Picture above entitled "generosity is not the same thing as giving" two small outstretched hands, palms up and open: one holding a chestnut and one holding a long orange leaf.
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
November 11, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 12:28-34
Do you remember Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451? What remains with me is the idea that its protagonists were willing to become the stories they were to protect. You may remember that the premise of the book is that fire departments no longer put out fires, but they are in charge of burning books, which are subversive conduits of imagination, inquiry, and insurrection. If only our book were considered that dangerous today! What a quaint notion that a book made of ink and paper could be as powerful as to require the conversion of an institution intended to serve and protect the common good into an agent of control and suppression. Bradbury stated in interviews that his book was about the threat to humanity that television posed. If only he knew….
When the values and institutions that have given our life meaning begin to vaporize, crumble, or overturn, where do we turn for meaning? When our public leaders no longer seem to be concerned for the future of our planet or the common good – when billions are spent on keeping or taking power from the opposing party, how do we choose to live? How can we be disciples of Jesus’ way of forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice? Mark’s Gospel is a primer for just such a situation – the situation in which we find ourselves today.
Jesus has just been engaged in dialogue with the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, culminating in the exchange with the scribe who asked him to name the greatest commandment. Now, Jesus is speaking to a “large crowd” in the forecourt of the temple which, like the agora in Athens, was a popular and “safe” place for public teaching and civic conversation.
It is less than a week before the Passover, and this is Jesus’ very last public teaching before his execution. The purpose of this story in the text may be primarily to heighten the tension between Jesus and the leaders of the establishment, but there is never only one thing going on in the Gospel. So here, both the “rich people” and the “poor widow” are used to illustrate the core of Jesus’ teaching. The term translated “rich people” here means filled, full, flowing ones. They gave much easily out of their abundance. The term translated “poor” means destitute, mendicant, or beggar. This is a woman whose only source of income is the generosity or pity of others. She may even inhabit the temple grounds with nowhere else to live, no family to speak of now that she is widowed. And there is no indication of her age – she may be young or old. As we all have observed, anyone who lives without shelter, exposed to weather and possibly brutality, appears to be much older than their chronological age would predict. The widow is someone who is utterly dependent – contingent for her very existence on her reception by others.
We may well ask, “Where is God in this text?” The temple authorities would certainly be clear. God was with them, in the ancient-even-then system of priesthood, law, and institutionalized sacrifice. Jesus is clearly at odds with their opinion. Not only were they puffed up in their prayers and pageantry put on for appearances, they also were in clear and shameless violation of the priestly code and prophetic cry to provide for the widow and orphan, and welcome the resident alien. And it was not just in their corrupt administration and appropriation of widows’ estates, but also in systemic marginalization of the poor. So the explicit picture of humanity that is painted in this text is rather grey. The characters seem to be: 1) powerful and corrupt; or 2) wealthy and only comfortably generous; or 3) destitute and oppressed by a system that leaves some of God’s beloved children out in the cold. Where does discipleship fit into that picture – especially coming on the heels of Jesus’ definitive teaching about the two greatest commandments?
Mark’s audience had no use for an institutional church. They were about to be, or had just been witnesses to, the insignificance and vulnerability of the ancient temple cult – over four hundred years in the form that they knew it, since the exile in Babylon, and over a millennium from its roots in an ethnic conflict between agrarian valley dwellers and hillside shepherds. The temple was about to be, or had just been, demolished when Mark’s gospel was composed. Even the ruthless and powerful Herods were no match for the violent and relentless Caesars. The undisguised attitude of Jesus in Mark is that institutional religion is vulnerable to worldly sway and often counterproductive to God’s overarching, undergirding, self-giving grace.
Followers of Jesus in Mark’s time, a generation or so after the original disciples, had no investment in institutional religion to protect and were probably unconcerned with future generations. Instead, they were trying to cope with the ultimate questions of their immediate circumstances. They may have been asking, “As followers of Jesus’ way and denizens of empire and world, what is our responsibility to the “other” – to God the ultimate other, and to the others who surround us, our neighbors of all origins and circumstance? What is this difficult path that has been laid before us by our leader who, like the poor widow, gave his all, literally all the living of himself?”
The big trouble in this text is not so much that we do not give as sacrificially as the poor widow, but that we do participate – informed or ignorant, actively or passively – in the institutionalized systems of oppression and marginalization, and the normalization of poverty and exclusion. In our latter-day Christianity, especially among mainline Protestants, we don’t like to talk about the wrath of God. But Jesus, as depicted by Mark, is unafraid of provoking the negative consequences of unethical behavior. Jesus clearly indicates that the self-righteous who are oblivious or scornful of God’s desire for the common good are to expect greater condemnation. He does not specify when and where that condemnation is to be delivered. For some of us, we imagine that the condemnation can’t come soon enough for the villains we see.
Those of us who judge in this way ought to be careful of the wrath we call down upon others. Even though we’d sometimes like to have a crystal-clear picture of the how and when of divine judgment, perhaps it’s better we don’t know.
