Message—The Episcopal Church of the Cross
Sunday, November 11, 2018
Text: Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 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. 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.’
Good morning, friends. Peace be with you.
In my first year in seminary, I did field work in a Christian social service agency in New Haven called Christian Community Action. The primary mission of CCA was to provide short-term emergency housing for families. We were located in a community in New Haven called “The Hill.” For all sorts of reasons, it was a rough place to try to make a home.
I had grown up in a comfortable suburb of Chicago, where it was safe, the schools were excellent, and most everybody looked like me and thought like me.
I thought it a good idea to spend some time with CCA because I was convinced that what I knew growing up, and in the private university where I did my undergraduate studies, and the private school where I taught after graduation, did not fully reflect the richness of the human experience.
It seemed important to walk to the edge a little bit, and be with people who spent their entire lives there; people who did not enjoy the advantages I did; who did not have access to the resources to which I had access; people who put much more effort into making it through the day than I did, and for whom hope that tomorrow would be better, was an act of will rather than an assumption.
So I served there; led a tutoring program; answered phones a few times. And at the end of the day, when I finished my job, I walked home. Our student apartment was small; reasonably comfortable; the heat worked; we never went hungry; and Bernadette and I both knew the day would come that we would live in a nicer place…like the home we live in now.
And during that time…and times like that time…I learned that no matter how close I got to those who live in a constant state of vulnerability, the big difference between me and them was that I always had the option to leave…an option they did not have. I could rub shoulders with them; listen to their stories; but never could really stand in their shoes.
Now I told you all that as a bit of disclaimer because the hero of our Jesus-story today is one who resides in the community of the most vulnerable. It’s an odd story. It’s certainly a Jesus-story, but she is the primary actor. And while there are lots of Bible stories I can enter into with some ease, this is not one of them. For this story, I’m a chronic observer…because I’ve never lived as close to the edge as she does.
Now there are, obviously, a couple things going on here. Jesus is in Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. He’s been walking the countryside with the men and women who follow him, and has ended up in the Holy City at the Temple…
There he issues a word of warning to his followers. Watch out for the people in religious authority who use their power for the sake of their own selves…
Beware the scribes (and a scribe was a scholar of the Law)…beware the scribes, who too much love the trappings of their office; who too much insist on the proper title and seating chart; who are more interested in show prayer than real prayer; and who even steal from the poorest of the poor. Beware the ones who take the last penny “for the sake of God.”
There are two groups of people Jesus has a real issue with: the people who think their religious rules will save them; and the people convinced their own virtue will save them. The outcasts; the forgotten; the unclean; the humble before God; the widows; the children; the orphans; the widows; the wounded; the broken and penitent…he was pretty patient with all them. But he roared like a lion when it came to the casuistic or self-righteous…like those scribes about whom he spoke; or people who act like that today.
For what it’s worth, I find it fascinating that the word translated here as “devour” is the same word used in the parable of the sower to describe what the birds do to the seed on the road. What are people like these scribes like? They’re like ugly birds who gobble up and claim for themselves all the seed that didn’t have much of a chance in the first place. As a friend of mine said, “people walk on roads; and it’s hard to take root when you’re always being walked on.”
Now those aren’t pleasant words. And sadly, that is still too often true today. And while I could give a list of who those people are, Jesus never asks us to confess the sins of another. Instead, considering my place in the Church, I am to be wary of these tendencies in my own self.
That’s the unpleasant. Here’s the beautiful…
The other thing going on is this…Jesus sits, at the Temple, watching what happens. People would come and give alms. And the rich came, and gave a lot. And maybe they boasted about it; and maybe they did it with flair; or maybe they walked up quietly and humbly and made their offering. Why they gave is irrelevant. Nowhere here does Jesus make a word of judgment against them. He never says what they’re doing is bad.
And then comes the poor widow.
She is alone. Maybe, if she’s lucky, she’s got a son supporting her or a daughter she’s living with. But she is alone; and she is poor; and she is old, presumably, and weak; and she is among the vulnerable; and she puts in everything.
“That’s the greater gift,” Jesus says. The rich may have put in a million dollars, but it cost them little. They still didn’t have to trust God very much. She put in a penny, and it cost her everything. And that’s the greater gift.
I just finished reading a biography of John D. Rockefeller, who in his lifetime gave away billions in today’s dollars.
She is more generous than Rockefeller.
Now here’s the place where the pastor says something like “Therefore, be like the widow.” So let me say that: “Be like the widow.”
And I say that because the fact is that for some of us, giving it all away…or, at least, giving more away…is vital to our salvation. For some of us, we might be holding on too tightly, to too much.
I have no idea whether that’s true for any of us; that’s between you and God. But there is a great tradition in the faith of people like Anthony, and Claire, and Francis, who have found the joys of God only through being like the widow in this story and giving away the last penny; and I don’t want to be disrespectful or patronizing to them, this widow. That could be you. And if is, God will tell you.
But I also wonder if the gospel truth of this story is more multi-faceted…
…if Jesus isn’t saying “If you desire to walk closely with me, look to the weak and vulnerable, not the strong and in-power; if you want to see me, spend more time with penniless widows and less time with the scribes.
Look to the widows who give everything…
…look to the orphans who a couple of us were with this summer at House of Grace in India, who may be poor in material goods but are rich in faith, and joy, and hope, and love.
…look, even, to the veterans…many of whom came through their time of service just fine, thank you; but some of whom still carry hidden wounds and sadness. Grant me, please, a personal moment: I remember taking my father and mother to the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC. He teared up while he was there, and quietly said “All those buggers I knew who never came back.” Sixty years later, it had come back. And I don’t think I had ever seen my father weep before. And he was, at that moment, less the captain of the corporate world I had always known him to be, and more the frightened young man in the Navy who didn’t know up from down and in something beyond his control; more like the penniless widow than the well-versed scribe.
And I also wonder if Jesus isn’t saying “In the world, there will be widows whose houses are devoured by the wicked, but it will not be so among you. Among you, there shall be no penniless widows; no uncared for orphans; no lonely and forgotten veterans left handling loss all on their own. Among you, the widows and orphans are cared for and respected; and among you, those men and women who gave themselves for a greater purpose are watched over and honored. Among you, they are the ones given the choice seats at the table and are addressed with dignity and even proper titles. Among you, who go with me to the cross, it will be that way…because I am that way.”
We’ll pray this day for the widows and orphans; we’ll pray this day for the women and men who have served this nation in the armed forces, and those who serve still; we’ll pray for healing, and wholeness, and restoration; we’ll give thanks for witnesses of generosity, hope, and mercy.
And then, quoting Sir Thomas More, may God give us the will to work for what we pray for.