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November 12, 2000
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

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from the Revised Common Lectionary

1 Kings 17:8-16 and
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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"Two Cents, a Jar of Meal and a Jug of Oil"
[Could be Used as a Stewardship Message]

A while back I made one of my rare stops at one of those fast food places.  As much as I don't like fast food, there are those urgent times when a quick burger is about all your can manage.  This time the kid behind the counter mumbled what I thought was, You wanna super-size that?"

"How's that again?" I asked.  Sure enough he said what I thought he had.  "You wanna super-size that?"  I didn't have a clue.  When I asked what "super-size that" meant, he looked at me like I had just landed on the planet!

Well as it turns out, I could get a whole lot more food I don't like anyway for 30 cents more. Our world is filled with this kind of "get more for less" thinking.  Buy a dozen donuts and get one free. (I only need one donut - maybe not even!)  Buy at least five pounds of ground beef and get it for the price of four pounds. (My doctor doesn't want me to eat even an ounce of ground beef.)  Open a bank account and get a radio -- sign up for another credit card and pay less interest for six months.

Consumers demand big bang for their bucks.  The customer is king and queen.  We want to feel like we're getting some perk or "freebie" along with our purchases. A guy I saw in the grocery store a few days ago takes the cake for me.  The grocery store is one place I never thought of negotiating prices at.  This man asked for the store manager and showed him a $1.89 loaf of bread that had a couple of bent slices.  He's asking the manager if he can have the loaf for 99 cents.  (No joke.)  The manager simply looked dumbfounded - but sure enough, he took out his magic marker and wrote "99 " on the package.

You buy a new car and the first thing a neighbor want to know is -- (??)  "What did you give for it?"  I never can figure why people think it's okay to ask what you paid for your car, or your house or your dog. But they do ask.  And what follows?  If you got your car for $20,000, they got theirs for $19,000.

We are impressed by the big deal.

And we are impressed by wealth.

I do have to admit that I turn my head when I drive through some of these new housing developments where the prices start at $300,000 and go upwards of $600,000. it is still hard to believe that these are single family homes.  And you know something.  Whether the house is small or huge, human nature is the same.  I saw a little boy and a little girl out in front of one of those monster homes - fighting over one little tricycle.

You've seen the "t-shirt" with the inscription haven't you?  "I've been rich and I've been poor -- and rich is better."  Personally, I've seen the absolute worst, nightmare kind of poverty in the city dump of Juarez, Mexico where at least a hundred people were living on daily scraps of garbage -- and I am extremely grateful for "enough" to live on.  And like others, I wonder what it would be like to live in the world of those whose homes and hobbies are featured on, "The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

That's human nature.  A nature which the devil tried to exploit in the temptations of Christ.  One of the devil's offers is, "Worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world." 


Wealth impresses human beings.

What impresses God?

There is an answer to this question in our gospel reading this morning. Jesus has been teaching about people who go through detailed outward religious practices, accept the accolades of the people while trampling over poor widows and reciting public prayers for show.

Then Jesus sits across from the temple treasury where people are filing by giving their gifts.  There are wealthy people putting in large sums of money.  Undoubtedly they are making an impression.  Unnoticed by the crowd is the lonely figure of a poor widow who puts in two small coins that did not even have the value of  penny.

God is impressed!

Jesus is moved to the point of calling his disciples to his side.  Listen to his words once again:

"I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything--all she had to live on."  [NIV]

Our scripture readings this morning focus on two widows.  Both give all they have to the God who is their only source of sustenance and strength. Instead of lethal self-sufficiency they practice a living reliance on God.

And God is impressed.

A widow in the time of the prophet Elijah was going about her daily routine of gathering sticks to make a fire so she could feed her son and herself.  Most of us do not know what it is like to spend the entirety of our day gathering enough to live on for the day.  Yet - there are people in our world who live like that. Like the widow of Zarephath and the widow at the temple in Jerusalem, they are the unnoticed badge of shame for a world where there is enough for all to eat, but not enough will to make sure all have a daily subsistence. 

