I know that it is a cardinal sin to talk about Christmas until after Thanksgiving. But whenever I hear today’s Gospel lesson (Mark 12:38-44), I am always reminded of something that happened to me one Christmas Eve. So I’m going to tell you a Christmas story, even if it is a bit early.
Five years ago, my friend Danielle and I decided to conspire to spread some Christmas cheer to the homeless men and women living in Harrisburg. We decided we would assemble bags of Christmas goodies and hand them out to folks in need. We got our start when we received a donation of 50 bright orange fluorescent backpacks, and we began to fill them with juice bottles, snacks, necessities, and topping them off with an orange. (I had often received an orange at Christmas, so we thought this would be a good gift.)
No bag of treats is complete without coffee, of course, so we headed off to Dunkin’ Donuts, intending to get 50 gift certificates for free coffee. Unfortunately, that was not available — instead, we got 5 gift cards, each good for 10 coffees. With 50 backpacks and only five gift cards, we couldn’t give the gift of coffee to everybody, but we decided we would just hand the gift cards out, more-or-less at random.
We began distributing the bags on Christmas Eve, working our way from Riverfront Park, down to Market Street, up to the bus station, and heading toward the Capitol. It was truly a joyful exercise, and we met so many folks who were surprised and pleased to be receiving a little something for Christmas. When we reached Third Street, we gave one of our bags to a homeless man and, chatting briefly, we discovered that he liked coffee. So we gave him a gift card.
He wasn’t entirely clear on how the gift card worked, so we explained that the card would be good for the purchase of 10 coffees. After a little explanation, the man understood the concept and his face lit up with joy. He said to us, “That’s great, I can buy ten coffees. Since I got something for Christmas this year, I’m going to take some of my friends out, and buy them a coffee!”
I’ll never forget that moment. For one thing, it made me think about how deeply poverty can impact our lives. I never thought about how poverty can rob us of the ability to give gifts, and how I would feel if I were in that position. And for another thing, I felt ashamed by his generosity: if I were in his position, I don’t think I would be so quick to give what little I had to my friends.
This story about a homeless man in Harrisburg runs parallel to the story of the poor widow in Jerusalem — for each of them gave gifts out of their poverty. Gifts that are given out of poverty have a special value. The gift of the widow was not overlooked by Jesus — despite the fact that widows had the lowest possible social standing, Jesus noticed her and appreciated the value of what she gave. And I believe that Jesus also saw the homeless man here, and appreciated his willingness to give.
The gospel story isn’t just about poor widows, though. It’s also about the scribes. The scribes are the important people in Judea, getting the best seats at synagogue, passing judgment on their peers, and making money. Jesus notices them, too. Jesus doesn’t pay too much attention to their fine clothing, but he notices that the wealth of the scribes is built on the backs of the poor widows, whose houses they “devour.” Jesus reserves the strongest condemnation for these evildoers.
Now, when we think about Jesus noticing the generosity of the widow, and the wickedness of the scribes, I want you to try to imagine the scene in your head. Remember, Jesus is at the Temple, which is the nerve center and capitol of Judean society. All around, there are priests performing sacrifices and saying prayers. Soldiers are stationed at prominent locations. There is the bustle of commerce, banks and money-changers, merchants, food vendors. Despite all of the noise and confusion that abounded in this setting, Jesus saw and noticed and appreciated those things which most of us would miss.
So, maybe it’s not too early for a Christmas story. Because, for us, the hubbub of the holiday season begins early. It’s going to be hard to stay focused on what’s important. But that is what we are called to do. So, as we approach this holiday, let’s try to notice what’s going on around us. See the kindnesses — the widows, the homeless, the invisible people who are doing good works. See the wickedness — the leaders who give big speeches and say long prayers, but live off of the suffering of others. And, see our own selves — the good, and the wicked, which are both inside of us. Imitate Jesus, by watching for the unexpected.
This sermon was preached by Mr. Ryan Tobin on November 10, 2018, for the Celtic Eucharist. The text for the service was: