The Spirit of New Orleans
(The Widow’s Mite)
(Proper 27B, Mark 12.38-44)
November 12, 2006
Most of you know that a mission team from Grace Church spent last week in New Orleans. And it was an amazing adventure, to say the least. There were ten of us, and we went together with another 9-10 members of other Galveston convocation churches. Our work efforts were coordinated by the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, so after we got there, we met missioners from several other Episcopal churches from as far away as Brooklyn New York, Michigan and North Carolina. All of us were there to do what we could to help the people of New Orleans get back on their feet.
Our main work was to clean out houses. Houses that were still in terrible condition following hurricane Katrina.
Our other job was to listen. We were fresh ears to hear. Because everyone in New Orleans has a tragedy to tell about, there is nobody left to listen. It is just the same old story to all of them. But we had fresh ears. So we listened to their stories, and we were all greatly moved by what we saw and what we heard. You know, it was one thing to watch the drama of Katrina play out over a few weeks on CNN; but it is quite another thing to see the devastation first hand. And to listen to people talk about their narrow escapes; or about their loved ones that were lost; or how their former family units are now and fragmented and living in many different places.
But mostly we heard time and time again about the sadness of losing everything except the clothes they were wearing when they left. And we know it is true. Just imagine – Katrina was more than 14 months ago, and yet we went into houses that were virtually the same as they were left in the evacuation. And our first job was to throw it all away. To make a huge pile of debris out of furniture and belongings that were once an integral part of people’s lives. We called it gutting – a good word, because it felt like we were gutting more than the house.
The owners or their family members were often present; watching as we piled their former life up in a soggy, smelly stack of rubble. What a hard thing it must have been for them to watch! Yet, they couldn’t turn away either. And so we hauled out their possessions that had been accumulated over a lifetime and tore down their sheetrock walls, and ripped out their kitchen cabinets, while they stood and numbly by.
How could they not have wondered about the unfairness of it all?
How could they not have wondered where God was in all of that rubble – the rubble of their lives? Broken and heaped in a huge pile on the ground; just waiting to be picked up and hauled off to the dump.
In our Gospel reading this morning we meet another person for whom life has not been very fair. The widow has obviously lost her life companion and her provider; and now she must somehow get by, as one at the bottom of the social system. Like the people we met in New Orleans, I am sure that her status of poverty and destitution are not of her doing – not her fault. Yet that is what life has dealt her, so let’s see what we can learn from her story.
To set the stage, Jesus and his disciples have completed their journey to Jerusalem. And Jesus has gone into the Temple to teach. And while teaching, he has several encounters with the scribes and Pharisees, who try to trap him into a mistake for which they can have him arrested.
Those religious leaders are feeling increasingly threatened by Jesus’ presence and popularity, and they want to put a stop to him. So they ask a few questions, but Jesus as always, gives them good answers.
But more than that, he also makes them the object of his teaching. He uses them as examples of those who want to make their religion all about themselves. “Beware of the scribes,” Jesus warns. “For they like to walk about in their flowing robes, being sure to have their position and status noted by others.”
He is obviously angry with the scribes for both their pretentiousness and the fact that they care so little about the common people. They were actually just the administrators for priests and Pharisees; in other words, not all that important. But their office obviously afforded them some fringe benefits of stature and dress that they more than willingly took advantage of and gladly showed off.
And not only does Jesus’ criticize the pretentiousness of the Temple hierarchy, he says that they fail to carry out God’s commandments to love God and to love their neighbor. He accuses the scribes of being among those, “who devour widows' houses”.
And so that is a very important juxtaposition in this story – the proud and haughty members of the religious institution “who devour widows' houses” on one hand . . . and the very one being devoured on the other.
Over here are those on the inside of the Church (the scribes) who don’t really get it at all, (do they?) – because they use the Temple system for self glorification.
And on the other side, a Nobody (the widow) who is definitely on the outside of the system, but who gets it, because she seeks only to glorify God.
Therefore, Jesus is pointing to the widow as much because she is a victim of the corrupt Temple as he is because of her selfless giving.
In fact, I would say this story is probably more about Jesus’ dismay and disappointment for the institution of the Temple than it is about the widow’s mite. The picture of the extravagance of the Temple is clearly set against the faithful giving of the widow in a way that demands our attention be drawn to the distinction between the two.
And so the reaction that I have when I read this story of the widow’s mite, is not one of thinking how much the widow represents the level of giving that I wish that I could attain. Rather, I wonder if the widow should be contributing to this corrupt religious system at all?
After all, Jesus definitely opposes the misspending of the Temple’s money on flowing robes and other extravagances. Why would he encourage people to support an institution that he believes to be broken?
Interesting question, isn’t it? But it is actually rhetorical. Because the point of the story is not really about the widow’s money, is it? When Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to her, it is to point out the she is the only one in the scene who is truly acting in faith.
Because she is doing her best to serve God in the particular circumstance that she finds herself. There is no sign of bitterness about her. There is no gnashing of teeth about how unfair life is. There is no loud complaining about how her last pennies are being spent on fancy robes instead being used for a meaningful purpose like feeding the poor.
Instead she does what her faith in God calls her to do. With no expectation of reward OTHER THAN WHAT HER FAITH ITSELF PROMISES. And that is Christ-like behavior, isn’t it?
