First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

Taking Care (Ruth 4:13-17; Ephesians 4:11-16; Mark 12:38-44)

Well, they are playing Christmas music (or really, “holiday-ish music”) at the mall where we walk most every day. I block this out as much as I can. They did wait until the day after Halloween this year to start us on the annual binge to Bethlehem. It’s quite telling that our culture – at least the commercial part of it has eliminated Thanksgiving altogether from the calendar, it seems. Each year I like to stop and savour the whole flavour of being thankful before going forward into Advent and Christmas. There’s an old German hymn, not in our current hymnal, but which many of us know:

We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered God’s almighty hand.
God sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.

And the refrain is:

All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,
We thank you Lord, O thank you Lord, for all your love.

The thought of thanksgiving leads me to think of stewardship. Most of us don’t think of Thanksgiving and Stewardship as related, because we are so driven by numbers and finances now. Of course most of us think of stewardship as inextricably linked to finances. And there’s something to that in our church life. Shortly, we’ll put Pledge Cards in the bulletin, Mark talked about stewardship in the service today, David will next week. It’s kind of a normal routine. And we know it’s linked to the budget, and that’s important. Without it we can’t function. All of us know that, and careful planning will be necessary for 2019 no doubt, as it has been most years since 1852 when this church began. But we get things in the wrong order when we talk about finances first. In the Old World, the steward was the one put in charge of running an estate or household. Stewardship really amounts to finding creative ways to take care of and nurture our common life, including, but not limited to, or even primarily, our physical resources. It’s about sharing our gifts and our giftedness as people more than anything. And being grateful.

And that thought leads me to the Epistle Lesson. The passage from Ephesians 4 states several principles. First, that we’re given all we have by God in Christ (also the point of the hymn text with which I started). Next, these gifts are not, primarily, material, but gifts of people who build us up and make us better by making us like Jesus. Next, we are most like him when we are united, in our diversity, to other folks, both inside and outside this congregation, not divided by controversy from them. As the Ephesians text itself says, we are most like Christ when we “speak the truth in love.”

Some lines from another great Epistle, 1 John 4, that we also cited last week, say:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them…There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:16b, 18a,19a).

To say this in a slightly different way: the very best gifts we have from God are the people we are with, who build us up to maturity in Christ. Maturity in Christ means loving, taking care of, and nurturing these people with the same love we’ve experienced by being loved by God. Such love makes it possible to live without fear in a world that exists and prospers by instilling fear in people (as we saw all through the run up to the recent elections). These principles from Ephesians and 1 John give us a way to reflect on our other two Scripture Lessons today, both of which speak as stories to illustrate how it is to take care of and nurture the gifts God has given us in one another.

We didn’t have time to read the whole story of Ruth, and the passage we did read is the part that says “they lived happily ever after.” It’s also the part that tells us that the great Israelite hero and king, David, was descended from an outsider, the Moabite Ruth, so that, according to this gentle little tale, Israel’s story, in part, is about the contributions of outsiders (such as Abraham was as well).

For both Jews and Christians, David descended from an outsider, is the ancestor of the Messiah. His town (Bethlehem) is not only the town where Naomi started, and where she and Ruth end up, but also the town of Messiah. Very soon now we’ll be singing

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark street shineth the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The story of Ruth began in those dark streets of Bethlehem where famine had darkened the whole area around that little town, and eventually, that led a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion to become migrants to the country of Moab which is, mostly, east across the Dead Sea from Bethlehem and Judah. After they moved, Elimelech died and left his wife to raise two sons. Eventually the two sons took Moabite wives named Orpah and Ruth. But then Mahlon and Chilion died and left two more widows.

In that ancient world, without the support of those who were allowed to have a public role in society (that meant men), three widows were in a good deal of danger. Naomi, who is really the star of this short story, decided to act as she could. She would go back to her home in Bethlehem where she did have kin who could speak. The Hebrew word for “widow” comes from the root “to be silent,” for widows especially and women generally had no public role (their power was in private in the home). Women who were alone had to depend upon their families to speak for them, and if men of the families were gone, all women, but especially widows were vulnerable, especially if they were non-Israelite (“undocumented”) like Ruth. Although both the Hebrew Torah and the Prophets had quite a bit to say about the responsibility of God’s people to take care of these, it was quite often easier to ignore the words of the scripture than to do what they say when it rubs our bigotry the wrong way. So it was easy to let them fall in the cracks. As it still is. In fact both the Torah and the Prophets widen the social safety-net out to include not only widows, but orphans and strangers, all without a voice in that society. One of the features of Israel’s ancient social safety net was a legal fiction that a surviving unmarried brother had the duty to marry his deceased brother’s wife. Any heir that would be born to the two would, then, be considered the heir of the dead brother. Failing that any near kinsman would do. Now that’s a little complicated, but it’s part of the story of Ruth.

