Its about seeing
Passage: Mark 12:38-44
Date: November 11, 2006
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Today's gospel reading originates late in Jesus' ministry, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, according to Mark. The setting: one of the outer courts of the great Temple in Jerusalem. The audience: common peasants, Jesus' disciples, and Temple scribes. The situation: For some time, Jesus has been sparing with esteemed religious leaders, particularly scribes. In that society, one establishes and defends one's honor in public. Repeatedly, Jesus has bested his opponents, men who traditionally have had much higher status than his as a lowly carpenter and itinerant preacher/healer. With tension increasingly thick, Jesus takes on some of his opponents directly. Listen as Alex reads. (12:38-44)
"Beware of deeply hypocritical scribes," Jesus warns. Not all scribes, just these whom Jesus paints at their worst. Generally, scribes were held in high honor. They performed valuable religious ministry. Trusted and admired, they functioned as a particular kind of clergy, helping people understand and practice their faith. More than in any other gospel, specific scribes in Mark are challenged, even condemned for how they do ministry. As Jesus saw them, some were nothing short of shysters. Their desire for honor, their greed had made them more than hypocritical. They had become economically demonic, preying on the powerless.
I suspect we could think of some like them in our day: those who promise blessings if we just send money; who act as sexual or emotional predators; who are more interested in their own reputations and personal kingdom building than in faithfulness. Clergy: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim-it matters not. I remember what was perhaps my most discouraging class in seminary: Church history. Dr. Georgi was an excellent professor, who taught with authenticity and honesty. As the first term progressed, and as I learned both inspiring and sordid aspects of our story, I wondered why anyone would want to be part of it, including me.
Jesus warned: "Beware of religious leaders who like to wear long robes, be greeted with respect, and have the best seats in the synagogue." Those seats were up front, facing the congregation, with their backs close to the Ark which contained the Torah, the holy scripture. Seats up front. Long robes and beautiful stoles. In my service club, nearly everyone is called by first name, except me. I am often "Rev. Moiso, or Reverend." Hmmm..
Jesus' warning scares me. I would like Westminster and thus my ministry to have authority in this city, to be of greater influence in its healing, its humanizing. Most people around here are unchurched. I would like them to say, "Oh, isn't Westminster the church that takes risks on behalf of children, youth, and families?" Or, "Isn't that the congregation that is involved in interracial relationships in NE Portland?" Or, "Isn't that the place where all sorts of people-singles, marrieds, widowed, divorced, partnered, with and without children-are welcome?" Or, "Westminster. I think I heard somebody talking about your place the other day. Something about finding healing or wholeness there." Mostly, what people say to me is: "Westminster. I've been to a meeting there."
You see, I'd love for us to have greater, more powerful visibility as a Presbyterian Christian witness to Christ's love and justice. But, built within that desire is danger: that we actually seek that result, that we get sucked into working for that image, that we measure our success against our public reputation rather than against what we believe Christ is doing in and through us. Our culture seductively pushes robes and stoles and reputations. When we go that direction, those most in need of hope, those most economically vulnerable, become expendable as we protect/beautify/enhance what we have. In a sense, we almost cannot not do this. (I know that was a double negative.) This must have been a problem in the early church, else it would not be here. Jesus reminds us, powerfully: beware. Be on guard. Jesus asks us to follow and in the following we find highest honor. It is about seeing, seeing Jesus and ourselves.
In the outer courtyard of the Temple was the treasury. They did not pass offering plates. Rather, people lined up to drop their offerings in a large metal horn-shaped receptacle. Remember: no paper money, no checks; only coins, which would make noise. Think about that here, if we were invited to dance and sing our way up to the front, and drop our offerings in. We could hear what each person gave. 200 old heavy silver dollars would make a huge racket. And then there would be the sound of a dime.
Jesus watching the procession, observing, seeing; seeing not what we'd see. Notice judgment is absent here. There is no condemnation of large givers, the movers and shakers, the ones who probably carefully calculated their tithe; nor is there particular admiration either. But for him at that moment, the normal big players are not. The thin, tattered, nondescript widow takes center stage. She does not know it, but he sees her. He does not praise her poverty. Jesus never says poverty is some romantic or God-intended ideal. He knew too well the grinding, debilitating crippling effects of it. He only notes that she was without abundance. Yet, startlingly, she gave all she had.
