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Widow’s Mite and the Temple’s Might: A Sermon on Mark 12
November 9, 2015, 9:39 am
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Over a decade ago, I was studying in India. While my focus was on the religions of the country, I clearly remember a visit to a school. My classmates and I were ushered in to a classroom, meeting children who were about 8. They welcomed us, and told us how they were learning about our country. They knew the name of our president, and how our government was structured. I was impressed- what smart little kids!

Then they asked us how much we knew about their country.
And we were unimpressive.

While I might assume that everyone in the world knows about the United States of America, and can name our president, I don’t often feel like I should know that much about other countries. That’s coming from a place of privilege, in which I’ve bought in to the image of America as a superpower, with influence over other nations, deserving of respect and honor and of being in the international curriculum of 3rd graders. Why would I need to know about another country- what effect could they have over me?

With globalization and terrorism, I think we have reason enough to recognize that people of every nation can have an effect on us, but my point is that many of us can exist in a world of privilege in which we don’t ever have to think about how someone else is living.

Our Gospel text is like that for me. I’ve never had only two pennies to my name. I don’t know what it is to be poor. So I read this story as a rich person, and I hear a rich person’s privilege in my reading.

Mark 12: The widow’s mite: an example of faithful giving, generosity, and selflessness. That’s the storyline I’ve always heard.

But this week, I was struck by something else. Jesus opens this scene with a rant against the Temple and the scribes. He declares, “they devour widow’s houses.” This scene is part of Jesus’ conflict with the way God’s people are living wrongly. It’s not a go and do likewise scene, it’s a stop the madness scene.

Scholar John Shea writes:
Throughout the Gospel Jesus has consistently championed human needs over the
hardened practices of the synagogue. Now he targets the Temple treasury. When he sits opposite the treasury, it symbolizes that he is opposed to the whole temple atmosphere around money. It is a public affair with the rich parading their large sums. But Jesus is not concerned with the rich. They are never exploited. They give to the temple out of their surplus. Piety will never carry them away. Like the scribes, the rich take care of themselves.

But the widow divests herself of all support. Her generosity plays into the devouring greed of the Temple. Those who are supposed to protect her leave her, literally, penniless. (John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom (Mark – Year B)p. 267 http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/proper27b.htm)

What sense of obligation or gratitude or faithfulness would have led this woman to give all she has? Walking past the scribes in their fine robes, looking around at the richness of the Temple, how does she reconcile God’s identity as the protector of the poor with God’s holy people and holy institution taking everything she has for itself, rather than serving her needs?

This text confronts me. Shea’s words hit me hard: “The rich… are never exploited.” When have I wanted to save my money without worrying about who will receive less money because of my thrift? When have I thought I can’t afford to give any more, or I don’t have anything extra to give, rather than wondering who can’t afford for me not to be generous? What systems do I live in that leave widows penniless while I am made more comfortable?

So often, I find myself in the powerful group. I wonder if many of you might be there, too. We operate in systems that benefit us, and we never really notice them, it’s just the way things are to us. But for others, the systems that benefit us don’t benefit them.

There’s another side to this text, beyond the surface level on which I’ve always accepted it. Sometimes, from where we are in life, we can’t hear the whole text, we can’t get the whole message of what God is saying to us. We need other voices around our table, people from different life experiences, to help us see what we cannot.

Our Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is a church that values
partnerships. Our core mission value is “accompaniment.” We walk alongside each other, as partners, brothers and sisters in Christ. This core value means that we seek out
diversity in the voices around our study and meal tables- and in our work to join God’s work in the world. We see everyone as being gifted with God’s spirit, revealing God’s fullness.

Accompaniment is the opposite of a white savior complex or the westernizing missions that we’ve tried to leave in the past. It starts with hearing each other’s stories. It starts with valuing the voice on the other side. It includes the hard work of being confronted with our assumptions about what is good and what is helpful and what might benefit us at the expense of another’s well being.

This means that as we prepare to travel to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, we go with eager hearts and hands to serve, ready to receive from the people who live on the
reservation just as much as we are ready to give. We look to their leadership for solutions that make sense in their world, rather than assuming the systems that work for us will also benefit them.

With our Mission Fest today, we celebrate our partnerships. Jesus has made us a part of a diverse community, his body, at work in the world. Not only can we do more together than we could independently, but we are better able to discover God’s word for us today when we join together.

Today, we highlight our partnership with Reformation Lutheran Church. Our brothers and sisters who live in the center of Milwaukee are affected by the systems of this world differently than we are. They can help us hear more of who God is through their witness. They can invite us in to questioning our assumptions about how the world works and what God intends for communities. They can invite us into joining the sacred work they are already doing.

Last week, I was blessed to have breakfast with the women clergy in Watertown. We were talking about our ministries and about things we might do together. Suddenly, one of the priests ended up sneezing her breakfast all over her shirt. We giggled like school-girls as we pointed out where she’d need to clean up.
A sign of a true friend is that they’ll tell you when you have egg on your face.
I’m not sure we’re quite there yet, because we let her talk to a parishioner for a few
moments before we had finished pointing out all the crumbs.
Sometimes, that’s really embarrassing. Especially if you’ve been going about your life ignorant of the state you’re in.

That’s the difficult delight of being in partnerships with people whose experiences are different than your own. Sometimes, things will be pointed out that don’t put you in the best light. It’s not comfortable to acknowledge our own ignorance or foolish assumptions. But without those realizations, we cannot grow. Life is richer, growth is possible, and community is truer to God’s intention when our partnerships are real and diverse.

