Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Invitation to Generous Poverty

Mark 12:38-44
November 11, 2012
William G. Carter

As Jesus taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

            This weekend marks the 27th anniversary of my first major failure as a minister. I preached a sermon on this Bible passage and it didn’t go well.

            It was my first-ever stewardship sermon and I did the best I could. Four weeks after my ordination, I pointed to the widow who gave her last two copper coins to the Jerusalem temple. I praised her sacrificial contribution and declared it was a generous example. I quoted a famous preacher who once declared, “The Lord can do a lot with a little when he has it all.”

            The church members sat with their arms crossed. Nothing that I said seemed to register any emotion. The offering plates were as thinly covered as usual. It was completely flat experience. When I walked into coffee hour a few minutes later, the people looked up, smiled benignly, and went quickly back to their conversations.

            I turned around and standing in front of me with the church treasurer. He was a retired Air Force colonel and he was not happy. He proceeded to unload in me in front of the coffee hour crowd. “That was the worst excuse for a stewardship sermon that I have ever heard,” he said in a voice far too loud. “What do you think you were trying to do?”

People began to shuffle away awkwardly. I stammered out, “I was talking about the generous widow as a good example for Christian giving,” I said. He bellowed back, “I thought that’s what you were trying to do. What a stupid sermon!”

I stood shell-shocked. I didn’t know what to say. So he filled in the gap. “What you should have done is lay on some guilt, and make these people feel guilty for the pitifully small contributions that they make to this church’s budget. We will never make it on two pennies per person.” Then he spun around and stomped away. That was 27 years ago today. My first ever stewardship sermon.

            I realize that whenever scripture gets read, people often hear whatever they are prepared to hear. That guy wanted his pastor to shake down the congregation by laying a big guilt trip. As he heard the story, the widow wasn’t giving enough. Two small copper coins, equivalent to one of our pennies. He wanted me to yell at them, and when I didn’t do so, he yelled at me.

            And the fact of the matter is, Jesus is watching the whole line of donors as they make their offering to the Temple. The rich people put in large sums (you see, back then, they didn’t have offering envelopes!). Even so, they were contributing their leftovers, said Jesus. But the widow put in everything that she had. Everything! She had no public assistance, no welfare or survivor’s pension, no official means for making an income – and she put in her last two cents. That is sacrificial giving. Jesus points her out, and she has been immortalized in countless stewardship sermons over the centuries. That’s how most of us have heard the story.

            But did you hear what comes immediately before that brief vignette? Jesus is hammering away at the religious leaders of his time. He’s going after the scribes of the Temple. They preen around like they are important. They call attention to how they look and where they sit. When they pray, he says, they go on far too long – and God gets bored by their heaped up words. And what else do they do? “They devour the homes of widows.”

            Now, that puts a new frame around the picture. Step back a few paces, and get a bigger view. Jesus denounces the scribes for pillaging the livelihoods of widows, demanding the money of those women who lost their husbands and had no other legal means of support. He criticizes the whole religious establishment. And then he points out this one woman, a widow, who gives generously to the very institution that plunders her life.

            It’s disturbing. Why does that temple exist? To maintain the relationship between God and God’s people. How does the temple function? By teaching the scriptures and following what they teach. And what do the scriptures say? “Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploit defenseless widows, and take advantage of homeless children!”[1] Isaiah, chapter 10. “Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” Zechariah, chapter 7. [2]

            Over and over in the Jewish scriptures, the word “widow” is more than a description of a woman who lost her husband. It is a code word for those who have no voice in society, no means of income, no protection or care. Take care of them, God says. Do not plunder them. That’s the very thing Jesus warns about the religious scribes of his day. And then he points to one of the very people who is being drained dry.

            Institutions can lose their souls. An institution gets bigger. More levels of management are inserted. It will do whatever it can to maintain its authority, and sometimes it merely perpetuates its shell. In the process, the heart decays. All of us have stories about this, whether it’s a business, a school, or a government agency. Procedures become fixed. The rules take over. The bottom line becomes more important than people.

            I can’t speak about how this looks in the business world. But I know how it looks in the religious world. When I worked with alumni from my Presbyterian seminary, we regularly heard how students are beneath the bottom rung of the ladder. The school administration refused to hire a full-time counselor at the same time that the trustees were cheering on the endowment to climb over a billion dollars.

            Or just this week: my Presbyterian minister health insurance company sent out a memo. Rates for clergy health care are going up in January 2014. Sure, that happens everywhere. But here’s the thing: if the minister has kids young enough to be dependents, the company wants the church to kick in even more. This will push small churches to hire an old minister who has no kids. And here’s the thing: that memo was sent out from a corporate business meeting being held at a resort on Hilton Head Island.

            Or I remember an Op-Ed column in the Washington Post years ago. Somebody wrote that the average age of Roman Catholic nuns is over sixty-six, and most nuns have no pensions. As the writer said, “Unlike the male hierarchy who controlled the collection plate, the sisters put neither their trust in money or their money in trust. . . they worked for less than the widow’s mite. The church never offered to care for its own nuns.” The vow of poverty has become a vow of destitution with few new takers.” (Colman McCarthy)

            Peter Drucker, the management guru, did a study of non-profit institutions. He warned that every human organization can decay from within, unless it keeps revisiting its mission statement. The critical questions are these: Why are you here? Why do you exist? What is your real business?

