Sunday Night Informal Worship – 11/12

“Sitting Down to Watch”

Mark 12: 38-44


My second year of college I lived with 3 roommates in a cramped basement apartment on Grady Avenue. The apartment had a galley kitchen with a little nook at one end where there was a small flat space resembling a tale. There was one living room, 2 bedrooms, and 1 bathroom. At some point that year I had written a letter – do y’all do that or is it all IMs, email, and cell calls? Anyway, I had written down words on paper, folded the paper, put it in an envelope, addressed it, stamped it, and sent it to my parents. For some reason I no longer remember – though I can guess it was because I was asking for money – instead of writing my name in the return address, I wrote “Poor College Student.”

The next week, the mail carrier knocked on the door and, as it happened, I think all 4 of us were home at the time, sitting around the living room and studying. When we opened the door the he said, “I’m looking for a ‘Poor College Student.’” At which point all 4 of us said simultaneously, “Which one?”

When we figured out that I was the “poor college student” in question, the mail carrier said, “Well, apparently they didn’t think you were that poor, because you owe me $.11!” As it turns out, my mom had not put enough postage on her return letter so there was postage due for delivery.

This story is a favorite in my family and is always good for a few laughs. I thought of it when I first read over today’s lectionary text from Mark. But it sometimes makes me wince a little, because in those days, I thought that no having much cash at my disposal entitled me to call myself “poor.”

I love this story from Mark about the poor widow giving all she has to God. When I was little I had a children’s Bible in which this story was illustrated, old, hunched-over woman reaching her aged hand over the offering plate, two small but beautiful coins plunking in. I liked contemplating the simultaneous smallness and grandeur of this gift.

With my college story and my children’s Bible in mind, I thought when I started working on this sermon, that I would talk about solidarity with the poor. About giving out of the poor – weak, vulnerable, hidden – places in our lives. About the difference between an offering made from the excess of abundance and the offering made from the place where you think you have nothing to offer. Maybe some of that will still surface tonight. Maybe not.

But what I want to talk about now is watching. What strikes me most about this story is how Jesus sat down to watch. This passage of scripture shows up in the other two synoptic gospels – Matthew and Luke – but it’s told slightly differently. In Matthew, Jesus spends 39 verses pronouncing woe on religious hypocrites (like the first part of our reading) and then skips the poor widow altogether. The emphasis here is clearly on the full extent of their hypocrisy and Jesus does not hold back for those full 39 verses. In Luke, Jesus looks up and sees rich people and the widow, all in on sentence, then in the next sentence he immediately tells the disciples what he has observed (Luke 21: 1-4). The basic facts of the story are the same as in Mark, but the feel of the story is completely different.

In Mark, Jesus sits down opposite the spot in the temple where people were coming to give money. Maybe he had been planning a visit there for a time; maybe he was passing by and wondered what he would see if he stayed for a while. In any case, he does not seem to be watching the proceedings incidentally. He seems to have nothing else on his mind, nowhere else to be, nothing else to consider. He picks out a spot and settles in.

Time passes. Unlike Luke’s version, Mark lets us know that Jesus is there for a while. And he is watching the whole while. It is not as if Jesus is doing a sudoku puzzle and just looks up occasionally. He is observing the proceedings. He sits down and watches. Many people come. Many rich people putting in a lot of money. He probably recognizes some of them, wonders about some. He can tell by the way they are dressed what each does for a living. He can tell by the way they hold themselves and by the looks on their faces who is doing this “for show.” So many seem to glance around just before stepping away from the treasury box, making sure they are seen doing this good deed.

When the poor widow comes, Jesus has been there long enough to notice that she stands out from the others. She is obviously not rich and her clothes announce to everyone that she is a widow. Someone to be taken care of. Someone who is often taken advantage of, even by the religious leaders, as Jesus has just said a few verses back. Nothing about this woman is impressive by the cultural standards of the day. Until Jesus sees her at the temple, approaching the treasury. Though the community is supposed to be taking care of her, she has made the trek into town for this gift. When she reaches her hand out to drop her offering, Jesus can see only two small coins, hardly worth anything. But that is not the way he sees it.

After watching her and reflecting on all that he has seen from his perch, Jesus calls the disciples to him. Once they gather, he tells them what he’s been observing, how riches can deceive and how poverty can too. This woman has given more than anyone else I have seen all day (Mark 12:43).

Even in Mark, this story only lasts for 4 verses. But, here in Mark, it captures that sense of time passing, of Jesus spending time here. In the gospel often marked by how “immediately” Jesus does this or that, it is significant that here he takes his time. He does not notice this while making his own offering or while passing by the temple on this way somewhere else. He sits down to watch, not knowing who or what he will see, possibly with no plan to enact or any hypothesis to test.

He sits down to watch. He sits there and watches for some time. No hurry, just observing. After a while, when he has seen enough, he keeps on sitting there but asks the disciples to come over and see what he sees. He points out the view and what has been happening. Then he offers them a different take on the events of the day.

So why do I care about this? Why do I want you to care about this? Why didn’t I write another sermon on stewardship, since most preachers see this story as a ready-made sermon on pledging money?

In sitting down with this story this week, here’s what I’ve seen: Jesus was surely familiar with the temple, but he takes the time to pay attention anyway – and for no apparent reason. He lets the world in in a way that informs his understanding. There is nothing to suggest that Jesus goes looking for a sermon illustration. There is nothing to suggest that Jesus has anything in particular in mind, other than watching. He has no role in the temple that day. We do not read that he is making his own offering. He is not in a hurry – he sits down and watches, and he takes some time doing so. And he is not looking for something, but rather, watching.

It is true that we are called to make offerings to God from the “first fruits” of our lives. It is true that we are called into solidarity with the poor and suffering, the orphans and the widows. It is true that we are called to give even when we don’t think we have anything to offer. That’s all true.

But what if the truth we here at UVA, at this busy time of year, are called to is the simple but profound act of watching? Just watching. Not “being on the lookout for” anything, but opening our eyes and minds and hearts to watch what appears. What if?

When is the last time you watched anything or anyone with this sort of attention, but without expecting anything in particular? What if you picked a spot on the Lawn or at Starbucks or in the library and decided to watch for half an hour? What would you see? Do you think you would notice things you have been missing?

Would you see that the work study student at the desk in Alderman greets everyone with a smile, while most walk by barely acknowledging her as they plop books for return on her counter? In the dining halls or the PAV, would you see the students and faculty, annoyed with the long lines, or would you notice the workers serving the meals? What would you see? Who would you see differently?

This is your mission, should you choose to accept it: Go out, sit down for a while, and watch. Pay attention to who and what you see.

We are groomed to be people who go out and do, people who have opinions and issues and candidates and platforms and theses and grad school applications and life plans. We know our place. We can wax on eloquently about the society in which we live.

But can we let go of the opinions and issues and all the rest, long enough to sit in the midst of this grand, created order and pay attention, really pay attention? Can we let the world in in a way that informs our understanding? If we did this, what would we see and how would that alter all those plans and opinions?

This could be the most counter-cultural thing you do…and possibly the most Christ-like.

Thanks be to God!


© 2006 Deborah Lewis

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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