There are weeks when I have scripture texts before me and I wonder as I prepare what the writer of the text was smoking (for I just can't figure out the point) and there are times I think I have absolutely no experience with the implied message of the text and feel so inadequate to preach. How God can use me to speak a word to you in weeks like this? I just don't know.
But then there are some special weeks like this one, where I feel God must have thought I was the one who really needed to learn something. For, I've seen and experienced a version of this text all week-long.
If there is ever any doubt that I learn as much from writing sermons as I do in giving them or you do in hearing them, then I have proof. Mark 12 was mine to learn from this week.
And this is our particular text that I want us to stick closely to this morning: Jesus is nearing the end of his life, on his way to Jerusalem. And on his way, he's using every teachable moment possible to help his disciples see what the kingdom of God looks like. Not only did the disciples need to be prepared for what was to come in his death, but they needed guidance as to what kingdom living looked like on earth in real time.
Let's look closely at what Jesus says to his disciples and those bystanders in ear-shy beginning in verse 38. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 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.”
Obviously, Jesus and the religious scribes were obviously working from two different visions of what made their life count with lasting value.
The scribes wanted to do works to be seen and to be important among the who's who of society. And, to achieve these goals, the scribes were known to take from those in the community who were without means to defend themselves, namely the widows. Specifically they were known to "devour them" a word used in scripture only in cases of extreme separation from what is good and what is evil.
Contrary, Jesus cared nothing for this kind of recognition or power. In fact he condemned it. He had already said in Mark chapter 10, "and the last shall be first and the first shall be last." Things in the kingdom of God were not like the ways of the scribes. In Jesus' vision of the world, room was always made at the table for one more, no matter the rank, class or belief system. According to Jesus, a life that God honored always included love of neighbor.
As many of you know, Kevin and I spent the last week on a mission delegation to the Philippines as part of Kevin's job with Feed The Children. It was an experience that challenged us on many fronts as to what love of neighbor looks like.
And over the past 8 days, we held babies. We fed school children who eagerly anticipated their portion of rice and sweet potatoes. We danced with women (yes, proving that white women can shake with the best of them). We talked to school children about staying in school and studying hard. We traveled long hours by plane, boat, van, and taxi to see with our eyes what we didn't know before we left the comfort of our home in Northern Virginia.
We spent several days in the capital city of Manila, a city over 12 million people.
In Manila, everything you could possibly need or want as a Westerner is here. You could start your day off with Starbucks (which you know Kevin did, of course). You could go to the mall and buy a new outfit at Old Navy or body wash at The Body Shop. You could dine at Wendy’s or Burger King. Folks in the business district of downtown can be seen carrying Prada purses or wearing Jimmy Choo stilettos. Folks at the airport all talk on the latest IPhone 5.
But, as with most major urban centers, it is not the whole story.
The urban poor, living in shanties in the slums are in this city only a few km from the high rises of folks drinking the finest coffee and wine. For these slum dwellers, life is difficult and assistance is needed from NGOs for basic survival.
The necessity of organizations like Feed The Children comes into play because government social services (which we expect in the US as a given) are limited, if existent at all. Children are malnourished and drop out of school. Children go unsupervised and play in garbage dumbing grounds. Children grow up without dreams of ever leaving the community in which they were born.
In these experiences we learned much. But most of all this--
There are far more widows in the modern world than rich scribes and Pharisees.
As much as the religious zealots of our time make the headlines on a daily basis especially as they have over the last year of our election cycle . . .
We are a world of "widows."
And by widows, I don't necessarily mean just widows from the technical definition --women who are on their own because their husband has deceased.
But I mean "widows" in the broader sense. For example, mothers and fathers who have more children than they can afford to take care of. Or, these are babies who come from the womb malnourished because their mothers didn't receive the proper prenatal care. These are families who make the choice to live in garbage dumps because they can make $2 a day in the recycling sorting business instead of no income at all in somewhere less smelly.
Throughout the Philippines, I met these "widows" this week ... or otherwise known as the slum dwellers, the down and out or the working poor.
And in meeting them, I realized that such is not a situation in the Philippines, but one that is all over the world...
And so this is what I really want to say: the Mark lection is not some isolated occurrence without application to the characters we have among us today. We live in a global community among the rich and the religiously arrogant. And we live in a world of the incredibly poor and destitute.
(Though such is not something that we like to think about very much, if at all. It is of course much easier to go about our lives pretending all is well in who-vile or whatever it is that we call where we live.)