Naomi and Ruth worked to make that so called legal fiction (found in Deuteronomy 25) happen and find a near kinsman to marry Ruth and take care of not only the memory and property of her dead husband, but also the memory of her dead husband’s father (Naomi’s husband Elimelech, also deceased). The kinsman’s name was Boaz and he and Ruth hit it off and, “…all lived happily ever after” and Ruth was the ancestor of David. It’s really a wonderful story, but it wouldn’t have been had it not been that Naomi and Ruth were determined to take care of one another. They didn’t just sit back and wait. They didn’t even just pray about it. The greatness of the story is how reserved the narrator is in describing all this, so that we can choose to believe that things simply worked out, or that God had a plan, or that Naomi had one. I think it’s a combination of all three. This little story is also an example of the way God works through people taking care of one another. It’s also the way God usually works in the life of a community. Later, it may be quite clear that God was at work, taking care all the time, but, if we’re honest, it was through the gifts and abilities of people who gave themselves to caring for others for the good of the community; who took care of these human “gifts” they’d been given. The power at work in this story is the gentle power of human ingenuity working in tandem with the grace and love of God.

The Gospel lesson is in two parts. In the first, Jesus, through Mark, warns against those who see positions of power in church, as an opportunity to run things, more than to nurture the giftedness in a community. More bluntly, these folk see their position and their power as an opportunity to “devour widows’ houses” – in other words, to decimate, for their own advancement, those who cannot resist their power. The words used by the Greek text suggest that they use piety and long prayers to cover up (or even facilitate) this extortion. God’s judgment on these is severe. And I believe it still is, though I don’t know how that plays out. By Mark’s time and in his locale, the Jewish scribes derided by Jesus were irrelevant. Mark was talking about leaders in the congregations he knew who were like these. And we’ve never outgrown such evil leaders who devour the vulnerable, witness the awful sex abuse charges in the Roman Catholic Church now, as well as some other ministers who do things like persuade poor members to buy them a new car annually. That’s paragraph one.

Paragraph two is about the “poor widow.” It’s the one with which we’re more familiar, and we think we know what it’s about. It’s about the simple lesson that small gifts from small people are important, and so they are! We cannot quantify gifts by the numbers. God honours these gifts without doubt. I do want to say that Jesus does not say that large gifts are bad or from bad motive, but simply not to judge by outer appearance.

Another possible meaning here is not so commonly taught or thought about. This one connects paragraph two back to paragraph two, and sees the gifts as being the result of this desire of bad leadership to “devour” peoples’ substance. Are the two small coins of the widow (as well as the large gifts of the others) the result of a scam of leaders who pressure people to give so that the leader can benefit? So is the second paragraph an illustration or example of the first? The widow’s gift was two, literally lepta.. A lepton was the smallest coin in use, worth about 1/128th of a denarius, which was a worker’s daily wage. If a workday was 12 hours long (which it easily could have been), the widow’s gift would get you just over 10 minutes. Not much. If there’s truth in this approach, Mark is warning against leaders (such as the one named in paragraph one) would even rob her of these. It says to those of us who would be stewards who take care of gifts, we must ever be on our guard against using spirituality as an excuse to manipulate people and their gifts in the name of God or Jesus. It is not only to do with money, but with peoples’ personalities and spiritual well-being. Those who give more should never have a bigger say in the church than those who don’t. That’s just wrong. Although this is not a commonly taught lesson here, it is an important, if sometimes unwelcome one.

Last, really the simplest thing that paragraph two teaches is that the “poor widow’s” gift was the most costly of all, because it was all she had to live on. This is important in our common life, we can none of us know what is costly to another. This is all about the sacrifice of giving. We should be willing to see the goodness of God in the small things as well as the great.
Of course, as a small congregation, we need to trust ourselves to the quiet working of God, while, as dedicated stewards, nurturers of the giftedness of our congregation, we go about our work in the world. The power of this congregation is God’s not ours. Miraculous things can really happen when we share the little gifts we have, which are at the same time the costly ones, because we can. The attitude of the generous heart that cannot but give for others is mighty and unstoppable, and reflective of the love of God’s own gift in Christ. I think Maxine will want to take this point farther next week. These are lessons that encourage us to continue to nurture one another, the gifts that God has given into our hands in this place.

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.