Poor Widows and Election Returns

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Voters in Georgia cast their ballots. (Source: John Spink, Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Preached on November 11, 2018, at Our Savior’s

Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

What Gospel text, what a week. Let’s get into it. 

For the first time in recent memory, I’m saying this sentence and expecting you all to know it already: the midterm election happened this past Tuesday night. 

If you’re new here, don’t worry. I think that it’s pastoral malpractice to be partisan from the pulpit. I also think it’s kinda silly at this point to go on and on about “both sides” in a sermon that pretends to be edgy but is secretly trying to keep everybody happy.

Just as the midterms had most of us claiming victory over something, there was another mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, leaving twelve people dead. 

At this point after an exhausting and heartbreaking and exciting week of news, most of us are some combination of sad, angry, tired, and maybe hopeful? Maybe.

Our political world is vitally important. Now, if for whatever reason you don’t buy that politics is important and that it affects our lives, or if you’re seriously just too busy trying to keep yourself afloat to pay attention, I hear you. To me, American politics and world politics are not only something that I’m aware affects my life and those of my neighbors and friends and family and all of you and the very world we live in. You see, besides those things being true, I find politics and history poetically interesting. Politics and history from around the world tell us some things about what it means to be human. Some of those things are uplifting and hopeful; some are very uncomfortable.

Watching election returns is one of our few remaining common experiences, and it’s growing to be one that we share more than ever. Once, we had to wait until the next day to find out who won an election. Before that it was days, and before that, weeks or months. What’s more, back in the day, people would get the news at different times; there was a good while when most people in Boston would find out who won national or state elections before most people in Granby or South Hadley found out. These days, we turn on the television and social media and we usually find out the results — all together — within hours. You don’t even have to be at the television or by your computer; you can follow it all from that little glowing rectangle in your pocket.

On election night, the resources are available for everyone who wants it to plug in and connect and tune in and watch and feel the current consciousness of the country be revealed — in parts and as a whole — precinct by precinct, county by count, district by district, state by state, moment by moment. Moment by moment, we learn where we are as a country, and what our fellow citizens are saying and thinking. 

It’s a uniquely modern experience that’s a mix of pure poetry and gastric disease.

The acid reflux that we feel on election night isn’t the same as the kind we get during sports games we care about, either. Politics is real life. Political policies lift real people up or hurt them, ‘cause or allow real people’s deaths or give real people more freedom or less. 

Too often, human institutions have hurt the people they were supposed to protect and serve. This has always been true as long as humans started banding together. Our own country originated from a rebellion against a government that didn’t have citizens’ best interests at heart. 

In today’s Gospel text, there’s a widow who puts everything into the treasury of an institution — a religious one, the temple. The temptation that I see for us as interpreters is to romanticize the widow. How amazing is she, we think — she who has so little, but who gives it all away?

But in the shadow of an election, I’m thinking a little more about institutions than I normally do, and I caught something in the text this cycle that I can’t believe I’ve never caught before.

You see, Jesus spends the entire paragraph that we read before that coming straight for the religious institution and the people who run it. I think we miss this because the term “scribes” doesn’t have much meaning for us. It’s not a term that most everyday folks are familiar with. 

So instead, try this adaptation on, and you’ll get closer to how Jesus’ original hearers would’ve heard it: “Beware of the pastors, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect at the farmer’s market, and to have the best seat in church and places of honor at community events! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And then, imagine that he tells a story about a poor woman who gave the tiny amount of money she had for food to the church with the pastor who devours widows’ houses. “Widows,” in that time, of course, was a stand-in for the vulnerable. The widows the the orphans — women and children without a grown man to protect and provide for them, which was absolutely necessary back in those days. The point is that institutions can easily exploit financially vulnerable people.

What’s more, in the very next chapter of Mark, Jesus will tell his disciples that “not one stone [of the temple] will be left upon another, but all will be torn down” (Mark 13:2). This widow is giving everything she has to an institution that not only keeps her down, but one whose days are numbered. Given that, I began to see her less as a paradigm for giving and more as a bit of a tragedy. I felt a little sorry for her.

And when I start to feel sorry for her, I start feeling sorry for myself, too. I think about all the ways that I pour myself into institutions: into my work in the church and into my citizenship. Then, in an act of self-awareness, I think about people who give much more than I do and I start feeling sorry for them. In Greek, Jesus says of the widow that she put “the whole of her life” into the treasury that day. Her whole life — and for what?

Is any of this redeemable? Where is the Good News?

Is the church in America dying? Is our divided and furious political democracy dying? And if they’re not dying, is either really worth it, or do institutions just always do more harm than good? 

Is it worth it to take the time to vote? To knock on doors? To talk to our neighbors who believe so diffeently?

Is it worth it to come to church, to give to the church? Or are we, and the generous widow in Mark’s story, just characters worthy of pity, pouring everything into a doomed institutions?

Is any of this redeemable?

Well, as much as I’d like to say that institutions are all garbage, truth is, we’re created to work together, and we always have. And I don’t think Jesus points out this woman just to pity her; I think he points her out because otherwise, we wouldn’t see her. The one who’s not just contributing out of an abundance, but putting her life and soul into what she believes. I think that Jesus is saying that that kind of dedication is the kind that most reflects the face of God.

Because ultimately, you know, it’s Jesus, not us, whom the widow most clearly reflects. It’s Jesus who gives his whole life. Jesus sees her, I think, because he identifies with her. And that’s why it’s here that I offer a note of caution: a Lutheran pastor that I known often cautions against overwork by saying, “You don’t have to die for Jesus; he already died for you.” We are not called to sacrifice our health and well-being for the sake of institutions. We are not Jesus. We cannot save and redeem everything. Jesus already did that.

But we are called to invest ourselves into something bigger than ourselves, to pull together, to work together, to try our hardest to make things just a little bit better in the church and in the world, for those who will follow us. We are called to see this widow and make sure that the money she put into the treasury won’t mean she doesn’t go without food. We are called to protect the most vulnerable among us. We are called to put our whole lives into good work and hope for the best, knowing that in the end, it’s all redeemed, somehow, anyway.

Yes, our institutions are broken. No election will solve everything that’s wrong with our nation. No election is guaranteed to stop all violence or truly guarantee freedom and justice for all. No church program will fix everything that’s wrong with the church. We’re not Jesus, and we’re really bad at saving ourselves. 

But the good news is that we get to contribute. We get to pour ourselves into something. We get to try greatly, even if we fail. 

And the best news of all is that Jesus sees us. And the best news of all is that Jesus redeems all of it — our efforts, our institutions, our lives. 

So keep putting your whole life into your work. God sees you. God redeems it. God loves you. 

Thank God. Amen.

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