            Maybe the best answer to such questions came from Jacob Marley to Ebenezer Scrooge: “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”[3]

            My friend Carlos Wilton is pastor of the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. He’s the one who had the Weather Channel guy broadcasting live two weeks ago today. As many as a quarter of the five hundred Point Pleasant church members have lost their homes or left the area since Hurricane Sandy. Today was scheduled to be that church’s Stewardship Sunday, when they were to dedicate their financial pledges to God and God’s church. It's hard to even imagine doing that, he said.

            When we talked earlier this week, Carl said, “For the last two weeks, we have been remembering about why we have a church. We exist to pray together. We exist to worship God together. We exist to care about human needs.” Today he tells people to come as they are, ragged or intact, and to come forward after worship if anybody needs individual prayers of healing. Tomorrow night and Friday night, his people will prepare a free community meal for anybody who is hungry or needs a friend.

            “There is a circle of service,” he says in his sermon today. “There are times in life when we are able to serve, and other times when – as uncomfortable as that may feel – there is nothing else to do but graciously allow others to serve us.” Hurricanes do not discriminate. Neither should our hearts.

            Now, there’s a church with its soul intact.

            “Do you see her?” asks Jesus. “Do you see that woman over there?” She was a widow, which meant she was poor. She didn’t have hardly anything, but she gave freely of herself. We can speculate about her motives. Did she give out of obligation? Perhaps. Was giving her habit? Certainly. Was giving a spiritual practice? Probably so. She did not give her money because the institutional temple was corrupt, selfish, or heartless. She certainly did not give money out of guilt, or because the retired military colonel serving as the institutional treasurer cajoled her into doing so.

            No. She gave because she believed God was in the middle of the whole thing. She gave because God is bigger than the institutions that claim to do God’s work. She gave because she wanted to be part of God’s great salvage operation to the world.

            I believe she gave because she knew the bedrock purposes of any temple are still essential: to lead people in praising God, to gather around the sacred texts, and to listen when the scriptures say, “The Lord upholds the homeless child and the widow, but the way of the wicked God brings to ruin.” (Psalm 146:9)

            “Look at her,” says Jesus. “Look at her!” She believes God is bigger than the church. She believes God wants to work through the church. That’s why she gives her all. That’s why Jesus gives everything, too.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Isaiah 7:1-4
[2] Zechariah 7:10
[3] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, stave 1.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Invitation to Commit

Mark 12:28-34
November 4, 2012
William G. Carter

As the Christian Year winds up, the scripture readings take us to the end of Jesus’ life. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and the religious leaders question him relentlessly. They go at him from different directions, one day after another. And the last of their tests goes like this:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘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.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
The quickest way to find out something about someone is to ask a question. Where are you from? What do you do? Who is in your family?  Keep the questions open-ended, the interrogators advise us. Let your questions create a conversation.

It’s good advice if you are shy. Drop a shy person in a dinner party, and she may wish to retreat to a corner. But if she takes a deep breath, turns to somebody nearby, and asks that person a question, she will quickly discover that she was not the only shy person in the room. There is hidden treasure in that neighboring soul.

Asking questions is a great method for learning. Mr. Snyder asked questions in our sixth grade science class. Where does the rain come from? It comes from the dark clouds. Where do the dark clouds get their rain? We didn’t know, until somebody who had done the homework replied, “The ocean.” We looked with amazement at the smart kid, and then our teacher led a conversation about evaporation. Questions have that power.

Not every questioner wants a conversation, of course. Some will ask the question for which they are sure that they have the only right answer. They ask, then wait and see if the other person is as smart as they are. What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? If you know, you can move ahead. If not, you get a failing grade.

But sometimes the conversation happens anyway. No sooner did Jesus go into Jerusalem and the religious leaders buzzed like hornets around his head. The chief priests, the scribes, the temple elders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees – people from all these groups swarmed him, targeted him, interrogated him. Who do you think you are? Where is the source of your authority? Should we pay our taxes to Caesar? One after another, they come after Jesus, trying to trip him up, trying to get him to say something off the cuff that they can replay endlessly on cable TV.

But Jesus stands strong. He responds clearly. One by one, his opponents buzz off.

That’s when a scribe approaches. The scribes were the Bible scholars in Jerusalem. They copied the scriptures by hand, they knew the scriptures by heart. And rather than ask about some theoretical possibility, this scribe asks a Bible question. How refreshing to be asked a Bible question!

And the question goes like this: Of the 613 commandments of God that fill the Hebrew Bible, which commandment is the most important? What is the Number One Commandment? Jesus says, “Love God – and love neighbor.”

