Mark 12:38-44  November 8, 2015

I enjoy people watching.  I can sit in the mall food court or an airport waiting room for hours watching folk go by, trying to imagine their circumstances, what might be causing the grins or frowns that are on their faces.  Or they may have t-shirts or hats with messages.  A scary place for watching people is the highway.  You pull alongside someone and you see they’re trying to read the paper or eat their breakfast or shave or put on makeup.  I’ve seen all of those – and promptly try to find a different lane to use!  Church is another good place to people watch.  Our gospel lesson is a people watching story so we need to get into the mood.  (XX) We’re in the Temple – the great temple erected by Herod the Great.  It was huge: it was 150 long, 75 feet wide, and l50 feet tall.  Yes, 150 tall; that is nearly twenty stories tall.  It took 1000 wagons and 10,000 workers to construct it during many years.  It was the eighth wonder of the ancient world. It was the spiritual centre of the Jewish religious life, but the temple was also the social centre. Jesus had been at this crowded, noisy temple all day, arguing with the religious big shots.  He was tired out, and so he came over and sat down on a bench near the side of the wall.  It was a great place for people watching.

On one wall of the temple there were thirteen offering boxes.  These offering boxes were like suitcases, except they were made out of metal.  (XX) They were big metal boxes and there was a trumpet-shaped funnel on the top of those boxes so people would come and place their offerings.  There were little signs on each of the offering boxes:  one said building maintenance; another said utilities; another said rabbis’ salary; another said widows and orphans.  There were thirteen different line items that you could give your offerings to.  And this room was absolutely jammed with people.

So imagine different people coming in.  Think of the first person, dressed in the finest of clothes, with real leather sandals on his feet.  He was elegantly rich and people couldn’t help noticing him.  He wanted to be noticed.  When he put a promissory note in one of the offering boxes you knew it wasn’t nickel and dime stuff.  With a flourish he deposited his commitment. Jesus was watching, and so were his disciples.  Jesus nudged his disciples and everybody smiled.

Before you could count to five there came a rabbi – a very religious man as you could tell from his outfit, from the curls on his head, his prayer shawl and the scroll he carried. He glanced around the temple and saw that people weren’t watching him as he wanted them to, and so he pulled out ten large silver coins that he knew would make a large clank when he dropped them into the offering boxes.  He dropped them slowly and distinctly:  clank, clank, clank, clank.  By the third or fourth clank, everybody was watching.  Jesus poked at his friends, and they all smiled as they watched.

Then there came a little old lady. No one noticed her.  She was almost invisible to the busy, noisy crowd.  She was humped over, wearing a brown skirt, brown blouse, brown apron, and brown shawl.  She was obviously poor, looking like an old washerwoman.  She was an old widow, in her mid-seventies, and walked slowly, like she had arthritic pain.  She had a cane in her right hand, feeling the granite floor for edges, as she approached the offering boxes.  Into a box, she dropped in two small coins, worth less than a penny. Jesus whispered to his friends as they sat quietly on the bench: “Do you see that little old lady over there?  She gave her last penny.  Those other people gave from the abundance of their pocketbooks; they have plenty to live on, but that little old lady there, she gave from the abundance of her heart; she gave everything she had.”

(XX) I’ve been thinking a lot about invisible people this week.  I’ve been thinking about the folk we don’t notice.  I’ve been wondering about those who so easily get turned into statistics.  (XX) On Tuesday, a report in the Globe and Mail, stated that since the end of the Afghanistan War at least 59 Canadian Forces personnel – active service and retired veterans – have taken their own lives.  That number is more than 1/3 the total killed in combat.  Those numbers are shocking – and rightly so.  Each one of them represents a person – with relationships, hopes and dreams.  Each one with a past and a future.  Each one a beloved child of God.  I don’t know their names – perhaps you do.