Elijah asks the woman for a drink of water and a piece of bread.  She replies that she has no bread, but only a bit of meal and a small jug of oil with which to make something to eat for her son and herself. She and the lad literally lived on bread and water. The prophet asks for her meager meal and promises that God will supply her needs and more.  Her jar will never be empty of meal and her jug never empty of oil.

Could she trust him?

Sure -- he promises the care of God, but how often have those words been spoken by people who prey on the poor and the widowed. You've seen it -- haven't you?  The scam artist who steals from the elderly, the weak and the poor. 

She decides to trust Elijah and Elijah's assurance that God will not let her down.  There is a critical principle that emerges from this story.

The widow gave all she had and in return God gave her all she needed.

God was impressed.

Then there was the widow in Mark's gospel who gave all she had.  Jesus said she had given more than anyone else.

For sure, this widow would not have been on anybody's "major donor" list.  If the temple had a "President's Club," or a "Circle of Benefactors" group, the widow would not have been on the list.  If there had been a place reserved for commemorative inscriptions of those who gave the largest gifts to the temple, she wouldn't have a prayer of being named.

She gave less than a penny.

But God was impressed.

Jesus took notice.

She may not have been inscribed in the temple's holy records, but she was imprinted on the heart of God.  She gave all she had.

Do you see what is going on here.  Jesus takes notice - not so much of how much people give, but how much they keep!


Years ago, a friend who is a pastor, preached a sermon on giving.  He talked about his brother (then deceased) who most people thought of as a generous contributor to the church he attended.  His gifts were counted in the tens of thousands.  Then he spoke these rather astounding words:

"Yet, my friends... my brother was a cheapskate!  He was a multimillionaire."

He went on to say that there was a poor widow in the church who gave more than his wealthy brother.  The actual amount of her dollars was less, but there was more to the story.  This woman decided to give up her monthly appointment at the beauty parlor so she could make an extra gift for a building program. This pastor went to see her and say that she should keep her money for the beauty shop appointment and that they would have enough for the building.  After all, this monthly appointment to have her hair done was her one pleasure in life that she felt was a luxury.  Plus, she enjoyed the contact with people at the shop.

When my pastor friend tried to have her keep her meager pledge for the building fund, she corrected him in no uncertain (but respectful) terms.

"Pastor, this is the only thing I have to give.  I have nothing else.  I have talked with God about this and God knows it is in my heart to want to be a part of this building program.  I want to do this and God will see that I have what I need!"

He took her pledge back to the church.

With tears in his eyes.

And joy in his heart.

And God was impressed!


Small potatoes don't you think?

Two cents, a jar of meal and a jug of oil.  Certainly not enough to get a major building program going.  These gifts wouldn't fund a world changing ministry.

But the hearts behind these gifts can change the world!

What's the message here?

Like you, I find these biblical stories uncomfortable to deal with.  I find myself, even now, wanting to soften the point or smooth out the heavy message.  The readings disturb my comfortable world and cause me to avoid looking through my monthly expenses. I know very well that my entertainment bill for the month would feed two or three of those families who live in the dump in Juarez.

Now here's the key to responding to the word of the Lord for us in these readings.  We need to avoid the "all or nothing" --  "black and white" response to what is being said.  "Well, I can't sell everything and give it to the poor, or put everything we have in the offering plate -- so I guess I'll just have to live with the fact that I can't cut it."  It is as though we think we have to either bankrupt ourselves and our families or remain as we are.

There is another way.

I can reorder my life according to those things that impress God and not people.  Last week we looked at what it means to love God with all our heart.  This week we look at what it means to share what we have been given with an eye toward a generosity that emerges form our heart.  If I open my eyes more fully to those people God already has an eye on -- namely the poor, the widowed and the struggling -- I will develop a sense of joy in giving and reliance upon God that escapes those who look at amount more than they look at attitude.

If each of us would make small steps in looking at what we keep instead looking at what we give -- we will find our hearts tuning more into what impresses God than what impresses people!


Two cents, a jar of meal and a jug of oil.

Not much in terms of the Dow Jones.

But everything in terms of our faith!

I have this amazing fantasy going on in my mind right now.  I can just imagine an angel of the Lord standing before me as I bring my gifts to God.  And the angel says,

"You wanna super-size that?"

Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

God's eye is always on the poor and widowed. "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry." 
[Ex. 22:22-23] 
There are two widows in the scripture readings for this week.  Both reflect a trust in God which becomes their reward.  God cares for "the widowed, the fatherless and the poor."  The prophet and the gospel offer an opportunity to examine the meaning of wealth and what is means to have "treasure in heaven."  In a sense they have nothing - and yet have everything.  The Psalm for today says, "The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow..." [Ps. 146:9]

The epistle continues the description of Jesus Christ as high priest and those who are "eagerly waiting for him" will be redeemed. 

1 Kings 17:8-16

Elijah is sent to a widow of Zarephath, a non-Jewish woman who takes the prophet at his word and in return receives the blessing of God.  Jesus used this story to show how God's care is not for Israel alone - but for all who trust in the Lord and heed the word of God.  "I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon."

The text also demonstrates the care of God for the prophet Elijah when drought came upon Israel.  Elijah is sent into a time of isolation where he depends solely upon the provisions of God.  There is a correlation with Israel's wilderness experience.  In isolation, Elijah learns about the providence of God and the universality of God's call.  While Israel rejects the word of the Lord, a Phoenician woman not only hears the word, but is obedient to it.  She learns that God's promises never fail.

Mark 12:38-44

The gospel reading is another example of how it is not the outward appearances, but the inward condition of the heart that captures the attention of God.  No one, but Jesus notices the widow and her meager gift. The conclusion is very clear.  It is not the amount of the gift, but the proportion of the gift that counts.  The widow gives much more in the eyes of God than do the wealthy who give out of an abundance.  They have plenty left - she has her faith in God alone because she gave everything she had.

It is obvious of course that God does not really need our gifts - it is not as though the kingdom would fail for the lack of monetary support.  The widow's gift is a gift of complete devotion and trust.  The kingdom is built with persons like her.

Jesus makes a special point of calling his disciples to observe what is taking place and teaches them what it means to give.

Hebrews 9:24-28

The key reality of Christ's priesthood is that it is rooted in the eternal and not in the temporal.  He does not depend on an earthly sanctuary, nor an annual ritual, but has penetrated eternity with the sacrificial gift of his own life.  This "never to be repeated" gift is effective for time and eternity.

The priesthood and the sacrifice are never in doubt.  There is never a time when the sacrifice might not be acceptable to God or that the priest will be rejected.  The "once and for all" nature of the priesthood of Christ secures redemption for all time.

Those who trust in this eternal priest now "eagerly await" his return to bring about final redemption.


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  (Based on Psalm 146)

L:  Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord O my soul!
P: Let us praise the Lord for as long as we live.
L:  We will not put our trust in things of this world,
P: For God alone can strengthen us forever.
L:  Let us place our hope and trust in the Lord,
P: For our God reigns forever! Praise the Lord!


A Prayer of Confession

O most merciful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; who pardons all such as truly repent and turn to You; humbly we confess our sins and implore Your mercy.  We have not loved You with a pure heart fervently; neither have we loved our neighbor as ourselves.  We have not done justly, nor loved mercy, nor walked humbly with You, our God. Have mercy upon us, O Lord, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out our iniquity.  Create in us a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within us.  Cast us not away from Your presence; and take not Your Holy Spirit from us.  Restore to us the joy of Your salvation; and uphold us with Your free Spirit.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  Amen.


A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Almighty and eternal God, 
You are hidden from our sight:
You are beyond the understanding of our minds:
Your thoughts are not as our thoughts;
Your ways are past finding out.
Yet You have formed our minds to seek You:
Yet You have inclined our hearts to love You:
Yet You have made us restless for the rest that is in You:
Yet You have planted within us a hunger and thirst that makes us dissatisfied with all the joys of earth.

Lord God, we praise and magnify Your name that You have set Your seal upon our inmost being.  We bless You for that knocking at our hearts' doors that warns us of Your waiting presence.  We bless You for Your hand upon our lives, knowing that there is no greater blessing, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
             (adapted from John Baillie)


A Prayer of Dedication

O Lord our God, who gives so liberally to us:  Teach us to give cheerfully of our substance for your cause and kingdom.  Let your blessing be upon our offerings, and grant us to know the joy of those who give with their whole heart.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.