Penny for Your Thoughts, Proper 27(B) – 2015

[RCL] Psalm 127, (19-22); Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Benjamin Franklin once said, “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Yet, despite the sage words from Mr. Franklin, pennies are often readily available; all one has to do is look on city streets – pennies are in abundant supply. People all the world over are happy to get rid of their pennies. Oftentimes, people won’t bother to pick them up when they have fallen.

The penny occupies a peculiar spot on any currency chart. It’s worth next to nothing, but not really. Because of the penny’s peculiarity, it’s difficult to divide. What’s 10% of a penny? Matthew 10:29 proves that one could have purchased two sparrows for one penny in Jesus’ time – “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny.”

The term “a penny for your thoughts” was ‘coined’ in 1522, with Sir Thomas More’s book, Four Last Things. As with most idioms or sayings, no one is exactly sure who first said “a penny for your thoughts” But Sir More was the first to publish it.

Perhaps our widow, in this Gospel story from Mark, should receive some credit for the phrase, “a penny for your thoughts,” as well. Her bold, uninhibited vulnerability to offer all she had to live on was a true sign of sacrifice. In her adherence to Jewish law, she brought her tithe to the treasury – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Her revolutionary giving posture was to give 90% above the tithe – Now, how’s that for a stewardship model?

If she was anything like the other women portrayed in the Gospel of Mark. We know that this woman embodied faith to approach God boldly, perform loving acts for God, stand as an example of piety to be emulated, and speak truths when others would not. It could be suggested that she was a poor widow, because her late husband was a poor man. So to approach the treasury and pour out and offer all she had to live on, was to say, ‘this is all I got, it isn’t worth much, God, I’ll give you a penny for your thoughts.’

Those thoughts are embedded throughout Scripture. God’s thoughts towards her were that, she could live with the certainty that “Before God formed her in the womb God knew her, and before she was born God set her apart; God appointed her” and had a purpose for her. (Jeremiah 1:5)

She could lived with the guarantee and gratitude that God had her life all planned out because “surely God knew the plans God had for her, cause God said so, plans for her welfare to prosper her and not for harm, plans to give her a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Those thoughts are true for us as well. We can live in the assurance that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil 4:13). And we can live with the knowledge that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).

Knowing the thoughts God has towards us is important to carrying out our ministry on this earth.

Our sister in this story pushed passed the shame of being a struggling widow. She broke open the doors that would have said your two cents aren’t enough; pennies cannot do a thing. She paid no attention to the offerings others had in comparison to her own. She understood there wasn’t a thing she could do, but by giving all she had to God that could change.

Similar to American art teacher and musician Judson W. Van DeVenter who penned the lyrics for the Christian hymn ‘I Surrender All.’ DeVenter said “For some time, I had struggled between developing my talents in the field of art and going into full-time evangelistic work. At last the pivotal hour of my life came, and I surrendered all. A new day was ushered into my life.”

Once those two coins hit the bottom of the treasury it ushered a new day, a new season in the life of the widow, because of her surrender, sacrifice, and sacramental giving.

Worship is essentially our response to God’s love, generosity and graciousness. Worship edifies our souls, and God delights in our worship. Remember our sister from Canaan whose daughter was tormented by a demon? When she went to Jesus and his disciples, Jesus didn’t even speak to her at first. His disciples tried to quiet her and send her away. It’s not until she bowed down and worshipped Jesus that Jesus responded to her. Our worship gets God’s attention. (Matthew 15:21-28)

Giving is an act of worship. The widow’s giving, and in our giving, we are worshipping God. Her selfless act of vulnerability, her posture of worship got Jesus’ attention. The Gospel states, once she gives all she had to live on, Jesus called his disciples and said to them, Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more that all those who are contributing to the treasury.” Her worship received Jesus’ attention.

She gave all that she had to live on, so that the work of God’s kingdom could be done. Prior to getting Jesus’ attention, Jesus is telling his disciples about the pitfalls of “Scribe-like” behavior and cautions them to beware! To be clear, “Scribe-like” giving (not “Scribe-like” behavior) is important and helpful to the growth of the Church. When we give from a place of sacrifice and surrender, this is our devotion to God. God looks at the heart and wants for us to be able to trust God with all that we have for what we have are gifts from God.

