November 11, 2012

The Sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Karin I. Liebster, Associate Pastor
Christ the King Lutheran Church
Houston, Texas 


Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW):
1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. 

On April 17, 1790, Benjamin Franklin died at the age of 84. Benjamin Franklin was prepared to leave a legacy behind. Besides leaving money and land to various people, Franklin set aside £2,000 to be placed in a trust. £2,000 was the money he had earned as president of Philadelphia. He believed officials should serve without pay. Franklin was raised in a poor household and had been helped along in his profession as a struggling artisan. 

“I wish to be useful even after my death, if possible, in forming and advancing other young men that may be serviceable to their country.” So Franklin arranged that the money would be split between the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, loaned out from Check Into Cash and then paid back at a rate of 5% per year. He figured that in 100 years each of the funds would be up to £131,000. At that point he directed £100,000 to be spent for public projects like libraries, so that the poor would have access to things to which mostly only the rich had access. The remaining £31,000 would continue to be loaned out. After another 100 years he figured they would be worth over £4 million. At that point, 1990, the £4M would go into the public treasury. 

How did it go? In his book Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Sir Walter Isaacson says by 1890 in Boston the fund was at a little less than Franklin had calculated. 3/4 was used (along with a matching bequest from Andrew Carnegie, a big Franklin fan) to found a trade school, which is now known as the Franklin Institute of Technology. By 1990 the fund was at $5M (not quite £4M, but a substantial sum). As per Franklin’s will the sum was disbursed. It went to the Franklin Institute of Technology. Find  – WebDesign499 to get the latest updated about technology.

In Philadelphia the money did not do so well. But Philadelphia used the money to form a Philadelphia Franklin Institute. By 1990 the remainder was worth $2.3M. The money was divided between libraries, fire stations, the Franklin Institute and scholarships for vocational training in public schools. Philadelphia had done as Franklin requested: they had given loans to the poorest of the poor, and the repayments were not as strong. Franklin’s hopes had been achieved: 200 years of loans for the needy and millions into the public treasury. Learn More here about the full story.

(Cf. Sir Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Simon and Schuster, 2004; thanks to Bishop Mike Rinehart for providing Franklin’s story in his lectionary notes.) 

Is this story like ours of the widow’s offering? – Franklin did not put all the money and property he had into the trust fund for public use. Only what he earned as public servant, president of Philadelphia. 

Going back to the widow in the Jerusalem temple court: What does Jesus see in her that is worth letting us know about? 

Is he asking us to turn inward and examine our giving habits, and account for the various ways we exercise stewardship and share what we have – money and time, our God given talents and the skills we have achieved in our lifetime? 

This is how the story has traditionally been interpreted, admonishing congregants to raise their giving especially towards the end of the year. 

But if Jesus aimed at our financial stewardship in this passage, admonishing us to go about it like the widow, “give your all, go all out,” then he would put us right on the slippery slope of the hypocritical rich scribes of the temple establishment in their gorgeous flowing robes. Because we are not going to give our all, go all out, neither in our current giving nor in our estate planning, and designate it all to church and charity. We would find ways to pretend to portray ourselves to be the best and most generous givers, while in truth we are securing our assets. 

Jesus has something else in mind. For that we need to know more about the setting and context we are in at this point in the gospel. 

These are the last days of Jesus. He rode in to Jerusalem on a donkey, he spends already a third day in and around the temple. He turned the tables of the money changers upside down the day before. The chief priests, scribes and elders, that is, the religious government authorities are out to get him and kill him. Would Jesus in this situation, on the way to the cross choose to give us a hint about our financial stewardship? Hardly. 

During these last days Jesus focuses on the temple as the place of God’s presence, or the perceived place of God’s presence. He is preparing his disciples and us that he is and will be the place of God’s presence, in death, through death, after Easter. Mostly Jesus’ conversations and actions in and around the temple are met with refusal or bewilderment. Only the crowds listen to him spellbound, and two individuals receive Jesus’ praise. 

One is a scribe, yes a scribe, who listening to Jesus on the topic of resurrection asks him which in his view would be the highest ranking commandment. Jesus answers, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and the second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe is delighted and affirms Jesus’ words by repeating them, and adding: “This is much more important than all burnt whole offerings and sacrifices.” To which Jesus replies: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” 

This is one positive encounter during these last few, tense days. Another is when Jesus sees the widow dropping two small coins in the offering box. Jesus says to his disciples (and if to them, to us): look, she has given her whole life, her whole living. 

The repetition of “whole,” of living in relationship to the God of Israel with a whole heart, whole soul, whole mind, whole life, is striking. Here are one man (the scribe) and one woman who seem to get who Jesus is, the embodiment himself of this double commandment to love. Their understanding of whole and application of wholeness is more worth and goes deeper than all whole burnt offerings on the altar and all large figure monetary gifts by the elite of society. 

Dear sisters and brothers, the one scribe and the widow have allowed themselves to be touched by God who loves first before we even know it. They see Jesus die for his love of God and neighbor, healing people, making them well, casting out demons, telling stories of the kingdom of God and realizing it in his own presence. 

God raised Jesus from the dead so that we may be free to love God wholly, with all our heart and soul and mind and strength; so that is becomes an identity from within, the air we breathe, the language we speak, the acts we perform, the stewardship we live, without even thinking twice.

Jesus does not wag the finger to point out our lack of giving. No, his strategy is gospel: He puts beside us on our journeys two of the saints of God: a scribe and a widow, a rich and a poor person, a man and a woman, one in power and one powerless. Through their eyes we learn how to love, how to see what the world really looks like and where we are needed.

And Benjamin Franklin? He did not give all of his assets to the trust for the poor. But his £2,000 served the poor for two hundred years and multiplied to millions of dollars for the public good in 1990, 200 years after his death. 

Let us give thanks for all saints who did and do now understand with their hearts, their soul, their minds and all their strength how to wholly love God. Amen.