The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Mark 12: 38-44
How many of you have ever read the book or seen one of the film versions of The Stepford Wives? Looks like most of you, but if not—it is about a town where many of the residents are being turned into or replaced by robots. It is a place where nothing is as it seems as computers replace humans and people keep everything they are feeling under wraps. Stepford was supposedly in Connecticut, but I think Fort Collins can be called the Stepford of the Rockies. Fort Collins is “Progressive Stepford” … well expect with more Prius drivers and dispensaries. In my pastoral care conversations, I am noticing a trend: nobody can keep-up anymore and few recognize reasons for this. Under the surface, difficult lives are lived. Our worth as people is at risk, even in Fort Collins, in the age of computer take-over for efficiency sake.
For this reason, today, I want to talk about the worth we place on ourselves and our giftedness and usefulness (the mites we offer the treasury of life). Our assessment worthiness for self-care, for time, for love, for all sorts of things is at risk in a computer-driven-age. We need this story of the widow’s offering more than ever before! This story is fundamentally about how the widow found worth in the gift she offered even if others wouldn’t have found any usefulness in it. Jesus flips valuation on its head. Life in Jesus’ assessment is about the intention or the purpose with which we do things rather than quantity, the numbers, the data. An obsession with quantifiable data and efficiency as the measure for good itself, for success, of worth… and even for personhood is what we are talking about today. In Christianity, according to Jesus, the true driver of purpose is intention rather than measurable, data-driven best practices.
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the worthy mites of all of our hearts be hope-filled and empowering in your sight, our God, our Creator, and our Worth-Maker. Amen.
He sat down across from the treasury, and watched the crowd…Truly I tell you, this poor widow has DONE MORE than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in (emptied, offered, given…) everything she had, all she had to live on.
Jesus sits down in front of the temple and makes a paradoxical statement. He says that less is not only more, but because of the intention with which less is offered, it is worth everything. Where do we see this at work in our world still?
I am a Habitat for Humanity Christian. This isn’t because I am on the board. Being on the board of Habitat certainly doesn’t make Habitat better (I am a very disruptive board member), but it has made me a better or even a real minister. This is because it is at Habitat that I learned the Theology of the Hammer pioneered by Millard Fuller and carried by Jimmy Carter. This is the idea that everyone, every effort, every volunteer second, every penny, every distant prayer that touches a Habitat for Humanity home is as valuable and meaningful as a large tract of land given by a wealthy family. The Theology of the Hammer (an applied theology of the Widow’s Mite) has taught me that my fancy robes and scarfs as a Mainline Protestant Minister ordained in one of the historic denominations isn’t any better or more important than my colleagues from evangelical house churches or people with no religious affiliation.
We all have something to offer. We all have mites to share that might could change the universe for good. We just have to believe and recognize The Worth of all Persons. All people are of Sacred Worth. This paradoxical idea is at the core of what makes Christianity good—if we forget this lesson, then there is no good worth saving.
We live in a time when the world around us wants you, me, all of us to live and to be as productive as a computer—to never make a mistake, never ere, always produce a greater data-driven outcome, live in perfection. Data is great and useful when coupled with, always first, a value for worth of intention and personhood. The world, work, family, even your own expectations of your capacity indicate that you are meant to be a computer and only generate quantifiable outcomes. This is Capitalism of the Soul by an impossible economy of selfhood—or Cannibalism of the Soul by our own impossible expectations. Our job as the church is to call BULL SHIT just like Jesus does this morning. What constitutes a person of worth in our economy of personhood is experiencing inflation… the mites, the worth we offer is valued less and less. It is our job to return over and over again to this story: Jesus claims that her effort is of worth and worthy. We have to be the Federal Reserve for the Economy of Jesus.
This story is often called “The Widow’s Mite.” A mite (M.I.T.E.) was the currency and quantity the widow is described as giving—it would be less than a Penny in today’s currency (about 1/3 of a penny). In Jesus’ time, however, it was about 1/64th of what an average laborer would make in a day. Worthless—you couldn’t buy anything with this. This story of the Widow’s mite and the significance Jesus applies to it has made to be about money for too long. Really has little to do with money—for her gift would have been deemed not even worth the effort of the walk to the Temple. It has come to mean that we are supposed to give financially to the Church as much as we possibly can and know that God doesn’t judge us and finds abundance in it anyway. That is all good and well, but there is more we can say. Really—this is about God finding deep worth in something that would have been viewed as worthless.
The Widow’s Mite is about our human search for worth, for valuation of ourselves, for meaning; especially in a society that seeks to devalue us and makes us question our worth in a computer age.
I mean, can you keep up, really? [Silence… looking for a raising of hands and seeing none…]
The amount of money she gives was literally worthless to the society she lived in. It wasn’t even worth her effort to walk to the Temple to offer it. Even her effort to show-up to the booth and deposit her money would have been called a hopeless, useless, unproductive, meaningless effort. Sounds a lot like how people often think of voting—how can my vote matter?
We live in a time when the dehumanization, devaluation of others and even how we view ourselves, our efforts, our votes, our thoughts, our time, our personhood, our worthiness to take space in this world… is under attack from the highest levels. We live in a time, when we need to hear the deeper meaning of this text beyond the Stewardship applicability: You are valuable. You are of great, endless, abundant, Sacred Worth! Amen!