Yet most interpretations of this passage or sermons you've heard for that matter seek to guilt us into believing our calling as Christians is to be more like the widow. For we read in verse 42 and following that when it came to offering time in the nearby temple: "a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny . . . out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” And so, like her, we too must give more!
(So shall I take a special offering now? Will the ushers come forward . .. Ok, just kidding.)
It's inspirational isn't it? Giving beyond our means. Giving till it hurts. Giving all we have even if it means our own personal suffering. But last time I checked the Bible was not an inspirational book, but one full of challenges to our societal norms.
And so this morning, I am not going to tell you to be more like the widow. For how much you give and how you give, comes out of your own life circumstances and spiritual journey. Your giving practices are a conversation you must have and keep having with your Maker.
But what I am going to ask you to do is to see the world as it really is-- not to glorify poverty but to lament with me for a moment that we live in a world where those with few resources have to carry the responsibility of giving what they do not have so that the rest of us can learn what loving neighbor is all about.
Professor David Lose of Luther Seminary asks us all this pointed question: "Are we wrongfully accepting the gifts of those who are giving too much of their income while we praise, and give influence to, those who give greater sums but hardly feel the impact of their gifts?"
While Kevin and I were spending time on Wednesday of this week, dedicating the new wing of a school that Feed The Children gave to an impoverished community outside of Manila, our schedule included some time in the community from which the children came. Namely the slums.
I was prepared for anything I thought but little did I know what was in store.
Remember this was the slums... But when the community heard Feed The Children was coming, they made our group quick guests of honor. A tent was found to give us shade (not sure where it came from). Plastic chairs were brought from individual homes to make sure we had somewhere to sit. A banner of welcome made from bedroom sheets hung over our seats of welcome. The town council chair said to us "We don't get visitors often. We wanted you to feel special."
And special we felt as kids and mothers alike performed for us cultural Filipino dances and modern ones too, sang solos and prayed blessing prayers over us. Kids even without shoes put on their best outfits for the performance.
At one point during the program, Kevin leaned over to me and said, “I can't imagine what amount of work this took to put our visit on like this."
"Yeah, I know."
"Look up Elizabeth, and see those decorations across the tent. Those are colored plastic grocery bags filled with air have become such a colorful and resourceful expression of their welcome to us. . . . Folks with so little have given us everything, all they have."
Like the widow with her mite, our team was given some of the most pure expressions of love and hospitality that can be experienced in our world. We who came from so much-- people who could have parties every week and afford more than blown up plastic bags for decorations-- were given all that these people had.
We, oh citizens of this great nation , of the United States of America. I am here to say that in this gospel reading we play the role of the scribes. There's just no way to get around it. We are the ones who have left the poor behind.
No matter if we find ourselves in the middle of the Filipino slums or right here on the Plaza in Reston, we are contributors to the systems in this world that pretend to give but indeed take and take some more.
We pretend to be people who care for social justice but we buy cheap clothes and jewelry from sweat shops in developing countries where workers earn pennies an hour.
We pretend to be great givers to church, civic groups and other non-profits, but our end of the year giving reflects more distaste for federal taxes and less about giving and receiving one another abundantly.
We pretend to give sacrificial gifts to loved ones during the holidays but what we really are doing is re-gifting stuff we didn't like from last year.
Today's sermon is not meant to make us feel guilty for what we have or what we don't give away. But simply to tell us the truth of who we are. When it comes to giving as Jesus showed us how and gave to us, we are clueless.
But thanks be to God that there is always good news. We can live a life that counts for the good of all people.
Later on in the same day (that we visited the slums), Kevin and I made a trek up a very tall hill to visit another family. I was grumbling because I had flip-flops on and didn’t quite think I’d be able to make it the whole way. But somehow, we arrived at a stopping spot. There we were introduced to a mother of one child who struggles to have food to give to her daughter. Though her husband works in factory that sends goods to America—figurines, in fact that we will probably see on our shelves during the holidays, she hardly has enough rice or meat in any given day not to go hungry.
As Kevin and I listened to her story of pain, and we both struggled not to cry (unsuccessfully of course). Why did the rains of blessing fall on us but not her, we wondered, As we left, I stopped the camera crew. “Where’s the hope?” We have to give them hope. We didn't give that family any hope in the interview. (We learned that later the Feed the Children staff would be bringing them food for the next week).
And so, we always must have hope. We interact with one another in hope. And here is yours:
If we are ready to see the world as God sees it . . . If we are ready to live more of our days with the kind of generosity that is not taking too much or too less . . . If we are ready to accept our Pharisee status and move on to what God has prepared for us, our Lord is ready to teach us. I’ll say it again, the Lord is ready to teach us.
All we have to do is ask.