(XX) Often preachers use this text to talk about stewardship and giving money.  You can relax, that’s not my intention.  I don’t think she’s primarily an example of generous giving.  Certainly not for us.  None of us can afford to give everything – not to the church nor to another person.  We cannot reduce her dedication to a calculated invitation to serve some campaign.  She gave her whole life to God.  She gave everything. We don’t know why.  Obligation? Respect? Demand? Faith? All of the above?  We don’t know her mood in giving.  Was she joyful?  Did she see it as a rare opportunity to make a difference?  Did she feel it as an overpowering duty?  Perhaps she saw it as a privilege – to participate with all the other people of God.

You’ve heard me say lots of times how important it is to understand biblical passages in their setting.  We can’t just pluck a verse here and there and think we’ve got the story straight.  Well, the context for this story is not exactly pretty.  Jesus has been scrapping with the religious authorities.  In essence, he has accused them of talking a good game but not living it.  He has accused these, the foremost representatives of the faith, of hypocrisy, using loopholes to take what little they have from the most vulnerable in society.  It reminds me of stories we hear from time to time of religious con artists, using the trust that comes with their roles, to hoodwink the vulnerable and rob them.  So there is the possibility that when Jesus sees the poor widow giving all she has he is exasperated with a system that exploits her faithfulness in that way.  When he says, “She has put in her whole living,” it could be with admiration for her faithfulness or it could be exasperation with the system that imposes such obligations on the most vulnerable.

In this Remembrance season, as we contemplate war and its results, I wonder what Jesus might have said.  I wonder what he would have said about those who get rich from war and those who suffer.  In our own United Church history we have an example.  During World War 1 J.S. Wordsworth was a minister who was a pacifist.  He was not a pacifist for any of the reasons that you might expect.  His pacifism arose from his disgust at the obscene profits that weapons manufacturers were making from the carnage.  But in WW I, all the churches were quite gung-ho about the conflict, and Wordsworth was forced to resign the ministry.  What would he say today, when Canadian arms sales are well up there in the top arms exporters in the world?

Jesus accused the powerful in his day of devouring the hope and well-being of the anonymous and powerless.  They were betraying a trust given by God.  What would he say today?  Might it be the stock brokers and lenders who got rich off the economic slump in 2008, where thousands lost everything and only in Iceland were financial folks and politicians ever punished.  Or maybe it would be the politicians who love to wrap themselves in the flag and talk up their patriotic support for the military while devouring veterans’ spouses pensions.  Perhaps you had to read Dante’s Inferno in high school or college.  You might recall the hellish punishment Dante imagined would come to hypocrites: for all eternity they would wear the most gorgeous of flowing robes, looking ever-so-lovely on the outside. But those robes would be lined with lead, making the very act of standing up straight an abiding agony. Such would indeed be a fit punishment for those who spend their lives harbouring ugliness and selfishness on the inside even as they exuded nothing but superiority or piety on the outside.

(XX) Imagine a group of people: a crowd at a football game, the downtown of a city, a congregation gathered for worship.  Now pick out the scribes – the ones who use their authority for their own advancement and the widows – the ones who are anonymous and unseen in their suffering. And here’s a hint: not all the widows are women, and not all the scribes are men.

(XX) Before anything else, before we do or say anything, we all live immersed in the prior grace of God in Christ. Everything we do in the Christian life flows from – and over flows from – that grace. This grace allows us to rest easy by taking joy in whatever we are able to do for God. Grace gives us the freedom to be who we have become as new creatures in Christ. We use our gifts and give of ourselves not because of some stern external obligation or pressure or because we’ve been made to feel guilty as we are manipulated by the church. Instead we are free to be who we are, free to let the Spirit move us along in service.  One of the reasons we have the freedom to do all that is the sacrifice and giving of all from the women and men whom we honour in this season.  Let them not become anonymous statistics or inconvenient burdens.  They are precious in the sight of our Maker.  They should be in ours.  Let those with ears hear the Spirit’s word to the Church.