This Sunday, I got to preach for my home congregation, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Newark, DE. They’re a pretty terrific congregation, and I was so glad (and so weepy) to get to preach there once more before starting my own call. OH MY GOSH, ST. PAUL’S. I MISS YOU ALREADY.
Here’s the sermon:
When I was a teenager, I picked up a copy of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” to read. I was pretty excited about it—I thought I was going to get the original source material for the Disney movies. That sounded pretty good to me.
BUT THEN I READ THEM. Oh. My. Goodness. Have you guys READ Grimm’s Fairy Tales? They are disturbing. There are eyes plucked out eyes and body parts cut off and rooms of blood in those stories. This is NOT SUITABLE READING MATERIAL FOR CHILDREN.
The moral of this story is that: the stories we love don’t always say what we think they say.
And I ran into that problem with the story of the widow’s mite this week.
I have heard this used as a stewardship text, upheld as a morality lesson. But as I read through the story, something niggled at me. Jesus points out the widow, and then the lesson ends. “Why didn’t they include the part where Jesus reaches out to help the woman? The part where he gives her bread and a blessing?” I thought to myself.
So then I went and looked at the full text…and guys? That doesn’t happen. Jesus watches this nameless widow give away everything she has to live on, and then wander away. And he doesn’t do a blessed thing about it.
My distress increased when I read one commentary that suggested that we take Jesus at his word, and assume that the widow died a few days later. What she put into the offering box was the last of everything, “all she had to live on.” Now it was gone. What did we think was going to happen?
This story becomes even more troubling when you realize what came just before: Jesus talking about the corruption of the scribes.
First of all, realize that “scribes” were not stenographers. They were recognized experts in the law of Moses and in traditional laws and regulations. They were the authorities on how you should live your life.
Jesus characterizes them as men who have let their authority go to their head. They demand and receive respect in the form of nice clothes, formal greetings, invitations to all the best parties, and never, ever getting seated near the kitchen.
But, says Jesus, they have not only let that authority translate to self-importance, but they have also let self-importance translate to corruption. “They devour the widow’s houses,” says Jesus, meaning that they consume the property of widows, some of the most vulnerable members of society.
You don’t have to spend much time reading the Hebrew Bible to recognize that the God of Israel has a special place in his heart for widows. Look at the story of Naomi, or of the widow of Zarephath. There are special commandments concerning the protection of widows, and the treatment of that these women received was one of the benchmarks prophets used to determine how good a job rulers were doing.
Which means that if these scribes were devouring widows’ houses, they have come to a point where they no longer recognize that they are breaking the very law that they strive to protect. Or that they no longer care.
So not only does the widow consign herself to death in giving away everything she had; she gave it to an institution whose corruption sealed her into poverty in the first place.
Last week I received a call to a congregation near Harrisburg. I am excited, thrilled, ecstatic even. But to be honest with you, I am also so, so scared.
I am scared of being like the scribes, and letting my self-righteousness blind me to actual righteousness. I am scared of becoming so wrapped up in the way I think things should go that I miss the way God thinks things should go. I am scared to make mistakes, and have the people affected by them see not me, Victoria, making them, but their pastor.
And I’m also scared of being bound in this official, vocational capacity, to a church that has gotten, and does get, and will get things terribly, terribly wrong sometimes.
The Crusades spring to mind. So does the way women have been—and in some places still are—treated. The horrible things that Luther wrote about Jews. The hatefulness with which Christians treat those perceived as “other,” often while hiding behind the very Bible that commands them to love their neighbor. Especially, today, in the face of the widow’s story, I’m thinking of the televangelists who demand giving beyond people’s capacity, who drive those who cannot afford it even further into debt in the name of trusting God to provide, while they themselves live in luxury. This is church. This is done in the name of Christ.
We don’t often like to talk about the times when the church gets it wrong. We love to present the Disney version of ourself to the world, when the reality is a lot more Grimm.
St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “Christ has no hands in this world but yours.” This should scare the hell out of us.
Because we make mistakes. We lie and cheat. We do stuff we know is wrong.
And even worse, we harm other people through our own conviction that we got everything right, that we know God’s will. We make ourselves like the scribes, experts in the law, walking around in swanky robes, rhetoric flying, and we pass right by the dying widow in whose suffering we are complicit.
To tell you the truth, I had an awfully hard time finding the good news in these verses. Until: a commentator reminded me of where we are in the Gospel of Mark.
We’re in chapter 12. Chapter 12 of 16.
In a couple of chapters, a plot against Jesus’ life will hatch, and he will be arrested. In the chapter after that, he will be crucified.
And what I’m measuring in chapters, Jesus is measuring in days. Just three days.
Which means that just when the widow is dying, having given the last of everything she had to a corrupt and broken institution that robbed her of her livelihood, there was a man. A man dying on a cross, having given everything he had to a corrupt and broken world that robbed him of his life.
Three days before it all happened, Jesus asked his disciples to look and see someone they might have overlooked, because what she offered seemed so small, so unimportant in the face of the vastness of the Temple. He asked them to look and see this one, this one who gave all that she had for the sake of an imperfect but beloved religion. What she sacrificed looked like nothing, but, Jesus assures them, it was so much more than they imagined.
As Jesus draws closer to the cross in the gospel of Mark, his parables grow more terrifying and apocalyptic, and his actions, as in the case of the widow’s mite, seem to make less and less sense. And they don’t make sense….because they can only be understood in the light of the cross.
The cross is an instrument of death, but through it God brings the world to life. It is a sign of degradation, but Jesus turns it into one of triumph. The cross, one of the most terrible ways humans have yet invented to kill one another, signals the deepest darkness of our heart…and on it, the Light of the World shines most brightly.
This is the mystery of the cross: the place where God is most hidden is also the place where God is most fully revealed. And this place, this cross, this awful, terrible, grace-filled paradox, is the epicenter of our faith.
It is a wonderful and profoundly confusing thing to have the cross as a symbol of our faith. It’s like taking the biggest mistake the human race ever made and making it our battle standard. “Hey, remember that time we killed God?” That’s the message we’re sending whenever we wear a cross, or make the sign of the cross, or drive by a big honkin’ cross on the highway. “Hey, humanity, remember that time you screwed up on a truly cosmic level?”
Because that place is also the place where God forgives us. That place is also the place where God is revealed to us in the wounds of one dying for us; in the blood and sweat of the one who says, “Forgive them, Father; they know not what the do.” It is also the place, the deepest, darkest place, that God reaches into and turns inside out so that we can know that not even this, not even this has the power to separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.
We are a church that makes mistakes. Say it with me: we are a church that makes mistakes. But we are ALSO a church that belongs to Christ, whose very first words to us in the gospel of Mark are “Repent and believe!”
That invitation, delivered by the one who would die on the cross, reminds me that my job, our job, as part of this church, is not to be right. It is to be faithful. It is to repent. It is to believe.
That, by the power of the cross and through the help of the Holy Spirit, I believe we can do.
Thanks be to God. Amen.