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Not a stewardship sermon

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The text (from bible.oremus.org 

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 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."

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

On face value, you might read this gospel reading and think, "Oh, how wonderful this good little widow is, putting all of her money into the offering and not thinking about herself at all."


This is especially true given the time in the year this reading happens to come for many churches, which is in the midst of their stewardship series.

"See if we would all just put everything we had into the basket and not worry about where things come from then the church wouldn't ever have to worry about its budget for the coming season and we would be able to do all the things we want to do; hire a secretary and a groundskeeper, have our own school, wire our own internet, hire a professional website developer." 

Yes, it all sounds pretty good.

But that's a dream world. And for all our talk about it, it's not based in reality. That widow, who puts in everything she owns into that treasury, now has nothing to live on herself.  And what good will that do her when the institution, which has been leeching her money, actually fails her in the end.

Now, these scribes are part of a religious institution that carries with it longstanding beliefs about the nature of what constitutes good in society.  As far back as the laws of Moses, we read about how the people of Israel must ensure that they help the helpless, the great trifecta of "the widow, the orphan and the stranger in their lands".  And you see it in the prophets as well, in their criticisms of their leaders, and how they care for the widows, orphans and strangers.  That care is a measure of how society is doing--and how they are failing. If those three groups are not being taken care of, then God is not happy with those in charge.

So, here, sitting in front of the treasury, Jesus is not simply making a casual observance about the ever-sacrificial nature of this widow, he is making a sharp criticism of the powers that be, the scribes "who like to walk around in long robes."  It is a social statement about the the wrongs the institution itself is doing with the people who are in its care.

But is this solely an indictment of the temple, an institution that is clearly not acting in the best interests of the objects of their need? Is the widow unwittingly  giving everything she has in misguided faith expecting that her needs will be met only to have it all "devoured" by the scribes so that they might look good?

We should consider her motivation. This woman is making a great sacrifice for a cause that she devoutly believes in.  In light of that, I think about our veterans that have served our country, and the sacrifices they have made for that cause. And you should know if you don't already, today is November 11, Veterans Day.

Veteran's Day has its origins in the First World War. It was a time that our nation lost so many of its young men from fighting and we needed to heal as a nation.  And so, in 1919, one year after the end of the war was declared, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice day, saying, "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations."  Armistice Day became Veterans Day after World War II to have a day to commemorate the living and the dead of all wars.

But while we have a day to remember all those that have served, we haven't always been the best stewards of their care.

Even before World War II, veterans who had suffered from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often met with difficulties returning to society.  Many of us remember those that came back from Vietnam were often greeted by crowds of people who, rather than embraced them with open arms, rejected them with protests as soon as they came off the planes.

And in truth, what is it we do to commemorate our veterans today? Are we providing them the services that we promised them when we asked them to put their lives on the line for us? Why is it that veterans are twice as likely to kill themselves then their civilian counterparts? And female veterans three times as likely? Here's another statistic: young male veterans, under the age of 24, are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed than their civilian counterparts. 

Homelessness is also highly prevalent among veterans. On any given night, 2 out of every 5 individuals on the street is a veteran. That's a disproportionate representation of their membership in population as a whole.

Whether or not the institutions that we have in place to serve veterans are meeting their needs, the VA can only do so much on its own.  it still stands to reason that some needs are not being met for those people who have given up so much, so that we can maintain our own freedoms. After all, what can we expect when  are just a creation of the humans hands that make them. 

What can we expect when we put all of our trust into things made by human hands...institutions, government... temples...

I'm not interested in playing the game of who are the best Christians, but it should go without saying that there have been, church bodies that do not always seem to have the best interest of those they serve at heart. This has been true in history, and it is sometimes true even today. And every week it seems I am reading a new story online about some person with authority who represents a religious institution who is taking advantage of members of their flock in some way or another.  They're absconding with money, or taking advantage of services or some other illicit activity.

Psalm 146 today, sung with such beauty by our choir, reminds us not to "put our trust in those who rule, the mighty of the earth." It is God who raises up those who are bent low."  This is why Jesus came, to sit across from the treasury and to oppose, not the earthly institutions that people created and that people blindly put their trust in, but the way those who run those things do it to serve their own ends, who walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect. Who lobby the government to engage in opportunities that increase their own pockets while exploiting the common people.

This is why Jesus came, so that we would have a place to put our fears and needs, so that we wouldn't have to rely on institutions that all too often fail us.  To be the one who understands us and sympathizes with us and gives us somewhere to carry our fear and be healed.  Because where we can be failed by the very human hands that are managing those institutions, we may yet remain fully faithful that God is there to provide for us with love and encouragement and hope, and will not let us down when we are in need.

Maybe the widow is dropping all the money she has in the world to this treasury because she has faith and hope that the institution will do good for her, and maybe it is a sacrifice, like those of the soldiers in our wars who have died and have been wounded both physically and in ways we, as society, have fallen short of measuring, but as Jesus is pointing out, she is giving way more of herself than those who are giving more value but much less proportion; and it makes no difference whether the we find her giving misguided; it is hers to give and her sacrifice to make.

The widow herself has honor and in the end, Jesus is well aware of the incredible contribution she has made. He knows about her sacrifice and her faith, and she will be rewarded. Rather than pity her, we should certainly honor her, as Jesus has, as much as we should honor those that have sacrificed their lives for us.

So, this is obviously not a sermon on stewardship, because the lesson here is not that you should drop everything you have into the collection plate leaving yourself nothing to live on.  While your contribution to the church is meaningful and important and is very much valued and appreciated, it is Jesus and not the institution, where your faith should lie and it is there that it makes all the difference. It is in trusting Jesus that we receive the blessings and grace that nurture and care for our well-being.  It is in trusting Jesus that we find our needs met. 

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This page contains a single entry by Cary Bass-Deschenes published on November 13, 2012 1:55 PM.

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