Food Miracles

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 9th Sunday After Pentecost + August 6, 2017

Isaiah 55:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21


As I was studying our Bible readings for this week, I came across a reminder: in the Bible one of the most common symbols or signs of God’s care for us is food. Think about how many stories or promises have food at the center. As the Israelites wander in the wilderness, Gods sends them manna and quail. The Promised Land is called “the land of milk and honey.” The Passover is commemorated with a meal; and before Jesus died, he told his disciples to remember him by eating bread and drinking wine. We are given promise after promise of the Great Feast that is to come. Like today, in the reading from Isaiah:

“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

And of course there’s today’s gospel reading: one of Jesus’s great miracles, the feeding of thousands.

All of these invitations to feasts and miraculous meals, signs of God’s love and care for our bodies and spirits.

hand-bread-fish7002

“Hand of God with Loaves and Fish,” United Reformed Church, Brighton, England. Photo by Anders Sandberg. From Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

This made me think of another thing I read this week: at the end of some article I was reading online came an advertisement that said in all-capital letters: “CHRISTIANS WILL BE ASTONISHED BY THIS WEIGHT LOSS SECRET HIDDEN IN THE BIBLE!” That’s, like, the opposite of God’s constant promises of abundant food. And I think the original audiences of the Bible — full of hungry people who worried about drought and famine — would have thought that trying to lose weight was one of the most ridiculous ideas ever.

That advertisement reminded me of how different our culture is from the cultures of the Bible’s original audiences. In the mainstream U.S. culture food has a complicated set of connotations. On the one hand, we really like food; we’re almost obsessed with food. We’ve got multiple TV channels solely devoted to food and cooking and watching people eat until they can’t eat anymore. I think the internet must be half food blogs by now.

But on the other hand, food is something many Americans actively try to avoid. We worry about eating too much, and we are advertised pills and powders that will help us to eat less. We’ve got at least 30 million people with eating disorders that focus on controlling food intake. And we might think about how much food grocery stores, restaurants, and families throw away every day. Yes, we have many people in our nation who wonder where their next meal will come from — about 15 million households experienced food insecurity in 2015[1] — but that’s not what we see reflected in pop culture. For those of us who do have enough to eat, the food problems quickly become problems of over-abundance: How do I resist food? How can we stop wasting so much food?

So I’m thinking that today’s readings don’t hit us with the same power that they did their original audiences. The vast majority of people in those times were poor in a way that is probably totally foreign to us. They had no refrigerators and no fast food; if a crop was lost, it hurt the whole community. Those people knew what it was like to feel deep hunger: the hunger that makes you feel weak and distracted and on edge, with no promise that you’d be able to eat your fill anytime soon. They maybe even knew what starvation looked like firsthand. So imagine how the Bible’s food stories and food promises would have sounded to people like that: thousands of people followed Jesus out into the wilderness, and all of them ate until they were full, and there was still food left over!

It’s really difficult for us to think of things from such a vastly different perspective. We automatically see and feel things from our own experience and culture and expectations. Reading today’s gospel story, those of us who are currently pretty healthy may not even have noticed that the crowds invading Jesus’s private time came begging to be cured of diseases and injuries, and the quick note that, “Jesus had compassion for them and cured their sick.” But for those of us who are hurting or who love someone who is sick or injured, that may have been the most important phrase in the whole gospel reading.

The same goes for our reactions to today’s political happenings: we react to the health care debate in vastly different ways, from firey and opposite opinions to total lack of concern, and our reaction often depends on whether we and our loved ones are healthy or sick; or whether we have secure health insurance through our employer, or are paying huge premiums every month, or have no insurance at all.

We automatically understand things our own way; we have to make a conscious effort to try and see things from another person’s perspective. But the hope is that trying to see another person’s perspective will lead to new and greater understandings, and these understandings will lead to actions that are better for the whole community.

The writer Megan McKenna spent some time reading the story of the feeding of the thousands with people of different cultures and backgrounds in the hope that she would understand more of the good news this story has to offer. She was reading the story with people in Chiapas, Mexico, and they got into a conversation about the baskets that had been used to collect the leftover fish and bread after Jesus’s miracle. One woman told her with certainty that the women in the crowd had brought the baskets. She said, “No woman in her right mind would head into a deserted place with an elderly person or a child or someone who was sick without taking food, drink, diaper changes, the works.”[2] When I think about how the parents of young children in this congregation come for an hour-long service bearing bags filled with crackers, diapers, wipes, toys, crayons…I figure this woman from Chiapas might just be on to something.

