Sermon, 11/7/21: Architects and Building Contractors

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24 Pentecost

Psalm 127; Ruth 3:1–5; 4:13–17; Hebrews 9:24–28; Mark 12:38–44

Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.  Ps. 127:1

I begin my reflections this morning with two citations.  There are both from the Rev. Richard C. Halverson (1916–1995), a Presbyterian minister who was Chaplain to the United States Senate from 2 Feb. 1981–11 March 1995.

In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ.  Then the church moved to Greece where it became a philosophy.  Then it moved to Rome where it became an institution.  Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture.  And finally, it moved to America where it became an enterprise.”

“Evangelism is not salesmanship.  It is not urging people, pressing them, coercing them, overwhelming them, or subduing them.  Evangelism is telling a message.  Evangelism is reporting good news.”
Richard Halverson: Quotes and Sayings.

To those two, I would add a third, which is on the face of a magnet attached to my microwave oven.
Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.
Attributed to Francis of Assisi

Prior to retiring for the night, or early this morning, we set our clocks back one hour.  The earth, in its annual cycle around the sun, is each day tilting our hemisphere away from the sun, which brings on colder temperatures and shorter daylight hours.  Leaves that, not too long ago had been green and then luscious shades of red, rust-brown, yellow, orange, are being washed from trees by the recent rainfalls and winds.  Fall, in our hemisphere, is the season of harvest, an activity that no longer registers in our minds.  We are as a people now removed from farming, and globalization and air transport give us access to fresh produce year round, such that we have come to rely on Thanksgiving Day gatherings as the remaining remnant of that seasonal observance.  Still, fall is the time of ingathering.

In our annual rotation of lessons at Eucharistic Celebration, the lectionary has directed our attention over these last several weeks to earthly possessions, how we use them, and how seductive they can be, the story of the rich young man serving as prime example.  And now, today, we listen again to the story of Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, the woman who had left her own tribe when she married one of the sons of Naomi, and who, like her mother-in-law, had also become a widow.  And in the gospel we hear the story of the widow who gives her last pennies as an offering.

When we put all these observations and stories together and even without announcing it formally, we all know that Stewardship Sunday cannot be far behind.  We have come to expect a mailing from the rector or the chairperson of the Stewardship Committee that would describe the ministry and mission of the parish, with the hope and understanding that the recipients would see the worthiness of making a pledge, hopefully with an increase.

This is a good thing, a very good thing, so please, please do not read any sarcasm into my description of how we clergy and committees in the Episcopal Church ask for money.  My observations are just that—they are descriptive, they acknowledge the reality.  And I suspect that many of you have lived through many such sermons and solicitations.  As you all know, I love to cook.  I need to know that I have the ingredients required for my baking or soups or whatever dish.  So it is in our parishes: we need to know what financial support is available for the various forms of ministry if we are to avoid disaster or disappointment by those whom we hope to serve.

So it is this morning that I have become as a broken record (a phrase soon without meaning to many as those round, vinyl disks of yore can soon be seen only in specialty shops or on my bookshelves at home).  Yet, I repeat myself: I am in awe of you.  I am simply amazed.  Where others would perhaps see futility in reopening our doors in the ongoing struggle with the coronavirus, you have managed through prayerful consideration, dedication and, frankly, pure grit and your unwavering financial support, to maintain a presence on this corner.  As many parishes in our diocese and in the wider communion, as well as in other branches of Christianity, we have not been spared some of the losses caused by the Covid pandemic. 

If it were not out of keeping with our liturgical tradition and practice and my personal style, I would ask that you give yourselves a huge round of applause.  My hope is that as we grow again, you/we will never lose that faith in doing big and wonderful things in God’s name with small numbers and limited resources. Still, I am amazed, I am proud to be a part in sharing the Good News in Christ on this corner and wherever we may find ourselves when away from Broadway and Clarendon Ave.  However, lest I dwell too long in self-congratulatory praise and find myself getting reported to the Bishop that I failed to address the issues brought forth in the lectionary of the day, I turn to the story of Naomi and Ruth and to the widow who gave her last penny, because they can inform our own stewardship.

I pose the question: In our lectionary readings of late, where did Jesus find himself?  Answer: Hobnobbing with Pharisees, i.e., dining with the 1%-ers of his day, with people of education, of means, of power.  As we in the academic world might say, he was cultivating them before making “the ask.”  Notice, however, that Jesus never loses touch with or forgets those, for whom he was making “the ask.”  He was summoned to go and console his friends, Martha and Mary, in the death of their brother Lazarus.  Before that, enroute to another social engagement, he was stopped by a blind man, Bartimeaus, who sought to have his sight restored. 

