Mighty mites

Good morning, Friends!

We’re just a couple of weeks away from Easter! For the last month we’ve been looking at stories about the last few weeks of Jesus’ life on earth.

The stories haven’t been exactly what we’d expect. Jesus knew he was heading for Jerusalem. He knew what was going to happen to him. But Jesus didn’t do the kind of things we’d expect him to do.

We would expect that Jesus would stay totally focused on his mission. We’d expect he would refuse to be distracted, and put everything else aside. But as we’ve seen, Jesus went on doing many of the same things he’d been doing all along.

Jesus kept on teaching. He kept on healing. He stopped from his great, final, all-important mission just to listen to people. He reached out to notorious sinners and public enemies. Jesus knew he was going to save the world. But it’s almost as if he decided he was going to save the world, one person at a time.

Today’s story is just another example of this. And what’s so interesting is the timing. He’d arrived in Jerusalem. He was down to just a few days. And what does Jesus do? He stops and he notices how people act differently toward God.

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.

“Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Luke 21:1-4

That’s not what we think of as a typical Easter season Scripture. I’d probably save this one for Stewardship Sunday, not the 3rd Sunday before Easter. But if you read the gospel, that’s exactly when this story happens.

This story is traditionally called “the story of the widow’s mite”. That’s spelled M-I-T-E, not M-I-G-H-T. A “mite”, in Olde English, is something really small. Even today, here in North Carolina, if you ask somebody if they’d like a little more of something, you sometimes hear them say, “A mite.”

In the King James Version, it says that this woman gave “two mites, which make a farthing.” A farthing is an old English coin. It’s no longer in circulation – it was worth a quarter of a penny. So, a mite is a half of a quarter, or an eighth of a penny. Take it any way you like, the widow’s gift was a tiny one.

Back at the turn of the century – early 20th century, not the year 2019 – Sunday Schools took up a collection every week. Good children brought in two pennies every Sunday and put them in the collection box, which was called the “mite box”.

This is also the origin of the phrase, to put in “your two cents’ worth”. It’s come to mean offering an opinion which isn’t important, or to throw in something which is valueless.

But the original meaning of this story is just the opposite. The woman’s gift was more important than all the others, because she gave all that she had to live on.

And that’s our problem. We don’t know whether to say, “Wasn’t she great? Didn’t she have faith? Didn’t she love God?” The other part of us wants to say, “Was she nuts? What was she doing? Who on earth would follow her example?”

This story always means something special to me. I remember years ago, in the first Friends meeting where I worked, one of the people was a woman in her late 70’s. Dorothy, her name was.

Dorothy lived a couple of blocks away from the meetinghouse, and she’d been coming there all her life. She lived in a tiny house that was really run-down. The roof leaked. I always thought the porch was going to break underneath me when I came up the steps, because so many of the floor boards had rotted out.

Dorothy’s kitchen was clean, but the cabinets were peeling paint. The only heat in the whole house was a kerosene stove in the living room. The only good thing to do with her house would be to push it into a hole with a bulldozer.

I usually don’t know what anyone gives to the meeting. It’s not my business and I don’t ask. I don’t want to treat people better because they’re well-off, or treat people with less respect because they don’t have much.

But Dorothy told me, one day when I was visiting her, that she was worried about her pledge. She lived in this tiny, ramshackle house, with roof leaks, broken porch and a kerosene heater in the living room. And the cost of everything was going up. Dorothy didn’t know if she could even pay for her medicine.

But she didn’t want to cut back on her pledge. She said she had always tithed, all her life, and she didn’t want to stop. She was living on Social Security, and she gave 10% of her check, every month, to the meeting.

I didn’t know what to say to her. She couldn’t afford to give that money away. She needed it, desperately! I suggested, very gently, that she should be spending that money on herself.

Dorothy started to cry. She said to me, “Please don’t tell me not to give! You don’t know what it means to me! I’ve given all my life. I love the church, and giving is my dignity. Please don’t take that away from me!”

I still remember Dorothy, all these years later. And I still remember how humble I felt, walking home that day. To me, she set the standard for what giving really means.

I think that society should have done better by Dorothy. I don’t think it’s fair, that people like Dorothy have to struggle so hard when they get old. But I don’t think that not giving was going to help her.