Now, I’m sure there were other people standing around, and they were ready to pounce on Jesus. The scribe asked which single commandment? and Jesus gives two. Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 5: You shall love the Lord your God with all that you have within you. Leviticus 19, verse 18: You shall love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

The guy in the back row raises his hand, ready to bark, “Which one is it, Jesus? This scribe asked you for only one, not two.” But before he can speak, he realizes the scribe is already talking. The expert in the sacred texts is complimenting Jesus. You are so right, Teacher. There is no greater commitment than to love the Lord our God with heart, soul, mind, and strength – and there is no greater ethical commitment than to regard the neighbor as highly as we would regard ourselves.

And Jesus compliments him in return, and says, “You are very close – as close to the Kingdom as you are standing by me.” There is a rustle in the crowd, and people start walking away. No more disputes today. No more picking of fights. No more angry rhetoric. Jesus answered well, the scribe answered wisely. In that moment, the kingdom of God is very, very close.

You may remember this story. I hadn’t remembered so clearly that the scribe’s question to Jesus creates a conversation. I hadn’t remembered that the two of them – Jesus and the scribe – were in complete agreement about the primary commitments that the Torah lays upon every person: to love God and to love neighbor. And what makes this so striking to me is that this is the only place in the sixteen chapters of the Gospel of Mark when it says something nice about any of the scribes in Jerusalem.

I mean, Mark usually says the scribes are the bad guys. The scribes are the enemies. The scribes are the schemers. As early as chapter one, Mark says, “The scribes didn’t teach with any authority.” In chapter two, the scribes were already picking at Jesus, criticizing him in their hearts. In chapter three, the scribes accused Jesus of being possessed by the devil. Get the point? Mark really hates the scribes. Jesus says repeatedly that he will be condemned to death by the scribes – and that turns out to be true.

But here, only here, Jesus and a scribe agree on the same thing. Do you know what this is like? This is like Barack Obama and Chris Christie standing together on the Jersey shore. They compliment one another, and they agree there is something more important than their divided opinions. They shake hands, and agree to put love of neighbor ahead of love of politics. Which comes first? In the middle of hurricane devastation, the love of God is expressed through the love of neighbor. Everything else is going to have to line up after that. That comes first.

I think I know why Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is so close at hand.” When opponents find common ground, when strangers pursue a higher good, the kingdom is very, very close.

As the storm stories emerge, we are going to see snapshots of what this looks like. Did you hear about the 25-year-old accountant in Manhattan? When the wall of water hit New York, the accountant looked out of his apartment window and saw a taxi driver in trouble. The cab was instantly swamped. So Jon Candelaria ran downstairs, jumped into freezing water, and pulled the cab driver to safety. “I did it on pure adrenaline,” he said. “I had to do it. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if there was something I could do to save him and I didn’t do it.”[1] That’s called loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself. When we commit to that kind of love, God is ruling right over us.

To love God is to commit to God. In the Bible’s way of thinking, love is not a slippery emotion. It is a flesh-and-blood, heart-and-soul, commitment to Someone. Love is something you do. You love God by doing something for God. You sing a hymn, you lift your prayers, and you make a difference. You take the work of your heart, soul, mind, and strength and you lay it on God’s altar – and you declare, “All that I am doing is my offering to you.” And in that moment, the kingdom of God is ruling over us.

Maybe, rather than spend our national time by bickering over our divisions, our country would be better suited to look above them – and then to ask, “How could we love God rather than beat up other people in God’s name?” And to ask, “What would it look like to love the neighbors around me? What would I have to do to love them?”

There are plenty of distractions, you know. I was talking to somebody the other day. She is staying logged on the internet, so she can keep monitoring the presidential polls. She has to watch them 24-7 just to be sure her favorite candidate doesn’t drop a few points or lose momentum. It’s an enormous distraction. What is she going to do on Wednesday morning, assuming that the election is over by then?

Meanwhile there are a lot of people in need right here. Right next door. All around us. All the time. Maybe sitting very close this morning. We can’t let the noise of the world distract us from the love we have to share.

So here is what I would like you to do this morning: I would like you to remember a face. Somewhere in your memory, remember the face of somebody who taught you what love is all about. Maybe it’s somebody now gone. Maybe it’s somebody still here. Can you see a face? Can you see somebody who taught you about the depth of love? Somebody who gave freely so that you might flourish. Maybe it’s somebody who made a sacrifice for you. Kept a promise to you. Did something for you. Can you see a face? Can you remember a face?

And here’s something else that I want you to do. I want you to see another face, a second face – see the face of somebody that God has placed in your life. Maybe you want them there. Or maybe they are simply a neighbor, or a stranger. Can you see that person? You have something that God has given you that can make that neighbor’s life somewhat better. Maybe you can offer them some of your time. Or the companionship of a listening ear. Or there is something that you know you can do for them. Can you see that face?

So this is what I want you to do. Ready? In your imagination, take the person that you remember, and take the person that you see, and bring them with you to the communion table. For there is a saint that you remember who taught you the love of God, and there is a neighbor nearby who needs that same love channeled through you. This is how love works: it comes to us, it is shared through us. Love will not be hoarded if it is given.

What’s the one most important thing? Love God, love neighbor. Love received, love given. The saints taught us this. Others could become saints as we pass God’s love to them.

Or to put it in the words of the earliest Christians, “Beloved, since God love us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:11-12). 

And we are “not far” from the kingdom of God. How far? Not far.

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.