Widows. They are mentioned in the first part of the reading and again here. The Hebrew word for widow connotes one who is silent, unable to speak. In his society, males played the public role. Women did not speak on their own behalf. While there are a few examples of widows with property, the vast majority were economically vulnerable. Hebrew law omitted them from the prospect of inheritance. So, throughout the Old Testament, they were a symbol of the exploited, the oppressed, and therefore favored by God. In that very public Temple setting, this woman would have been invisible, unseen. She would have been among the lowest on the honor scale, in sharp contrast to those who gave abundantly. She would have been totally unnoticed, this unnamed woman. We would not know of her, except that Jesus saw her. He saw her!
I wonder if she was as invisible to them as the more than nine million American children who have no medical insurance are to us. Most of us have insurance-so do our children or grandchildren-some private plan or medicare. One in nine of the next generation in this land I love is uninsured. It is about seeing. Most of us do not see that. I am sure Jesus does.
(Walk down to the first pew.) One Sunday earlier this year, a man sat by himself in this pew, as worship began. He carried a small backpack. Tidy, he looked Hispanic to me. He seemed sort of out of place here. I did not like it that I felt that way. What went through your minds as I just described him? I wondered if he were a street person. Perhaps among the mentally ill that we as a state have decided need to care for themselves. Might he try to interrupt our worship, or get the needlepoint cushion dirty?
The service began. He seemed uncomfortable, sort of lost, unfamiliar with our bulletin. I scanned you, looking for someone I knew who might be a Spanish speaker. I did not immediately spot anyone. So, I asked one of you if you'd just sit with him. He seemed so alone. Would you be a welcoming presence? You did.
We came to the offering. Do we embarrass him by passing him the plate? It was waved off. As usual, during the doxology, the offering plates were brought forward. We began to sing the closing hymn. Then an astonishing thing occurred. He stood, and came up here to the communion table, and dropped coins into an offering plate. Suddenly, my eyes filled with tears, and I could not continue singing. I have never been so moved by someone's act of worship, someone's desire to respond to God. In front of all of us, in a sense forgetting himself, he gave freely from the nothing he had. His tiny gift went unnoticed the next day as our offering was counted. But I know with absolute certainty that Jesus noticed.
After worship, some of you who speak Spanish got connected with him, and his story unfolded. From Central America, he had been on the unfriendly streets of Portland for three days and nights. The night before, he had decided to commit suicide, because he was so depressed, lonely, and without hope. In the middle of the night, he said a voice came to him. Sunday morning, he started to look for a church. Some street people pointed him here. He "happened" to arrive just before worship began. In the Great Hall, several of you welcomed him in his own language. You changed important family plans to secure lodging for the night. Over the next couple of days, you made contacts on his behalf. Through a series of miraculous connections, the last I heard, he was sharing an apartment in Gresham with two Hispanic men. He was employed. New life had begun.
(Move to behind communion table.) It is about seeing. Seeing who we are, inside. Seeing ourselves in God's sight. Seeing with the eyes of Christ. Michael Downey is so helpful to me. Listen:
Sifting through what is deserving of our seeing, being discriminating in what we will give our eyes to, discerning what is worthy of our looking, means that we must train and discipline the eye. Whatever may be said of seeing with the eye of the heart, it is first a matter of actually paying attention, focusing the eye, looking at and into something without distraction. Our gift and task is to learn how to see anew each day, learning how to look. Christian faith is a whole way of life, a way of seeing by loving. The more we see, the more we love. The more we love, the more we see. Refining, purifying our eye allows us to see each and everyone, everything and every living creature, deeply. To read the world and all that is in it with love. (The Heart of Hope: Contemplating Life, Awakening Love, p. 177, from Weavings, xxi:3, p. 47)
Jesus saw those particular religious leaders. He saw what others did not, perhaps dared not see. At the treasury, Jesus saw what everyone else saw, and what they all missed. O people, may we learn to see anew each day, more and more with the eyes of Christ Jesus our Lord. And remember, he sees us with love.
P.S. Only in Mark's gospel does this nameless, powerless, vulnerable widow foreshadow another event. In but a couple of days, Jesus will find himself powerless, vulnerable, and giving everything, everything he has to give.