Pentecost 25 B 2015

Bible Text: Mark 13:1-8 | Preacher: Reverend Doris Westfall

Text: Mark 13:1-8

“As he was leaving the Temple one of his disciples said to him, ‘Master, look at the size of those stones! Look at the size of those buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You see these great buildings? Not a single stone will be left on another; everything will be pulled down.’”

May the words of mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

 

When I was a little girl I would occasionally have what my father referred to as “daddy dates.” He, my twin sister and myself would do something together. My father was a salesman with a large territory to cover and he was often away, so Donna and I lived for this time with him.

One time daddy took us out to lunch and then to a park with a large lake and my sister and I rowed him around the lake. Donna and I sat together in the middle and she held one oar and I held the other and daddy was in the bow. The only problem was that we dropped both oars into the water and then we just had to sit there and drift along until someone came in another boat and was able to throw us a tow line and get us back to shore.

I remember the first time I went into New York City with my father. It was quite the adventure. Daddy took Donna and me into New York City to see Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus! We not only got to take a train into Hoboken, but we also got to take a tube from Hoboken to Thirty-third Street and then we walked to Madison Square Garden.

I remember coming up from the underground Path Station on 33rd street and being awed as well as scared and excited all at the same time. I had never seen such bustle and busyness. I had never seen so many people and such tall buildings. I held onto my father’s hand for dear life, because I just knew if we ever got separated I would never find him again. I didn’t know what could or would happen to me, but I knew in my heart of hearts that whatever that was, it wasn’t going to be good.

And then we got into Madison Square Garden. There were tigers, and lions, and elephants! There was cotton candy and midgets on bikes. And I never have figured out how they got all those clowns into one little car! I thought I was in another world! Imagine the awe and the excitement!

Now imagine yourself two thousand years ago. You are one the disciples that goes to Jerusalem with Jesus. You are just a country kid who lives by a lake and who helps your father in the family fishing business. Perhaps you have never left your home town of Galilee.

Imagine walking into Jerusalem and seeing the Temple for the first time. You would have seen it from afar because it was perched on a hill and gleamed in the sunshine. And it was massive-900 feet wide and 1500 feet long and over 150 feet high. The foundation was made of white stone and the walls were covered in so much gold and silver that when the sun shone on it, it was said to blind anyone who looked at it. It was the engineering marvel of its day and was thought to be indestructible.

Imagine your awe, your excitement at seeing something so immense and so amazing.

“Look, Jesus! What huge stones! What amazing buildings!” And then imagine your shock when Jesus says to you, “You think these buildings are so great? Not one stone will be left on top of another. All of this is going to come tumbling down.”

Forty years later, in the year 70 AD, Jesus’ prediction would come true. The Roman army, quelling a Jewish uprising, would destroy the Temple and the massive stones would lie in ruins.

In this reading, Jesus is in Jerusalem where in just a few days’ time he will be tried, sentenced and condemned to death.

What Jesus is trying to tell the disciples and to tell us, is that all things will come to an end. The grandest human plans, the most impressive human efforts will not last, whether they are religious or secular in nature. Even those things built to glorify God will come to an end.

Herod knew he would die, but he thought his greatest legacy would be this indestructible Temple. The Romans thought their empire would transcend time and last forever yet that too would crumble.

We tend to put our trust and security in our institutions, our governments, our military might, our religion, our loved ones. Yet all of these things will fail us…every single one of them. Our institutions will let us down, our government will make mistakes and at times not be able protect us, our military will lose wars, our religion will disappoint us and our loved ones, being only human, will at times turn from us. There is no security in human built entities, whether those entities are structural, religious, or romantic.

Terrible things happen. Normal days are shattered by terrorist bombs, gun violence, car accidents and terminal illnesses. Things we thought we knew and could take for granted are up-ended and we are left reeling. That is the bad news.

But Jesus came to share God’s good news! Yes, terrible things happen, but so does grace. So does compassion. So does generosity. We cannot and should not put our faith or rely on security comes from another institution or human being. There is only one entity that deserves our faith, our attention, our praise and our worship and that is God.

