Abundance for All

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 24th Sunday After Pentecost + November 8, 2015

Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Ps. 146; Heb. 9:24-28; Mk. 12:38-44


I have to start off by saying how awkward I felt reading today’s gospel. Standing there in the midst of you all, in my beautiful long robe, and repeating the words of Jesus: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes…” Coming up from my special seat to read, “Beware the scribes, who like to have the best seats in the synagogues…” Proclaiming the faith of that poor widow, who gave everything she had to Temple…from a gold-covered book. I gotta wonder what’s running through Jesus’s mind this morning.

But at least that experience reminds me of my place in this story. I am one of the scribes. I’m educated about religions matters, I wear a collar around my neck that sometimes gains me special privileges, and I sure say a lot of long prayers in public. And — although it still feels weird to say — I have a place of some authority and leadership within the church. Yep, I’m a scribe. And this morning I think Jesus is warning me not to let myself get too much like “those” scribes: those scribes who get caught up in their honor and neglect the people God called them to serve.

There are a few of you out there who share this obvious connection to the scribes with me. But I want to invite everyone to see themselves as scribes in the story this morning: after all, we’re a pretty educated bunch, and Lutheran churches are run by the congregation, so you each have authority and leadership in this place. Plus, we subscribe to the “priesthood of all believers,” which is a reminder that each of you is called by God to a life of service in God’s mission. So, imagine with me that we are all scribes trying not to be one of “those” scribes that Jesus warns people about.

If we’re going to read Jesus’s words here as having a message not just for some Jewish scribes in the first century, but also for us today, I think that message is about faithful leadership and faithful stewardship, and that is something that applies to all of us — fancy robe or not. We are all stewards of what God has given us; we are all part of the miracles God is performing around us.

The Widow’s Mite, Jesus Mafa. (Image from Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s “Art in the Christian Tradition” project.)

This scene at the Temple comes soon after Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem. He’s already made a public demonstration against the way the Temple is being run by flipping over some tables, chasing people out of the place, and proclaiming that its leaders have turned it into a “den of thieves” (Mk. 11:12-17). Since then he’s been arguing publicly with the religious leaders.

By the time we get to today’s reading he is once again condemning them in the Temple itself. He accuses them not only of hypocrisy, but of abuse: “They devour widows’ houses,” he says. And then he watches a poor widow give everything she has to the Temple. He points out how much she gives: it looks insignificant, just two small copper coins, but it’s everything to her. The widow is a beautiful image of trust in God and total dedication to God. And the question hangs unsaid in the air: Are the temple leaders doing right by this widow? Are they good stewards of her pure, faithful gift?

The Gospel of Mark continues: As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (Remember: these are country bumpkins seeing the sites of the big city for the first time. I hear in this disciple’s voice the feelings of awe I get while standing in the streets of Chicago and looking up at the skyscrapers towering above me.) Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mk. 13:1-2).

When all these passages are read together, we get a clear message: God is not happy with the way these religious leaders are running things. They are not good stewards of their position, nor of God’s commandments, nor of the faith entrusted to them. They seem to be under the impression that being chosen by God for their position means receiving a greater share in God’s blessings, means deserving the lion’s share of status and wealth.

How often does our culture give us the same message? It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that “God’s abundance” means God gives an abundance to each individual faithful person. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20).  But that’s hard to remember or understand when we’re surrounded by a different message: “Blessed are the wealthy, because…well, look at ‘em!”

But God’s abundance is not for individuals, but for the community. As Bishop Julian Gordy is fond of reminding us, when we see the word “you” in the New Testament, it’s almost always not “you,” but “y’all.” God works through the whole lot of us for the good of the whole lot of us.

So in contrast to the scribes and to the proclamation of our culture we have the story of Elijah and a widow. Elijah is held to be one of the greatest of the prophets. You may remember him from such stories as “Elijah is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire” (2 Kings 2). It is written that God will send Elijah back to usher in judgement day, the day the messiah comes (Mal. 4:5-6). So throughout the gospels, when people are trying to figure out just who Jesus is, someone always wonders “Could he be Elijah?” (ex., Mk. 8:27-30). When Jesus is transfigured for a few moments into a glorious, shining figure, Elijah and Moses appear alongside him (ex., Mark 9:2-8). Elijah still holds a very important place in Jewish belief and customs; places are set for him at holy ceremonies like circumcision and Passover. All that to say: Elijah was most definitely a man chosen by God.

But Elijah didn’t enjoy a high standing in his community like the scribes did. And Elijah didn’t have wealth or even comfort. Elijah appeared in the Bible for the first time to announce that God was going to withhold the rain from Israel because King Ahab was running around building shrines to other gods. And of course people were loading up to shoot the messenger, so Elijah went into hiding, where God sent ravens to bring him food. But then the brook that had been his only source of water dried up in the drought (1 Kings 16:29-17:7).

This is the point where we see God work the miracle from today’s readings. But it’s not a spectacular miracle; God doesn’t teach the ravens to make jugs so they can carry Elijah water; God doesn’t make water spring from the dry ground. It’s not even an everyday kind of spectacular miracle, like God sending a rich person Elijah’s way to offer him access to a private well and rich food and a soft bed.

Instead, it is a miracle of unlikely companions and survival. In the midst of a culture war between those who are faithful to the God of Israel and those who worship Canaan’s god, Baal, God sends Elijah to a foreign widow, a woman who in all likelihood had been raised to worship a foreign god. God says, “Go to this woman; I have commanded her to feed you.” The first part of the miracle is that Elijah trusts God and goes to her.

I love to read this part from the widow’s point of view: a foreign prophet of a foreign God shows up in her town and tells her to give him some food. And she clearly didn’t get a warning message from the God of Israel, because, far from having food prepared for this prophet, she seems resigned to starve. She says, “I have nothing. I have just enough to make a last meager meal for myself and my son, and then we’re going to die.”

But Elijah says, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake out of what you have, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The second part of the miracle is that the widow does what Elijah asks. She doesn’t say “Who are you to ask for the first serving of my last meal?” She doesn’t say “Whatever, your God is not my god — why should I do what you say?” Instead, somehow she has faith enough to be generous with her last hope for survival.

And the third part of the miracle is where God is most obviously at work: the meal and the oil do not run out. Again, this is not riches: the jars do not suddenly overflow with milk and honey. But there is just enough supply to keep making bread so that the widow and her household can survive the drought. God gives them their daily bread.

Elijah and the Widow of Zarepheth, Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Both the gospel story and the story of Elijah are examples of God setting people up for miracles. God is putting people and circumstances in place for everyone to benefit from God’s abundance.

In the gospel story, in the Temple, the widow is doing her part in the miracle by giving two small coins, and the richer people are doing their part by giving some of what they have. But many of the scribes are not doing their part in the miracle: they are holding up the flow of God’s abundance, keeping too much of the money and the knowledge and the status for themselves instead of helping it continue to bless more of God’s people.

But in the case of Elijah and the widow, each person steps into the role God has called them to, taking chances in the faith that God will provide. And God does provide: through small miracles and through other people who put their faith into action.

May we also be people who seek God’s abundance, not for ourselves, but in ourselves, and in others. Our world is overflowing with opportunities to be part of God’s miracles: in relationships, in generosity, in service. We need only have the faith to step into the fountain and splash around.

May we also be people who seek God’s abundance, not for ourselves, but in ourselves, and in others. Our world is overflowing with opportunities to be part of God’s miracles: in relationships, in generosity, in service. We need only have the faith to step into the fountain and splash around.

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