And that woman’s observation opens up another way of thinking about what exactly happened in Jesus’s miracle. The gospel tells us that the disciples had five loaves of bread and two fish — probably barely enough to feed themselves. But Jesus took the food, blessed it, and told the disciples to start passing out the food. We don’t have any details about what exactly happens next; we are told simply: “And all ate and were filled.”

We can imagine a lot of things happening in that gap between, “the disciples gave [their bread and fish] to the crowds” and “all ate and were filled.” I’ve always imagined that the disciples kept tearing off hunks of fish and bread, and the loaves and fishes just never ended…and then somehow I guess there were more leftovers than when they started. Or we could imagine that one loaf of bread would suddenly turn into two as the people passed them around. Or we could imagine the fish suddenly quadrupling in size, over and over again. We just don’t know exactly what happened.

But the woman’s comment about the baskets points to another possibility: maybe other people in the crowd — besides the disciples — had brought along baskets and food. Maybe someone in the crowd saw Jesus’s disciples sharing what little food they had to offer, and they felt a tug on their heart to stand up and share the supplies they’d brought along to feed themselves. And then someone else saw that and thought, “Well, I only have this loaf of bread to share with my wife, but I guess we could spare a little, too…” and on and on the generosity spread through the crowd, until everyone had enough to eat. At first everyone thought they had barely enough to feed themselves, but it turned out that when the whole crowd pitched in, there was more than enough for everybody.

That’s not the most exciting way of describing Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and fishes. We’d much rather see God’s power proved to us by supernaturally multiplying loaves of bread; people’s hearts and hands opening in generosity barely sounds miraculous at all. But maybe this is the kind of miracle we really need.

Take today’s situation: as a whole world population, we produce enough food to feed everyone. We don’t really need loaves to multiply; we need to get the food to the people who are hungry. The main cause of hunger is poverty: people are unable to buy the food they need. But even when try to give food to people around the world, things get in the way of charity: war and conflict keep food from getting where it needs to go; shipments get stolen or misdirected; people at the borders refuse to move things along without bribes; people use money to feed their addictions rather than their children.[3] So I think even if Jesus went around multiplying loaves, human greed or violence or something would still find a way to keep people hungry.

The real miracle Jesus offers is to change our hearts and minds. To help us be open to sharing; to considering another person’s perspective; to help us love our neighbor as ourselves; to knit us together into community. That is the kind of miracle our families, our communities, and our whole world needs — and thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we can be part of that miracle.


[1] “Hunger in America: 2016 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts,” WorldHunger.org, October 9, 2016. Available online: http://www.worldhunger.org/hunger-in-america-2016-united-states-hunger-poverty-facts/.

[2] Megan McKenna, Not Counting Women and Children: Neglected Stories from the Bible, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994), p. 24.

[3] “2016 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics,” WorldHunger.org, December 28, 2016. Available online: http://www.worldhunger.org/2015-world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/ Accessed August 3, 2017.

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Scarcity and Sufficiency

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 21st Sunday After Pentecost + October 9, 2016

Readings: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19


My best friend, Shelly, and I — like a whole lot of people — have the constant problem of not seeing ourselves or what we do as good enough. This problem was probably made even worse during our time in divinity school, when we were always surrounded by perfectionists, brilliant thinkers, beautiful writers, world-changers, and big-hearted ministers. We were roommates for two of those years, and almost every Friday night we’d find ourselves lying on the floor and saying things like, “My paper topic is so boring, Sarah’s writing about something way more creative,” and “I will never be the kind of good listener that Matt is. He’s just perfect.” It was not a healthy way to look at ourselves and our community.

So finally we decided to take our negative point of view into our own hands and smother it with a more positive outlook. The first way we did this was to repurpose the phrase “Reality check!” Usually people use that phrase to remind others that world’s not always a great place to live, like: “Reality check: your student loans payments are coming due!” Sometimes we all need reality checks like that. But Shelly and I realized that what we really needed was to be reminded that the world was full of good things and that our lives were really pretty great. So we got into the habit of texting positive reality checks to each other throughout the day: “Reality check: coffee is amazing!” and “Reality check: puppies exist.” Eventually we hung a white board by our door, where we wrote a list of positive “reality checks” that we had to see every time we passed, and we started writing more personal things on it. “Reality Check: Shelly is rocking that Ph.D.-level theology class.”

