Monday, December 31, 2018

Sermon: "The Widow's Might"

Scripture Intro - Mark 12:38-44

If you listened closely to the reading of Psalm 146 you may have noticed the usual list of the powerless whom God lifts up – the oppressed, the hungry, the stranger, the orphan…and the widow.
Widows in particular make frequent appearances in the Hebrew scriptures, as well as in the parables and stories of Jesus.
Sometimes they’re named – like Naomi and Ruth - but most of the time they are nameless.
The widow who shared her last crumbs of bread with Elijah.
The widow who pestered a judge until he heard her case and offered her justice.
And the widow we encounter here in this passage from the Gospel of Mark –
the widow who dropped her last two coins - or "mites" - in the Temple collection box.

We hear about widows so often in our Bible it’s tempting to paint them all with the same brush – as poor and exploited and largely forgotten in a patriarchal world where woman who lacked a husband could not own property, had no source of income, and had no value.
These nameless, faceless women are often lifted up for their faithfulness, their generosity, their persistence, and the example they set for us all.

The widow in today’s scripture passage in particular has been the subject of countless sermons over the years in which she has been both lauded for her extreme act of giving – and pitied, as a victim of corrupt religious leaders who parade around in fancy robes while convincing those who least can afford it to give all that they have.

But rather than rush to judgment with an interpretation of this passage that either celebrates or laments the widows offering.
Let’s put ourselves in the place of Jesus.
And just observe.
As he sits across the room from the Temple treasury and watches the line of people make their way up to the collection box.
Noticing what they are wearing and how they carry themselves.
Listening for the sound the coins make as they fall in…both large and small.
Watching the expressions on their faces.
And simply noting the character of the giver - captured in that moment -
in the act of giving. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
November 11, 2018 – Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 146; Mark 12:38-44

“The Widow’s Might”

At the party celebrating the Christmas in Amherst Village House Tour last year, I was pleased to run into to Katrina Holman.
Katrina, as many of you know, is our resident Amherst village historian.
If you want to know the history of any of the historic homes in the village, you need only ask Katrina, and she can usually tell you down to the exact year who owned what property and what business or trade was once practiced in what are now all historic homes.
She’ll tell you which home was originally the town bank, which was a restaurant, which was home to the local blacksmith, and where the town taverns – all five of them – were located.

Last Christmas, as our congregation was just beginning to talk about launching a capital campaign to fund much needed repairs of this historic sanctuary and the parsonage next door, I asked Katrina what she could tell me about the history of the house that has been home to a multitude of ministers over the years, including myself.
I knew the house was built in the 1840’s but I was curious to know,
had it always been a parsonage?  Had the church always owned it?
Or did it have a previous life that I was not aware of?
Katrina looked at me and very uncharacteristically said,
“That’s an interesting question, I don’t know.”
About a month after we had that conversation, Katrina wrote an article for the Amherst Citizen that told the story of our parsonage,
a story which she said had never been told before.

The house was built in 1846 by a wealthy Boston merchant and banker.
He was the financial advisor for Ralph Waldo Emerson and was one of Emerson’s closest friends.
The original deed for the house names the owner as Abel Adams, Gentleman.
Katrina noted that historically, the “designation ‘gentleman’ in place of an actual occupation signified that a man had attained enough wealth that he no longer had to work.”  (today we just call it “retired”)
Adams paid $200 for what was prime acreage in the center of the village and he spared no expense in building the two-story house that stands there today.
But Abel Adams never lived in the house.
He built it for three of his sisters, Rebecca, Mary, and Lydia.
Lydia had become a widow at age 45, and had four children.
Rebecca was widowed at age 36, and had one child.
Mary was a spinster, which is considered to be derogatory term in our day, but historically referred to an older woman who had never married.
Because a woman who didn’t have a legal attachment to a man, had to be given some designation to identify her status in life.

Since Rebecca lived the longest, until 1884, the house came to be known as the Widow Rebecca Conant House.
Thanks to the generosity of their brother, the three sisters, and two of their adult daughters who also never married, lived out their lives at 11A Church St. 

Over the years, the women also took in their brother Levi’s widow, Lucy, after all her children had married and left home, and then the two unmarried daughters of their sister, Charlotte, moved in as well – Sarah and Mary Stewart.

Sarah and Mary lived in the house long after their widowed aunts had passed away.
They were often seen taking carriage rides together around the village, and were known to cheerfully invite their neighbors to join them along the way.
When Sarah passed away in 1918, the house was finally put up for sale,
and was purchased by the Congregational Church and Society of Amherst,
to be used as a parsonage for its pastors.

It’s humbling to know that during the first 72 years of its existence, the house where I now live with my wife, Stephanie, was home to seven women - widows and spinsters from two generations of the same family, none of them owning the home themselves, but instead being granted the privilege of a lease for life. 

When we place these women in their time and context, there are some assumptions we can make about their lives given their status as widows and spinsters.
As women living in the 19th century they certainly didn’t enjoy the freedoms and choices that women living today have, regardless of their marital status.
But just as with the widows who appear throughout our Bible, we can’t assume that these women were poor, marginalized, or perceived as lacking in value, simply because they did not have a husband to give them worth.

