A Poor Church for the Poor

A Poor Church for the Poor

Well, I certainly learned a lot in preparing this week’s sermon! The story that Kari read for us this morning is a story that we traditionally call the story of “the widow’s mite.” That’s mite, m-i-t-e, meaning a very small amount of money. The church has traditionally treated this as a stewardship story, a story of a poor woman who yet gave all she had, in contrast to the wealthy who gave only their spare change.

I know that’s how I originally thought of the passage as I was reviewing the Scripture readings this fall: November 8, widow’s mite, stewardship. But my reading this week suggested that that’s not what’s going on here at all.

Part of the problem when we read these stories over and over again as part of a regular cycle of readings in the church is that we can easily assume that we know what the stories mean. They mean what we learned in Sunday School they mean.

It can be difficult for us to read these old stories with new eyes. But that’s where the life in these stories is. In their original setting, these teachings of Jesus were powerful and provocative, challenging and dangerous—they threatened people’s settled assumptions. But we’ve toned them down, domesticated them, made them fit into our settled assumptions about life and the world.

We’ve turned them into messages about appropriate churchly behavior, what it means to be a good Christian and a good citizen. As though Jesus was merely dispensing helpful advice as to good personal ethics.

We’ve tended to read this story as a kind of morality play, in which the behavior of those who are rich and powerful is contrasted to that of someone who is poor and lowly. It’s easy for us to condemn the hypocrisy of those who walk around in long robes—I’m starting to get a little nervous here, in my long robe—and to say to ourselves, We’re not like that! And to watch the behavior of the widow who gives all she has to live on, and to mutter quietly to ourselves, We’re not like that, either.

We tend to condemn those who are rich in the story, and to put the poor widow on a pedestal. We look at them as though they are two extremes—one down here, and one up there—and then try to locate ourselves somewhere in the middle. We’ll do better than the rich ones, but maybe not so much as the poor widow.

It’s a bit like Goldilocks: not too soft, and not too hard, but something just right. As a stewardship story, this is read as an encouragement to do a little more.

But we need to remember the whole story, the context in which this story takes place. Remember, we’ve been following for several weeks this theme through the gospel of Mark where Jesus has predicted three times over that the religious authorities in Jerusalem would put him to death, and that after three days he would rise again.

Jesus wasn’t put to death over a stewardship sermon. He wasn’t hung up on a cross over a fairy tale. What he had to say was far more threatening than that.

A little earlier in the gospel of Mark—in the previous chapter—Jesus overturned the tables in the temple. In the first part of today’s reading, Jesus condemns the religious leaders who walk around in long robes, and who get the best seats in the religious gathering. He accuses them of devouring widows’ houses, of exploiting those who are most vulnerable, a serious matter in the eyes of God who is a defender of widows and orphans.

Right after this passage—in the reading for next week—Jesus predicts the total destruction of the temple: ‘not one stone will be left here upon another.’

So the story of the widow giving all she had to live on is set in the midst of this condemnation of a religious institution that has lost its way. It doesn’t look so much like a stewardship story now, does it? She’s giving everything she has to a corrupt institution that is destined for destruction. So is Jesus commending her behavior? Or is he pointing to the travesty of a religious system that devours the very ones it is supposed to protect?

Well, it’s getting late in Mark’s gospel, so it’s looking more like the latter: Jesus is pointing out in very stark terms what is wrong with the way things are working. He’s saying that a religious institution that does these things cannot stand, that it’s destined for destruction, because it’s not doing what it’s meant to be doing, and is doing harm instead.

Perhaps you’ve seen the stories in the news this week about the financial scandals in the Vatican. Allegations that money intended to help the poor and vulnerable, and money raised for charitable purposes, was not being accounted for properly and may have been used for personal purposes by high-ranking church officials.

This is a modern-day picture of what Jesus was pointing to. The current pope, Pope Francis, has been putting his energies into a comprehensive effort to clean these things up, to deal with the financial mismanagement. According to the stories this week, he’s meeting a lot of resistance, from those who walk around in long robes and like to have the places of honor at banquets.

The pope’s rallying cry is “a poor Church for the poor.” He himself has modeled practices of humility and simplicity. He chose not to move into the lavish Apostolic Palace, but continues to live in a small apartment in a Vatican City dormitory. On his visit to the U.S., he traveled around in a small Fiat instead of a limousine.

The pope has repeatedly called the Church—and yes, he is technically addressing the Catholic Church, though I think his invitation applies to us as well—he is calling the church back to its purpose: to be the defender and protector of widows, and orphans, and strangers, and those who are poor. To be a place of welcome, of healing, of service.

The pope reminds us that in encountering the stranger, or those who are poor, we meet Jesus. That when we take down the walls that separate us from those outside our fellowship, not only do we do a lot of good for them, but we ourselves find healing and wholeness. I think pretty much always in the gospels stories of healing, stories of reaching out to strangers, are stories of how communities are made whole.

We are not complete, we are not whole, without one another. We are called to a global solidarity, with our sisters and brothers here in our community, and around the world. We are called to respond to the plight of refugees, and those who struggle for survival. We are also called to a solidarity with the earth and all life upon it. We cannot think in terms of looking after ourselves, and all the while devouring the life chances of other people and other creatures.

As a church, everything we do, and everything that we have—building and properties and money and people—ought to be aligned with that core purpose. To the extent that we use our resources—our money, our buildings, our people—for other purposes, Jesus says that cannot stand.

Who knows? Perhaps this is what is happening to the church now. Perhaps the decline and disappearance in many places of the old mainline church—perhaps it’s because we’ve lost our way, and we’ve drifted from our core purpose. Perhaps at some point we started to focus on ourselves instead of on the world of need out there.

What if we chose to spend ourselves in service? Think about how much good we could do. Instead of being a sinking ship, with an aging and declining crew, we’d be full of life. We have so much to offer.

I mentioned last week the amount of good I thought we did by sharing a meal with guests from the community. I read out the thank you note from Guy, who attended. I had another note this week from Ruth Dixon, who told me that her brother-in-law was driving bus that day, and that on every bus he drove there was someone who said how much they enjoyed the barbecue. We did a lot of good that day.

Later today, you’ll hear more about Trinity’s response to the refugee crisis. After the service next Sunday, you are invited to a conversation with Kelly Fehr of the John Howard Society, to hear about how we can be a more welcoming, open, supportive church community, how we can be a church for those who are poor.

There is much we are doing, and much we can do.

A final word on the poor widow. Was her contribution a waste? Was it wasted because she gave so much—all that she had—to an institution that was corrupt and condemned? Was she in effect throwing away that little bit of money that could have done her some good if she had kept it?

The Greek expression that is translated “all she had to live on,” is literally translated, “her whole life.” She gave her whole life. We’re meant to see that she is like Jesus, who a little while later in the story, will give his whole life.

This is the mystery at the heart of our faith. That Jesus gave his life for the sake of the world. The world with its mixture of corruption and mercy, exploitation and compassion, suffering and tenderness.

Was that a waste? Or was it the gift that enables us to imagine that another world is possible? It was the gift that enables our giving, trusting that as we spend ourselves we draw closer, and draw our world closer, to God. Amen.

 

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