One of my favorite past times is people watching. This is quite fun and can be done just about anywhere. Parks, airports, museums, restaurants, wherever. It requires no equipment and can be rather entertaining and educational. The important first step for successful people watching is having a place to sit down with a decent view. After that it’s simple – just watch and see what you see. Depending on what’s going on in my life, different people catch my attention. I always think it’s funny to watch people who are in a hurry, especially when they’re trying to multi-task with talking on the cell phone while speed walking while looking at their watch while trying to avoid everyone who is in their way. It makes me wonder if that person is really important, or if they’re just habitually late, or if they’re just habitually busy and if so if they wish they could slow down. I like to watch how people interact with their environment. Are they engrossed in reading the newspaper? Are they in an engaging conversation with someone beside them? Are they looking around at their surroundings? Occasionally, in looking around an area for a while I make eye contact for a second or third time with the same person who is sitting across the way, and I realize that they are people watching too. Even watching people watch people can be interesting, it just gets a little uncomfortable if you’re watching each other at the same time. More recently I’ve been paying closer attention to parents. How do they interact with their kids? How are the kids responding to them? How are the parents relating to each other as they go along? Everyone should take time to people watch every once in a while.
In Mark 12:41 it says “Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.” This would be the treasury in the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus had been in the temple for several days now. After some intense conversations with the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, what better way to clear your mind than kicking back for some good ole’ people watching in the temple. Mark goes on to describe what Jesus observed. “Many rich people came and put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” Hmmm. One of the lessons of people watching is that there are many ways of describing people. People are tall, short, old, young, hyper, calm, etc. The gospels are very conscious of people’s class and power status. Jesus sees “rich people” and he sees “poor widow.” And it is the poor widow who stands out to him. She is the one out of this whole crowd who catches his attention. “Then Jesus 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.’”
We often read this as if Jesus is praising the widow. She is righteous in her utter devotion to God and Jesus is pointing her out as a positive example to his disciples. Now, this is quite possible, and quite within the norms of people watching. It is good to watch people to look for ones that display some trait you would like to imitate. This is certainly part of what is going on here. But I believe there is much more going on. If we are to take the rest of Mark’s gospel into account and the statements immediately preceding this incident, the tone in Jesus’ voice here is much more that of lament. The very sentence before this instance Jesus has been talking to his disciples warning them against the scribes who are consumed with honor and social power. V. 40 “They devour widows houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Jesus is most likely referring to widows having their properties and possessions confiscated by the religious leaders, who would claim it as a gift to God and God’s temple, which they, of course, would use for their own gain. After their husbands died widows were among the most economically vulnerable people of society, especially if they had no man close of kin to be their guardian. The people who held the power over the economic sacrificial system, which was all one system known as the temple, pounced on those with little power in order to gain all that much more power for themselves. Jesus uses the harsh language “devour,” like predatory creatures tearing apart their prey.
Only days before Jesus had entered this very temple and called it a den of robbers, symbolically stopping the flow of commerce for a short time to demonstrate that he was putting the system on alert that it’s time was drawing to a close. In the very next setting after this story with the widow Jesus’ disciples are marveling at the larger than life size and beauty of the temple. Jesus replies that the whole temple will soon be thrown down. That political/economic/religious system was on its way out and a new system was on its way in, a new community that welcomes those with little power. The kind of community that we begin to see described in the book of Acts.
Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil once said, “I gave bread to the poor and they called me a saint. I asked why the poor had no bread and they called me a communist.”
Jesus has the courage to ask why this woman is poor, and his answer is essentially she has been taken under in an unjust system. And then the woman is still under the sway of the system as the supposed gateway to God. She is still expected to give to the temple treasury to remain in good standing before God.
Hear the words of Jesus now as a lament: “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.”
What kind of window into mission does this story give us? Put another way, how does people watching with Jesus help us see deeply into the world, and how does this way of seeing affect how we act? Jesus teaches us where to look and he teaches us how to look, and then what to do with what we see. When we sit with Jesus we are taught to notice those with little power. The Scriptures repeat this time and time again to the point of being redundant. Pay attention to the poor, the weak, the hurting. And then instead of becoming sentimental about the virtues of the poor, we are taught to look beyond the individual to the structures and systems that that person is a part of. We lament the failings of these systems and we work to make them right. And we welcome this person into the structure that the church is working to become.
There is another widow who gives us another important window into mission, the widow of Zarephath that Elijah met. Just in case we would ever begin to believe that mission is about us helping them, this story sets up straight. Here it is Elijah, the great prophet of God, hungry and thirsty, seeking food from a poor widow. The poor widow believes she has nothing to offer him, she doesn’t even have anything to offer herself or her son. It is, after all, a famine. She is preparing for a Last Supper of sorts, and says to Elijah, “I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” What an awful situation. No bread for guests, no bread for yourself, and no bread for your own child. The twist to this story is a twist that opens up a new world of possibilities. Elijah decides to cast his lot with the widow. They will share in the same fate. And he believes that if she will give what she has, there will be enough for now and there will continue to be enough. Notice how completely different this is than Elijah saying that he is going to help the woman and her child get the food that she needs — Elijah the missionary coming to feed the poor. This is Elijah the poor coming to be fed by this missionary and her son and the missionary and her son learning that they have an abundance of wealth they never knew they had. This was a foreign land for Elijah. Zarephath was not in Israel. He was wondering onto to someone else’s turf, fully recognizing the he was the one who needed to receive. And there is some kind of thing from God that happens in the middle of all this so that everyone is given what they need. “The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil run out.”
This is the lesson of every person doing what is often called short term missions. You receive so much more than you give. Several of you have told me about your experiences along these lines with voluntary service and other service opportunities. We fool ourselves if we think we are the Messiahs coming to save the world. We learn that we are just as much in need of saving as anyone.
And for long term missions, as in ministering in the community where we live and work and where this church building is located, it’s about forming relationships where we all learn to receive from each other. If we aren’t allowing ourselves to receive in mission, the jar of meal will run out. We will get burned out from giving and giving, not realizing there is a whole flow of giving and receiving there for us. The idea is that we have to come to terms with being just as poor as anyone we are trying to serve. We are poor in joy, poor in community, starving for meaning and connectedness.
Folks who study congregations and make charts and diagrams and all that good stuff about what church should be all about often say that the church is really about three things. Worship, Community, Mission. We honor God, we nurture and teach each other, and we reach out and share our faith. This makes mission 1/3 of what the church is all about. We are, by definition of what Jesus has established us to be, to have a good portion of our energy be outward focused.
And I’m thinking these widows might help point the way for us. Mission is often mistaken as simply charity, giving some things to people who need help. The first widow shows us that people are often caught in unjust systems that keep them in a never ending cycle of poverty and powerlessness. Mission is often mistaken as a one way street, the haves helping the have nots. The second widow and Elijah show us that when each is giving what they have to offer, God blesses the relationship and allows for the flow back and forth to fulfill everyone. Both widows have something to give us, and we have something to give both widows.
The sermon illustrations are coming from you all this morning. There are a number of ways you all work at mission. And we have asked several of you involved in leading these works to share briefly about what you are doing. We want this to be a time of really claiming all of these ministries as a part of the life of all of us at CMF. What we will do is have someone speak about what they are involved with and after each time we will speak this refrain printed in your bulletins. “We are Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, and we are committed to God’s mission in the world.” After all five people have spoken I will close with a prayer of blessing.
We are Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, and we are committed to God’s mission in the world.
Please stand and receive this prayer of blessing:
We bless all the ministries of this congregation and give thanks for the good work that they have done. We give thanks for all of the time and energy, creativity and prayer that have gone into these works. We are thankful for the lives that have been touched and changed – for the ways those with little power are being offered more power, for the ways systems are being challenged to be more just. Loving God, continue to provide strength and vision for those who are in leadership in these ministries. We pray for an outbreak of compassion and an epidemic of love to sweep across us as we look for ways to increase our witness to your reign of peace. All these things we pray in the name and spirit of our elder brother Jesus Christ, who taught us how to see and how to love, AMEN.
Remain standing for Sing the Journey #61 How can we be silent