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#NOTALLCHRISTIANS--Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

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A widow who gives all of her meager savings is the epitome of giving, and also not very considerate of herself. But giving of one's life, now that's a different matter. 

 Please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The text is included for your convenience, but it is not entirely like the delivered version, which includes nuances that can't be read.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

November 8, 2015  -  24th Sunday after Pentecost

"Freedom to Sin".  Text is from Mark 12:38-44

Happy Sunday morning to you my sisters and brothers in Christ, saints and sinners, children of God. 

Our gospel situates us comfortably in Mark, right smack dab in another passage that seems to be two completely unrelated parts.  If we had not broken out of the regular reading cycle for the last two weeks by celebrating Reformation and All Saints Day, we would see that we enter this passage, we know that Jesus is in the temple, and therefore the crowd that is watching him is most certainly made up of observant Jews, some of whom are the scribes of whom he speaks. But this also comes on the heels of another encounter with another scribe, one which was positive, and one which the scribe answered rightly and Jesus practically blesses him by saying, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."  

So Jesus is warning us of the scribes, and let us be clear, while there are certainly those among them who stand out, he is certainly berating the entire class of them and their hypocritical behavior, how they freely take the savings of the old and vulnerable, and sit there saying prayers, while at the same time looking left and right to see who is watching them. 

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Because it is certainly not a mistake that he moves on to the treasury, his disciples in tow, to point out the giving of those who give a great deal versus the one poor widow who drops the entire value of one thin cent. It is everything she is, and in her faith she has given it to the treasury. And it is no mistake that Jesus has contrasted her giving with those who have, while given much, have done because they in fact have a lot to give. These days we'd say it was a tax write off. 

I have to wonder why this reading always comes at the beginning of November, every third year, a time in many churches of when they are working on developing their budget, and are preparing to engage their members to get them to commit to some portion of their income so that we can rightfully predict how much money they can spend over the course of the next year. I'll refer to it as Stewardship Season.  I don't know if the people who formulated the revised common lectionary intended it that way or if this reading just happened to be in the right place in Mark at the right time.  

And so we might hear this gospel read out loud and say to ourselves, "Oh, look at all those people, but this one widow in particular, putting all of her money into the offering and not thinking about herself at all, how wonderful and selfless she must be." 

And we might even talk among ourselves saying, "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; bring the secretary on more hours and bring our property more fully up to code, upgrade our copier machine, hire a professional website developer."

"Bring the pastor on full time..." 

Yes, it all sounds pretty good.

But there is some reality to take into account.  Because when you look at this widow, who has put her last penny in the treasury, now has nothing to buy a loaf of bread with, her last loaf of bread.  And while we know nothing about her, we know that her faith, while unwavering, is also somewhat misplaced. She is giving money to the old system, the treasury of a corrupt and hypocritical system, and what good will it do her when finally that institution, which has been leeching her money, actually fails her in the end? 

And so if we read this passage in light of church stewardship we are not only left with the need to question this poor widow's wisdom, for while her piety is great, her lack of self-care seems abominable, but we also do her a disservice reducing the importance of what is being said here and her contribution to mere tithing. For the words if the words might lead us one direction in our translation of the Gospel text, there is a definitive underlying meaning in the literal original Greek. Instead of "all she had to live on" we may read, "all her living."  Her whole life. 

And so Jesus is not contrasting the way the wealthy tithe versus the poor, but what this lone widow is giving versus the hypocrisy of those whose jobs it is to be the temple. And this widow's very faithful and selfless act of giving is not only a contrast between the one who clearly has poured herself out until she has nothing left and those who are doing it for appearances only, and in doing so, Jesus has presented his disciples with another clue as to his ultimate fate.

And so this becomes something significantly other than a stewardship sermon.

I'm not at all interested in playing the game of what constitutes the best Christian. I find myself looking at social media and it seems every day one of my friends is posting a meme or story about how some people labeled Christians do not get the central message that Jesus Christ provided to the world. Often those are people without faith in God themselves, who are more apt to quote Mahatma Gandhi than Jesus Christ.  And I paraphrase: "I quite like the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is Christians that I do not like because they do not even live up to their teachings." And it does bear exploring that many of those who proclaim their love of God and proclaim their theology for all the world to see should also be ones who consistently value ideologies that exploit the poor and marginalized and continue to maintain structures of oppression that divide humans and devalue people of other races.   

But it become only natural for me to want to react to such statements with either the platitude: "But not all Christians are like that", or by joining in the chorus of "Well those people are not really Christians anyway," because in my comfort I really want to be accepted by those who would accept me for who I am, and not reject me like a great many of those on the other side of the religious spectrum would do. But when I do that.  When I stand up and politicize my religion in such a manner, decrying the contributions of another class of Christian with the intent of being accepted and loved for my own, am I not also acting with the same heart as those scribes in the marketplace, who like to walk around looking pious for the sake of appearances? 

To be certain, I want to change the perception of what a Christian is. I want to be able to proclaim my faith in public while still maintaining an acceptance of the crowd of intellectuals not only for my own personal glory but so that people can see that having Christ in one's heart is rather something not to be decried as superstitious but as positive and helpful. But what's wrong with that worrying about what others think about me and my spirituality and my religious convictions will always separate me from living a life of complete devotion to the God. And when I start pointing fingers at people whose politics I disagree with and calling them "not true Christians," I not only claim powers that I do not have, an ability to see the heart of someone else based on their actions, without looking at a whole person, but also I do so in order to lift myself up.

Psalm 146, from which we read responsively, reminded 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."   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. And, he lifted up the one who would give her entire life to service while soundly reminding his disciples that a life of discipleship is not one of self-aggrandizement but one of giving one's own life service to Christ.  

And so, in a way, this reading might actually be about stewardship after all. But it is not the stewardship of financial resources, because if everybody gave everything they owned all we would have is people left with nothing.  But the stewardship of one's self.  And God does not call for anything else than that we give him our whole lives, that we not leave God for Sunday morning or Wednesday evening but that we act him out in our daily activities, our comings and goings, our meetings and signings and encounters. That whether we tithe 10% or 1% of our income, or give to the church in other ways that we give the rest of our time to being worthy stewards of his creation. That discipleship is not worrying about acceptance but accepting one's self and one's life in Christ and embodying his loving spirit in kindness to one another, devotion to him and thanksgiving for the gifts that he gives us. 

And in doing so, in giving everything to God we receive ourselves and everything back, while sharing in his bounteous glory. We take that gift given to us by his boundless mercy and his selfless grace that Christ provided on the cross. We open our hearts to God's wondrous Spirit and doing God's work becomes effortless and second-hand, and we become the Good News of a living Jesus Christ in the World today. 


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