By Pastor Tracey Leslie
I confess, despite living in Indiana, that I am not a basketball fan. But I am a fan of stories of people who overcame incredible odds and gave their all. Such is the story of Kris Dunn.
As a boy, Dunn’s mother left his father. She took Kris and his older brother, John, and his father had no idea where they were. Living in a two-bedroom apartment, the boys were often left alone. Their mother was in and out of jail for petty crime and DUI’s. But in the summer of 2003, when Kris was only 9, his big brother realized this time was different. It had been too long and mom just wasn’t coming home. So they took care of themselves. Fearful that Children’s services would split them up, they stopped going to school and ignored any knocks on the door. They were hungry all the time. They sold their own shoes and clothing. John used trick dice to win crap games in a local park. Kris bet older boys $20 he could beat them on the basketball court. He’d have been in trouble if he’d lost because he had no money to pay them. Sometimes the boys would fight or hustle drug dealers for money. It was a dangerous and desperate life. Eventually their father tracked them down. By the time he did, John had been arrested. Their father went through court to have the boys released to his custody. Going to the apartment to pick up Kris, his father was shocked by the emaciated boy who answered the door. It took a long time, but eventually Kris began to learn to trust again. His father encouraged him in sports and Kris flourished. Today Dunn plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Basketball, Dunn says, saved his life… from a scrawny kid playing to earn money to eat to an NBA superstar, it transformed his life.
But what does it really mean to give our all; to offer up all that we have and all that we are?
This morning’s gospel tells the story of a woman who gave her all. Like Dunn during his childhood, she was in a destitute and vulnerable position. Yet still, she gave all she had to give.
The woman is a widow and she is among those passing through the outer court of the temple placing her donation into the treasury – trumpet shaped chests into which people deposited their coins in the same way we deposit our money in the offering plate now in days. Jesus was apparently positioned so as to have a kind of wide-angle view of this parade of giving. Mark tells us that there were many rich people who deposited large sums. No doubt the temple priests appreciated their contributions; after all, like our church today, they had expenses to cover. But, it is a poor widow who draws the attention and earns the praise of Jesus. She becomes the focus of a teachable moment as Jesus addresses his disciples. She, Jesus informs them, has made the largest contribution of all. Now, obviously, Jesus was not speaking in a strictly monetary sense. For the woman deposits only two small coins. For those of us who grew up hearing the King James Version of the bible, we know these coins as mites. Technically, they were lepton. Lepton happened to be the smallest currency in circulation at the time. So, we might liken them to today’s pennies. Although it’s impossible to determine exact equivalent, they would have likely been worth less than $2. But, Jesus' response was focused on more than strict economics and we know that by his next words. Jesus says that this woman's contribution has been the greatest of all because, while others contributed out of their surplus, she contributed out of her need. The amount that she gave was all that she had to live on. She has truly given her all. She has given the entirety of her resources.
Now it’s important for us to notice the context of this widow story. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem for what will be the last week of his life. According to Mark, only two days prior Jesus had aggressively driven out of the temple those who were exchanging money and selling animals for sacrifice. Jesus has some serious issues with the religious establishment and the religious leaders are furious. You’d think at this point Jesus would be trying to keep a low profile. But he doesn’t. He continues to return to the Temple, the focus of religious life, and his words pronounce judgment and destruction. Yet, in the midst of gloom and doom and judgment; in the shadow of the cross, there are two brief scenes in which Jesus focuses on praise, not judgment; on affirmation, not condemnation. Just a few verses before Jesus notices this widow, he had been approached by a scribe. Scribes represent the religious establishment. We expect this encounter will not end well. But we are in for a surprise. The man inquires of Jesus what commandment is most important. Jesus responds to him indicating that the most important commandment is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. Jesus continues, adding that love for neighbor is the second most important command. The scribe affirms Jesus’ reply, affirming the value of this love for God and neighbor that consumes all of our heart, all of our understanding and all of our strength. He concludes by saying that this love is far more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices. Jesus responds to the scribe saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” With that statement, we might note that the giving of one’s all out of love is of far greater significance than religious rituals.
