By: David H. May, Rector
It’s interesting how this story of a widow who gave the last two coins she had to rub together to God always seems to be read during the final weeks of a parish’s stewardship campaign. You might be tempted to think that we had planned it that way. We haven’t. This beautiful story has been a part of the reading the Scriptures in worship during the last Sundays just before Advent, for long centuries, long before there was anything like stewardship campaigns. But it is a good one for us to consider. Although maybe not for the reasons you might imagine.
According to Mark, this is the last scene we have of Jesus in his public ministry before his arrest. And he begins with a warning. Beware of the scribes – the doctors of God’s law (as one translation puts it) – who wear long robes and like for people to greet them out in public with a respectful salutation and always get a good seat for worship and at public gatherings and pray long prayers to show just how pious they are. Beware of them.
As someone in a long robe and who always has a seat in church even those time when plenty of other people have to stand and who just two days ago was greeted in a 7-11 by a stranger who shouted out, ‘God bless you, father!’, and who later this week will be seated at a dais before a throng and has been enjoined to pray a prayer for the needs of the world that I was told is normally five to ten minutes long (even though I complained that I’m an Episcopalian and that we don’t ever pray that long!), I do feel a little like a conspicuous example and object of our Lord’s strong word of warning.
Of course, clergy aren’t the only ones vulnerable to the seductions of power and privilege. But maybe it’s just worse when we consent to go along. It should be said that Jesus warning was not intended for all scribes; only the ones that had lost their way; only the ones who can’t see what and who is precious to God and instead place their faith in what the world says matter most.
Jesus is only pointing out what he has been saying to his disciples – meaning us – over and over again when he says, ‘the last shall be first and the first last’. Beware of what the world tells you is first and matter most. That day in the Temple, Jesus shows his disciple what is great and who is first. And he gives us eyes to see too.
One dreary afternoon almost thirty years ago, I was sitting in one of the side offices at Richmond Hill up on Church Hill. The property – formerly the home of Roman Catholic nuns – had been bought just a few months before and I was living there for a year because they needed a few people to occupy the property while money was being raised to begin renovations. It was a really sad, tired looking place then. It had fallen into disrepair over the years. But now there were plans to turn it into an urban retreat center. There were big dreams and big plans. But that’s about all there was. I couldn’t see how any of it could ever really happen. Who was going to give millions and millions of dollars to an urban retreat center whose mission was the ‘healing of metropolitan Richmond’?!
On that afternoon, I was sitting in the office with two other volunteers who were around the corner in another little office area. I was supposed to answer the phone or greet folks who might come in to learn more about these big plans. But the phone rarely rang and almost no one ever came through the door to hear about our big plans or anything else. Honestly, it all seemed doomed to failure to me. I couldn’t see how it would ever end up as anything other than just one more big pie-in-the-sky dream that flopped.
Then there was a ring at the door, an old-fashioned bell like one of those that used to be on bicycles. It was a really cheerful sound that cut through that dreary afternoon and my dreary thoughts like a bell sounding. The person ringing let themselves in and I saw her walk into the little lobby area down the hall from me. She was a much older woman and she was dressed in a blue print dress with tiny little flowers all over it in a pattern. Maybe it had been bright and cheerful when she’d bought it years before but now it was faded and fraying at the edges. Her hair was pulled up, sort of, but mostly was flying around. She had on ancient tennis shows and old dark socks that hung around her ankles. She probably weighed all of 85 pounds to match her age. And hanging from her elbow was a basket and, in the basket,, I could see cut flowers peeking out.
As she passed into the other office where the other two volunteers were I heard her call out ‘woo-hoo!’ and then say, ‘where are my sweet girls? I’ve got something for you!’ And I heard the two other volunteers, two older African-American ladies answer her, ‘oh it’s you, my sweet baby, come over here! What have you got.’ There voices kept crying out to each other like that. I stood up to go join them, but then just stood there. ‘These are fresh from my garden,’ I heard the woman saying, ‘just for you!’ And they cried out, ‘oh aren’t you just the sweetest thing! Get over here right now, saint of God, and hug my neck!’
I heard the woman say ‘ok, let me run now’. I saw her walking back into the entrance area, her unsteady feet in the ancient tennis shoes, her hair with all these wild wisps shining in the sun coming through the window. And then she looked at me down the little hallway and said, ‘oh I didn’t know you were there sweet thing’. And she made her way down the hall to me and looked down into her basket and said, ‘now let’s see. Here it is.’ She took a zinnia and held it out to me and said, ‘God grew this one just for you to have’ and handed it to me. And then she said, ‘I don’t know you yet, but I want to love you just as much as Jesus does.’
Could you get two pennies rubbed together for that flower? What was it worth? Honestly, what was that woman worth in the eyes of the world? What was what she did for us worth on that dreary afternoon with no hope in sight of that place becoming an urban retreat center whose mission was no less than the healing metropolitan Richmond? What was what she did worth? – enough to gain a prominent seat or be counted among the great, seated in a place of honor, and greeted with respectful salutations on the street?
As the world sees these things, she foolishly gave all that she had out of her poverty leaving her with nothing. Nothing that is, except faith in her God to supply her every need, which is grace given beyond measure. Do you not know, dear friends, that you are – like her – God’s treasure. Amen.