Rev. Charles Cloughen, Jr. states in his book, One Minute Stewardship Sermons, that ‘God is generous, giving, loving, forgiving, and gracious. God desires our loving response to His generosity.’ The oxymoron here is that God is generous even in our scarcity. Most often our loving response is not sacrificial giving similar to that of the widow. Out of her poverty she gave and took the huge risk of not being able to afford to live. One might look at her and begin finger wagging and calling her less than smart. How will she live, if she gave all she had to live on to God? It doesn’t make much sense. In today’s society that kind of giving may be frowned upon tremendously. Even sacrificial giving may be shunned because of the thrill of the accumulation of material possession in our society. But, this widow understood giving to God was a sure way for a substantial return on her investment.

Some biblical scholars believe however that her gift presaged Jesus’ own surrender and sacrifice to God’s will for His life. In this Gospel, our poor widowed sister reflected Jesus’ behavior, “though he was rich, yet for (our) sake became poor, so that by his poverty (we) might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Anyone can give out of their’ abundance and excess, but it takes a true believer to give out of his or her poverty. Sacrificing and surrendering of all that she had, this poor widow was able to attain all she needed to live on and her heart sang the words of Van DeVenter’s Hymn:

All to Jesus I surrender,
All to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him,
In his presence daily live.

Refrain:

I surrender all,
I surrender all,
All to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

AMEN.

Download the Sermon for Proper 27B

For reference and further study

  • Cloughen, C. (1997). One minute stewardship sermons (p. 2). Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub.
  • Harrington, Daniel J., and John R. Donahue. “The Scribes and the Widow.” Sacra Pagina Series. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1991. 362-365. Print.
  • Mays, James Luther. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000. Print.
  • Newsom, C. (1992). The Women’s Bible commentary (pp. 350-357). London: SPCK ;.
  • The Origin of the Phrase “A Penny For Your Thoughts” (2014, December 7). Retrieved October 18, 2015.
  • Who Said. (n.d.). Retrieved October 18, 2015.

Written by The Rev. Arlette Benoit

The Rev. Arlette Benoit is a graduate of General Theological Seminary in New York City where she earned her Masters in Divinity with a Certificate in Spiritual Direction. She was ordained to the priesthood in June 2013 in the Diocese of Atlanta. Rev. Benoit now serves at St. Paul’s Episcopal Atlanta GA, as Associate to the Rector. While at seminary she interned with The Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries. She continues to be involved with the Office of Black Ministries, and assist and provides consultation for the planning of the S.O.U.L (Spiritual Opportunity to Unity and Learn) Conferences for youth and young adults, in addition to working with a team of clergy and lay leaders to develop The Rising Stars (RISE) Experience — a new initiative aimed at countering the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” where children are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Rev. Benoit was also recently appointed to serve as a Youth Ministry Liaison for the Office of Youth Ministries representing Province Four of The Episcopal Church.

Do you see what I see?, 24 Pentecost, Proper 27 (B) – November 11, 2012

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 and Psalm 127 (or 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Psalm 146); Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

In two weeks, on the day after Thanksgiving, department stores and radio stations throughout our nation will begin their round-the-clock auditory avalanche of Christmas carols. You may find the constant repetition of “Silent Night” a soothing reminder of “the reason for the season”; or it may annoy you to the point of giving you a headache. But whichever position you take, if you are Anglican, you know that the appropriate liturgical time to begin caroling is during the Christmas season, not Advent. You know that during Advent, we sing hymns about our longing for the birth of the Savior and our faithful vigil as we wait for God’s light to shine in the darkness.

For Anglicans, the “official” singing of carols begins on Christmas Eve. On that holy night, we will gather in parishes across the globe, acknowledge the end of Advent – the end of the long wait – and give voice to the lovely songs we know by heart. We will sing “Away in a Manger,” “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Joy to the World” among others.

There is another Christmas carol that, though it’s known by the title, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” begins with the question:

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star
Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite …
Do you see what I see?