There’s more to this story. Dorothy had an adult son named Artie. Artie came home from Vietnam, and he wasn’t quite right. Today we’d say that he had PTSD. Somewhere, he had seen too much, or done too much, and whatever hell Artie had been in during the war, it never let him go.

Artie wasn’t able to hold a job. Sometimes, when his ghosts got to be too much for him, he tried to chase them away with alcohol. But there was no harm in Artie. In fact, there was a whole lot of good.

Any time there were chores that needed doing around the meetinghouse, Artie would be there. Winters in upstate New York can be really fierce. We’d get two or three feet of snow sometimes, and it would pile up on the old slate roof. Then, in the middle of the night, the whole roof full of snow would slide off, all at once.

It was like a bomb going off over next door. Eight or ten tons of ice and snow slamming into the driveway. It would wake us up, with our hearts pounding, out of a sound sleep.

And first thing in the morning, Artie would be there, with his worn-out shovel, and clear that mountain away. Artie never took any pay for it. It was just something he did.

I remember one spring day when Artie was a hero. He liked to go fishing, down at the river, half a mile away. Artie never said much of anything, but fishing calmed him down. That day, the ice had gone out of the lakes upstream, and the river was running high. It wasn’t a great fishing day, really, but he was out there.

About a hundred yards upstream, some kids were playing by the river. A little boy, five or six, slipped and fell in.

Artie couldn’t swim. He’d never been able to. And he was terrified of water. A lot of his PTSD nightmares had to do with drowning. And the river was running high.

But Artie grabbed a sapling. He held onto it with one hand, and he went into the river that was his worst nightmare. He went in knee deep, hip deep, chest deep. He stretched out as far as he could.

And he managed to catch the hand of that little boy, as the river swept him by. Pulled the two of them back to the bank, hand over hand along the sapling.

Artie – this worn-out, alcoholic, no-account guy, unable to hold a job, haunted by his war memories – gave more, in those few seconds, than most of us will ever give. That’s how it is, sometimes.

Today’s gospel story is just before Easter. It’s not what we think of as an Easter story. But for Jesus, this is part of why he came.

The story took place during the Passover festival, when everyone was coming to pray at the temple. The temple in Jerusalem was an enormous sight. King Herod had been working on it for decades. Thousands of slaves had worked on the foundations. Even today, when tourists go to see what’s left, at the Western or Wailing Wall, they can’t believe that some of those stones were moved by muscle power. Huge stones, the size of entire houses.

The outside of the Temple was literally covered with gold. Again, it took years of offerings, decades of taxes, to finish it. When the sun hit the gold on the Temple, it was blinding to the eye. You could see it shining for miles away.

At Passover, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims came to Jerusalem. It was like Market Week, times ten. The city was completely crowded – people sleeping on sidewalks, in doorways, on rooftops, every square foot was covered with people.

Each one of them brought an offering for the Temple. Most people saved for years to come. And as they filed into the Temple, every one of them put an offering in the big boxes by the gate.

Giving to the Temple brought a lot of prestige. If you were a rich person, everyone could see what you were giving. It wasn’t like today. People didn’t write a check and put it in an envelope. They would signal to a servant, who brought up a heavy bag full of money and poured it in.

There’s nothing wrong with being wealthy and generous. Some of the best people I’ve ever met have been wealthy. They didn’t let their wealth get in the way of talking to folks, and they thought of their riches not as a right, but as a responsibility.

But here, in today’s story, that’s not what Jesus saw. In all the hundreds of people going by, Jesus’ eye picked out one poor person putting two coins into the box.

One of the things which we don’t get when we read the story today, is that it was a woman in the story. You men may not appreciate this, but all of you women will. In today’s gospel, a woman’s gift was greater than what all the thousands of men were giving. Everyone who heard this story back in Jesus’ day would have figured that out instantly. Many people would have been offended by it.

The gifts of women weren’t considered as valuable as the gifts of men. Men were more important, and they had more earning power, so obviously they could give more and they were more important.

But in Jesus’ eye, the two coins that this poor widow gave were many times greater than the cascades of money that the rich men were putting in.