We share with the scribes the tendency to puff ourselves up – to depict ourselves in the most flattering light even if it means that nobody truly knows us. We share with the rich ones the ease and comfort of being able to choose to give more or less sacrificially – to say,
“This year, if I forgo one daily latte, I can give $1,000 more to the church and lose five or ten pounds at the same time.”
It’s fair to say that even when we are struggling financially, medically, emotionally, we are among the privileged on this planet in this time or in any time. You notice that Jesus does not condemn or even judge the rich ones in this text. It is not a bad thing that they give generously out of their abundance.
We share with the poor widow our absolute dependence on the institutions and cultural practices that have determined our place in the social hierarchy. In my own journey, in my study of the Gospel and its implications for my life, I am often stopped in my tracks and forced to ask how I am bound by the institutions and cultural practices that support and define my life and my lifestyle. How am I like the poor widow, locked in my dependency and cut off from my agency to fulfill God’s hopes for my existence – the fulfillment of my humanity?
The temptation is to see Jesus’ observation of the poor widow’s action as praise, and thus the locus of grace in the text. But I don’t think that Jesus is praising the widow at all, any more than he is condemning the rich who give much out of their abundance. Instead, I think that Jesus is prophetically alerting us to an example of injustice, an example of the consequences of the corrupt practices of the scribes, an extension of the political religious system that demands an offering, literally a payment to absolve one’s guilt. The poor widow would be understood as unclean, since she could not afford to purchase the ritual offerings of animals to be sacrificed. Her status as a widow would also have been an indicator of her fall from grace. So Jesus is not praising the widow so much as he is condemning the practices of the political religious hierarchy. It is so tempting to hear this story of the poor widow with an overlay of how it has been used across the centuries to laud sacrificial giving. The story known as the widow’s mite has been used by pastors and stewardship committees for centuries to suggest that even the poor should give sacrificially – to give until or beyond when it hurts. But from Jesus’ perspective, that kind of giving is both too much and not enough. It’s too much when it perpetuates privation and exacerbates poverty. It’s not enough unless one’s whole self is dedicated to living out God’s desire for the common good.
Jesus says, “See, the poor widow has given all the living of her.” It’s just possible that at least some of the rich have done the same – if with the remainder they live in forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice.
It’s ironic that this text is in the lectionary just at this time of year when most churches, and even many public radio stations and non-profits, are seeking to secure an estimate of giving for the coming year. Perhaps it’s placed now as a temptation – to see if in our enthusiasm to ensure a vital ministry for the coming year, we succumb to trying to convince the poor widow to give her last two coins. But I just can’t do that. I can’t tell you that giving more will bless us more. I won’t tell you that tithing to the church is your most faithful response, because that would put me between you and God the same way that the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes put themselves between the people and God. Yes, I hope and pray that we have enough money to work with next year. There are some things that we must do, some things we should do, and some things we’d like to do that require more money.
But you know what? Even if we have less money to work with next year, and each and every one of us loves God with our whole being, and our neighbor as our self, that is enough. The conference treasurer would not like me saying this, but the church is not important… – loving God and neighbor is important. If we cannot draw a straight line between what we do as a church and the love of God and neighbor, the church does not deserve the poor widow’s two small coins much less the plenty that we give out of our abundance.
Well, this sermon was supposed to be about the word “share” in our mission statement: inviting all to share in the Christian journey. But, to share means more literally to cut into separate pieces than it means to distribute. It may mean in our context that we acknowledge the share that others have to offer – there should be an equal exchange. And if we allow “all” to do so, we will inevitably be changed. Who we are will be different. If we take it seriously, our mission statement implies that we are incomplete without our neighbors – especially those who have something different to share.
Yesterday, our began to create missional goals for the next three years. I am so excited about what we accomplished yesterday, about the commitment, willingness, and enthusiasm of our leadership, and most of all about what God is doing in our midst. 1) We will grow spiritually and share with others the unique contribution we are to our community through gatherings and groups on relevant topics such as loneliness and hope. 2) We will promote our worship style and music to help those in worship and the greater Vashon community to grow spirituality, and to begin conversations and outreach to our Latino neighbors. And 3) We will grow spirituality as the joyful loving hands of God for those living on the edge by raising our awareness of their humanity and supporting activities to meet their needs; we will invite the Vashon community to share in these activities.
You will hear more about the plan as it unfolds heading into 2019. It will take all of us to make it happen – and I think there is a place for each and every one of you to play a role in the plan. It’s a plan that will help all of us to tell our story and God’s story more effectively and passionately.
Let’s write the love story of God on our hearts like the characters of Fahrenheit 451 write vulnerable books on their hearts – let’s become God’s book of love. God’s love story is indeed at risk from systems of oppression and control that should serve and protect the common good. Let’s write God’s subversive love story of imagination, inquiry, and insurrection on our hearts. Let us become that story, giving all the living of ourselves to God. Then, no matter how much money we give, we will have more than enough.