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Sunday, November 08, 2009

Desperation and Hope: A Sermon

Desperation and Hope
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 8th, 2009
Stewardship Sunday

1 Kings 17-8-16
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, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then 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. 44For 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.’

Today is Stewardship Commitment Sunday. This Sunday finishes our pledge drive. Later in the service we will have the opportunity to engage in a ritual of stewardship. I want to say as clearly as possible that this community is a great place in which to give. I think we do important work here. Participating in a community like this helps us raise our consciousness, connects us with others, inspires us develop a sense of meaning and well-being, and challenges us to live more authentically and more sustainably. It is good to participate in something larger than ourselves that brings us and the world joy. This congregation does that. It is a blessing. As we are a voluntary organization we operate based on gifts from our members, thank you for being part of it and for supporting it with your time, talent, and treasure.

Now I am in a bit of a pickle.

I have decided to follow the lectionary readings for the Fall. The text for today is about the widow and her mite. One would think that text would be a natural for stewardship Sunday. She is the inspiration for giving, right? Be like the widow. Give it all! Here is a poem I found on the internet:
She came for Temple worship
And from her penury
Cast her gift, the widow's mite,
Into the treasury.

Another came that Sabbath day,
Rich and finely dressed,
And from abundance gave his gift
Much greater than the rest.

But God who weighs the human heart
And gifts both great and small,
Chose to praise the widow's mite...
"This woman hath given all!
-Linda Wright
As the faithful and pious widow gave her all to the temple, so ought we be humbled and inspired by her commitment. We should not therefore complain when the stewardship committee comes calling.

John Calvin, the 16th century Protestant Reformer had this to say about this passage:
This reply of Christ contains a highly useful doctrine that whatever men offer to God ought to be estimated not by its apparent value, but only by the feeling of the heart, and that the holy affection of him who according to his small means, offers to God the little that he has, is more worthy of esteem than that of him who offers a hundred times more out of his abundance. In two ways this doctrine is useful, for the poor who appear not to have the power of doing good, are encouraged by our Lord not to hesitate to express their affection cheerfully out of their slender means; for if they consecrate themselves, their offering, which appears to be mean and worthless, will not be less valuable than if they had presented all the treasures of Crœsus.

On the other hand, those who possess greater abundance, and who have received from God larger communications, are reminded that it is not enough if in the amount of their beneficence they greatly surpass the poor and common people; because it is of less value in the sight of God that a rich man, out of a vast heap, should bestow a moderate sum, than that a poor man, by giving very little, should exhaust his store. This widow must have been a person of no ordinary piety, who, rather than come empty into the presence of God, chose to part with her own living. And our Lord applauds this sincerity, because, forgetting herself, she wished to testify that she and all that she possessed belonged to God. In like manner, the chief sacrifice which God requires from us is self-denial.
A great deal of interpretive weight has celebrated this passage and this figure, the impoverished widow who gives her all, as a model for giving to the institutional church. This common reading has equated the Temple with the church.

That is our first mistake.

It could be that the institutional church is similar in some ways to Herod’s Temple. But if so, that is no compliment. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has nothing but contempt for the Temple.

His first act with the temple is an act of spectacle in order to raise consciousness. In a demonstration he turns over the tables in the temple. This is not because he objects to the selling of pastries in the foyer. He turns the tables then explains what he is doing by quoting the prophet Jeremiah, “You have made the house of prayer a den of robbers.”

A robbers’ den is where robbers hide out after they do their robbing. The temple has become cover—a hiding place—for those who have exploited the people. The temple is religious legitimation for exploitation. That is the first encounter Jesus has with the Temple in Mark’s gospel. That should be a clue that the mission of the temple and the mission of Jesus are not the same.

Later, the disciples are marveling at the temple. They are Galilean peasants on a field trip to the big city. One of them says to Jesus: “Look, teacher at what large stones and what large buildings.” Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

Later, Jesus' accusers say that Jesus declared that he will destroy the temple made with hands and build another not made with hands. Whether or not Jesus said that, we can't know but neither the Temple nor its keepers receive good marks from Mark who interprets Jesus' ministry and mission as anti-temple.

Why? What is the problem with the Temple? For starters, Herod built it. That isn’t of itself so bad. But it should give us pause. The temple was one of several ambitious building projects by Herod.

