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It’s almost too easy, really. Hearing this gospel story the week before the end of our annual pledge campaign. This is one of the classic so-called stewardship texts, isn’t it? This poor widow has put in more than everyone else, for she has put in everything; all she had to live on. Now I’m supposed to say: go and do likewise. Increase your pledge! Classic stewardship sermon, and I can go sit down—which is good, because sermons are supposed to be short during the pledge campaign so there’s time for the testimonials later.
There’s just one problem: preaching the passage that way misses the point of what Jesus is saying. Because Jesus nowhere says it’s a good thing that the woman is giving away all she has to live on. In fact he very clearly says the opposite. At the beginning of his passage he warns the disciples about the scribes, the religious leaders who say long prayers while extorting widows out of their life savings. And moments later he shows them a widow giving the religious establishment her life savings! Jesus is praising this woman’s faithfulness and generosity, yes, but at the same time he’s condemning a system that maintains religious institutions at the expense of the poor.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus consistently takes a negative attitude toward the Temple—or, rather, not toward the Temple itself but toward the Temple leadership and the system that runs it. He says the Temple is meant to be a house of prayer, but instead has become a den of robbers. He drives out the money changers and the people buying and selling in its courtyards. Next week we’ll hear the continuation of this story, when Jesus’ disciples admire the big and beautiful Temple buildings, and Jesus tells them they will all be destroyed before long.
That ought to make us a little uncomfortable in this season of giving! I don’t want our beautiful redwood church with its jewel-box stained glass windows to ever be destroyed. I like our parish with its buildings and its budget and its ministries and its staff. I think this congregation is well worth supporting financially, and I hope you do too, and I do hope you pledge and indeed that you prayerfully increase your pledge this year by whatever amount you’re able. But do it not out of compulsion, but out of gratitude. Do it not like the rich people in this story who think they can buy righteousness, but out of gratitude. Do it because you genuinely believe this congregation is following Jesus and doing God’s work in Santa Rosa. If we’re not, then all our buildings and programs and liturgies are for nothing.
Our reading from the letter to the Hebrews today speaks of Jesus as the high priest, not of an earthly temple, but of a heavenly one. Instead of carrying out earthly sacrifices day after day in the earthly Temple, Jesus offered himself as a living sacrifice once and for all. Sometimes we think of that sacrifice as taking place on the cross—and indeed the cross is where it reached its fulfillment. But in fact Jesus’s whole life was, and is, an offering of love. One of our Eucharistic Prayers, which we’re using at 9:15 right now, says that Jesus completed on the cross the sacrifice of his life. Jesus gave freely of himself in his teaching, in his healing, in his time simply relaxing with his friends. His whole existence is a fragrant offering to God—because Jesus lived, and continues to live, in complete harmony with God’s will.
We might say that not only is Jesus fully divine, he is also the first one ever to be fully human—fully and gloriously himself in every single moment. You and I catch glimpses on our best days of what it would be like to be completely our fullest version of ourselves. But even now God is at work in us, growing us more and more into the image of Jesus, which means more and more into the unique Christlike individuals each of us was created to be. As we are shaped into the image of Christ—as we become more generous, more joyous, more courageous, more forgiving, more free—our lives too become a living sacrifice. And that’s what real stewardship is about. Stewardship, not as a euphemism for forking over a check to our parish out of guilt or obligation, but as a way of life that’s all about dedicating our entire selves, our souls and bodies, to following Jesus. When that happens, like the widow, we’re giving everything we have, all we have to live on. Not to an institution that oppresses us; but to a God who sets us free.