The Meaning of a Small Act

Lesson: Mark 12:38-44

   It’s Veterans’ Day and there are events across the country today to honor veterans, many of them, like Marin’s Veterans’ Day parade, scheduled during church.  But a number of Marin businesses and restaurants are offering free meals and special deals to veterans today, as well.[1]  It’s a small thing, perhaps, but a small thing can matter.

Today we hear the story known as “the widow’s mite” in Mark’s gospel.  This woman who contributed her two small coins, all she had, has been held up as the model of sacrificial giving, especially during church pledge campaigns – which, coincidentally, usually take place in the fall when this passage turns up in the lectionary – and, oh, by the way, our pledge campaign begins tonight.  But when you read this passage in context, it’s less likely that Jesus wanted us to notice her generosity than to notice the hypocrisy of the scribes who act pious while they ignore their obligations under Jewish law – obligations to this woman, in particular.  This woman is poor because she’s a widow.[2]  The men in her life are supposed to support her, because she has no means of supporting herself.  That’s how it’s supposed to work but for some reason, it isn’t working for this woman.  We don’t know why.  We do know that Torah requires that widows be treated justly, and we know that the prophets regularly condemned the rich and powerful for failing to do so.  Jesus echoes those prophets when he says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes,…They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”[3]  So Jesus is critiquing the system that is supposed to be caring for widows and orphans but instead somehow encourages those preening scribes, swishing about in their long robes.

Scholars say Jesus is not heaping praise on the widow; he is lamenting the tragedy she represents.  But there is a way that this widow is not a tragic figure.  There is even a way we can relate to her.  If we focus only on the fact that she gave away everything she had, I think few of us can relate.  Most of us, I expect, find her example paralyzing, not inspiring.  Even if I were to liquidate all my assets and give them to the poor, it would be only a spit in the bucket of the world’s need.  Maybe a fraction of a spit, if there is such a thing.  Doing this would show my total trust in God’s providence but it would also mean my family would join the ranks of Marin’s homeless and I am not willing to do that.  It’s like holding up Mother Teresa as a role model.  Given the real demands of our jobs, our families, even our personalities, Mother Teresa represents a level of sacrifice, a level of change that is impossible for us.

We often encounter that same paralyzing sense of impossibility when we look at the world’s problems.  The economy, poverty, world hunger, global warming, politics as usual, runaway consumerism, the seemingly intractable hatred between groups of people that leads to endless wars or at least ongoing violence – it is very common, even understandable for people to say, “What’s the point of doing anything?  It’s impossible to change anything.”

It’s when we’re tempted to say this that the widow does serve as a role model for us.  Rather than telling the widow’s story as one in which she does an impossible thing, today I’ll tell her story as one in which she does a small thing, believing it could make a difference.  Adam Fronczek writes, “God could take that gift and change something about the world.  That woman knew something that was absolutely priceless.  She was able to say to herself, ‘My contribution matters, what I do matters.  I matter to the world, and I matter to God.’”[4]  As Helen Keller once said, “I am only one; but still I am one.  I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do something I can do.”

Your contribution matters.  My contribution matters.  Our contributions matter.  As we are beginning our stewardship campaign tonight I’ll add, yes, this applies to our gifts to the church.  Even a small gift matters, and after all, small is a relative term.  What was small to the scribes was not at all small to the widow.  However, when it comes to stewardship of what God has given us, our focus ought to be managing all that we have in God’s interests, not the size of our gift to the church.  As Flora said during the Time with Young Disciples, the whole world is our offering plate.

But beyond our church budget, brothers and sisters, what we do matters. There’s a story that’s been around a while, but maybe it’s a story we need to hear every couple of years because it is a story that reminds us to have hope.  Or, anyway, I need to hear it every couple of years.  There was a man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing, and he had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.  One day as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer.  He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.  As he got closer, he noticed that it was a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the sand, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.  He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is you’re doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied, “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I have to ask, then,” said the somewhat startled older man, “why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

The young man bent down and threw another starfish into the surf, and said, “The sun is coming up and the tide is going out.  If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

When he heard this, the older man blurted out, “But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile?  You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference to that one.”

Today is Together We Serve Sunday.  It’s the way we celebrate the anniversary of the founding of our church, which is this Wednesday.  As of November 14th, our congregation will have been serving in San Anselmo for 115 years, since 1897.  We continue to serve, to do small things, to give in small ways, as a congregation and as individuals living out our Christian discipleship because we trust that what we do matters.  It matters to God and it matters to God’s world.  For the fourth year in a row we’ll host the rotating winter shelter here every Friday night, and St. Anselm will use our building to host their night.  Does it end homelessness?  No, but it still matters to those men who have a warm, safe, dry place to sleep, a good hot meal and the gracious hospitality of cloth tablecloths and napkins, real dishes and people who care enough to listen to their stories.  We keep sending people to Israel/Palestine to plant olive trees.  Have we solved the Middle East conflict?  No, but it matters to the people – Muslims, Christians and Jews – who find hope in knowing that their story is being told.  We keep knitting caps and scarves for our homeless guests and prayer shawls for people who are sick or grieving.  Do those shawls cure illness, or stop the pain of death?  No, but they matter to the people who feel the power of God’s love surrounding them.  We keep bringing food for the Food Bank, pennies for Centsability, and as of this fall we’re advocating to end hunger through Bread for the World.  Can our congregation end hunger?  No.  We can’t we stop global warming with our solar panels and canvas shopping bags, or stop the fighting in Afghanistan by planting trees, or end loneliness through our fellowship, or reverse the current cultural assumption that Christians are homophobic and hateful through our inclusion of gays and lesbians.

Or – maybe we can. Just maybe, we can.   The small things we do matter.  Someone once said we’re all assigned a piece of the garden, a corner of the universe that is ours to transform.  That corner is our lives: our relationships, our jobs, the time and the gifts that are given to us, the obstacles and injustices we confront.  Every situation in which we find ourselves, no matter how seemingly insignificant or private or mundane or routine or small is an opportunity to teach love instead of fear.[5]

Which, when you think about it, is no small thing at all.

Every situation in which we find ourselves is an opportunity to teach love instead of fear.  May it be so, for you and for me.  Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2012

[2]  Mary Anderson, “A Widow’s Walk,” in The Christian Century, November 1, 2003, p. 18.

[3]  Mark 12:38-40.

[4]  Adam H. Fronczek, “How Naive Do You Expect Me to Be?” November 8, 2009,

[5]  Marianne Williamson.

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