In this Sunday’s gospel reading, we find Jesus taking a break from hours of engagement and debate with an array of people who sought to trap him in his own words. But he brilliantly escaped the traps and turned the questions back on the questioners. He dazzled the crowds and his own disciples with his wit and truth-telling. He called out those who were complicit in a corrupt political and religious system. He gave kudos to a scribe who demonstrated wisdom. He taught the crowds and then, after all that hubbub, “he sat down opposite the treasury and watched.”

But Jesus didn’t people-watch merely to entertain himself after putting in a long day at the temple. He focused his attention on those who were putting money into the temple treasury.

When he turned his gaze to that place, who did he see?

He saw a woman who was apparently invisible to everyone else around her. A woman who was invisible to the wealthy folks tossing their spare change into the tall jars that held the offerings; invisible to the crowds who had just listened to and delighted in Jesus’ teachings; invisible to his own disciples who had wandered off, who Jesus had to call over and say, “Look! Look there. Do you see what I see?”

It’s no accident that Jesus saw the widow and made her visible to those who were ignoring her. Sprinkled throughout the Bible there are scores of references to widows. In many of those verses, we find God either commanding God’s people to care for widows or castigating them for failure to enact justice and compassion on the behalf of widows.

Women who had lost their husbands held a special place in God’s kingdom because, though becoming a widow did not automatically mean a woman would become impoverished, the absence of a husband made her immeasurably more vulnerable to that fate. When Jesus, only a few verses before he sat down to watch the action at the treasury, warned the crowds against rapacious scribes who devour widows’ houses, he was describing a reality of his day and time. A woman without a male protector could be forced into debt more easily by the legal and economic system.

Understanding a little about the poor widow’s social context gives us a different entry point into this story. Typically, Christians are taught that she is an outstanding model of sacrificial giving. But here’s a funny thing: Jesus doesn’t praise her or her offering. He doesn’t claim that we should all follow her example of giving. He doesn’t use her offering to deliver a sermon on the virtues of tithing and stewardship. He doesn’t deliver a lecture on the importance of supporting church operating budgets. Rather, Jesus notices her and comments on her participation in a society that had turned its eyes away from her plight.

It’s instructive to bear in mind that God keeps a watchful eye not only on widows. In most of the verses about how we are to treat them, two other categories of people are usually mentioned: orphans and strangers or aliens.

Exodus 23:9 – “You shall not oppress a resident alien.”

Leviticus 19:34 – “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the house of Egypt.

Exodus 22:22 – “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.”

Deuteronomy 24:21 – “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”

Deuteronomy 27:19 – “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”

Do you see what I see? There is a special place in God’s line of sight for people whose economic and political power is slim to none.

It is not always easy or comfortable to see who God sees. For when we open our eyes to the suffering of others, we also come face-to-face with our own complicity in systems that maintain our comfort while keeping “widows, orphans and strangers” in their place, out of sight and out of mind.

We don’t want to see the non-unionized immigrants who work in America’s fields and slaughter houses. We don’t want to see homeless people on city sidewalks as we make our way to the football game or the theater. We don’t want to see the children who in live in group homes around the country because they’ve been removed from violent families and are considered unadoptable.

But however difficult it is, we cannot ignore Jesus when he calls us over to sit with him for a moment and watch. Watch who participates in the life of our churches, our communities, our schools, our politics and our economies. Look into the dark corners of the world for the people who are in need of food, clothing, shelter, decent wages, a helping hand, an advocate, a friend. See the people who stand on street corners and speak only through messages written on cardboard signs.

And then don’t simply observe. Help those who we see.

Call over other people and ask them to open their eyes too. Go and talk with those who are hidden in plain view. Ask them about their lives. Ask them how we might partner with them to create hope and new life wherever there is misery and death. Demonstrate that God’s way is not the way of oppression, but the way of justice. Show them that God is love.

Two days before he was arrested and crucified, at a time when he could have been drawing his attention inward to ponder his own fate, Jesus sat in the temple and watched. He invited those he loved to watch with him, to acknowledge one woman who was otherwise lost in the crowd.

