Thursday, November 08, 2012

Final Offerings -- A Lectionary Reflection


1 Kings 17:8-16

Hebrews 9:24-28

Mark 12:38-44

Final Offerings

            For many congregations this is the Season of Stewardship. It’s a time when churches try to prevail upon members the importance of giving to the church (and therefore to God).  In due course, preachers preach sermons, the churches send out packets of stewardship materials, making sure that we include pledge cards (estimate of giving cards), and the folks are invited to bring their gifts into the storehouse.  Whether we talk about tithing or not, the church wants to see as many people as possible, give as much as possible, to support the institutional needs of the church.  As a pastor, of course, my own livelihood depends on these graciously given gifts of money – so I’m appreciative of every dollar given.  Of course, we broaden the conversation out to include offerings of time and talent, lest our invitation to give our treasure seem overly crass.
            When it comes to these moments of stewardship we often speak of every gift being equal.  No matter how large or small, every gift is of equal value in the sight of God.  That may be true for God, but what about we humans?  Organizations like the small gifts, but they really like the big ones.  And if you can give big, then you’ll likely expect to be recognized for your largess.  It could be a fellowship hall renamed in your honor or a nice shiny plaque placed on the communion table so everyone will know to whom it really belongs.  Human nature being what it is, this is often the case.

Yet, sometimes seemingly small gifts may have the greater value, or at least that seems to be the case in two of our lectionary texts.  As we read these texts could it be that God honors the humblest amongst us, especially when they give not their spare change, but from their entire being?  And is not Christ the exemplar of such an offering?

            According to the story told in 1 Kings 17, having told King Ahab of Israel that God would send a drought to afflict the nation because he had married  Jezebel and then worshiped her gods, Elijah takes off for the Sidonian town of Zarephath. It’s rather ironic that Elijah flees the wrath of the daughter of the king of Sidon by heading into Sidon territory, but that is God’s directive.  Then there’s the irony that he escapes the drought brought on by Israel’s apostasy by seeking help from a foreigner.  Surely God has a sense of humor!  The core of the story emerges as Elijah encounters a Sidonian woman gathering sticks for a fire.  He first asks her for a cup of water and then for a bit of bread.  Now getting the water was one thing – there was probably a public well to draw from, but bread was another issue entirely.  Apparently she was down to the last bit of flour and oil, just enough to make a final meal for herself and her son.  You’d think Elijah would apologize and move on, but with a response that seems a bit presumptuous he tells the woman to make him a loaf of bread first then for her.  Here’s the kicker -- if she does this, Israel’s God, YHWH, will bless her with a jar of flour that won’t run out as well as self-refilling bottle of oil.  It sounds great, but what if she gives Elijah her bread and the promised oil and flour fail to materialize.  What if this guy is a charlatan?  I know I’d wonder about this, especially since he doesn’t seem to be from around her community.  Still, she takes the chance.  Maybe she figures that she’s going to starve anyway, so what’s one last meal to forgo in exchange for the hope of something better.  Her response is rewarded and all eat heartily for many days, the flour and oil never running out.  It’s a story of provision, but it’s also a story of risk-taking faith.  How did she know that YHWH would fulfill this promise – or was she so far down the road toward starvation and death that it didn’t really matter? 

            It’s important to remember that the woman Elijah approaches is, to him, a foreigner.  His tribal instincts, instincts we all have to some degree, should have raised red flags. Why was God having him turn to her?  What could this poor widow provide him, especially since she hailed from the same people as Elijah’s nemesis – Jezebel?  But maybe, just maybe, God is bigger than our tribal loyalties.  And so Elijah and the Widow form a partnership.  She provides him with bread, and as he receives it, she becomes the beneficiary of an unlimited supply of flour and oil.  But it means offering up all that she has, and trusting her future to a foreign God.

            There isn’t a poor widow in the reading from Hebrews.  But, there is a person described as giving of himself with great abandonment.  This reading from Hebrews continues the conversation about Jesus being the great high priest.  It’s a reading that, like many in Hebrews, raises important concerns about replacement theology/supersessionism.  Our conversations with the Jewish community have sensitized many of us to this issue, but the text, though problematic, can speak to us. 

