Posts Tagged ‘Mark 12: 38-44’

“…for she has put in all she had…”

November 8, 2015

If this morning’s gospel lesson was just about money, the sermon would be simple.  If it was just about worth, or prestige, or even if it was just about appearances, it would be very simple.  But our gospel addresses the way all of these things come together in our experience;  money and worth, prestige and appearances all collide to form our cultural foundations, and Jesus introduces faith to the mix to teach us about the economy of the kingdom of God . 

The crowds were listening to Jesus “with delight”, according to Mark 12:37.  He was constantly turning the arguments of the wise into punchlines.  The religious experts are out-argued, and the crowds of self-important, publicly religious people – well-to-do merchants and community leaders of some substance – are first parodied, and then dismissed!  None of their gifts count for anything, Jesus says, when compared to these two, small, copper coins.  And we who want for no material thing wonder how this can be so…

Because we live in a prosperous, free-market democracy, we pretend to know how the economy works, at least at the most basic level; everything costs something.  Some things cost more than others, but in almost every instance, the sum of your time and materials, plus a small profit (because the workers deserves their wage) determines what any given thing will cost.

But the trick to economics is the difference between what a thing costs, and what someone (or something) determines that “thing” to be worth.  The relative value of things changes with their scarcity, or their beauty, or their desirability.  The ability to navigate these differences in a free market is what generates wealth, power and influence…for some.

Unless you are an ardent communist, or on the wrong end of a real estate deal, it is hard to object to a system that has fed, clothed and housed most of us fairly well for the last 70 years or so – but as disciples of Jesus, we should object fairly regularly, because it is a system that does not reward true merit, or even honest toil.  Too many honest, hard-working, faithful folk are trapped by the imbalance of wealth in this country.  World-wide, an alarming number of people are forced to exist on pittance, because those who control the wealth have developed quite a taste for comfort, power and lives of ease.

Some of those are quite visible – sports stars, entertainers, entrepreneurs and politicians – public figures who spare no expense to tell the world how good it is at the top, and who sometimes suggest that they know all about worth – about what is valuable – and if only you and I would to accept their definitions, and work very hard, we would be able to live as they do…

You may have thought this was going to be a sermon against religious fakery – perhaps I would shed my “flowing robe” and forgo the long public prayer after the sermon – but when Jesus talks about money, he makes a statement about faith and devotion.  And he always takes great care to tell us that God does not measure, or value, or consider costs in the same way we do.  God’s estimate of our worth is such that, in Jesus, God was willing to give up everything for our sake.  From Creator to Crucified – that is not a sensible economic transaction in our eyes; but in God’s economy, it is the only transaction that matters.

We are in a season where we spend a lot of time thinking about cost, and worth, and value – not to mention sacrifice and thankfulness – and it is easy to think of these things in strict economic terms.  But Jesus warns us that it is a mistake to pretend that our values reflect God’s values. Simply calling ourselves faithful or devoted does not ensure that our behaviour will bring the Kingdom of God closer.

So when the rich call themselves ‘blessed’, we ought to be suspicious; and when the victor offers a prayer of thanksgiving, we need to hear humility and grace, not jubilant certainty; and when politicians and people in power use the language of salvation, we should not be relieved, we should be afraid.

Human history is one of confusion; we confuse cost with value – appearance with power (devotion); prestige with justice – and we are guilty of confusing the Kingdom of God with the economically ordered world that we live in.  Jesus does not promise (or promote) God’s Kingdom as a place where the righteous will have/can get whatever they want, whenever they want – rather, God’s kingdom is a place where no one will want for anything – because God’s economy promises that God provides enough; enough faith; enough joy; enough love.  Thanks be to God that we have, in Jesus, seen the fullness of God’s gracious gifts.  in Jesus we are offered such an abundance of what is good and right and true, that nothing else is necessary.