I came-out of a literary analysis French Literature and Philosophy background before Seminary, so imagine my joy [JUMP IN THE PULPUT] when I went to seminary and learned that literary criticism is a valid Biblical interpretive tool! Here is what we find if we look at this passage from that interpretive perspective:
This moment in the Gospel of Mark is literally literarily so important that it is one of only TWO times in the whole Gospel when Jesus stops moving. Jesus only is said to sit down four times and two of the times he is still moving! He sits down once in Chapter 4 in a boat to get away from the crowds to tell a parable. The second time is in Chapter 11 when Jesus sits on the donkey to be brought into Jerusalem (both are means of transport). A final time, in Chapter 16, he sits down in heaven after resurrection, but that is a highly disputed “third ending to Mark.” It is really only this time in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus explicitly stops moving and just observes life, and that is worth paying attention to. This is the only moment of stillness where the whole story slows down. I would argue that it does this to make us pay attention! In this singular moment of sitting down and paying attention to the human world and how it works, he observes a widow without worth making an unproductive donation, and yet he declares that her power, her purpose, her worth is beyond all others. RADICAL! In this, the only moment of stillness and true observation in the Jesus story according to Mark, Jesus flips all meaning on its head. You are of Sacred Worth!
Out of this singular stillness a revelation of great ethical value emerges. You are powerful—showing-up and putting in your effort is worth it. You are always worth it.
What could Mighty Mite Could do? Everything.
Let me wrap this up by going right to the heart of it. You are not a computer or a robot, and you need to stop thinking you can become one if only you try harder.
I’ve been having conversations with a lot of people being really hard on themselves recently, and as a minister I am deeply concerned that we are losing the ability to measure our worth and data as humans rather than as computers. Outcomes are always expected to be equal or greater to the inputs. Human capitol, human capacity for work and for time is measured alongside automated systems. Think of the self check-out line at the supermarket or shopping on Amazon. How can we compete? We can’t and won’t from a data-driven paradigm.
Efficiency is our new religion. Efficiency is our new idol. The only thing that can save us is this widow’s story and The Theology of the Hammer applied to our whole lives. Computers are only going to get better, my friends. Many of us, even ministers or professors, who think our jobs are secure might awaken to new competition. Efficiency makes work unsustainable. We must learn to value people in ways that are more than output driven.
Efficiency is in how we give and volunteer. We are only supposed to give if we get a tax return, right? We are only supposed to care about someone else and volunteer if we can post about it on social media as a selfie. It is transactional. I challenge those going to the border or on mission trips to NOT take pictures. This is not about you or your work or your friends “likes”. It is about showing up and being present.
Efficiency is also something we measure our own relationships against. As a gay man, I wake-up and thank God every morning that I am gay. I never had the expectation that relationships would look like they do on Leave it to Beaver and TV. I am so blessed to be gay because nobody expects anything from our relationships… certainly not perfection. At least we can be inefficient and get away with it! I feel deeply for my straight friends caught in a perfection pattern. You all experience a need for Efficiency in dating. Efficiency as a lover. Efficiency in marriage. Efficiency in home-buying. Efficiency and perfection in parenting. Efficiency in perfect retirement. All of these things kill real, human, complicated relationships in all their forms. How many of you find relationships to be efficient? So many divorces over things that I don’t understand. This will be especially hard to measure for the Tinder generation.
Efficiency in spirituality. We are supposed to come to church, synagogue, the stupa, etc. and find enlightenment fast and easily. If not, we feel like asking what is wrong with us? Or something must be wrong with this place? Where is the deliverable I was promised!? We have been reading Eat, Pray, Love for too long. The reality is that most of us will never find perfect enlightenment or religion or relationship with God or others. If you read the stories of the life of the Buddha, it was a very hard road. The same goes for even Jesus! But we are meant to celebrate the glimmers of light and understanding when they do peak through the veil. As Karl Barth would say, God who is totally other sometimes emerges in beautiful glimpses. God is not an efficient source of your enlightenment.
We are the bull shit finders and identifiers, Christians! We are the safeguard of the valuation of people. It is our job to know the scope of possible, to celebrate the ordinary, to do our best, to love deeply, to feel strongly, to make mistakes… TO BE INEFFICIENT for the Love of God. Especially in your loving and faith and attempts at goodness, please stay as inefficient as possible—for rationally none of this makes sense. From a data-driven and outcomes-based practices standpoint, none of this is good.
Learn how to forgive… please. Please Progressives… for the love of all that is good, learn how to forgive again and to offer grace to yourself when you aren’t perfect. You will never be perfect or offer enough and that is what makes you powerful, makes you good, and makes you of Sacred Worth.
Forgiveness and grace are trying again something that the data has already proven to be irrational. HAHA! If you want to learn love, especially for yourself, learn forgiveness is an irrational act. That is why it is so good. It is the currency of the Economy of Christ.
For the first time ever, Jesus sits down, stops moving, and watches life on earth around him and he makes a paradoxical, crazy suggestion that the thing, the vote, the effort deemed worthless and unworthy of praise is actually the key to Heaven. Inefficiency is Divine. Efficiency is dangerous. Pay attention with me, for we are in a time and a technology that will change how we understand the worth, the value, the productivity of what it means to be human.
May we always remain inefficient in love and grace.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.