God will never disappoint. God will never be destroyed. God will always be there, will always be what we need. Everything we know and love will pass away. But the good news is that God and God’s love for you and me and all of creation is everlasting. Is eternal. And is really all we could ever need.

Amen.

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Pentecost 24 B 2015

Bible Text: 1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12: 38-44 | Preacher: Reverend Doris Westfall

Pentecost 24 B 2015

Proper 27

Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-16

           Psalm 146

           Hebrews 9:24-28

           Mark 12: 38-44

“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.” Mark 12:43-44

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

Today’s gospel story is among the most well known in scripture. It is also among the most misunderstood. If I had any doubt of that before today it was dispelled by the dueling commentators I read and studied all week. One commentator said the story meant one thing, and another commentator said it meant another, and a third said it meant something else.

It was so bad that one commentator threw up his hands (or perhaps the better metaphor would be that he threw done his pen) and wrote, “I am going to level with you. I don’t know what to do with this story. I wish I had better news for you, but there it is. I’m stuck.”[1] Kudos to him for being so honest.

This response was from a well-known seminary professor and author. Someone I have come to trust in his interpretation and scholarship. Quite frankly, I don’t know that I can do any better than he, but I’m going to try.

This is the story known as the “widow’s mite.” This story is also where we get the saying, “putting my two cents in” which refers to offering an opinion or thought that may be of little consequence.

Jesus has been teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. Right before our reading for today, Jesus is approached by the chief priests and scribes who questioned his authority. So he began to tell some parables. He told them about the owner of a vineyard who planted some vines, put up a watchtower and rented it out to some tenants.

When the time came for the tenants to pay up, the owner sent two servants who were beaten and killed. The owner finally sends his son who is also killed by tenants in the mistaken notion that if they do so, they will inherit his share of the vineyard.

The Pharisees and scribes knew this story was about them, but they were biding their time until they could get the crowds on their side in order to arrest Jesus. They send the Herodians to try and trap him about what belongs to whom. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God what it God’s” Jesus tells them.

They try to trap him with questions regarding the resurrection and marriage. And finally, a pious scribe came to him to ask him about the greatest commandment, not to trap Jesus, but to truly understand what Jesus was about.

When Jesus responds that the greatest commandment is love God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love one another as one loves one self, the scribes replies, “You are right teacher, this is much more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices!” Jesus sees the sincerity of this particular scribe and tells him that he is not far from the kingdom of God.

This is the context that brings us to today’s reading and all of it is important to at least trying to understand what this difficult story might be telling us.

Jesus is teaching the disciples in the Temple about the insincerity of the Scribes, those religious scholars who were knowledgeable in the law and who would draw up legal agreements. They were well respected for their education as well as their piety. But this respect went to their heads. They drew attention to themselves with the long prayers they uttered in public as well as with the long flowing robes they wore, symbols of their office and status.

They were the ones who were seated first at banquets and who had the best seats in the synagogue. These were people to be reckoned with; they were important people and everyone knew it.

Jesus watches the show of false piety and says to the disciples, “They devour widow’s houses…they will receive the greater condemnation.” Taking care of widows was one of the hallmarks of Judaism. It was an imperative, not an option. To say that they “devour widow’s houses” was a very strong statement.

To be a widow at that time was to be marginalized. If a widow didn’t have a son to care for her, or a brother in-law who would marry her, she was destitute. Becoming a widow could well mean total dependence on the kindness of strangers in order to live. It was not unusual for a widow who had no family to just walk into the desert to die.

The charge Jesus is making refers to the Scribes, who were legal scholars, penning legal agreements about the care of widows. They would take more than their fair share of what minimal estate there might be as payment, leaving the widow even worse off than she was before. It was this practice that Jesus was condemning.

Jesus and the disciples are sitting across from the treasury, the place in the temple where offerings were put into large metal containers. Any large amount of coins put in would be heard very loudly. They watched as the rich came and put in their offerings with all the attendant clatter and notoriety that followed.