The bad habit Shelly and I were working against — the habit of seeing ourselves and the world as not enough — is sometimes called looking at the world through a sense of scarcity, or even living in a culture of scarcity. One writer, Lynne Twist, described our culture of scarcity like this:

For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. We don’t have enough exercise. We don’t have enough work. We don’t have enough profits. We don’t have enough power. We don’t have enough wilderness. We don’t have enough weekends. Of course, we don’t have enough money – ever. We’re not thin enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not pretty enough or fit enough or educated or successful enough, or rich enough – ever.

 Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds race with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to the reverie of lack.

 What begins as a simple expression of the hurried life, or even the challenged life, grows into the great justification for an unfulfilled life.[1]

Our first reading for today tells the story of the Aramean commander Naaman, who traveled to Israel to be cleansed of his skin disease. When he arrived, the prophet Elisha sent a messenger to tell Naaman: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

Naaman’s first thought was: That’s not enough! The “great prophet” didn’t even come out to see me! I thought for sure he’d come out and do something big: wave his hand over me and cure me instantly. But he just wants me to wash in river? I could have washed in a better river back home!

His servants had to make him stop and question those scarcity-thoughts: But wait. Isn’t this enough? If he would have offered to do some crazy miracle, you would have gone for it; if he would have told you to do something difficult, you would have done it. But he’s just told you to do something easy: “Wash, and be clean.” Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that enough?

The opposite of a sense of scarcity is a sense of sufficiency: the point of view that there is enough, and that we are enough.

One way to help develop a sense of sufficiency is to practice gratitude. Researcher Brene Brown would emphasize: Not an “attitude of gratitude,” but a real practice of gratitude.[2] The “reality checks” Shelly and I still try to do. Keeping a gratitude journal. Sharing things you are thankful for around the dinner table. Taking photographs of the parts of your life that bring you joy. Practicing gratitude not only helps to transform the culture of scarcity, it also helps encourage joy.

And it can do even more: For Naaman, turning away from a sense of scarcity, doing what the prophet said, and feeling gratitude for his small miracle helped him to see God at work. Naaman, the commander of a foreign army, said to the Elisha, a prophet of Israel: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”

Especially in Christian circles, this concept of “sufficiency” goes by another name. When we see the world with the faith that there is enough; when we look at what we have and are filled with gratitude that it is enough; when we look at ourselves and try to believe that even with our weaknesses and our imperfections and our sins somehow we are enough…we call that grace. God’s grace to fill our world abundantly. God’s grace to love us and call us lovable even while we are yet sinners.

This is the biggest gift Jesus gives the 10 lepers he healed into today’s gospel reading. We can imagine that these people had been cast out from their own families and communities because of their highly-visible disease. Laws and social regulations kept them from approaching other people; we read that they kept their distance from Jesus, even while they asked him for mercy.

Maybe their lives were like those of modern-day lepers in India, who one woman described like this, in a memory from a childhood visit to India:

One morning, as my father was standing in line to buy tickets at a village train station, my little brother pointed to two figures sitting hunched in a corner. “What’s wrong with them?” he asked.

 By then we’d been in India for two weeks, and I was accustomed to seeing beggars. Exhausted women with too-thin babies on their hips. Men who were blind or lame. Pot-bellied children who stared at my Western clothes. New to witnessing such relentless need, I spent my days digging in my father’s wallet or my mother’s purse, handing out every bill or coin they’d spare.

 But these two figures were different. Though I guessed they needed help, too, I didn’t want to approach them. Their faces were distorted, eaten. Their fingers were half-missing, and their feet were scary, mottled stumps. “They’re sick,” my father answered after a quick, pitying glance in their direction. “They have leprosy.”

 The train station was crowded that day, swarming with travelers, vendors, and beggars. But what struck me about those figures huddling in the shadows was how alone they were. It was otherworldly, profound and impenetrable in a way I could barely comprehend. It was as if some invisible barrier, solid as granite, separated them from the rest of humanity, rendering them wholly untouchable. Yes, their disease frightened me. But what frightened me much more was their isolation, their not-belonging.

 If, from the outside, we can call another’s life a life of scarcity, those 10 lepers were living it. They were not “well enough” and did not look “good enough” for regular society. They probably did not have enough wealth or food to live comfortably. They were forced to live as separately as possible from the rest of the world, because they were not enough.

