“Every Gift Counts” Colchester Federated Church, November 11, 2018, (Mark 12:38-44) Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

There was a children’s book that we loved back in the 80s called Fritz and the Beautiful Horses by Jan Brett.  You see, Fritz is a cute little Shetland pony surrounded by elegant and large horses.  He’s not particularly beautiful, doesn’t have a glossy coat or fancy mane.  In fact, Fritz isn’t even allowed inside the walled city where the Lords and Ladies live with their families because only elegant horses are allowed inside the walls.  Fritz watches the children ride the beautiful horses when they come outside and the children seem terrified.  He wants to be able to have the children ride along with him, but no one gives him the time of day (even after he decorates his mane with flowers to look beautiful too.)  But one day, the bridge going to the town begins to collapse because of the weight of all those big, beautiful horses.  And the children become stranded on the other side of the river away from their parents, too afraid to ride on their own into the water.  Fritz knows just what to do, wading into the water and transporting the children safely across the river with his sure and steady footing, and his kind and gentle nature.  The townsfolk realize that they misjudged Fritz the pony and not only is he allowed to live inside the city walls with everyone else, those children love and care for Fritz the rest of his days.  The end.

It’s a great story for all ages about what actually matters, not outward appearances as much as what’s inside of us.  Our character counts.  And it’s a topic that Jesus seemed to care about too.  He once said to his followers, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets.  They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets.  They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers.  They will be judged most harshly.”[1]  Jesus often got into arguments with the scribes, legal experts who were far more educated than others and occupied an elevated position in society.  Keep in mind that only 10% of the population at this time was fully literate.  Only 1 out of every 10 people could both read and write.  Knowledge was power on a level that’s hard to imagine.

Though instead of having knowledge and passing it along to others to create a more educated society, it seems that these particular scribes were more interested in lording their status over everyone else.  Their expectation was to be greeted with honor, to be seated in places of honor at banquets and in synagogues.  Yet, the scribes are the ones who would cheat widows out of their houses and say long prayers just to show off.  Jesus says that they will be judged for these actions.  Because it’s not the fancy outfits and seats of honor or long-winded prayers that matter so much to God as how we treat the widows.  That’s what Jesus is telling us in Mark’s Gospel.

Old Testament prophets condemned the powerful for taking advantage of widows and orphans over and again because these groups were the most vulnerable in society.  The prophet Isaiah once said, “Doom to those who pronounce wicked decrees, and keep writing harmful laws to deprive the needy of their rights and to rob the poor among my people of justice; to make widows their loot; to steal from orphans!  What will you do on the day of punishment when disaster comes from far away?  To whom will you flee for help; where will you stash your wealth?”[2]  Sound like what Jesus says?  These words from Isaiah are part of the prophetic tradition that Jesus is drawing upon when he specifically cites the scribes cheating widows out of their houses.  As if they aren’t at enough of a disadvantage Jesus says.  So he’s drawing upon this rich tradition to make sure that we know what’s happening because it’s happened before and unfortunately it will happen again.  People who are vulnerable being taken advantage of by those in power who too often care more about looking good and sitting in the best seats at fancy banquets and holding onto their privilege than helping those in need.

To bring the message home, Jesus turns his attention to a widow.  A real person who practices what he’s preaching right in front of his eyes.  Jesus is sitting across from the collection box for the Temple treasury and observing how the crowd is giving their money.  Many of the rich people throw in lots of money.  But one poor widow comes forward.  And she puts in two small copper coins that were worth only a penny.  Jesus sees her and what she has given to the Temple where she comes to worship God.  Jesus sees that she has given from her heart.  Calling the disciples to him, Jesus says, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury.  All of them are giving out of their spare change.  But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”[3]

This story is a challenging one for all of us to hear.  It wasn’t selected to bolster our Pledge Campaign—this truly was the Lectionary Gospel text for this Sunday.  Really, the poor widow is such a wonderful example of devotion to God.  She gave a tiny fraction of a day’s wage in reality.  Yet for her, this offering counts more than the rich people’s leftovers because in effect she’s giving her whole life to God.  Giving everything she has, even what she needs to live on.  So her offering represents this sacrificial devotion to God unlike anything that Jesus was observing from the rich who were coming into the Temple and giving lots of money, but their offerings wouldn’t have even made a dent in all of the money that they possessed.  Their giving wasn’t sacrificial in the least and it could have even been motivated as a means to show off like the scribes that Jesus just spoke about.

We know that we’re in the midst of the Pledge Campaign here at CFC.  We are a church that is 100% self-funded and we have to rely on people giving generously just like the poor widow.  Though I wouldn’t advocate people giving everything they have to live on to any church, even a church as wonderful as ours.  Because we do need to live and pay the mortgage or rent and all those bills and save up for college and pay off student loans and sometimes have a fun night out.  So it’s not about giving until it hurts.  It’s about giving until it feels good.  Giving in a way that may be a stretch though it’s not going to break us.  I pledge to our church because I believe in you, I believe in us, and I believe in what we are trying to achieve at CFC—to truly be the Church on the Green and a beacon of hope in our community, extending radical hospitality to everyone because Jesus didn’t turn anybody away and neither do we.

The poor widow and her contribution reminds us that every person counts.  Every gift counts.  It’s not just about what’s on the outside but what’s on the inside that matters.  Our devotion to God doesn’t go unnoticed even and especially when our monetary gift just can’t be as large as someone else’s.  What matters is that we give what we can with an open heart knowing that giving of our time, talents, and treasures are all ways that we worship God both individually and as a community of faith doing our best to walk in the Way of Jesus Christ.

In the end, the story of the poor widow’s contribution can also make us think of a famous song we’ll soon be hearing everywhere probably—“The Little Drummer Boy.”  Now I know that some will think it terrible to even talk about Christmas songs before Thanksgiving.  But the connection between the poor window and the little drummer boy got made in my head this week so we’re going there, sorry.

The song “The Little Drummer Boy” has been covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Josh Groban, Faith Hill, Pentatonix, and so many more artists.  Whether we love this Christmas song or think it rather corny, it imagines this scene of a poor boy who encounters Jesus as an infant in Bethlehem: “Come they told me.  Our newborn king to see.  Our finest gifts we bring.  To lay before the king.  So to honor him.  When we come.  Baby Jesus.  I am a poor boy too.  I have no gift to bring.  That’s fit to give our king.  Shall I play for you?  On my drum?  Mary nodded.  The ox and lamb kept time.  I played my drum for him.  I played my best for him.  Then he smiled at me.  Me and my drum.”[4]

This poor boy couldn’t possibly compete with the gifts that the Magi were bringing to Jesus.  Any more than the poor widow could compete with the amount of money that the wealthy folks were putting into the Temple treasury.  So he plays his best for Jesus on his drum and makes the infant Jesus smile.  That’s what he has to offer, and it’s gift and grace for the journey for Jesus and Mary.  Just as that poor widow gives two small copper coins worth only a penny.  And Jesus notices and praises her to his disciples for what she has to give, praises her for giving her whole life to God.

Now the song “The Little Drummer Boy” imagines this scene of an encounter between Jesus and this poor little drummer boy in Bethlehem.  As opposed to Jesus telling us the story of the poor widow’s offering as recorded in the Gospel according to Mark.  But music is powerful and the message of the song has stuck as it’s often featured on many artists’ Christmas albums.  It’s endearing because it’s a reminder that every single person has gifts to bring to God.  Sometimes our gifts will be monetary.  Sometimes our gifts will be giving of our time, which is also a precious gift.  And sometimes our gifts we bring to God will be our talents—playing a song on a drum matters too.  Because we all matter in the eyes of God.  Every single gift we give to God counts.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 12:38-40, Common English Bible.
[2] Isaiah 10:1-3.
[3] Mark 12:43-44.
[4] “Little Drummer Boy” lyrics.