Do you see what I see? God became manifest in Jesus not only to offer us the beautiful gift of eternal life; God became manifest in Jesus to bring to our attention those who are invisible. God walked among us to help us direct our gazes toward those who may not have a great deal to celebrate this season. And God not only placed a star in the sky to light the way to the manger, God placed a light in our hearts and minds that we might learn to see through the eyes of Christ.

 

— The Rev. Christie M. Dalton is a deacon for regional ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. She lives in Winston-Salem, where she is also a development officer for Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

How on earth can we follow Jesus, 23 Pentecost, Proper 27 (B) – 2009

November 8, 2009

(RCL) Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 and Psalm 127 (Track 2: 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Psalm 146); Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

No, this isn’t a sermon about tithing, so you may take your hands off your wallets.

Our television screens bombard us with offers of deals. No doubt your spam contains similar offers. From time to time we read about elderly people who have been duped out of their funds by unscrupulous people offering deals. There are even crooks who recently played with peoples’ health by offering spurious swine-flu remedies. So we build walls around our lives, taking care not to be “had.”

It is easy for us to become so protective of ourselves that we are no longer able to give or receive easily. Those of us who have been hurt badly build walls around ourselves and then wonder why we are so lonely and unfulfilled. Christians are not immune to this “natural” reaction.

Sometimes we don’t give to worthy charities, excusing ourselves by muttering that they spend too much on overhead. And yes, we get moody when the annual pledge campaign hits us in our parish. The odd thing is that we don’t feel our consciences tugged when we read the sort of lessons appointed for this Sunday.

The story of Ruth is a non-Jewish love story. Ruth takes a leap of trust and faith and decides to stay with her mother-in-law and marry Boaz rather than retuning to the safety and security of her own homeland.

In Kings, a woman left with nothing to feed her son and herself feeds the Prophet with what she has left. She may starve to death, but still she makes bread and gives drink.

In the gospel Jesus points to a widow woman, obviously without children to care for her. She gives her last penny. In the light of what Jesus says later about the scams going on in the Temple, the fact that he commends the widow for giving all she has to the Temple treasury is astounding.

Surely Ruth should have required a prenuptial contract! Surely the poor woman should have told the Prophet to go and find her son and her something to eat. Should not Jesus have rather suggested that the widow keep her few cents for herself? “Charity begins at home!”

Protecting our assets, the things we cherish, our integrity, seem to be natural reactions, survival instincts. Yet we follow a Savior who calls us to risk all in order that we may truly love and be truly whole. It would be said of Jesus, “The foxes have lairs, the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus’ mother and his relatives pleaded with him to come home, to be safe and to stop living so dangerously. The love of Jesus was extravagant, self-sacrificial, and utterly without concern for his own well being.

Well, we think, that is fine for Jesus, but he is unique. Sometime early on we absolve ourselves of commitment to follow his example, and settle for a faith that allows him to do the sacrificing, while we receive the benefits.

In the gospel, Jesus points to professionally religious people who parade their religiosity and who love the power their religious rank gives them, but who defend their institution and their place in it vigorously. When the Chief Priest decided that Jesus must be killed, he justified it as the death of one to protect the peace and prosperity of the settled religious Establishment. “It is expedient that one should die for the people.”

How often we rephrase Jesus’ command to “Go Baptize, Go Tell” with “Come through our church doors and help us maintain the building!”

Christianity calls us to love extravagantly, care extravagantly, and give extravagantly. Saints such as Francis of Assisi took that challenge to heart, to the dismay of his parents and the contempt of the world.

One of our lovely Collects contains the phrase “In whose service is perfect freedom.” Remember “service” once meant slavery. Jesus, we are told by St. Paul, gave up his equality with God, emptied himself, and became a servant, a slave.

That’s wonderful. Jesus is our servant. Just what we need.

But what of us? How do we measure up “to the fulness of the stature of Christ?” Do you remember when your parents used to put you against the wall and mark how tall you were growing? Next to Jesus we seem small in love, in caring, in giving. Yet if we are to commend our faith, our parish, our Church to a needy world and above all to our Lord, we are called to a more excellent way. We are to remember in our Lord’s chilling words, that when we have done all we are still unprofitable servants.

How on earth can we follow Jesus? He gave up life itself on the cross. On our own, as parishioners, clergy, vestry members, we fail and mutter our apologies in the General Confession. Yet “in Christ” and his love, we can grow to risk the life of love we were born to in our baptisms. Only then may we be truly free.

