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Sermon: Everything

November 6, 2009

Mark 12:38-44

The cold always crept in before the light of the dawn.  It was the cold that awoke the woman each morning.  She never bothered to wrap her thin blanket more tightly around herself, but rose off her mat and went straight to her prayers.

She didn’t have a prayer closet because her entire house was little more than a closet.  In fact, it wasn’t really fair to call it a house.  It was more like a “lean to” propped up against the wall of the marketplace.  She kept her mat, her blanket, a little bit of firewood, a jar for her water and a small cooking pot in her little home.  And so when she turned to her morning prayers, the woman simply sat cross-legged on her mat and began to speak to the Almighty.

“Thank you, Lord, for bringing me through the night.  I ask for your blessing for this day.  Have mercy on me.”

That was how she always began her morning prayers.  Then, she got specific.

“Lord, ease my suffering.  You know that I am faithful to you and keep your commandments.  Remember your lowly servant.  Please take my shame and suffering from me.

“Every day I am hungry.  Every day I am tired.  Every day I must beg.  You have given me no children and taken my husband from me.  Why do you not see my struggles?  Please show your lovingkindness to me and rescue me from my poverty.”

Each morning, her prayer began like this, and as she prayed aloud, her polite words became filled with anger and frustration, bitterness and sorrow.  She cried out to God louder and louder for relief, and before long, the people living in shelters around her were awakened from their fitful sleep.  They grumbled against this woman who always prayed so loudly, and they began their days, too.

When the widow finished praying, she sometimes felt better, sometimes felt as if her cries had made it all the way to the throne of heaven.  But most days—and today was one of those days—she felt empty, as if her words just went out into the air and dissipated, like the smoke from a cooking fire, unheard by God.

After her prayer, she turned to her meal.  She put a little water in her pot with some coarse meal and a pinch of salt.  Her gruel heated quickly, and the woman’s mouth watered as it steamed, partly in anticipation of a treat.  Today was the Sabbath, and the woman had set aside a dried fig just for today.  She had tucked it beneath her mat and each night for the last several days, she checked on it just to be sure it hadn’t been stolen.  It was there this morning, and she set it lovingly by her pot of gruel.

She tasted the sweetness of the fig, and it reminded her of when she was a little girl.  Sometimes during the season, her father would bring home figs for her and her other siblings.  These were ripe, moist figs, and the kids would eat them while her mother prepared the evening meal.  That memory made her smile, and without thinking, she said, “Thank you, Lord.”  She felt badly for a moment, that she had just spoken to God in such anger.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “Thank you for your goodness.”

The light of the sun was just starting to stream into the city, but it was pretty quiet out in the streets because it was the Sabbath.  Most of the people in her part of the city would be getting ready to walk to the Temple later in the morning.  The widow, too, prepared herself.  She combed out her hair and cleaned her teeth carefully.  She splashed a little bit of water in her hands and cleaned her face.

Before she left, the widow turned to her sleeping mat once more.  She peeled back one corner and pushed some dirt aside.  She picked out two small bronze coins and put them in the palm of her hand.  Together they weighed almost nothing.  They had been quickly and poorly minted, and it looked almost as if a child had made them.

These coins were of no account and of little value, but to the woman, they represented no small amount of work.  She had mended the clothing of an entire household, three days worth of fine needlework.  When she finished, the young wife gave the widow some grain, a small loaf and one of these little coins.  She earned the other coin by helping a household servant carry three heavy loads of fresh produce from the marketplace.  In those several hours, she carried more food than she herself would eat in a year.  Her old back bore the weight of cured olives and figs and squash down into the old part of the city and up a long flight of stairs.  Then, she trudged back to the marketplace for another load.  For her trouble, the servant gave her a squash and the second coin.

The woman would have been happy to work like that every day, but she was mostly ignored in the marketplace in favor of younger and stronger backs.  There was little work to be had for a woman who could barely stand up straight.

She clutched the coins in her palm and for a moment, just a moment, considered putting them back under the mat.  Maybe I could save up enough to buy a used set of clothes by the Passover, she thought.  Or a new sleeping mat.  She looked at the frayed edges of her mat.

She opened her hand again and studied the coins.  She looked upward and said, “Thank you, Lord.”  She closed her hand and went out into the street.

People were already setting out to go to the Temple.  She recognized many of the people who lived with her in their shelters against the marketplace wall.  She waved to the woman who lived with her husband and children across the street.  Her feet needed no instructions from her head, and they automatically went onto the path that the widow had taken every week—sometimes several days a week—for the nearly eight years since her husband had died.  The woman was a little surprised she hadn’t worn a groove in the road between her home and the Temple.

As she came nearer to the Temple, she saw more and more people wearing brightly colored clothes and delicate prayer shawls and jewelry.  She saw new pairs of sandals and women carrying babies walking behind their husbands.  The widow wondered what she had done that displeased God so much that she didn’t have children or a husband, or even a new pair of sandals.  She clenched her jaw and balled both hands into fists.  She could feel the two little coins cut into her skin.

She stood there for a moment, looking up at the magnificent Temple.  It was indeed a worthy home for the God who ruled over all the earth.  She had no idea how mere mortals could have put up such large columns or have prepared such beautiful scrollwork.  They must have had the help of angels, she thought.

While the widow pondered the beauty of the architecture, she was almost knocked off her feet.  A man had bumped into her, knocking her sideways.  Her two coins tumbled into the dust.  The man said nothing to her, and in fact didn’t seem to notice her, but kept on talking vigorously with his companion.  They were both well dressed and well fed men—she could tell that much—and from the looks of them, they were scribes.  They must have served God well, she thought.  But they could be a little more polite to an old woman.

The widow retrieved her coins and went forward to the gates of the Temple.  She moved cautiously, as if she didn’t belong and might be thrown out at any moment.  She looked in and took a step inside.  The widow watched as a man wearing a cloak edged in purple stepped up to the offering box.  He opened his hand, and coins rained down in a silver shower, clattering in the box.  Some people turned their heads to look.  A woman gasped at the sight of such a lavish gift.  A man spoke quietly with his companions in a secluded alcove.

Another gentleman strode to the offering box and poured in more coins.  There were murmurs of approval from the crowd.  As more and more worshippers put in their gifts, the woman looked nervously into her hand.  The dull bronze coins seemed so insignificant.  It almost seemed as if it would be an insult to God to offer such a poor gift.  Even the families of modest means put in more money than the widow could earn in a year.

She almost left the Temple altogether.  How could she face God?  Why not just keep the money for something practical?  God won’t miss my offering.  The man in the alcove watched her carefully to see what she would do.  It seemed as if he understood her dilemma.

Finally, the woman took a deep breath.  She waited until the area around the offering box was mostly clear of people.  She hurried forward, kept her eyes down and slipped the two small coins into the box as unobtrusively as she could.  She kept walking, right past and into the Temple, into the presence of God.

The man in the alcove turned and said something to his friends.

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