That final statement that the widow gave "all that she had to live on" is the thread that connects these two brief stories: one about a scribe who is praised for understanding the significance of loving with one’s all and the other a story of a widow who is praised for giving her all. They are tied to one another by the use of that word “all.” So how do we please Jesus as the scribe and widow did? We do so by giving our all. If one desires to please God, it means one must be “all in.” That word "all" – which is the Greek word holos – is such a little word. But it expresses the concept of entirety, completeness, wholeness; a small word, but a big idea.
It was not the amount the woman gave that Jesus lauded and praised. It was, instead, the reality that Jesus knew to be true of her. Through her donation, she offered up all of herself, her very life. All that she had to give, she gave. And, in doing so, she demonstrated a love that encompassed all of her heart, all of her soul, all of her mind and all of her strength. What she gave demonstrated a love that was whole and complete.
Now, if you're a pragmatist, like me, you might wonder – if the woman gave everything she had to live on – what was going to happen when it came time for her next meal. Well, neither Jesus nor the gospel writer addresses that question. But, perhaps the very absence of the issue should cause us to reflect on how a love so complete and whole leads to a trust so deep, so all-consuming as to eradicate the need for such questions. It reminds me of Jesus’ teaching on the limitless character of sincere forgiveness. When we need to ask “how much,” if we need to ask about the limits, we have, it seems, missed the point. So, if we get bogged down in questions of this women’s next expense, we perhaps are missing the point. This is not a lesson in economics; it is a story about love and trust.
Let me say that again… because that's really the key to this story. A love such as this widow displayed, a love which is so encompassing, leads to a trust that is so deep that questions about our future security no longer consume us or hold us captive.
Now, let me say one more thing about that. This story is certainly not an indicator that Jesus is unconcerned with the plight of the poor. In fact, he is quite direct in pointing out that the scribes who have exploited these poor widows will receive punishment for it. He says so just one verse prior. God is most certainly concerned about the poor.
But, this widow is not praised because she is poor and needy. Neither is she condemned for it. Her poverty is simply a fact. It is a part of her identity, but it does not define who she is or how she’ll choose to live or love because, in the midst of her poverty, she has chosen to live in a way that bears witness to her trust in God; and to demonstrate her love for God and her neighbor by offering up her entire life – represented by a couple of coins. It is a paltry sum; but it represents an enormous and marvelous love. It represents her life. In fact, a more literal translation of that final phrase is “all her life”; the woman offered up all her life.
Friends, it takes trust to offer Jesus our all. We’re fearful that, if we give too much, we’ll run out. So we reluctantly love Jesus with a little, not too much, certainly not our all because it seems too risky. How will we ever get by with less?
This morning marks the conclusion of our annual Stewardship Campaign. This morning we prepare to turn in our commitment cards. Those cards provide an opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to the ministry of Trinity United Methodist Church. Those cards provide the opportunity for us to put down on paper what our monetary contribution will be toward the church's budget for 2017. But most of all, those cards – that commitment we make – is an opportunity to demonstrate our love for God and our trust in God. It is not so much about the amount we give as it is about what remains. This widow gave in a way that required her to place her trust in God. Friends, I will be perfectly blunt; if our giving does not reflect any level of risk on our part, it is not a demonstration of faith; it is not a demonstration of our trust in God; it is not a giving of our all. Through my entire life in the church, I never met anyone who has engaged in risky giving to God who regretted it. Not a one. On the contrary, every person I have ever encountered who grew their giving to a degree that required them to live from a place of trust saw their relationship with God grow exponentially through their risky giving. There are a variety of things we can do to grow our relationship with God; to grow toward loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. But few of them will lead to growth in that relationship as dramatically and powerfully as committing to take a risk with our generosity. That’s what love and trust are all about: true love is revealed when we risk our all for that one we love. So let us love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, all of our souls, all of our minds and all of our strength. Amen.
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