A further question: What do these and similar stories or incidents have in common and what do they have to do with us, as we consider our own stewardship.  What is “the ask” that Jesus may be putting to us?  Consider the following: What kind of social network, or Episcopal Relief Fund, or Affordable Care Act, or Social Security Administration existed for the less fortunate at that time?   The situation for widows in Jesus’ day was arguably more bleak then, than that of most widows today.  Without a husband, a woman had lost not only her major source of income, but her physical protection and identity as well.  That is the story of Ruth and Naomi.  Even a widow who had a son to look out for her was vulnerable to those who might take advantage of her.  But Naomi had no further sons to offer Ruth.  The notion of “trophy wife” had not become a phrase in everyday conversation.

As Jesus sat in the Temple, observing the crowds make their donations to the treasury, he noticed quite a few of the 1%-ers contributing large sums of money.  He noticed, as well, a poor widow putting in two small copper coins.  What was it about the woman that caused him to believe the woman was a widow and that she had given her last?  And even if her coins had made a sound, it is highly unlikely that many in the Temple would have noticed her for, after all, her clothing would have assigned her to the lower class and the din of the crowd would have muffled the sound of her coins.  With no visible means of support, she, like her Old Testament counterpart—the widow who was prepared to bake her last wheat cakes and die, until Elijah came into the picture—would withdraw in order to lie down and die from starvation. 

So, here is my problem with the gospel account of the widow’s mite.  We have taken it out of context, if we use it for our stewardship ask.  This week we read the second and third of three Temple teachings.  In the first, Jesus warns his listeners against the scribes, whom he accuses of ostentatious and hypocritical religious practices.  These warnings recall many similar warnings offered by the prophets.  They illustrate Halverson’s concerns regarding religion as institution.

In the second Temple teaching, Jesus moves from “your widows’ houses” (Mk 12.40) to a teaching based on the actions of a destitute widow.  But it is not the widow’s stewardship that is the main focus.  The text itself contains no explicit praise for her.  Rather, this story occurs in what biblical scholars rightly call Jesus’ “Jerusalem ministry.”  Jesus has been confronting the abuses of the Temple system and the corruption of the religious practices.  So, it is questionable whether the widow’s mite is a story about boundless generosity and self-sacrifice.

You see, when preached once a year and extracted from its context, this widow is offered as a model to encourage giving to the church.  Yet in its context, it suggests a very different interpretation: nothing short of condemnation of the use of religion to victimize those who are powerless.  When Jesus chases the money changers from the Temple, it is not that their services were not needed, but that they were engaged in their era’s equivalent of off-balance sheet transactions. 

God, reclaiming Creation, had promised redemption and salvation to all, and in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, reminded us of that promise if only we heeded the commandment that is given to us in the Summary of the Law and the Prophets.  The story of the widow’s mite is at once a lament and a praise.  The lament lies in the systemic embedded play on the fears of those who come seeking God’s blessing by those who interpret a very simple rule to their own advantage and comfort.  Hence the three woes of one of our recent gospel readings.

On the other hand, there is good news if I am permitted my departure from the traditional stewardship interpretation of the widow’s mite.  There is a praise to God, a song of thanksgiving as made by the Psalmist.  Ultimately, whether one has much or little, all things come of God and although we may be tempted to connect the dots in today’s temple teaching that would allow us then to criticize those with abundance, and that Jesus may be implying a criticism of them.   However, I am reluctant to infer from his statement a negativity. 

Jesus states two facts.  A) Some gave “out of their abundance.”  B)The widow gave all that she had.  I offer you a “C.”  It is absolutely possible that I err in the conclusion that I draw from this observation of Jesus.  Yet, I state it.  C) The widow, given her status, should not have had to give anything to ensure herself of God’s love for her, and for that matter, neither should the wealthy.  One cannot buy God’s love! 

Could it, perhaps, be that we see condemnation of those who gave “out of their abundance,” because we equate “abundance” solely with money?  St. Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth disabuses us of this misunderstanding: “each has a proper gift of God” (I Cor. 7:7) and “there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.” (I Cor. 12:4f.)  Those of us who are abundantly blessed—and we all are in various ways—should take heed that our gifts are also gratefully received, i.e., with thanksgiving to God, and shared in abundance with others!  The widow’s gift of “all she had to live on” draws us to reflect on the many ways God blesses us with all we have to “live on.” Our health, our relationships, our various skills, passions, and dreams are gifts from God.  All these are signs of God’s love for us, and we give out of gratitude for them.  AMEN