            Here Jesus continues in his high priestly role, entering the holy of Holies, which we’re told is a copy of the true holy of holies.  This one is made with human hands, the one Jesus enters isn’t.  The point made here is a universalistic one.  The Jewish high priests must go into the sanctuary and offer sacrifices not only for us, but for themselves as well.  They don’t do it just once, but regularly – because sin continues to reign.  But Christ’s priesthood, which is substantively different from the hereditary priesthood of Aaron, is a one off offering.  It’s a final offering.  It doesn’t have to be offered again, because this time Christ offers himself as that sacrifice that takes away the sins of the people.  That is, in this offering, Jesus takes the sin and their consequences upon himself.  He resolves the issue so that it’s no longer an issue.

            Hebrews poses problems for some of us not only because of its apparent anti-Jewish subject matter, but also its seeming embrace of penal substitutionary atonement.  Now, I’m not sure the author of Hebrews knew of Anselm’s or Calvin’s theories, so I’m not sure we should blame this author for later developments.  I know that many Mainline Protestants have issues with sacrificial language like this.  When lifted up at the Lord’s Table it can make many uncomfortable.  Still, we have this passage.  What do we make of it?   Can we not hear in this a word of encouragement – that God has made provision for us so that we might eagerly await the coming of this same Christ?  Is this not a message of reconciliation, a message so needed at this moment in time when community and hope seem far away for so many people?  That one would sacrifice all so that all might find peace, could this not be good news?

            The Gospel of Mark takes us back to conversations about sacrificial widows.   This time the focus is the contrast set up between those who see themselves as righteous and blessed and those whom the world perceives to be condemned.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we seem to have bought into the idea that is at times present in wisdom literature that material wealth is a reward for right living and that poverty is the sign of wrong-doing.  If you’re rich you’re blessed; if you’re poor you’re being judged.  But, of course Jesus turns this upside down. 

            Our gospel reading begins with a warning about “legal experts” or religious teachers who know the ins and outs of divine law.  In a word that should strike clergy  with some sense of foreboding, he warns against those who walk around in long robes and like to be greeted  in synagogue (church) and marketplace with honor.  Do we insist on being called Reverend?  Do we like our robes of honor?  Do we make out like bandits on the backs of the widows and orphans, cheating them out of house and home?  Do we, does anyone, enjoy the adulation that comes from their eloquent sharing of prayers?  Hearing that such would be judged harshly isn’t comforting, but that is Jesus’ word.

            From this word of warning we move to the next scene.  I’m taken by the description Mark provides of Jesus sitting across from the Temple’s collection box, where he observes the crowd coming in and putting their offerings.  He’s just sitting there, watching – sort of like you and I might do at the mall.  We watch the crowd come and go, burdened down by large sacks and packages.  In this case it’s the Temple treasury, and Jesus is bemused by the habits of the rich who come parading in putting in large sums of money, but money that is a mere portion of their wealth.  They can afford it.  It doesn’t take away from their ability to live in large homes, take long trips, and receive the services of their servants.  It’s just spare change to them.  If you have millions, what’s a few thousand dollars?  As he’s observing all this, he notices a poor widow.  She comes forward and throws in two copper coins – just a penny in value.  We often speak of this gift as the widow’s mite.  It’s not enough to buy a cup of coffee.  Surely it’s a meaningless gesture.  But Jesus sees it differently. 

            The widow puts in more than the rest because while they gave out of their largesse, she gave out of her poverty.  She gave everything, everything she had to live on.  Like the widow at Zarephath, this was the end.  Perhaps that was her intention.  She had enough for the day, but no more -- might as well give it away to the institution.  Now in this passage we don’t see the widow’s mite being miraculously extended so the woman has enough.  It seems so final.  But surely there is hope, even if we don’t see it.   Whatever the case, do we not hear a word of warning – be careful how you view the gifts of others.  What seems to be of great value may not be as valuable as we might think.  That includes the gift Jesus offers of his life, whether or not we see him as the atoning sacrifice.  What is the final offering required of us in response?   

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