Faithful witness

October 31, 2015

What does it mean to “love God and glorify God forever”?  To attend worship services and become ‘involved’ with the life of a congregation is only part of the challenge.  Yes, worship and Christian service in the world are made possible (and “easier”) if we are working together toward a common goal or purpose, but as we know, gathering together is easier if you have a building; and buildings are expensive to maintain; and money is increasingly hard to come by when the number of givers (or their economic circumstances) change.  In these times, it doesn’t take long before our energy is directed to worries about maintenance, and finances and the search for “willing workers” becomes a quest for “warm bodies” – and the church becomes just another organization with its hand out, rather than a place where people can be encouraged and nourished and discover the gift of God’s love in Jesus.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself when was the last time you talked to someone about something that excites you; chances are it was the Blue Jays, or the recent election.  Do any of us get excited about what we do together as the people of God?  Do we brag up the soup lunch (sometimes), or cradle roll (we should)… or do we rave about how a worship service challenged or changed us…?  I didn’t think so.

It’s not that we’re not faithful – and I’m not doubting that your lives have been affected by your encounter with God and your faith in the Risen Christ.  Your willingness to return to this sanctuary, week after week – year in and year out – tells me that there is something here that you need – something that feeds you – something that you cannot resist.  I know that it isn’t me – I hope that it’s not me – because it is my task to point you to the source of all joy; The hope is that we might all encounter the majesty of God in Christ – and I pray that such an encounter changes each of us.  Because the church that we say we want – a church brimming with life and love and the activity of the faithful – is only possible because of what others see in us (or hear from us).

The witness of the faithful in every season can have enormous consequences in the community of the curious; and we are surrounded by curious people who have little or no understanding of the church except that the church is always raising money for something.  What might those consequences be?  Let us consider our Scripture lessons from a moment ago

First, there is Jesus’ encounter with a scribe of the law (Mk 12: 38-44)  The scribe ‘tests’ Jesus understanding of the law of Moses: “What commandment is the greatest?”, he asks, and Jesus offers good, solid orthodox teaching.  The scribe praises the teacher and affirms his statement – a solid case of one persons witness affecting another part of the community.  They have discovered a point of unity between them.  But when Jesus returns praise to the scribe, who repeats Jesus answer and expands on it slightly, Jesus’ praise goes beyond mere back-slapping.  “You are not far from the Kingdom of God…” he says.  What a witness – what generous praise – what a way to open the door to a stranger!  The further results of this conversation are not recorded – but can you imagine; two potential adversaries (the scribes were always nervous of “new” teachers and their potential for upsetting the faith community) discover that they are allies!  the community is strengthened; the call to consider these two (equally) great commandments can now be shared by what were two formerly separate communities of the Jewish faith – bound together by a desire to love God and neighbour.

And in case you are still sceptical – after all, it’s easy to talk about faith with other people of the same faith (Jesus and the scribe are both Jewish, after all…) – consider the story of Naomi and her daughter in law Ruth.

A woman of faith – Naomi – far from home and in desperate need following the death of her husband and both of her sons – Naomi is still living what I will call a ‘life of attractive faith’.  Her daughter’s-in-law are doing their best to stand by her in her distress.  Ruth is so taken by the example set by Naomi that she renounces her home, her family and the religion of her childhood to accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem.  Naomi’s must have been a powerful witness for God even in deep distress and misfortune, for Ruth’s life to be so radically changed. “Your people will be my people; your God will be my God.”  There is no evidence that Naomi compelled her son’s wives to follow in the family religion – there was something about the way Naomi faced her troubles that helped Ruth choose such a risky path.

The church today faces a risky path forward, and it is hard not to lose our way in despair.  But the beauty of the Christian faithis that risk and struggle should not be offered as excuses for failure – indeed, it is in our struggles that our faith should be MOST EVIDENT!  The church is not struggling because of the culture – and the ‘death of Christian culture” should hold no fear for us.

We are disciples of the risen Christ – we believe that death is not to be feared – furthermore, our faith insists that death is a necessary step on the journey toward life abundant; life in the Kingdom of God.  Physical death is only one way to achieve the promised gift of God – but Jesus teaches that the death of certain ideas also propel us toward the Kingdom; and so Jesus praises an approach to the law that focuses on God’s love and our emulation of that love – and Ruth follows her faith-filled mother-in-law into foreign territory; and throws herself on the mercy of a man who follows the principles of love laid down in the law; and we can take a lesson from these Scriptural examples.