The other thing that’s in the background of this story that we need to remember, is what Jesus said about the Temple itself. Part of the reason Jesus was arrested and executed, was that he said that the Temple, the building, the pride of Israel, wasn’t so important.

Jesus said that you could tear the whole thing down – every stone of the Temple, right down to bedrock – and in three days, God would raise it up again.

To people who think that the church is a building, what Jesus said was blasphemy. Here they’d just finished this incredible building. They said it was God’s holy place, the holiest place on earth. It took twenty years to build, and along comes Jesus and says that not one stone would be left standing on top of another. And he, Jesus, would put up something new in just three days.

Folks ask me during Bible study why people hated Jesus. Why some people hated Jesus enough to kill him. Well, here’s part of the answer.

Jesus was right. The church of the Spirit is greater and holier than any building we can put up. The gift of that poor woman was worth more than all the other gifts put together. Her gift of love was greater than all the gifts of pride.

It all makes sense, when you look at things Jesus’ way.

Now, we still have a couple of weeks till Easter. We’ve still got so much to learn. And today’s story is only one of many.

Take this one home, and think about it. Please give as generously as you can – we need your help, not just today, but always.

Most of the time, when we talk about giving, we talk about what we can afford to give. And it’s usually in competition with all of our other financial responsibilities. The groceries, the gas, the mortgage, the utility bills – which are really going up this year! – car payments, credit cards, taxes, insurance, retirement, college tuition, all of those different things we need to plan for. It never ends. Whether or not we have the money, just keeping track of all the bills we have to pay gets exhausting.

And, frankly, things that are connected with religion, or things connected with our meeting, often just have to take their place in line with all of the other financial obligations and responsibilities we live with.

I want to be very realistic about here. What I’m saying is not an appeal to give more to the meeting! If it was, I’d have delivered the sermon before we took up the offering.

Instead, I’d like us to think about what it means to be generous people. What kind of personal stories, and what kind of Bible stories, make us feel as if we want to live differently? What stories make us feel that our lives could somehow be deeper?
Money isn’t the issue. The issue is, how do we want to live?

In all four of the gospels, Jesus never once talked about budgets. He never talked about pledges. We all know those things are important, and I’m not putting them down, but they’re not even discussed in the gospel.

Instead, the gospel talks about ridiculous levels of giving – about giving that doesn’t make sense.

An old woman who puts everything she has in the offering. A little boy who donates his lunch, and it feeds 5,000 people. A woman who comes to Jesus, and pours a bottle of priceless perfume on his feet. A crooked tax collector who suddenly gives half of everything he has to the poor, and promises to pay back anyone he’s cheated with four times the original amount.

These are not stories about rational giving. They’re about something completely different.

These are stories about people who want to change. They want to live different lives. They knew they weren’t being sensible. That was the whole point!

There are times to be careful, and rational. And maybe there are times to be reckless, and extravagant. When it’s time to save a life, or to right a wrong, or to make a statement. When it’s time to witness, or divest, or to turn completely around.

Both kinds of times are important. It’s not either/or. It’s both. The important thing, is to know what kind of time it is. That’s the point.

You know, the story today never says why the widow threw in her last two coins, her two little mites. It may have been love for God, or devotion. Or maybe she was desperate. Maybe she was bargaining with God. “If I do this, Lord,” maybe she said in her heart, “won’t you please help me? If I give you everything, will you give me what I need?”

We don’t really know. The story doesn’t say. Sometimes devotion and desperation aren’t all that far apart.

What we take into our prayer time this morning isn’t an answer, or even an example. Maybe what this woman did, isn’t for everyone here, right now.

  • What kind of giving, in our own lives, are we called to?
  • What stories of giving, really stir us and move us?
  • When should we be wise, and when should we be foolish?
  • In what parts of our lives are we rich, and where do we feel poor?
  • What is charity, and what is justice?
  • Where do we draw the line in giving – and when do we ignore the line?
  • If we were giving in the gospel, what stories would they tell about us?

Let’s pray with all of these questions together.

And remember that every gift counts, especially if you give it with love. And it isn’t just the size that counts – it’s giving whatever you can, for Jesus’ sake, in Jesus’ name.

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1 Response to Mighty mites

  1. Millie Simmons says:

    Thank you Josh…..what a wonderful message.

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