These included military fortresses at Masada, Antonia, and Herodium and the port city of Caesarea which included a hippodrome for chariot races, an amphitheater, an artificial port, a huge temple dedicated to the emperor, and numerous bath houses.

The Temple that Herod built for the Jewish people was massive and gaudy. First century historian, Josephus, writes:
Viewed from without, the Sanctuary had everything that could amaze either mind or eyes. Overlaid all round with stout plates of gold, the first rays of the sun it reflected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who endeavored to look at it were forced to turn away as if they had looked straight at the sun. To strangers as they approached it seemed in the distance like a mountain covered with snow; for any part not covered with gold was dazzling white...
Herod then appointed his own high priest to run the thing.

Herod built and built. How did he afford all of this? Olive oil was one way. Rather than have subsistence farmers living off their own little plot of land, he turned Judea into Herod-Mart. Now you had landless people working as day laborers for absentee landlords to produce cash crops. He taxed the people heavily, crushingly.

In the passage before the one in which our pious widow gives her last mite to the Lord, we find:
38 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, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
In Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore shows a clip of George W. Bush at a town hall meeting of some sort. In the clip a woman says that she is working three jobs. The president grins and says:

“That’s great!”

The president praises her for her piety and hard work. What a good American to work three jobs. It doesn’t dawn on the president that having a woman work three jobs in order to barely get by is not a sign of prosperity. What kind of economic system do we have that requires this?

When Jesus is watching people throw their money (notice the word is throw not give) into the temple treasury, he is not praising the widow. He isn’t saying to her,
“That’s great! Don’t worry about food for yourself or your family. Give your last penny to keep this gold plaited holy of holies in operation!”
Jesus is offering a scathing, damning critique of Herod’s economic system and the religious legitimation of it.

Jesus gathers his disciples to show them this. Here is a teaching moment. Look at these two people coming to the treasury. Giving a good chunk of change doesn’t hurt the rich. They can pay the temple tax and have money left over. The problem is that the temple is funded on the backs of widows who have lost everything. These building projects including this Temple which supposedly is the symbol of God’s presence, have devoured the poor, like this widow.

Yes, the widow is our teacher.

The popular reading regards the widow as a teacher because of her piety. The teaching is that we are to follow her example.

A more accurate reading regards the widow as teacher because of her condition. The teaching is a critique of our economics.

We don't know why the widow gave her last money to the temple treasury. Was she forced to do so like a tax? Was it a last act of desperation like buying a lottery ticket with her last dollar? Was she hoping for the miracle that oil would not run out as in the story of the widow and Elijah?

We don't know. We do know that Jesus did not approve. He did not approve of a temple that either by force or desperation devours widows' incomes after it devours their houses.

It would have been more just for the widow rather than give her last penny to the temple, to instead take some out.

It would have been more just if the rich man who gave a large amount to the temple to have given it to the widow, or perhaps given her her house back so she could make her own living.

It would have been more just for the temple to have been prophetic and spoken on behalf of the economics of God or the economics of the good rather than the economics of exploitation.

I think the Bible, the whole of it, and Jesus’ message in particular, is about how we live our lives in relation to one another and to Earth. It is about economics. The kingdom of God which Jesus talked about more than anything else, is both an economic and a political term. The kingdom of Herod or the kingdom of Caesar is in opposition to the economics of the good.

It is what is fair, just and sustainable versus what is unjust and exploitative.

So this widow’s story can be a story for stewardship. It is a tragic story to be sure. It is a story of desperation. It is a story of what goes wrong when we allow ambition and greed take over reason and compassion.

It is also a story of hope. The gospel story is a good news story. It is only good news when it speaks to reality such as the reality of widows whose houses are devoured. The temple with its religious legitimation of exploitation fell. As Jesus said, not one stone was left upon another. Out of its ruins something new emerged. That is our hope.

Stewardship means to care for life and all that life puts before us, especially those who are most vulnerable. Part of stewardship is to be a voice of conscience. We are given the opportunity to be that voice today. Perhaps more than anything the church is a voice.

We are to give voice to the widows.
We are to give voice to the exploited.
We are to give voice to Earth.
We are to give voice to the injustices so that we can also give voice to justice and to hope.

I am grateful to each of you and to this community as a whole for being that voice.


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