And that is also the essence of stewardship. Doing what our faith calls us to do with no promise of glory or recognition. Giving of ourselves to God and to others only for what our faith itself promises in return.
Each night after supper in New Orleans, we would all gather as a group – and we would have a time together to reflect on our day. A devotional time, or prayer service, or both. And one of our presentations was an excerpt from Max Lucado’s Inspirational Study Bible.
Lucado says this:
“The two great problems in serving others are both problems of human nature; of focusing on our relationship with people instead of our relationship with Christ. The first problem is that people will expect too much of you; and second is that you will expect too much of them.
Both of these, are problems of unrealistic expectations. Expectations must instead be focused on Christ, not on each other. Christ is the only one who will consistently not let us down. . . . ”
“Serving people for the sake of their gratitude is a guaranteed formula for disappointment. . . . . We do not serve men. We serve God.”
It was easy to be disappointed in New Orleans. It was easy to think that we were too few and too underpowered to actually do any real good. After a year and two months, the political machinery that should be helping people get their lives back together, is so hopelessly bound up with paper and bureaucrats, that relatively very little financial or physical assistance has been given out. The problems just seem too many and too complicated for there to be a workable solution. New Orleans has lost about half its population, and very many not planning to return. Yet, some are. The faithful remnant are coming back - determined to persevere.
And that is what will always come to my mind, when I think about our week in New Orleans. The thing that I will always remember is the spirit of the people.
A spirit that was so clearly evident, but that is hard to describe in words. But I assure you that we all felt that spirit of New Orleans and we will all always remember it. Because it was a spirit that comes not from focusing on man, but from focusing on God.
A spirit like the spirit of Janice, the lady who owned the house that we gutted on Friday. She brought us donuts in the morning and insisted on going and getting chicken for our lunch. While we were working, she sat on her driveway and went through box after soggy box of photos and files; sorting out the ones that she could keep.
She told me how she had bought a brand new bed, but they were stalling around and trying to postpone the delivery. So she called up the store and chewed them out good, and told them that she had to have it by the end of the week. The bed came late Friday, so she did not get it made up. Then she evacuated on Saturday. Of course when she finally could come back, that brand new, unused bed was ruined. But she laughed at herself; and said that God was trying to teach her to be more patient next time. At the end of our work day, she thanked us and wrote down our names and promised to keep in touch. I looked at the shirt that she was wearing – It had the same quote from Corinthians that we have on our Grace t-shirts. The one that says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Janice is coming back to her house – her faith is in God, not in man.
The spirit of New Orleans. Vic also had that spirit. We did not work on his house. He was a neighbor that came by, and after we talked awhile he took us to see the work that he was doing. Vic had gutted his own house and gotten up all of his hardwood floors. He was in the slow process of removing sheetrock. A lot of work to do by yourself, but his optimism was radiant. Because he had already been through the worst that life could offer. He left only after the flood waters were chest high in his street. Dragging a change of shirt, a bottle of water, and an apple in a plastic bag behind him, he swam and waded the couple of miles to the famous I-10 overpass that was on all the news reports. From there he hitchhiked to Baton Rogue, and finally to the Astrodome, and then the Convention Center in Houston. Twelve days before he got his first shower, Vic said. But he wasn’t mad. And he the most proud of the sign on the back window of his pick-up truck. It had a cross on the left side of it, with the words, “I survived Katrina” on the right. His faith is in God, not in man. The spirit of New Orleans.
Mark tells us that the widow put in everything that she had. In fact the Greek that is translated for us as “has put in all she had to live on” could also be easily translated as “her whole life.”
So in spite of the fact that the Temple was a broken system, she gave her all.
Her example (and Vic’s and Janice’s) tell us that we are not exempted from living out our faithful obligations just because the Church, or the political system, is less than perfect. We are not let off the hook because of the sins of the institution. The widow’s message, and the message of Janice and Vic and countless others who are determined to live in faith, is that we are also to be faithful witnesses of Christ’s love in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.
Even in its imperfection, the Church is the Body of Christ. Our Christian calling as members of that Body is to support it with our gifts of time, talent and treasure. And also to support and encourage each other in the Body.
And the Christian promise, or hope, is that when we do that, the Church will actually transcend our individual sinfulness or humanness. By being faithful members of the Church community, we support each other such that the work of the Body far exceeds what we could do as individuals.
I leave you with one image that stands out for me above all others. It is that picture I have of Jesus watching the widow. It is Jesus watching someone give all that she has for her faith, no matter how corrupt and sinful the agency of that faith may be. But no one notices . . . except Jesus does. Jesus watches her living out her faith in obscurity, not at all like the rich people who make a great show of their giving. She is completely anonymous, without identity both figuratively and literally in this story. We would have never heard her story, except that Jesus sees her as she essentially gives her life to the church, a corrupted system; because her faith in her Lord demands exactly that of her. And the ironic thing is that it will be just a matter of days before Jesus himself will give his life for a corrupted humankind.
That is the basis of our Christian faith. The promise of Jesus’ resurrection is God’s grace and forgiveness is freely available for each of us.
And just as Jesus saw the anonymous woman who was virtually invisible to others, so are we also seen and known. Each and every one of us – by our faith – as children of God. Amen.