The Lavish Gifts of the Poor

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What a contrast between the pompous religious leaders and the shy, unpretentious widow! The scribes paraded proudly in the marketplace, dressed in their fine robes. Always the guest of honor seated at the head table, the center of attention. The religious prominent ones relished being the object of respect and adoration. Everything served their ego, including prayer and offerings given with fanfare and maximum publicity.

The widow, on the other hand, shunned the limelight. She was a quiet, unassuming, unpretentious, even shy. Never praying in public and secretly giving her meager coin to the treasury, she stayed in the background content with anonymity. But she is the one commended by Jesus. The lowly widow is exalted and the mighty religionist is brought low. She becomes a model of generous giving of herself. They become an example of pious pomposity.

What are the lavish gifts of the poor? It is they who have special privileges. It is they whom God defends and befriends.

Barbara Brown Taylor in a sermon entitled, "The One to Watch," compares the widow to Jesus. As Jesus unpretentiously and in humility empties himself, the widow freely abandons self-seeking and self-promotion and "empties" herself on behalf of larger purposes.

The ones to watch, the ones who really make the difference, are those minor characters, the ones who work often unnoticed in the shadows, without fanfare: the poor who know what grace is, the scorned welfare mother who works at minimum wage to keep the family together; the unheralded father who never makes the newspapers but who takes the time to play with his kids and give them memories that will shape and sustain them throughout their lives; the teacher who never receives a reward but whose love for the students and commitment to teaching creates new horizons and noble dreams; the recovering drug addict who now runs an after school program in a large urban area without publicity and with few resources; the faithful pastor of a small inner city and on minimum salary befriends the outcasts and welcomes them into the center of the Christian community; a young teenager struggling with mental illness inspires a whole congregation with her quiet devotion to the gospel and gentle smile freely given to everyone; the condemned murderer on death row in the state penitentiary who teaches his fellow inmates to read and becomes the unofficial chaplain for his fellow "dead men walking."

Jesus is always putting the spotlight on the unnoticed ones, the often scorned and rejected ones ~ the despised Samaritan who stops to help a wounded man along the road and risks reputation and his own resources to take care of him; the Roman soldier he commended for his faith; a little child put in the midst of publicity-hungry and attention-getting disciples; obscure fishermen tending their nets whom he called to be disciples; grief-stricken women with whom he entrusted the first news of the resurrection; an unnamed Roman executioner who in Mark's gospel first proclaims the true identity of Jesus, "Surely this is the Son of God."

The nameless impoverished widow whom Jesus turns the spotlight on is a model of discipleship and faithfulness. She is an example of one who knows the secret to abundant life, one whose simple almost hidden act of devotion proclaims that those who lose their life, find it and those who try to promote their life, lose it.

Ours is a world that cherishes and strives for the gifts of the rich and prominent ~ the accolades of the affluent. Our newspapers do not carry special columns on the obscure and anonymous, but they do regularly feature the activities of the prominent and powerful. Or, there is a TV series on the activities of the glamorous and the famous, but no series on the poor and the socially awkward who live heroic lives in dire circumstances.

Our role models are the rich and famous, the well-known and widely-recognized, those who finish first with the most. Even our churches have been captured by the lure of the lavish. Bigger and prominently placed structures, clever marketing techniques designed to sell multiple option programs for the masses are touted as the necessary tools for growth.

The disciples came to Jesus with the question, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of God?" Who has access to the power, the prominence, the center of reality? Jesus put a child in the midst of them. A child who has no status, no power, no votes, no money, no prestige, even no name is placed in the center of attention by Jesus. He warns that only those who become humble like a child will enter God's reign of justice, generosity, and joy; and that whoever receives one such child receives him. They were preoccupied with greatness, power, prominence. Jesus' definition of greatness is service. His image of prominence is self-giving service. His source of power is the power of love.

Servants and followers of the God who hears the cries of the poor and defends the widow and the orphans and the strangers are the ones who put aside prominence and prestige and become the voice of the voiceless, the defenders of the defenseless.

In Nashville, Tennessee, there is a church that defied the church growth strategists and gave land adjoining the building for the construction of five houses for the working poor. The small congregation identified housing as a critical need in the community. But little land was available. The land had been intended for expanded parking for anticipated growth. However, in a risky act of devoted ministry, the church gave up the land. Now five families have homes who once had no homes. The irony is that the church is now growing as the often neglected and frequently rejected people of the neighborhood are finding a new community centered in grace and expressed in the willingness to give away its very self.

In rural middle Tennessee, a woman member of a small, dying church, became concerned about the children in the neighborhood. Located in an area of low-income public housing, the church members had moved to other areas. She went out in the parking lot one afternoon with a broom and jug of Kool-aid. Soon she was joined by two or three little girls who offered to help sweep the debris from the parking lot. From that modest, unnoticed beginning, has developed an after school ministry in which more than thirty children are learning that "Jesus loves me is more than a child's song." They and the whole congregation are being transformed by the lavish gifts of descendants of the widow on whom Jesus momentarily shined the spotlight.

It was a busy time for me. As a bishop, I was occupied with the appointment of pastors to local churches, preparing for the upcoming session of two annual conferences, and doing routine and important duties. In the midst of it all, I was meeting with pastors and laity in day-long teaching/listening sessions across middle and west Tennessee and western Kentucky. In addition, I, along with other religious leaders were meeting with a governor and other state officials on the issue of welfare reform. It was a busy and important time. It was important work.

On an exceptionally hectic day, filled with meetings and messages, a call came from Norman Redwing. His call was one of about a dozen which I had to return during a two-hour break between public meetings. Norman is a recovering cocaine addict who now runs a program in a church in Memphis for children at risk. He walks the streets of the troubled neighborhood looking for endangered kids. He goes to the funeral of children who are killed. He attended twelve last year. Norman, who knows the devastating consequences of abuse and neglect, now gives his life away in the inner city.

I finally got around to returning Norman's call late in the day. After all, surely his call is not as important as the one from the governor's office or from the district superintendents. He said, "Bishop, you didn't have to return the call. Didn't they give you the message?" "No," I replied. "I just called to tell you that I love you." I began to tell him how busy I had been during the day and that I had planned to come by and visit with the kids. He interrupted me in mid-sentence, "Sorry, Bishop, I've got to go. The kids are waiting." And he hung up on me!

In the midst of my preoccupation with the prominent and the powerful, there came a word of grace and challenge from an obscure one whom the world considers powerless. The brief conversation inspired me and convicted me. The inspiration came from the assurance that amid the business, the demands, the stress, the struggles I am loved. The conviction came in the reminder of where true power lies. It lies in the power of love, those willing to abandon position and self-preservation and even their own wounds and give themselves to the healing of others.

Norman's voice was the voice of the widow who slipped in unnoticed and dropped her lavish gift of devotion at the feet of Jesus. Or, was it the voice of One who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, the One on whom God has bestowed the name which is above every name? Was it Jesus?

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