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery.

We are to give, Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27 (B) – November 12, 2006

(RCL) Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 or 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 127 or 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44 

She was a woman. She was poor. These are two facts anyone could tell that day in the Court of the Women in the Temple in Jerusalem.

She was also a widow who was down to her last two coins. These are facts that Jesus also knew about her.

She was a woman of great faith. She became a living sermon. She remains an icon of faith as she put her whole trust in God, not holding anything back.

This unnamed woman is known now by her marital status and her coins rather than her name, for the story is “The Widow’s Mite” and she is “The Widow.” Yet we should be careful to note that it is the story of the widow’s mites as the woman had two small coins. Each of her coins were worth one four-hundredth of a shekel or what we might think of as an eighth of a penny each. Too small to bear a legible imprint, they were the grubbiest of coins in the empire of Rome.

Mark sets the scene for us sparingly. Jesus has been teaching in the temple courts. Now, on his way out, he pauses over and against the treasury to watch as offerings are made. Each person would walk up to one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles, which were lined along the wall of the Court of the Women. As they tossed in their offering, the person was expected to say aloud the amount and purpose of the gift in order to be heard by the priest overseeing the collections.

It would have been an impressive sight to see people in fine clothes tossing in large sums, calling out to all how much they gave. And in such a group, who would notice the widow tossing the two smallest coins in the realm into the offering? Yet, in a move that is so like him, Jesus notices and calls attention to this act of faith.

Jesus calls his disciples together and says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Jesus knows that these are not any two coins, but the woman’s last two coins. The text says, “All she had to live on,” but the Greek is starker still. What is really said is that she put in her bios. It’s the word from which we get “biology,” the study of life. For Jesus tells us that the widow put her “life” into the temple treasury that day.

This is not a sermon about tithing, for the woman did not give ten percent of her income. These were her last two coins to rub together, and rather than keep one back, she tossed both into the temple treasury’s coffers. The widow gave 100 percent of her money. The widow is down to two practically worthless little coins, and she trusts it all to God. If this were a gamble, then the widow would be laying all her money on God. But this is not a gamble, for the widow does not bet her money; she trusts her life to God.

It would be nice if Mark filled in more details for us. Was Jesus’ arm around the woman as he said, “This poor widow has put in more …” or was the woman blending back into the crowd, never to be seen again? Or perhaps Jesus asked his own keeper of the purse, Judas Iscariot, to give something to this woman so that she would not go hungry that evening. Or better still, did the widow come to be a Christ follower? Did she join with the other women who journeyed with Jesus from Galilee to the cross and beyond?

The Gospel never answers these questions. The nameless widow who gave two small coins fades into the background. We may want to know her name in order to name churches, schools, and hospitals in her honor. We may want to give her a place of honor in Jesus’ stories alongside disciples whose names we know, though their trust in God wasn’t always so exemplary.

But perhaps namelessness is appropriate for this living parable. And maybe it is best, too, that we don’t find out how her story ends. The nameless woman whose ultimate fate we never know is perhaps an even better icon of trust, for her story was a precarious one. She went to the temple that day not knowing if she would ever have two little coins to call her own again. It could have been her path to a life of begging or even a station on the road to starvation.

But in facing an uncertain future, the widow reached out to God. She trusted that if she gave everything she had to God, even the little she gave would be honored. And whether she was repaid handsomely by Jesus himself, or God cared for her in some other way, we, too, have to trust. We trust that the widow’s story turned out all right. We trust that whether she lived or died, she was God’s.

And by her example, Jesus shows that what we withhold may matter more than what we offer. The widow was a woman of great faith, who held nothing back. She knew what Jesus’ disciples were just learning: we are to give, knowing that everything we have is God’s already. We can’t give God anything. But we can offer our very selves to the Kingdom of God, holding nothing back.

She was a woman. She was poor. She was a widow down to her last two coins. She was a child of God who placed her whole life back in her loving creator’s hands.

 

— The Rev. Frank Logue works as a church planter in the Diocese of Georgia and is the vicar of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Georgia.