And then, out of the shadows, comes a widow. She is unnoticed by everyone except Jesus. She takes all that she has, all that she has to live on, two copper coins worth about a penny, and puts them in the box.

There is no loud clatter as they fall into the treasury. There is no sense from others that they know of her offering. There is just Jesus, watching, and telling his disciples, “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.”

This story is often preached as a stewardship sermon. The widow is seen as offering everything, her whole livelihood to God. She is an example of depending totally on God for her day-to-day existence. It is said to show that even the worst off have something to share with God. The widow is held up as a foil to the false piety and flashiness of the Scribes and the rich of the day, who have a need to be noticed and respected.

This story is often preached as a social justice sermon. The widow’s giving is seen as overly excessive and is an indictment of the religious and cultural systems that would require this of her. It is a reminder that no matter what you give, if you do not love your neighbor as yourself, your monetary offering doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Here Jesus is condemning those who love God, but who are clueless about the plight of others in their midst, those who live in the shadows or are invisible to society at large.

Being invisible doesn’t mean something isn’t there, it just means that something isn’t seen. This came home to me in a powerful way while watching the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Those that died were those that weren’t on anybody’s radar screen, those who were invisible to society at large.

No provisions were made to evacuate the poor and elderly in the 9th Ward because it was assumed that everyone had transportation in this day and age, or that everyone had family that could care for them. Like the widow in today’s story, that is just not true.

We see some of the same assumptions unfolding in New York after Super Storm Sandy. The elderly in the high-rises in boroughs other than Manhattan, that place of financial wealth, the place where the scions of power play with the economy, have been largely ignored.

In this morning’s gospel, it wasn’t that the widow wasn’t there. It wasn’t that the people in the 9th Ward weren’t there, it isn’t that those in Rockaway and Brooklyn and Queens aren’t there; it is that they aren’t seen.

Jesus is telling us that we can want all the attention and respect that society can offer but if we have it and don’t see the needs of others that are right in front of us; we haven’t just missed the boat, we have missed everything. We’ve missed the whole point!

There is another interpretation of this story that I want to leave you with. This story occurs after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and immediately before the crucifixion. Mark, of all the Evangelists, pays very close attention to what stories are placed together, which is why context is so important.

Could it be that this widow who steps out of the shadows is a Christ figure, a foreshadowing of what is about to come?

Christ, who was born in a stable, who lived among the friendless, the sick, the needy, who lived in shadows until his notoriety grew and became problematic for the elite and powerful, put in everything he had, his very life, for each and every one of us. Nothing was left unspent.

The widow’s selfless giving, giving her all for a corrupt and condemned institution mirrors Christ’s giving his whole life to humanity which was corrupted and condemned by its own sinfulness.

What is so sad is that so many don’t notice his offering, his gift of grace and salvation. Even those who should know better fall prey to the seduction of power and prestige. They make their offering and go on their way without looking around them and seeing the magnitude of his loving offering and sacrifice.

The good news in this difficult story is that the God that notices this poor widow and her struggles notices you and me and all those who wonder how we are going to manage on a day to day basis.

The good news in this difficult story is that the God who notices us is the God who gave everything for us, who takes everything we have to give, no matter how small and inconsequential, and uses it.

I do believe this is a stewardship text, but not in the way we normally think. We certainly are to be good stewards of our resources and gifts. But first and foremost, we are called to be stewards of one another, to notice the other, to be committed to the welfare and wellbeing of people known and unknown to us.

We are asked to look out in the community and believe that those that live on the margin and in the shadows are loved by God, are cherished by Christ, and that they are worthy of our attention and our efforts.

To notice, to pay attention, and then to act, is to shine the light of Christ into the dark shadows and places of this world, and in doing so to realize that the place that has been illumined by Christ’s love and light is none other than our very own hearts.

Amen.

[1] David Lose in www.workingpreacher.org 11/05/12

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