New Testament scholar and Jewish historian, Amy-Jill Levine, proposes that our assumptions about biblical widows, while well meaning, are often lacking in historical accuracy.
And our tendency to depict the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus as uncaring and complicit in throwing impoverished women out on the street after the death of their husbands is not only not supported by Jewish historical documents and other texts we find in the Hebrew scriptures, but it is also laden with anti-Semitism.

Levine points out that widows in biblical times did have a legal way to retain their homes and their wealth, and plenty of them did. 
And while several of the widows that we meet in the Bible are described as being poor, not all of them are.
In fact the widow who pesters the judge until he gives in to her demands would likely not have been granted time in court had she not had money and means and status to have her case heard. 
To call her powerless and impoverished simply because she is a widow is to deny her power and place in the story.
It turns her into a victim, rather than one who is claiming her rightful voice.

But what does this tell us about the widow we encounter in today’s passage from Mark?
This is clearly a widow who is poor and powerless.
We’re told that she has given her last two pennies to the Temple treasury.
And we’re also told that Jesus has witnessed her doing so immediately after he warned his disciples about religious leaders who wear ostentatious robes and devour widows houses.
Surely there must be a connection between the greed of the religious scribes and the generosity of the widow.
She’s either a victim of an unjust system that takes from those who can least afford to give, or she’s a stewardship poster child, who gives all that she has, despite how little she has, because she just loves God that much.

When I asked the Rev. Dr. Mary Luti, a retired pastor and my former seminary professor whom I greatly admire, to share her thoughts on this text, she said,
“In my years as a pastor I noted that not many thoughtful people like this text very much. And when it was presented in the context of stewardship and pledging, it always raised more anxiety than money.”

The problem with plucking these widows out their stories and out of their context and using them to prop up whatever interpretation best serves the message we’re trying to get across, is that we become guilty of using the stories of these women as a means to our own ends.
It could be argued that the Gospel writers do the same.
We sometimes forget that the Gospels are not biographies.
And they’re not historical records.
They don’t present us with a series of chronological events with factual details that tell us what actually happened during Jesus’ lifetime.
They’re also not a collection of “How To” manuals that present us with practical examples of how we’re supposed to live our lives as followers of Christ.

The Gospel writers set out to provide their readers with a theological record of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ,
and in doing so they lay out individual stories in a specific order
that is unique to each gospel, to build a portrait of who Jesus was and is,
and to tell the larger theological story of God coming into our world in an arc that their readers are meant to follow from beginning to end.

When we look at it this way – when we step back and look at each Gospel as a whole - we recognize that each writer sets out to paint a different portrait, and tell a different theological story – one that is tailored for their unique community, time, and place.
Mark places this story about the widow’s extravagant gift soon after he tells us the story of the rich man who walks away grieving when he’s told he has to give away all that he has to be given eternal life.
This is the story we heard a few weeks ago where Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to walk through the eye of needle than for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God.

We’re so tempted to pluck that story out of its context as well and make it a story about money and generosity, when it’s not just about money.
It’s about letting go of all the things that keep us trapped in our human systems of power and status and privilege.
Systems that benefit the few while exploiting the many.
As Jesus keeps telling us, any system that determines value based on “who has the most and who is the greatest” has no place in the Kingdom of God.
And we need to untangle ourselves from all of it to realize the freedom and the connection that we crave and long to experience in the presence of God.

So Mark gives us the story of a rich man who turns away from the promise of the Kingdom because he can’t let go of what anchors him in this world.
And then Mark follows it with the story of a poor woman, who gives away all she has, because she believes in the promise of the Kingdom, and she understands that in order to grab onto it,  she needs to first let go.

In the passage that immediately follows this one, Jesus predicts the fall of the Temple, and then the Passion story begins.
Where Jesus makes the ultimate sacrifice and lets go of his life,
completing the theological arc laid out in the Gospel of Mark.
Mark gives us a portrait of Jesus as a suffering servant.
One who sacrifices everything as an example of what it takes to break the cycle of suffering and death and enter the Kingdom of God.

So I apologize in advance to our Capital Campaign team and our Stewardship team, because this is not a text or a sermon about how we’re meant to follow the example of the widow and give generously to the treasury to support the work of the Temple.

But this is a text and a sermon that speaks to what it is we value.
Because as Jesus said, in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels,
“Wherever our treasure is, there our heart will also be.”

If we value compassion and kindness.
If we value community and connection.
If we value letting go of the things that hold us back, trip us up, and weigh us down….so we can grab hold of the things that push us forward, keep us grounded, and lift us up…

If we value moving towards one another in love,
Rather than backing away from one another in fear…

Then we value what God’s Kingdom has to offer.
We value the promise that we all have a seat at God’s table,
that we’re all meant to share in God’s abundance,
that we all are equal recipients of God’s love and grace.

If we value all of this, then we naturally seek out communities that share these values.
So we can figure out together what it means to live into and practice these values.
And be given the opportunity to practice mercy and forgiveness when we screw it up, over and over again.

When the widow dropped her meager mite (m-i-t-e) in the Temple treasury,
I like to think that she was declaring herself all-in on this promise of a kinder, gentler, more just and loving world.

Even from his spot across the room Jesus could see that she was kindred spirit.
One who was willing to sacrifice it all to gain what she valued most.
The widow’s might (m-i-g-h-t) is found in her act of letting go.
What do we value enough to do the same?

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

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