Texts: Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
In the context of the gospel in which the story is set, it seems that Jesus is not praising the widow so much as he is lamenting how much she has been forced to give up—and how ultimately futile her sacrifice is. She was forced to surrender everything—far more than the rich donors who gave from their abundance—to pay for a doomed temple that really didn’t need her two pennies to begin with.
I read recently* about First United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. In the early 1980s, First—the oldest Protestant congregation in the city—sold its building and used the proceeds to support affordable housing units, create an endowed chair at a seminary and launch a foundation focused on helping first-generation Hispanic students gain access to college. The only piece of property they now own is a parking lot, which generates revenue that continues to support the ministries of the congregation.
This congregation decided that rather than asking people to preserve a building in which a dwindling number of worshipers might continue to gather, the best way they could use their gifts was to give up their building entirely and focus their finances, their time and their energy on serving the people around them. In their context, this move—while difficult—made sense. A big, historic building and a long heritage cannot provide people with housing or education. After hearing Jesus invite us to take up our crosses and follow, after hearing him tell the rich young man to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor, and after this story about the temple today, it’s not hard to see why they chose to follow Jesus in this way.
We may even decide we should take the same approach. In these days, the Church is shrinking throughout the country. More congregations are saddled with buildings too large for them, with mortgages and expenses that hinder them from living out their calling. Maybe the people of First UMC saw the writing on the wall and made the wiser choice. Are supporting building and staff really the best uses of the gifts we ask from our members? Or have we become just another generation of scribes?
The story of First UMC reminds us that we do not need a building or staff or any of the trappings we have to be the Body of Christ. We could lose all these things and still be the people that Christ has claimed and adopted through baptism to be the bearers of the gospel in the world. And yet, our call as Jesus’ Church is not just to let go of everything for the sake of letting go. The author of the sermon to the Hebrews reminds us that Christ calls us to support one another, to encourage one another, to provoke each other to love and good deeds. In order to do any of that, we must do it together. Our first call is to community—not just for our sake, but for the sake of God’s kingdom. Christianity is a team sport; it can’t be played solo.
The people of First UMC discerned that the best way they could live out their calling was to sell their possessions and use the proceeds to serve their neighborhood. After doing so, they continued to meet together in the multipurpose room of a senior living center they helped build. Soon, they hope to build an affordable housing community on the site of the parking lot, which would include a space for the community to worship. Even with their historic building gone, they are not neglecting to meet together.
Around the time First United Methodist decided to sell their building, Agnus Dei Lutheran decided to build one. The people of this congregation decided that the best way to support our weekly gathering was to provide a permanent space to meet. A building was a big cost, but one that people shared because they believed it would strengthen us and our ministry and, through us, our wider community; and it has. When we decided to add on to this building almost 10 years ago, it was so that we might use it to even more effectively serve our neighbors with a space to have fellowship and room for our preschool to expand. We continue to shoulder the weight of that addition not because we worship this building or what it does for us, but because we believe in the work that it enables us to do for others in God’s name.
This building will one day crumble, as all buildings will. This congregation will someday die, as all congregations eventually do. It may even come to pass that one day the Lutheran denomination itself will die out like the Shakers. If we exist only to serve these things, then we may as well be throwing our tithes into the Puget Sound for all the good they will do, because, as Jesus says, “Not one stone will be left here upon another.”
But we are Christians; death does not scare us because we know that death is the necessary precondition for resurrection. When the Romans did destroy the temple, the Jewish community was devastated by that loss, but it was not destroyed. They endured the temple’s destruction, though they were changed. The chaos and pain of that event did, in fact, prove to be the birthpangs of modern Judaism. Although the grief of that loss is still felt, they have been reborn from it.
We are not here to support a building or a denomination or even ourselves as a congregation; we are here because Christ has called us. Congregations and denominations will die, and churches will crumble; but in Christ, we trust that whatever may lie ahead for us, God remains faithful. God’s promise to the Jews has never faltered, and God’s promise to us never will, either.
People supported the temple because God commanded them to. In return, the temple system provided a service for them as priests made sacrifices on their behalf for the forgiveness of sins. Mark is critical of the temple system because the people in power—the scribes and priests—took advantage of that system to the detriment of people like the widow Jesus saw.
Now, with Jesus having reconciled us to God once and for all, there is no need for a temple and priests to sacrifice on our behalf. Instead, we are called to gather—not to support a temple—but to encourage one another in discipleship. Our gifts are how we share in the work that this community does. As we discern together what God is calling us to, we each do our part to support that work with time, energy and wealth.
The fruits of that labor are evident. As I look at this congregation, I see people blessed by the community we encounter here, a community that lives out the gospel by caring for one another. I see a congregation that encourages people to grow in faith; that celebrates the gifts of intellect and artistry and compassion that God has given each of us; a congregation that nurtures those gifts. I see a congregation that sends people out prepared to lead lives of Christian service, blessing them to be a blessing to others around them. When I see the growing budget of this institution, I see the growth of what God is able to do through this community, and I am excited to contribute my self, my time, and my possessions to what God is continuing to do here.
I feel blessed to be a part of this community and what it is doing, and I know many of you feel the same. This congregation is so special because of the unique gifts offered by the unique people gathered here. Jesus is here in, with and under this collection of people; and his presence here is evident in the generosity and willingness of these people to jump in and serve one another and our neighbors beyond this congregation however we can.
Unlike the widow, who was compelled to give everything she had, we give joyfully because we are excited about what God is doing here among and through us. Even as threats and challenges loom, we face them with confidence knowing that the God who calls us is faithful and will never abandon us.
Today at the annual meeting, we realize that our budget is going to be a stretch for next year; and you know what? I see that as a fantastic opportunity to expand the ministry this congregation is already doing here. I am eager to meet that challenge because it means that we will find new and inspiring ways to live out the love of God in this community.