Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
“Pay Attention!” My seventh grade history teacher said sternly for the third time. And yet, still most of the the class, including me, could not pay attention. He thought the best way to teach history was to read dates and have us memorize them and recite them back to him:
Civil War--1861-1865. World War I--1914-1918. World War II--1939-1945. I checked out again...
As many of you know, my husband Brian is a U.S. history teacher. He teaches 7th graders in a very different way. To teach WWI, he turns desks over and sets up trenches and has the kids experience the battle field. To teach about Immigration into Ellis Island, he becomes the Inspector and speaks gibberish to the students to help them experience what it is like to be in a country where you don't know the language. To teach about the decades, he set up a museum in which the kids touch things--like a dial phone, which they think is an ancient artifact. He doesn’t just tell them about history, he shows them.
That’s the kind of teacher Jesus was….he didn’t just tell people about discipleship, he showed them.
His favorite lesson was showing people how to pay attention to little things that others easily overlook, the things that truly matter.
Jesus told the parable of the man who left 99 sheep and went after the one he noticed was lost.
Jesus noticed the little children who were being kept away and said “let them come to me.”
Jesus noticed the woman who reached through a crowd and touched just the hem of his robe and he said, “Your faith has made you well.”
Jesus noticed Zacchaeus, the tax-collector in the tree, and he said, “Come down, let’s go have dinner together.”
Jesus, even in his darkest moment, noticed the criminals who hung beside him on the cross, and he said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In today’s lesson from the Gospel of Mark, the scene unfolds in the temple. Important people who are dressed well and educated and have money to spare are giving their offerings--and drawing attention to the large amounts they give, making sure that others notice their generosity.
But, Jesus notices someone else. Someone at the other end of the spectrum. Someone who is easily overlooked. A widow, not well dressed or educated and not wealthy, goes up to the temple treasury and drops in two small coins. Jesus notices the contrast between the wealthy people who bring much and the poor widow who offers two of the least valuable coins. This poor widow and her gift were easy to overlook. She goes unrecognized but to the eyes of Jesus. Then Jesus calls his followers over and draws their attention to her. In essence says, Pay attention to this widow, not just as someone that you should care for, but as someone who can teach you a valuable lesson: The lesson is not in the monetary value of the coins, but in what the coins represent. They represent her total trust in God and her faith lived out in the world. And she does it all humbly and quietly, without the need for recognition and appreciation.
Jesus does not teach his followers about generosity by defining it and giving the history of it, and giving them formulas to compute and dispute. Jesus simply shows them what genuine generosity looks like.
Despite how this story is often interpreted, the large givers are not the bad guys. The Temple then and churches now need large givers. Our church does too! The large givers are human. They simply want to be recognized for their contribution. And if we are honest, so do we. We long to be appreciated. We don’t need to have our name in lights or carved in a plaque on a building, but still we want our story to be known, for others to affirm who we are and how we’ve lived, and how we have given.
Truth be told, we don’t really want to see this widow because she makes us feel badly about ourselves, like we are not giving enough. We want someone to appreciate the fact that we get up early on Sunday mornings, come to church, give some of our valuable time, offer some of our hard-earned money. We want someone to notice the sacrifices we make.
This is the last scene in Jesus’ public ministry. The next chapter is the temple discourse about last things and then the passion narrative. Jesus is on his way to making the ultimate sacrifice of dying so that the world might live. He is not just teaching about sacrifice but showing it. He is not asking for accolades but calling us to follow--to follow in the way of the cross, to follow in the way of the widow--of genuine trust in God and faith lived out in generous acts. He is calling us to do small things with great love, without being seen. But what does this look like in the world today? I am going to follow Jesus’ example and not tell you, but show you:
In the Christian Century this week, I read about congregations impacting their communities in ways that are both profound and untold. One church, on realizing their endowment had grown beyond what they were comfortable with, began to periodically call the city offices and pay down months of residential utility bills that were past due. The people never knew who took care of their bills. Another congregation purchases milk for morning snack for all the kids in their rural school district. Only a few, among them the school superintendent, are aware of where the money comes from. (Brad Roth)
On NPR, I heard about US Marine Corp. veteran Scott Cooper who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and is now retired. This Veteran’s Day, he is inviting veterans to not march in parades, but to get involved in community service, side by side with people in their communities. It is called #ServiceDoesn’tStop.
Last month, I was having dinner at Eat ‘n Park and I noticed the family sitting at the table next to us. It was a mother and grandmother and several small children. From the conversation I overheard, they did not get out to eat much, and the kids were so excited because they got to have dessert. But, as they got ready to pay the bill, the mother and grandmother got nervous. They began digging into their purses, trying to pook their meager funds to pay the bill. The waitress walked to their table and announced good news: “Your bill has been paid in full. The man sitting next to you paid it for you.” They were so surprised and asked who it was so they could thank him. The waitress said, “He doesn’t do it for thanks. He just wants you to enjoy a good dinner.”
My son Christian is a high school senior, and like some of your children/grandchildren, he is applying to college and writing essays. One prompt was to write about someone who influenced your life in a positive way and helped you develop as a person. He wrote about his grandfather, my Dad, Nick Giver. He didn’t talk about big things--like what he did for a living or his house or the classic car he restored. Instead he wrote about little things--things I had hardly noticed as significant. But Christian was paying attention. He wrote about how Grandpa called him and his Dad to go down and help him move in and connect a new washing machine. Christian was surprised when he got there to learn that they were installing the washing machine at his neighbor’s house. Grandpa’s neighbor could not afford to buy a new washing machine but needed it, and so he bought it for her. This small act of generosity made a big impression on Christian. Grandpa never talked to Christian about how to be a Giver; he simply showed him. Faith always speaks louder than words. And expresses itself as generosity.
In the church, especially in Stewardship season, we talk a lot about generosity. And I have witnessed many generous people who have given quietly, without needing to be noticed. One woman donated the Advent devotionals so that we could all grow closer to Christ this season. A woman donated the food for the women’s retreat. We got new t-shirts with the church logo on them. We were going to sell them to you for $20 each. But a man wanted to be sure that everyone got a free t-shirt, and so left a check for the full amount on my desk.
It is Dedication Sunday today, when we offer our pledges to God and the church. I am not going to tell you how much to give in your pledge to the church. That is between you and God….and I trust that you have already had that conversation. I am not going to promise that in giving you will earn recognition on earth or a place in heaven. What I will promise is that if you follow in the way of the widow, and if you do small acts with great love, without being seen, you will be most richly blessed.
Thanks be to God.