But Jesus gave them the gift not only of physical healing, but also of spiritual and social healing: the gift of a grace that echoes not only through one personal soul, but through their daily lives, their relationships, their possibilities. As the Indian-American writer quoted above describes this gospel story:

[Jesus] enables [the lepers’] return to all that makes us fully human—family, community, society, intimacy. In healing their withered skin and numbed limbs, he releases them to feel again—to embrace and be embraced, to worship in community, to reclaim all the social and spiritual ties their disease stole from them. Jesus enters a no-man’s-land—a land of no belonging—and hands out ten unblemished passports. He invites ten exiles home.3

So many things that we take for granted were given to them as a miracle.

And one of these lepers — a Samaritan, who had no doubt been raised to think of Jews like Jesus as from the “wrong religion,” — returns and falls at Jesus’s feet, because he realizes that God was there in that moment of grace.

How can we develop a habit of looking around for moments of God’s grace, for God’s gifts of acceptance and sufficiency in our own lives? How can we reject the culture of scarcity, the idea that we do not have enough or are not enough? And how can we help God’s sufficiency and grace reach others in all areas of their lives?


[1] Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money, quoted by Brene Brown, “Enough,” Brene Brown (website), May 5, 2008. Accessed October 8, 2016. http://brenebrown.com/2008/05/05/200855enough-html/
[2] “Brene Brown on Joy and Gratitude,” (youtube video), The Center for Spirituality and Healing, Nov. 28, 2012. Accessed October 8, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IjSHUc7TXM
3. Debie Thomas. “Living by the Word: October 9, 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time.” The Christian Century, vol. 133, No. 20. 

Lovestruck Discipleship

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday in Lent + March 13, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4-14; John 12:1-8


 

Today’s gospel is full of things to talk and think about. The thing I’m zeroing in on this morning is an argument about what makes for good discipleship.

Mary poured an abundance of valuable perfume on Jesus’s feet; Judas asked, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” The narrator tells us that Judas actually just wanted all that money for himself, but the way Judas phrased it was an accusation against Mary: That is not good stewardship. She is not being a good disciple.

This reminds me of another story: a story from the life of Dorothy Day. During the Great Depression, Dorothy helped to begin the Catholic Worker Movement, which sought to give a voice to those who were suffering from poverty, poor working conditions, and discrimination, and to minister to their needs. Catholic Worker houses of hospitality sprouted up all over the U.S., providing food and shelter to those in need. The story I’m thinking of took place in one of those hospitality houses; I’ll share it in the words of an eyewitness. One of her fellow Catholic Workers remembered:

One of my favorite stories of Dorothy was the moment when a quite well-dressed woman came in to the Worker. She took a diamond ring from her finger and handed it to Dorothy. Why she was moved to do that, I have no idea. Dorothy thanked her politely with no more fuss than she would if the woman had brought a dozen eggs.

A little while later a woman that we didn’t particularly enjoy seeing showed up. I think her name was Catherine, but we called her “the weasel.” She was, as far as we could tell, genetically incapable of saying thank you. Dorothy reached into her pocket and said, “I have something for you”—and gave her the diamond ring.

I don’t know if it was me or somebody else who went to Dorothy afterward and said, “You know, Dorothy, I could have taken that ring up to West 47th Street to the Diamond Exchange, and we could have paid her rent for years to come.” She responded, “Well, if she wants to sell the ring and go to the Bahamas, she can do so. But she might also like to just wear the ring. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”[1]

Dorothy and Mary both gave extravagantly, but not in what we’d say was the wisest or most reasonable way. Maybe that’s because they weren’t driven by being wise or reasonable so much as they were driven by love.

A discipleship driven by love is the kind of discipleship we see modeled and lifted up in today’s scripture readings.

To help us understand that kind of discipleship, I want you to think about a time when you fell in love. Like, really fell in love. The kind of love that makes you a little crazy, the kind of love that changes the way you want to spend your time, that reorders the things you care about, that makes you rethink the plan you’ve had for your life.

Maybe you’re thinking about a romantic love. Most of us have probably been there: those times in life when you’re totally distracted because you can’t stop thinking of that special someone, when you’d drop everything just to spend time with them. That’s the kind of love that leads us to commit to marriage, to building a life with another person.

Maybe you’re thinking of the love you felt at the birth of a child. Recently a friend told me about how having her first child totally changed her life, not just in terms of her responsibilities and how she spent her time, but also in terms of her desires, what she wanted to do with her life. Until then she had been all about her career, doing this job she loved; but then her daughter was born, and, she said, “I didn’t really care about work anymore. All I wanted to do was stay home and take care of this little person. I’d never thought that would happen.”