Instead of striving for survival at any cost, or wringing our hands in despair at the signs of decline in our churches, perhaps we should embrace the death of things that do not satisfy, do not glorify, and do not nurture faith in our risen Saviour.

That sounds like a terrifying thing as I write it – (I’m not sure I’ll have the courage to say it out loud) – but the truth of the matter is that faith is an eternal gift (not to mention a sign of God’s presence) and the community of faith is a large, unwieldy and fluid thing, but the idea of “church” as a stable, permanent, constant fixture in the culture is dead, dead, dead.

If that troubles you, it shouldn’t, because the signs of that death have been with us for years.  And the death of “Christendom” (the cultural prerogative of Christian people to make the rules and set the standards) is, for many people, something to celebrate.  A culture that neither understands Christianity nor defers to it, is a place that frees people of faith to start from scratch – to tell people about Jesus (rather than explain what WE are all about as ‘the church’…) – and I think that is a thrilling place to be.

It has always been hard to “be the people of God”, no matter what we tell ourselves. But in those times when the challenges seem most severe, we are given ample opportunity to express that faith – to acknowledge that not even human indifference can (destroy) the Church of Christ.  For Christ’s church is not the work of human hands; it is a work of the love and majesty of God. Thanks be to God, we are not responsible for the survival of this venerable institution. The “future of the church” is entirely in God’s safekeeping.   The challenge that we CAN accept is to share the good news; to tell the story. The future of our faithful witness rests in our willingness to be challenged and changed by the truth of Christ’s victory over death.

November 11, 2012

November 11, 2012

Today is a day we must think carefuly

about honour, and sacrifice, and of “giving all that one has”…

Such words and ideas cannot be casually handled at any time, but especially today,

when our thought turn towards those whose service in uniform – in times of conflict and in peacetime – have done much to influence our modern definiitons

of “honour”, “sacrifice” and “giving all that one has…”

So it is with great caution that I approach Mark 12: 38-44 on this eleventh of November.

Jesus approval for a woman who has given “everything she had, all she had to live on”

can be too easily turned into an affirmation of a foreign policy

that takes men and women into harms way.

The problem with Jesus is that his ideas sound so radical, that it is easy to turn them into dangerous behaviour “in the name of God”.

On a day full of widow’s stories (Naomi & Ruth and this unnamed woman in Mark)

we cannot ignore the conditions that led to their widowhood.

Poverty and conflict go hand in hand – to the victors, go the spoils,

but the vanquished are left in ruins.

The cost of conflict is greater than expanded millitary budgets and impressive national deficits.

Societies are crippled by fighting –

young men (and women) are killed, families lose breadwinners –

economic hardship is a certainty – and Jesus speaks to the truth of this:

“this woman has put in everything she had…”

On this day, when we recall the sacrifice of those called to take up arms for their countries,

let there be no mistake: a terrible price has been paid by all of us in the name of freedom.

For we have come to believe that there is no other way to secure said freedom

except by force of arms – nation against nation.

The winner in such a contest is not the righteous cause, but rather the most powerful.

And Jesus illustration reminds us that God,

the righteous judge,

holds a different view of sacrifice.

The gift of this powerless, poverty-stricken, anonymous woman

is the gift Jesus would have us notice.

In direct contrast to those “who have the best seats in synagogues, and places of honour at banquets…” she has given willingly, freely and with a trust in God’s grace that frees her from worry.

This is a lesson in love – an example of great faith – a sign of her divine hope –

but it is not about sacrifice – Jesus does not direct us to pursue poverty –

nor to offer up our lives for the sake of our own righteousness;

No – Jesus encourages us to think about justice – peace –

and would surely remind us of an earlier imperative to love our neighbour.

So as we honour those who made difficult personal choices due to complicated international politics,

and as we remember the dead and the returned and those forever changed,

let us also remember the call for change that comes from Scripture –

a call to justice and compassion an invitation to take up the way of peace, and practice war no more.

