Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for All Saints’ Sunday.
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “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.”
“I’m just paying bills until I die.”
That’s a direct quote from a conversation I had with a friend recently. It’s actually not an uncommon joke among my millennial peers; we’re just here to pay student loans until we die. But he wasn’t joking that day.
It was a bit of a bleak conversation, to be honest. My friend—I’ll call him Derrick—is a brilliant, gifted, funny person; but his economic reality is such that life consists of getting up, going to work, taking work home to finish at night, then going to bed. In his 20s, there was something thrilling about that hustle. But now, as we turn the page to our 30s, Derrick is starting to struggle with the meaninglessness of it all.
“I want to do something,” he told me. Something other than make money so I can give it to people who already have plenty.”
I do my best not to preach to my friends, but they all know I might preach from them. And man, does his lament preach.
I wasn’t thinking of the widow at the temple treasury when Derrick and I were talking, but I think they might understand each other. Our gospel doesn’t tell us why the widow decides to give everything she has to the temple. But I think she might have sympathized with Derrick’s desperation, his desire to do something that means something. She might not have a lot, but she can give it her all.
In fact, the Greek makes that very clear. Our NRSV translators tell us that “out of her poverty [the woman] has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” That phrase, though—all she had to live on—in Greek, that’s a simple noun. “Her life.” Her life. Out of her poverty, she gave everything she had: her whole life.
I want to be clear that this was her choice. In the Jewish system, the very poor were not required to tithe to the temple, or to give at all. And clearly there are wealthy donors a plenty to make sure the lamps are lit and the mortgage paid up—the woman could have closed her fist around her two coins and walked away again. But she didn’t. She made a choice to give her life—her whole life—to a sacred place, a sacred community, a place where she had value.
I was delighted this week by a comment by Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar of New Testament, who reminded a lecture hall that, as a Gentile, Pontius Pilate would not have been allowed in this part of the temple. This woman gets to walk where the emperor’s pawn is forbidden. Here in the temple, if nowhere else, her gifts—her life—are glorious.
The Sunday after my phone call with Derrick, I was teaching confirmation to our fabulous group of young people. They’re just starting out their lives, with a thousand possibilities in front of them. Our lesson that day was on being a disciple of Jesus, of choosing to follow Jesus.
“You’ll have to give your life to something.” I thought about what Derrick had said, about the emptiness of his days. “You can spend your life paying bills and loans. You can spend your life filling a bank account. You can spend a life entertaining yourself, or reaching for other people’s approval. You can spend a life just passing time. But whether you choose actively or passively, you have to give your life to something. I hope you’ll decide to choose—to choose with intention and integrity and gusto—to give it to Jesus.”
I should probably have shut up then. I thought it was a rather rousing call to discipleship, if I do say so myself. But I have made a covenant to be exceedingly honest with these young people, so I swallowed and I went on.
“I can’t promise you that giving your life to Jesus will get you anything. I can’t promise you that following Jesus will make you happy, or feel fulfilled, or get you some eternal reward. I can’t even give you undeniable, evidentiary proof that God or Jesus or religion or any of this is real. All I can tell you is that you have to give your life to something. And if I find out that I wasted my life learning to love, and to serve, and to hope, and to have faith, then I can’t think of a better waste of a life.”
In purely financial terms, the woman’s gift was a waste. It was of almost no practical, fiduciary use to the temple; it did not get her name on a plaque anywhere; and in fact, the temple itself would be destroyed within a few decades. Everyone’s gifts, rich or poor, were, in the most literal sense, wasted. They all gave to something that crumbled to dust.
But I don’t think any of them regretted it. They all knew—knew as surely as we do—that everything has an end. The goal is not always to make things that live forever. The goal is to do what makes ourselves fully alive now. And the widow’s gift sang out that she was fully alive—able to give, able to serve, able to love. She was nobody’s victim, nobody’s stereotype, nobody’s object of pity. She was a giver.
What makes your heart sing? I wish I could have asked Derrick that question, but we don’t have that kind of friendship. But I think it might have helped him to think about it. Like so many people, he is struggling, I think, with silence—that despite how busy he is, how overworked—there is nothing but silence when he asks why he’s really here, on this earth. So the next time we talk, I want to ask him: what makes your heart sing? Who are you supposed to be? What are you supposed to do with, as Mary Oliver put it, your one wild and precious life?
Through the rest of the year, our worship is going to be guided by a series created by the Barn Geese Worship community called “My Heart Shall Sing.” I was drawn to it because I think so many of us are struggling with this question, after 18 months of pandemic exhaustion, and often years of hustle and bustle without ever pausing to ask: what makes our heart sing? Where is our joy?
Today we celebrate All Saints Day. In the book of Revelation, the saints sing. The book is practically a musical. The saints, who have seen temples crumble and nations fall, dreams fade and relationships end, celebrate their new beginning in God’s nearest presence with singing.
To me, these are the saints: people who begin to sing long before they can be sure how the song will end. People who sing with love, and joy, and freedom, and gratitude, and courage; people who sing at full volume; people who sing their hearts out for God their whole lives long.
The widow sang. I imagine I can hear those two coins hitting the bottom of the temple treasury, two clear bold notes of hope and generosity and joy. And for that, I count her amongst the long line of saints, ordinary folks who have given their lives—their whole lives—to singing the song of God.
We have to give our life to something. Do we have the strength to give it to God? And do we have the joy to go to the end singing?
May it be so.