Maybe you’re thinking of the love you feel in a deep friendship. I always thought that when I finally had a paying job and vacation time, I’d want to go see all these cool places; now I’m realizing that what I actually want to do with that valuable vacation time is go visit my roommates from divinity school or my friends from college. And when my dear friend Shelly is in town, I will drive in Nashville rush hour traffic and stay up till three in the morning just to get every minute of time with her that I can.

There is a kind of love that has even greater impact on the way we see the world and the way we move in the world than reason does — and that’s the kind of lovestruck discipleship I’m talking about.

We see that kind of love in the Apostle Paul in this reading from Philippians. Paul described what his life had been like: he cared about his status as part of God’s chosen people; he cared about keeping the Jewish laws; he cared about protecting his faith and his culture from this upstart group of Jesus-followers. But then he encountered Jesus Christ, and everything changed. He said that all those things that used to be most important to him…not only were they less important in light of Jesus, they were nothing. They were less than nothing. Paul said he came to regard them as loss, as rubbish, as something to be thrown away in his pursuit of Christ. That is a life changed by love.[2]

And he wrote about Jesus in the language of a lover. His words are dripping with longing: longing to know Christ and to be with Christ. He was willing to suffer for Christ. All of this sounds like it could also come from the lips of Romeo (if only it were written the right poetic meter). In fact we have copies of four “romance novels” from around the time of Paul, and one of them contains a phrase that sounds like it would be right at home in Philippians; one lover says to another: “I have forfeited all things that I might gain you.”[3] And throughout his letters Paul uses marriage as a metaphor to talk about the church’s relationship to Christ and Christians’ relationship to one another as people bound together in Christ. Paul is a disciple in love with Jesus, and he encourages the Philippians to imitate him (Phil. 3:17).

We also see that lovestruck discipleship in Mary. She pours out her costly perfume on Jesus’s feet, then lets down her hair — which might have been scandalous in a culture that said women ought to cover their hair for the sake of propriety — and she uses her hair to wipe his feet. Jesus doesn’t rebuke her for her love-crazy show of devotion. He lifts her up for showing him such love even as he is about to die, for loving him “until death do us part,” for loving him even beyond death, in his burial.

Apparently loving Jesus with reckless abandon was what this Mary was known for in the early church. Earlier in John’s gospel he told another story of Mary and her sister Martha, and how Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. To clarify exactly which Mary he was talking about (we all know there are a lot of Marys in the gospels), John wrote, y’know, the Mary “who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (Jn. 11:2). This is before he’d even told the perfume story.[4] And you probably remember Mary from another story, from the Gospel of Luke, where Martha was running around playing hostess while Mary sat devotedly at Jesus’s feet. (Jesus says that she is the better disciple in this story, too.)

In so many places in the Bible this lovestruck discipleship is held up as the model to follow as we grow in our discipleship. Maybe that is because loving Christ like that comes close to loving God like God loves us. Throughout the Bible we hear that God loves us like a parent, like a lover, like a friend. God loves us with the kind of love that breaks God’s heart when we are unfaithful; God loves us with the kind of love that drives God to forgive us.

In Jesus Christ we see just how recklessly and foolishly God loves us: that God would become human, that God would become like a slave out of love for us, that God would go to the executioner’s block for us (Phil. 2:5-8). Like lovestruck Mary lavishly poured out her perfume, lovestruck Jesus lavishly poured out his life.

That reckless, lavish love is the foundation Jesus gave us for the Christian life. It is the model for our discipleship, for how we ought to love God, and for how we ought to love one another. It is the untamable basis for our ethics, our decision-making. It’s not necessarily wise or reasonable — at least not by the world’s standards (1 Cor. 1:18-31). But it is the way of the cross, the way of amazing grace, the way of God.


 

[1] Jim Forest in an interview with the U.S. Catholic, November 2010 (Vol. 76, No. 11, pp. 18-21). Found online at http://www.uscatholic.org/culture/social-justice/2011/09/work-hard-pray-hard-dorthy-day-and-thomas-merton Accessed March 12, 2016.

[2] Sarah Henrich, “Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14,” Working Preacher, March 13, 2016. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2776

[3] Quoted by David Fredrickson in his course Philippians and Corinthians, Luther Seminary, Fall 2013; lecture on September 10, 2013. Much of this sermon is inspired by Fredrickson’s lectures and his book, Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul’s Christology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).

[4] Pointed out by Susan Hylen in “Commentary on John 12:1-8”, Working Preacher, March 17, 2013. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1582

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.