And may God give us courage and wisdom, that we might quickly answer that call. Amen

Thinking on widows…

November 7, 2009

This morning we encounter two very different women in scripture.

Ruth’s story and the story of the widow’s mite are wonderful old favourites for most of us.

We have heard them read – perhaps we have studied them in depth.

They come to us in familiar form,

and we think we know what these stories are going to be about…

we have convinced ourselves (or been convinced by others)

that at the heart of these stories is a faithful devotion to the unseen mercy of God.

But how do these stories show us God’s mercy?

Is Jesus really saying that we should impoverish ourselves for the sake of our souls?

Is it true, every time , that the landless, powerless stranger

will land safely in the arms of someone who will care for her,

if only she trusts enough – has faith enough?

If God’s mercy is the theme here, it is well hidden.

Ruth and Naomi are full of plans and schemes as there story is told –

they are leaving nothing to chance in all of this –

not waiting on God, but putting herself firmly in Boaz’ way,

so that he must take notice – must act.

His reputation will be ruined if he does nothing –

God’s mercy there may be, but it is not the wide open arms of mercy we would like to see.

God is at work in (and in spite of) the planning and manipulation

of these faulty, but faithful people of God,

and through them comes a king that will take God’s people in yet another direction.

But there is the matter of this widow in the temple –

a place where mercy has become rather scarce.

This text has been transformed for me this week, from a hollow lesson in stewardship

(give all you can and God will take care of things)

to a scathing accusation against the lack of mercy

to which the people of God are often inclined.

Jesus leaves the widow’s fate hanging – “she has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

the implication is clear – this two-penny offering may well have been her dying act.

The officials don’t notice her.

The important people go on praying and parading around in their glory.

Think back to last week – the encounter with the scribe;

it’s part of the same scene in Mark’s telling.

The first commandment?

More important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices…Love God, love neighbour.

Where is the love in this woman’s poverty?

You must imagine, says one commentator,

that Jesus shakes with rage when he describes this woman’s offering –

not angry at her, but at the system that has turned its back on her.

We still stand convicted of Jesus’ anger.

We delight in our churches – the buildings, the institution – we fight for the preservation of our traditions, our congregations, our worship practices and all that.

We are selfless in our giving to keep things going,

and there are many good things going on as a result –

but just imagine how much more mercy and love could we demonstrate

if we could take our oil budget

and use it to supplement the income of those whose jobs have ended –

if we took our maintenance and housing money,

and used it to house those who are living in the street –

if we released ourselves from the burden of paying ordained clergy,

and used the savings to purchase medicine, food and clothing

for the outcast and downtrodden of our own time.

it seems like foolishness because ultimately I’m talking about my own welfare.

But the money we devote to ‘sustaining church’ –

to having worship and being a presence in the community – to keeping buildings and paying ministers, administrators, musicians and missionaries –

could be used to give glory to God in so many different and imaginative ways…

God’s people could be free to enter into the lives of the suffering majority

to offer up our devotion in more practical ways – meaningful ways –

and that, I think, is the point in Jesus anger.

He is reminding us, in every age, how easily the focus of our devotion is altered.

The rich in their flowing robes had long ago stopped honouring God – stopped noticing their sisters and brothers in pain and need –

stopped giving God glory.

The fixation on the time and place – the method and manner of worship and work

is no more honouring God than those loud, long prayers of the perfectly pious.

Our worship is important, but the focus of our worship is more important.

Some structure is important, but to what does that structure point us?

Our activity must draw us closer to one another in love, and closer to God in love

whether we meet in a cathedral, or a cabin.

When we are looking to the welfare of our neighbours,

when the stranger in our midst feels at ease,

when our worship and our work brings to mind the Risen Christ and the glory of God

then we will have accomplished something great.

Not once in scripture does Jesus ask us to build an institution devoted to keeping the rules

He asks us to baptise and teach – to make disciples –

to live in the light of that love of God that he so often demonstrated in his life’s work.

His focus was God – God’s kingdom, God’s glory –

and we are invited to follow his example.

Not giving our our riches, for our glory –

but sharing in the gifts of God,

that all may offer praise and give God glory.