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Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (proper 27) November 12, 2006.

1 Kings 17:8-16

Psalm 146

Hebrews 9:24-28

Mark 12:38-44

Many congregations throughout the country are probably taking advantage of this time in November for Stewardship Sundays. Today's readings seem to offer great stuff for preachers to sink their teeth into about financial stewardship. The images of faithful widows giving everything they have seem perfect for stewardship sermons.

If only our congregations could be like these women. The widows both provide us with an image of faithfulness and challenge us by their generosity. But what seems to hold these texts together is a conviction that God's work is beyond our human hands and beyond our understanding. The work and mission of God is bigger than we could ever imagine or contain. And the miraculous thing is that God calls us to join, to share and participate in God's mission in the world.

This story of the widow at Zarephath marks the beginning of Elijah's ministry. Just before this, Elijah makes a statement of faith: "As YHWH the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain in these years, except by my word" (17:1). He makes a radical statement of faith that the Lord God of Israel is God, more powerful than Baal, the Canaanite God of rain. A great drought comes, and God tells Elijah where to go and that there is a widow who will feed him.

God, Elijah, and the reader know the way this woman will work in God's movement in the world. The widow does not, although she must know a little something. After Elijah asks her for some food, she says, "As YHWH your God lives...." She herself makes a statement of faith; she knows who Elijah's God is, she knows God's name. How did she recognize and know this?

As happens in most stories of dramatic and miraculous commitments, Elijah says, "Do not be afraid, and do as you said ... but get a little for me, for YHWH has told me that your food will not run out until YHWH makes the rain to fall." The widow does, trusting Elijah and the word that he has spoken. She believes that God will not only provide enough food now but will also make the rain to fall. She takes the dangerous risk to entrust her life and her family to this promise of God's power and presence. This story and the faith of both Elijah and the widow show that life and death, rain and drought are all part of God's power and involvement.

In Hebrews, we enter into the great metaphor of Christ as high priest. Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). This phrase is a pejorative, connoting idols made by human hands (Isa 31:7). For the writer of Hebrews, Jesus' work is to move us beyond all that holds us captive and idolatrous and put our faith in the great high priest, Jesus Christ.

In Mark, we can almost imagine Jesus sitting in the temple square doing a sort of a critical play-by-play of what is happening in front of him, taking the opportunity to teach his disciples to look and watch. He starts by noticing the scribes, and he commands his disciples to beware ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of them. This is the same word he uses in the imperative throughout the apocalyptic warnings in Mark 13. Watch out! Pay attention, stay alert! Jesus seems to already be trying to teach his disciples this watchfulness.

The scribes functioned as a high-class sort of temple legal scholars. Jesus condemns them for their pretentiousness and arrogance and for using their power, knowledge, and privilege for their own glory while trampling on the poor and widows. He critiques them for their arrogant dress, with their long robes ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the Greek word from which we get our word stoles. Perhaps this is a particular warning to us, preachers). He also condemns the scribes for their need to have the best seats of honor wherever they might go. It reminds us of the disciples who argue for the best seat with Jesus but are told that the last will be first.

The widow stands in direct contradiction to the scribes. Jesus continues to sit in the temple square and watch the people put their money into the treasure, where rich people put in large sums. The Greek verb "put in" is in the imperfect, denoting repeated acts ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Those who had a lot put in a lot over and over again; this was their practice.

Then Jesus sees a poor widow put her "two pennies," her two lepta--the smallest coins in circulation at the time--into the treasury. He calls attention to this widow and to the reality of the enormous amount that she put in, worth more than all the others who put in so much. Though she has given a little, she has given much, because she has given out of her poverty, out of her lacking. In doing so she has given more than all those who gave out of their abundance.

This is truly miraculous, but it also gives one cause to think about this terrible system in which the greedy walk around with long stoles and, though the ones with much give, the ones with little are still required to give what little they have. What if Jesus is not honoring the woman for her generosity but lamenting the temple system that demands that she put in all her money? As C. S. Mann writes in the Anchor Bible Commentary on Mark, "we would ourselves be properly outraged (or ought to be) at any religious system which appropriated the property of the poor and the near destitute in order to perpetuate the system." (11)

Despite the systems and lamentations, God invites us, with our generosity and our arrogance, into God's work in this world. It is not limited to the church, which is "made with human hands," but is bigger than the arrogance of the scribes and the hunger of the widow. Through Christ, we are part of the great work of God in the world where the poor are cared for, where sins are forgiven, where injustice is named. It is God who acts. It is God who makes the rain to fall and who cares for the widow.

These texts protect us from the danger of stewardship drives (or any other times) when we begin to limit God's work in this world to our own institutions made by human hands. We must be careful not to equate God's mission in the world with the mission of our churches. While these do align most of the time, the church is much bigger than our next year's budget. These texts call us into a community of faith and a movement of salvation that is much bigger than each of us. As Vaclav Havel said, "by perceiving ourselves as part of the river, we take responsibility for the river as a whole." (12) SKO

11. C. S. Mann, Mark, Anchor Bible Commentary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986), 494.

12. Vaclav Havel, Letters to Olga (New York: Henry Holt, 1982), 301.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Preaching Helps
Author:Olson, Sara K.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2006
Words:1215
Previous Article:All Saints Sunday November 5, 2006.
Next Article:Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (proper 28) November 19, 2006.
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