When Fr Stephen asked me to preach this morning it came with one caviat, that given that he will be here later in the service to speak with you all, my sermon at this point in the service should not be longer than a paragraph. Well, as you know I am not known as the briefest of preachers, so I needed a little longer than that. But nevertheless if you blink you are going to miss this, so try and stay focused for a couple of minutes this morning.
The Gospel reading that we have just heard is easily misunderstood. It is a favourite for Bible study during stewardship campaigns when people are asked to consider how much money they are going to give to support the life of the Church.
In reality of course, it has nothing to do with the propping up of the ancient temple institution (and therefore by transference the institution of the Church) at all. There were all kinds of ways in the Jerusalem Temple for people to have their money extracted from them. People could buy birds and animals of various sizes and quantities for the priests to slaughter in their ancient worship to God on the persons behalf. They might purchase these animals to give a thank offering to God, or in penance for things that they had done wrong, or in expectation of God’s merciful help for the future, and then the animals would be slaughtered by the priests on the Temple altars. In our modern world we shy away from such practices – it would seem not only strange but abhorrent to many of us if we brought in an animal this morning and slaughtered it in the hope of gaining God’s favour. Then there were other ways of giving to support the Temple – its fabric and its ministries. People could give directly to support the priestly families, or to support the maintenance of the buildings. Things in this regard have not changed all that much over the last 2,000 years.
But morning’s Gospel is not about any of those kinds of offerings and giving. Jesus and his disciples, in the encounter that we have just heard, are sitting in the Temple precincts opposite the great almsboxes. The boxes in which people placed money as they entered the Temple – not to be used for sacrifices or to maintain the institutions of the Temple – but to be shared amongst the poor. As Jesus and his disciples watched the comings and goings of people past those boxes, they see wealthy people donating a lot towards service of the poor and then an old single widow (who has no other sources of support for herself) giving just a little. Most give some out of their abundance but she gives all that she has. And Jesus declares to his disciples that it is she (the one who gave the least coins) who has actually given more than all of the others – because she has given everything that she had. The question for Jesus is not about quantity: it is about proportion, and this woman has given everything. The proportion of her giving – 100% of almost nothing – far outweighs the quantity that is given by others. This is not so much about generosity as it is about sacrifice.
We reflect on this beautiful story today – the 11th November – on the day when around the world people will stop to give thanks for those who made the ultimate sacrifice in giving their lives to protect the communities from which they had come. Our stained glass window depicts their sacrifice alongside the sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We do not celebrate war today, indeed we pray for peace. But we do honour those (many many of them younger than me) who did not return from their fight for our freedom. And we reflect on all of this: the widow and her coins, not counting the cost of her own poverty, but giving to help others who were in the same situation; the men and women who left our towns and cities to do what they could to secure our freedom, within this Eucharistic meal in which we remember the one who gave himself that we might have life in him and with each other.
One question for us in all of this, might be, ‘to what extent do we as a community of faith, live for those beyond ourselves, disproportionately and generously for the sake of others. Now that is a question that is more easily avoided than answered. But it is a question that we should not side-step as we come to God’s altar of grace, confident in his love for us, this morning.