TITLE: A Glimpse of Heaven on Earth SCRIPTURE: Mark 12:38-44
I read a wonderful story in a newspaper some years ago. It told of a woman, Joann Jones of Paris, Arkansas. Her story reminded the reporter of the story of the widow who gave her last pennies to the temple treasury.
Joann Jones didn't give her last pennies to the temple treasury. She was a poor woman trying to raise three children by herself. Then there was a fire, and she lost everything. She moved her children into an old trailer, and got herself a job as a waitress.
Then one day she came across four Mexican migrant workers trying to sleep under a cedar tree on a bitterly cold day. Only one of them had a blanket. None of them had coats. Joann Jones went home and took two blankets from her bed. Then she took the blankets and a coat that belonged to her son, and she gave them to the migrant workers so each one could have some protection against the cold.
Somehow, the columnist, Jack Anderson, heard of her generosity and tried to track her down. It wasn't easy –– she didn't have a phone –– but Anderson finally called her at the diner where she worked and talked to her there. She didn't want to talk about her generosity. "Charity should be given in secret," she said. "Anyway, it was no big deal."
But Anderson wrote about her anyway, and wonderful things began to happen. People all over the country saw the story and sent in money –– a dollar here and five dollars there. Most of it came from people who couldn't afford to give much ––people who knew how it felt to be poor. They couldn't afford much, but they sent what they could. It was a beautiful story about people who couldn't afford it being generous to a woman who gave more than she could afford.
The really beautiful part of that story is that the small donations added up so that Joann Jones was able to buy a little house for herself and her kids. Anderson contacted her pastor and asked what her reaction had been. The pastor said simply, "She wept."
What a happy ending! I wish that every generous person could have their generosity rewarded like that! Most won't be rewarded in that fashion, of course –– and people wouldn't have responded so generously to Joann Jones if she hadn't been so self-effacing –– so unwilling to call attention to her gift of two old blankets and one old coat.
But I'm convinced that Joann Jones' best reward is still to come. Just wait until she gets to heaven. I wouldn't be surprised if she is greeted there by angelic choirs convened just to welcome her. I wouldn't be surprised if God gives her all sorts of wonderful, if somewhat embarrassing, special attention.
You see, if there is anything that warms God's heart, it is generosity –– especially generosity to people in need. I would like to draw your attention to Jesus' ministry. Almost everyone that he helped was poor –– sick –– blind –– lame –– miserable. They were "nobodies" to most everyone else, but they were "somebodies" to Jesus.
The church, at its best, has followed in Jesus' footsteps. Through the centuries, Christians have put their nickels and dimes in poor boxes. We have built orphanages and hospitals and leper colonies. We have sent missionaries to spread the Good News about Jesus, but also to teach people to read and to drill wells and teach people about elementary sanitation. Some of the money to support those endeavors has come from wealthy people, but I suspect that the majority of the money has come from ordinary people –– people who couldn't afford much, but who gave what they had –– who gave, in many cases, more than they could afford.
Our Gospel lesson today is about a woman who gave more than she could afford. She was at the Jerusalem temple –– a busy place –– a noisy place where vendors sold animals for temple sacrifice. It wasn't easy in such a noisy place to make a noise that would get people's attention, but there was one way to do it. There were a number of trumpet-shaped metal containers sitting there as receptacles for people's donations. They didn't have paper money in those days –– or checks –– or credit cards –– so people gave their donations in the form of coins. They had little coins that weren't worth much and bigger coins that were worth more. Wealthy people had large gold coins that were worth a lot.
They were required to give a little bit –– a temple tax, so to speak –– but were encouraged to give more. It was for God, after all.
So all day long people would throw their coins into the big metal receptacles. The little coins would make a tiny noise and the larger coins would make a little louder noise –– but the big gold coins would make the loudest noise of all. All day long, in that noisy place, there would be a kind of background noise of clinks and clanks amidst the noise of the vendors and the people. But every once in a while there would be a loud CLANK!!! –– and people would turn to see who had been so generous –– who had been so rich.
Of course, the rich people loved the attention that their large coins garnered them. CLANK!!! –– and people would turn and admire them –– or envy them. The rich people didn't really care whether they were admired or envied as long as they were noticed.
But Jesus wasn't listening for the CLANKS!!! He was watching. He wanted to know more. He wanted to know, not just what people gave, but who they were.
Jesus saw a poor widow move toward one of the offering receptacles. He knew that she didn't have much money. But then he heard two little clinks. No one else heard them, but Jesus did. Then he called his disciples together and said:
"Truly I tell you,
this poor widow has put in more
than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
For all of them have contributed out of their abundance;
but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had,
all she had to live on."
Most of us, at some time in our lives, have known someone like that –– someone who didn't have much to give but who gave beyond their means. On the one hand, we might say that their small gifts didn't amount to much. On the other hand, we might say that their small gifts amounted to more than we can count. Because the value of a gift, as most of us know, cannot always be calculated by the dollars that it cost.
I have heard of a German custom called edelweiss (pronounced AID-ul-vice), a lovely flower that grows high in the Alps. I suppose that you can buy edelweiss these days, but you couldn't then. There was only one way to get an edelweiss flower, and that was to risk your neck climbing a high, rocky mountain. If a young man brought an edelweiss flower to a young woman, she knew that he had risked his life to honor her. The gift hadn't cost him much money, but it had required him to risk his life.
It's hard to ignore a gift like that, isn't it! The young man who gives an edelweiss flower hopes to impress the young woman so that she might return his affection. It is a good way to make an impression.
But the widow didn't bring her two little coins to make an impression. She knew that they weren't worth a lot of money, although they were worth more than two pennies today –– perhaps enough to buy a meal. She knew that others were giving more. She knew that nobody would notice the little clinks of her two coins. She knew that her coins wouldn't make much difference to the operation of the temple. But she wanted to do what she could for God, and so she gave everything that she had. She had two coins in her purse, and she put both of them in the temple treasury.
And Jesus told his disciples that her gift was the greatest of all –– not because she gave so much but because she kept so little.
The lesson to be learned here isn't that God requires us to sell everything and give the money to the church –– although that is pretty much how the first Christians did it. The lesson is that God wants our hearts. God wants us to love him. He wants our pure devotion.
And if we love God, we will show it. We will try to do what God wants. We will be generous. We will help people in need. We will love our neighbor. We will pray. We will try to live our lives in accordance with God's will.
If we truly love God, we won't try to figure out the minimum requirements to stay in his good graces. If we truly love God, we will want to do all that we can in his service. That is what he wants from us –– our hearts and our lives.
If we would all do that, this would be a different kind of community. This would be a different kind of church. This community would be a kind of heaven on earth.
I'll tell you a secret. You might think that I am exaggerating when I say this, but I'm not. This is the truth. If just one person in this congregation will decide today to love God with his or her whole heart, that person will bring a bit of heaven into our midst. That person will make it possible for all of us to get a glimpse of heaven on earth. That person will enable each of us to see what life can be like when lived hand in hand with God.
I invite you to be that one person. Commit yourself to loving God with your whole heart. Then you will see how much God can change your life –– and your church –– and your community –– and your world.