; and then – finally – a short trip on a ferry to the Island of Iona.


widows-mite-roman-coins_900pxSermon: “A Mite in the Emptiness”
Presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC in Brattleboro, VT
August 18, 2013
Scripture: Mark 12:38-44

SCRIPTURE READING…

This morning’s reading comes from the Gospel of Mark chapter 12, verse 38 through chapter 13 verse 2.  In it, Jesus condemns the scribes, tells the story of the Widow’s Mite and prophesies the destruction of the temple.  It is part of a sequence of vignettes in Mark that deal with Jesus teaching in the Temple about the Messiah, the coming of the end times, and what can be done to assure oneself of salvation.

As you hear these words, ask yourself how these stories, particularly the story of the widow and her mite, fit in with Mark’s themes.

And now, please join me in prayer as we prepare our hearts to hear today’s scripture….

Spirit of the Living God, turn on the light of God’s truth and wake up our hearts by the Word we now declare. In ancient pages let us find fresh life, fresh hope, and fresh courage for witness in your world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

As [Jesus] 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.”

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Here ends our reading from the Gospel of Mark, May we be blessed in the hearing of this scripture, Amen.

SERMON…

There’s a tiny island about halfway up the western coast of Scotland.  It’s a small, desolate place: bare of trees.  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 Scottish farm; and then – finally – a short trip on a ferry 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 stormy vastness of the North Atlantic.

There I sat, meditating for a long while, remembering the monks who came there from Ireland nearly 1500 years ago, and their long labor to bring the Gospel back to much of Europe.  Their work 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 Shakespeare’s 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 of faith, dedicated to 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 future.

So, what does this beautifully desolate island have to do with a widow in ancient Jerusalem?

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 particular interpretation is often heard during Stewardship drives!

A 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 exploit the poor – both then and now, 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 sometimes forget that this woman is described as a “poor widow” – meaning that in that time and place, she had no one to care for her, no family, no home, and no resources to fall back on.  She had no hope for her future.  Yet, she gave that gift of all she had.  She was making a statement that she, and her gift, mattered.  But to whom did it matter?  What was this hope she had?

In giving her last two coins to the temple treasury, this woman emptied herself of her last tiny scrap of worldly hope and placed everything in God’s hands.  Everything else had been taken 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 for herself on the path she is doomed to follow.  She has nothing left, and no hope of rescue from her plight.  She is empty, 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, how did this mite of a gift 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 Jesus and his 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!

You see, this moment also 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 has also emptied himself, just as this poor widow has.  He too has placed everything in God’s hands.

Let’s meditate for a moment using a different translation [The Voice] of the three 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.”

Jesus seems to be saying that this woman’s gift, her trust in the temple, if that’s what it was, will come to nothing.  Her gift will be wasted.

But, remember that the disciple, in speaking to Jesus, refers to the building as “Herod’s Temple” – not “God’s Temple.”  Mark is implying 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.

Jesus also 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 woman’s emptying of herself in devotion to her faith and to her god.

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 from God 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 her last two coins.  She was accepting that her life was empty, that there was nothing on earth for her to hope for, any more.

This widow had expended all of her resources and was ready for the end, she had accepted her emptiness.  She had no more to give; and Mark tells us Jesus pointed this out as his last public act.  He was in the same situation. 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, pouring everything he had into his ministry.  And now, the end of the road was all too near.

We all experience times of emptiness, often the result of pain and loss, like it was for this widow, and Jesus, and even St. Columba and his monks.  And, in confronting that emptiness we find we must let go of what was.  We find that we must break free of our worldly concerns, and when we do, we find that they had limited our horizons, obscuring 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.  He had become empty, just as the widow had, just as Jesus had, and just as we all do.  Columba sought out an empty place that echoed the emptiness he found within himself, 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 they needed to find God, and prepare for the centuries of labor that awaited them.

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 have no choice.  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, even temples of Herodian proportions, will eventually fail.  All of our works, all that we love in this world, will pass away.  But, we also learn that 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 through the gospel of Christ.  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, thirty 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 I 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.

Amen.

NB: This is a revised version of a sermon delivered at Memorial Congregational UCC Church in Sudbury, MA on 11/11/2012.

Copyright (c) 2013, 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/or provides a link back to this site). 

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

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