Sermon

Acts 4:32-35; Mark 12:41-44

Rev. Dr. Heather G. Shortlidge

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Nearly 50 years ago,
First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC
had an interesting problem, as far as church problems go.
Beneath the sanctuary, tucked away in the basement,
were 15 pianos—
instruments that were hardly ever touched.

That same year,
a federal judge had recently ruled that public schools in Charlotte
were illegally segregated—
that black kids were getting the short end of the stick.

It was also the same year
First Presbyterian Church’s music director,
a white guy by the name of Henry Bridges,
began noticing some of these black children,
living in the neighborhood around the church
and in need of something to do.

So Henry Bridges did what no one else had dared yet do—
he invited these poor neighborhood children inside the church
and began to teach them how to play the piano.

And so began the Community School of the Arts—
a school in which children from the Charlotte community
were taught five days a week in piano, choir, and music theory.
Mr. Bridges recruited four of the best piano teachers in the city.
And all of it was free.

Mr. Bridges served as the Executive Director of the school for twelve years.
And when he retired, he hauled his own personal piano
over to the Piedmont Courts public housing project
and became a full-time — but still free —
piano teacher there for another 10 years.[1]

Mr. Bridges noticed the kids in his neighborhood,
kids who no one else was paying attention to,
and then he poured his life, his whole life,
into giving them the gift of music.

Jesus is in the business of noticing,
especially in today’s story from the Gospel Mark.
He’s hanging out near the Treasury,
keeping tabs on the offering plates,
noticing quite a difference in giving patterns.

It’s an important enough observation
that Jesus calls the disciples together for a discussion.
When they’ve gathered around, he points out
that the widow had given everything that she had,
even what she needed to live on,
and the the well-off—
they were just giving from their spare change.

I wish we knew that widow’s name—
a woman living on the margins, 
without a safety net,
or a husband to advocate for her,
no pension to live on—
with just a penny in her pocket.

This story usually shows up in the lectionary—
that 3 year cycle of Bible stories that many preachers use—
it usually shows up in the fall,
right in time for stewardship season.

And the standard, long held interpretation of this story
is that Jesus lifts up this widow as someone to emulate,
that he is pleased by the widow giving everything she has
and that the disciples are to go and do the same.
Anyone heard a sermon along those lines before?

But some people have taken issue with this interpretation,
arguing that perhaps Jesus wasn’t applauding the widow’s giving,
but rather he was lamenting it.

Peeling back the layers of interpretation heaped upon this story,
not once does it mention Jesus giving the widow a high five.
Instead, Mark’s gospel says he observed.
And then asked his disciples to also observe.

I’m inclined to support this interpretation of the story.
especially after reading what comes right before this little scene
of Jesus keeping tabs on the offering plates.
Immediately before this story,
Jesus skewers the religious leaders
who take advantage of widow’s inheritances
and exploit the weak and helpless.

He tells his disciples:
Watch out for these leaders.
They love to walk around in long gowns,
sitting at the head table,
offering convoluted prayers just to impress others;
devouring widow’s houses.

He’s calling out the Temple
and naming systemic corruption within it.
He’s not at all happy
about how things are being run.

Hearing his indictment upon the religious system,
it’s hard for me to stomach an interpretation of this story
in which Jesus would be praising this kind of sacrifice—
this kind of abuse—
that results in a poor widow giving all that she has
so that leaders can continue to live lives of wealth and comfort.

It’s hard for me to imagine Jesus celebrating a poor woman
who gives her very last two coins
to an institution that is not serving her
so that she can slink off and die,
for surely she dies after this story—
there’s nothing left for her to live on.

It seems to me that Jesus isn’t happy about this widow.
Instead, he’s torn up by the whole system
that encourages the most vulnerable to give the most.

It’s what we do these days, though, right?
We ask those with the least to give up the most.
It’s how the system is so often rigged.

Educators in Oklahoma have been protesting at the State Capital this week,
taking a play from their colleagues in Kentucky.
In the State of Oklahoma, 20% of public schools
have been forced to switch to a four-day-week schedule
because they don’t have enough funding to be open for five days a week.
Teacher salaries are ranked 49th in the nation
and they haven’t gotten a raise in ten years.
So often, we ask those with the least to give up the most.

I recently read that a young mother prayed
about when to leave her abusive husband,
asking for the Holy Spirit to show her, a 23 year old woman,
the right time to leave this abusive relationship.
But here’s the thing—
we should not have to rely on supernatural acts of God to keep women safe!
Rather than blaming victims,
we need to demand that men stop being violent.
And it is not enough to simply teach women how not to attract violent men.
We must teach young men how not to be violent partners.

So often, we ask those with the least to give up the most.

On Easter Sunday, a caravan of mostly Honduran migrants
traveled through Mexico headed to the U.S. border.
It’s something of a herd approach to safety —
traveling in large numbers makes it harder
for criminal predators to act.
It’s actually an annual caravan conceived by organizers called,
Pueblo sin Fronteras (People Without Borders).
They do it in order to draw attention
to the plight of people fleeing violence
in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
I don’t think Jesus would have asked his disciples to start building a wall.
Instead, he would have been smack dab in the middle of this procession.

So often, we ask those with the least to give up the most.

In 2013, the median net wealth for white families was over $141,000.
For black families, it was $11,000.
According to the Institute for Policy Studies,
it would take black people 228 years to catch up
to the amount of net wealth that white people currently possess.
These days, there is a lot of white fear that people of color
are taking over the country—
and yet from an economic standpoint, we’ve made that practically impossible.[2]
I have an African American colleague
who declared he was done talking to white people about racial reconciliation
unless the conversation included talk of reparations.
At the time, I didn’t understand him,
but I’m starting to.

Jesus was keenly sensitive to institutions and those in power
abusing those with lesser or no power;
allowing others to sacrifice
so that they could continue on with business as usual.

I don’t think this story is about Jesus praising the widow.
I think it’s a story about Jesus being deeply unhappy
about systems that take advantage of the widows of this world.

After Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, 50 years ago this week,
Robert Kennedy visited the rural community of Roseburg, Oregon,
to pitch a gun-reform bill.
America’s prophet had been gunned down on a hotel balcony,
so what better time to talk about guns
and to try and make them harder to get.

But Senator Kennedy was not warmly received in Oregon.
Instead, he was greeted with boos and picket signs that said:
“Protect your rights to keep and bear arms.”

Given the state’s history—
a history I had never learned before this week—
Oregon’s opposition was not all that surprising.

For the state of Oregon was founded as a white utopia.
Granted statehood in 1859,
Oregon “was the only state in the Union admitted
with a constitution that explicitly forbade blacks
from living, working, or owning property there.“
And up until 1926,
it was illegal for black people to even move to the state of Oregon.[3]

That day at the treasury,
Jesus was telling his disciples
the system is corrupt and broken,
and so is any system
that takes advantage of the widows of this world.

It’s pretty remarkable that anyone even notices her—
this poor widow who puts in her two copper coins,
the last bit that she has to live on.

But Jesus does.
He took a look around the treasury
and said something needs to change here—
we cannot keep asking those with the least to give up the most.

Just like Henry Bridges, the white music director,
who took a look around his neighborhood
and knew exactly how he could use those 15 basement pianos.