Give and Take

Passage: Mark 12:38-44
Date: November 11, 2018
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

Having trouble playing the audio? download the mp3

Sermon

This morning I told my colleague Melissa Olmsted that this sermon feels like it should come with a warning label.It feels like it may be too heavy.She paraphrased Mr. Rogers. Instead of looking for the helpers, perhaps what we need in this time is to look for the light.Look for the light. 

At 11 a.m. on November 11, exactly 100 years ago, there was the first observance of Armistice Day, which in the 1950s in the U.S. became Veterans Day.It was the end of World War I; the “Great War,” “the war to end all wars.”On average, roughly 6,000 men were killed every day of the war. Before it was over, 10 million soldiers lay dead, millions more, wounded.The war machines and devastation of the First World War created a mood of disillusionment.For T. S. Eliot, the postwar world was a wasteland of despair. He wrote: “I think we are in rats’ alley, where the dead men lost their bones.” Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front saw a generation of men “weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope.”And there were millions of orphans and widows, bereaved. Things fell apart, and the world felt the loss of “we.”

The world falling apart was also felt by Israel in 70 AD, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Roman Empire.Their center was devastated.It was an apocalypse; the end of the world they had known.That is the time in which the Gospel of Mark was written.

In today’s passage from Mark, there are two parts.First, Jesus warns about some of the scribes, the administrators, the lawyers of the day.He warned that the ones who like to wear long robes and occupy places of honor, those officials who like the best seats at the table, the prestige and the fame—they “devour the widows’ houses.”Then, Jesus observes one of those widows.She is so poor that she has only two coins left to give to the temple treasury.This tale of “The Widow’s Mite” has been used at times in sermons to inspire sacrificial giving, but that interpretation may miss the point.If we only emphasize her action, we neglect Jesus’ warning about those in power who take at the expense of others.Those who give lip service,but who profit from an unjust system—they receive the greater condemnation.In the ancient world, and today,the powerful prey upon the vulnerable. Jesus and the prophets call out the injustices and plead with God’s people to do better. 

The Bible brims with stories of God’s concern for the widow and the poor.In fact, when we read “widow,” think: anyone at the margins.In Deuteronomy 10, we read:For the Lord … is the great God … who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

When those in power take and the vulnerable are crushed, the community has lost the “we.”The point of this scripture is not simply about giving of ourselves; it’s a caution about our systems that enable the powerful to take at the expense of the vulnerable.As people of God, our ongoing call is to not just to charity, but to the work of justice.Those of us who have a cushion from poverty are often blind to the challenges of poverty and exclusion.

The “we” that God loves is broad.It transcends language, nation, class and religion.In Jesus’ time and today, the vulnerable are always the first to be hit (and hardest) by disaster.Today, there are people who have lost everything by fire. We know that these fires have intensified due to climate change.It’s a tragedy for all who have lost.For those with some wealth, there may be some recovery.But for the poor, the recovery may never come.

The past weeks of campaigns and the election reveal a nation that has lost a sense of “we.”How do we experience community when the fissures are exposed?The brokenness between the urban and rural, men and women, Democrat and Republican, people of color and white people, the wealthy 1% and the other 99%, Christianity and other religions?When the world is topsy-turvy and we’ve lost our center, who is our “we”?How do we stand up for justice without yielding to hatred?

We have Jesus to show us the “we.”The Gospel message always puts this standard before us:How do our actions impact the most vulnerable?Does what I use and take make things more difficult for those who have less?Am I devouring the widows’ houses?Jesus’ warning moves us beyond our individual lives and pulls the curtain away to reveal our systems that need transformation.But it can be a risky business.Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camara said: “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist.”

Now, not ALL the scribes were corrupt.Notice the passage in Mark just prior, 12:28ff: A scribe asked Jesus which commandment was the most important.Jesus answered: “‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ And, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said, “You are right, Teacher; to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love the neighbor as yourself—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And Jesus said to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

This is the core of it all:We belong to God, and we belong to one another.We are called to love because we belong to each other.Not just to our family of origin, or our town, or state or country.But to the world.Every time things break apart in war, in social hierarchies and economic divisions, in families, in relationship:we lose some of the “we.”And, Jesus calls us back, over and over, to belonging with God and with each other.

Sometimes the “we” that breaks apart is family.In this post-election Sunday, some of us are wondering how we are going to navigate family Thanksgiving and Christmas.Partner, parent, ex-spouse, child, or friend—when what’s broken is near and dear to our heart, can we look upon the “other” as the vulnerable one?

Recently, I heard from an old friend who was estranged.We lost contact long ago, after a couple of volatile conversations.I never expected to hear from him again.But a couple of weeks ago, he e-mailed me an apology (in the subject line).And in the e-mail message, he wrote that he had just become homeless.His girlfriend kicked him out, and he subsequently lost his job.Though he had some money in the bank, he could no longer afford housing in Portland.I wasn’t sure how I could help.I called him when I got the sad e-mail.When we spoke, he was huddled in an empty shed on a very rainy evening.His dignity kept him from taking money from me.It wasn’t feasible to offer housing with my family.What he needed was a long-term plan.

I felt so inadequate in the conversation, not sure how to help in his dire circumstances.We talked through all that had happened.So, we talked, and I listened and reminded him that he is cared for.We hung up, and all through the next few days, I thought of him, cold and miserable in the torrent of Portland rain.Fortunately, in less than a week, he was able to travel back to his hometown, housing with old friends.He found a job there.After he had settled in his new (old) place, he assured me that our conversation was just what he needed, when he needed it the most.He had temporarily lost a sense of “we,” but in reaching out to me and other friends, he found connection again, and hope.

We don’t have to look far to find the people at the edge of things.Close by are people who are part of the “we” who are struggling.

This morning in the education hour, we learned about C.S. Lewis.Lewis was in trenches and wounded in combat during World War I.He was an atheist during that time.But after the war, his spiritual journey led him to a rediscovery of connection,joy, and a deep, Christian faith.Most of us know him from the children’s book series The Chronicles of Narnia.In these books, an image of God is represented by the great lion, Aslan. This morning, as we think of all that is broken, the situations where we have lost the “we,” where the center has been destroyed, as we seek ways to bring justice for the most vulnerable, and as we may feel inadequate to the big tasks before us, I offer this quote, from Lewis’Prince Caspian.(Lucy Pevensie is a little girl and main character in the books.)

Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from his face. But there must have been some magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I'm sorry, Aslan,”she said. “I'm ready now.”
“Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed.” 

We come to worship sometimes to feel lion-strength.The magic that comes from being a “we” and loving one another and God.The power that acceptance, forgiveness and hope, and God’s spirit forges in us. 

In the closing minutes of silence, don’t worry about finding the next hymn.Let’s spend this silence, 100 years after the Armistice, remembering those who’ve died in war.Those who gave their lives for the higher good, for the “we.”And let us remember the widows and orphans.We remember all at the margin:the vulnerable“we.”