Mark 12:41 Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 12:42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 12:43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 12:44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
One Sunday morning in the small university town and resort town of Boone, NC, a young woman staggered in through the front door just as church was letting out. She was battered, bruised, bleeding, and crying. Turns out she had been hitchhiking to Boone from Tennessee, and the person who picked her up had beaten her, raped her, and dumped her in the juniper bushes in front of the church during our Sunday worship. We gathered around this disheveled and broken mess of a human being, prayed with her, called 911. . . and thus began our long journey with Hazel.
One of our church staff visited with Hazel each day she was in our local hospital. We learned that she had grown up in the mountains of Tennessee, that she had served in the army quite honorably for 8 years, that her IQ was on the upper end of the genius scale that she knew more about literature, physics, theology, math, and just about anything you ever wanted to know than anyone else I knew. One evening as I visited her hospital room, she shushed my greeting as I walked in the door. Jeopardy was coming on. Truly a sight to behold. I witnessed her for the full 30 minutes as she missed only 3 total questions in regular and Double Jeopardy combined! Brilliant, this woman who grew up in the hills of eastern Tennessee with no plumbing and who had no formal education beyond high school!
We, of course, invited her to church, but she had been seriously wounded by organized religion that, in her experience, had included the insistence to turn off her brain and quit asking questions, the required submission of all women to all men, and snake-handling to prove one’s faith. Not only that, she said, but all the church really wanted, when all was said and done, was people’s money.
And yet she was wounded. And yet there our church was, by some twist of fate where she had been dumped on our front lawn that horrific Sunday morning. A relationship began to develop. We helped her find a shelter in which to live. We got her in counseling. I was and am still in wonder of this enigma of a woman. She was so very bright and articulate, yet so incredibly naïve in many ways. She had no filters. She simply said what she was thinking, DID what she was thinking!
I’d love to tell you more, but fast-forward about 18 months. Hazel has been coming to our Wednesday morning communion service for several months. As much as she is leery of all-things-church, her heart is opening, seeking. Her pain is finding deep solace through the gospel narratives she knows nearly by heart.
We were all shocked the first Sunday Hazel showed up in worship. A lovely woman, really, but not quite of this world. Her hair was uncombed, and she was still missing a front tooth that had been knocked out during the rape. My heart sank when I saw her in worship. As much as we had all prayed that Hazel might find a home with us in Christ and join our Sunday worshiping family, she had finally taken the great leap of faith and shown up on Stewardship Sunday-pledge Sunday! My sermon was about money! Surely I would only confirm her earlier suspicions. All the church finally wants is your money.
The following Monday morning, the financial secretary summoned me to her office. She handed me a pledge envelope, and on the outside was written, “3434…you know how much you need for the Lord’s work more than I do…Hazel” Inside the pledge envelope was her ATM card. The number she had given us was her PIN! She gave us everything she had, or at least access to it.
I went to the shelter where she was living. What I found out was that she simply took us at face value, and when we said we needed money for God’s work in the world, and if God’s work in the world was helping people who had things happen like what happened to her, then she was all for that. She refused to take the card back, so I left it in the care of the shelter director. The next Sunday, the card showed up in the plate again, this time with a note, “3434 PIN, balance $2440 for God’s work.”
We were still in that dance of her turning in the card and my returning it, insisting that we could not take all she had or even a portion of it without her knowledge, when Hazel died. Another long story, but also traumatic and tragic. We had her funeral at the church, a bizarre coming together of worlds that included homeless, substance abusers, way way back in the woods people that you thought really didn’t exist anymore (did you see the movie “Nell” with Jodie Foster?), and relatively wealthy church members who had walked this brief journey with Hazel. Her friends had lovingly hand-made her casket and delivered it to the church on the back of a pickup truck. Before we put the funeral pall over it, I could see Hazel through the cracks between the boards. I didn’t ask on whose land we buried her in eastern Tennessee or if it were at all legal, but bury her we did. I gave her ATM card to her twin sister, along with the envelope with the PIN written on it. Two weeks later, the church received a check for $2440… on the memo line: For God’s work.
PRAYER: In our world that seems to be run by the educated, the wealthy, the powerful, and the privileged, help us, Lord, to learn from the widow Jesus observed in our scripture and from Hazel’s innocence and trust. Help us to give not only out of our abundance and “leftovers” but from our hearts and sacrificially. We also want to do your work, Lord, but we’re afraid to let go of our stuff. Dissuade our fear, that we might trust in and serve you in all things, including our money. Help those entrusted with precious sacrificial gifts to manage it faithfully and well in your service. Amen.