People in all sorts of life circumstances reveal God. When we gather together in work and worship, we gain from each other a fuller sense of God, and we do things that make a
difference in the world. Our eyes are changed to begin to see each other as God sees us: each loved and valued.

Jesus isn’t pointing out this woman to call her a fool. He’s helping us notice her.
God sees those who are so often overlooked, those whose work and sacrifice aren’t
appreciated. God sees those whose lives are not what they should be, those who have fallen under the power of the systems that benefit the powerful, systems that have taken away their lives or kept them from living their fullest.

Jesus sees the widow giving away her life. Perhaps he recognizes himself in her. He is in Jerusalem to give away his life. He will give away his life as a victim to the systems that require violence, require a scapegoat on whom to put their anger and pain. Jesus’ life will be taken away. And God will give it back. All that destroys life, all that breaks down community, all that lifts up some at the expense of others does not have ultimate control. God has a new future in mind. God is making that future now. We glimpse this future best when we look for it together.

Thanks be to God for the unity we have with brothers and sisters down the street, in the city, and around the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Let’s make a deal, God… A sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
October 10, 2010, 2:56 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , , , ,

Have you ever really wanted something from God? Something you knew was in God’s power and you were willing to do whatever God asked, just so that it would happen? You try to strike a bargain with God, praying, “Ok, God, I know you can do what I want- so if you do it, I’ll…”

 

Legend has it that Martin Luther tried to strike such a deal. He was caught in the middle of a thunderstorm, thought he was going to die, and promised God that he’d become a monk if only he got through the storm safely.

 

For many of us, the incidents that lead to our bargaining aren’t quite so theatrical. They arise as we stand by and watch loved ones go through difficult times. Sometimes we ask God on behalf on ourselves, but I bet it’s more often that we fall on our knees begging God for a miracle on behalf of someone else. Someone we wish we could trade places with. Someone for whom we would battle whatever illness or hardship or grief they have to face.

 

It’s hard when we have to stand by and realize we really can’t do anything. We have no power to change a difficult reality. That can be even more difficult if you’re the type of person who gets things done, who conquers problems, and who is in control.

 

We meet just such a person in our reading from 2 Kings this morning. Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram, modern Syria. He was a great man, a mighty warrior, and in favor with the powerful king. He had been victorious over Israel. Yet for all his power, his ability to command and control thousands of troops, he does not have complete power over his own health and body. He has been infected with a skin disease, a visible sign of imperfection.

 

He is not able to win over this disease. In the midst of his defeat, there is a witness to hope. A young Israelite girl is serving his household, a prize from his latest raid. She tells her mistress that a prophet in her homeland has the power to cure this disease. Naaman takes seriously this advice. For all his power, it’s amazing that he listens to the humblest people under his command.

 

Naaman goes through the channels of power to obtain a cure from this prophet. He tells his king, who writes to the Israelite king and sends along gifts to smooth the way for Naaman to receive favor and a cure. The prophet Elisha makes himself know to the king of Israel, and Naaman is sent on to Elisha’s home.

 

Up to this point, things are probably looking pretty good to Naaman. Everything is going as expected, he’s working with the important people with whom he typically associates, and he’s accompanied by signs of his power and wealth. He looks impressive, with the exception of the disease that has caused him to come to Israel, but it seems that he’s got even that situation under control and is well on his way towards conquering it.

 

He comes to Elisha’s door with his personal guard, his servants, and a portion of his wealth to give in exchange for a miracle of healing. He also comes with expectations of what will happen next. As a commander of the army, he’s worked on his ability to anticipate what will happen in a given situation. He’s stayed alive by commanding others to carry out his vision. Now he brings those skills to Elisha’s front door.

 

There they fall flat and fail him. Things do not go as Naaman envisioned. Elisha does not come out, does not honor him, does not perform as Naaman expects this religious worker to perform. Naaman’s power is not recognized and he has no control over the situation.

 

Elisha only sends a messenger, who tells Naaman to go take a bath in the local river. This response enrages Naaman. We who read this account must think Elisha a fool: here he is insulting a commander of the army, remaining in his house as this general stands outside with enough men to destroy it. Elisha will not play Naaman’s game. It will not be because of Naaman’s power and control that Naaman will receive healing.

 

Naaman is a curious character. He does not act on his insult, but once again listens to the voice of those under his control. His servants prevail upon him to try out this humble cure advised by the prophet. He goes and washes in the Jordan. He is cured. He returns to Elisha and thanks him, declaring that the God of Israel is truly the one God.

 

In his healing, Naaman realizes that there is one who has power even over him. He goes through a difficult journey of humility to get to experience the power of this God. He comes with his own expectations that others will serve him: an expectation well-earned through his experience, but not applicable to this new experience with God. God is the one with power for healing and life. God will not be intimidated or controlled.

 

Where does that leave us when we really, really need something from God? When we’re ready for whatever sacrifices or humility God demands, just so that there can be healing in our life, or in the life of the one for whom we’re ready to sacrifice? What should we do when bargaining seems like the faithful response?

 

It’s difficult to define the line between trying to get God to listen to us and trying to control God. One sounds better than the other. The former sounds a little more faithful. But they really aren’t so different. Both point to a lack of faith, and to a continued focus on our own power.

 

God does listen. God does heal. But we’d be wrong to think there was no one else besides Naaman who sought a cure from sickness, or that Jesus wasn’t aware of the prayers of the ill all around the city besides the ten lepers. We’d be misguided to try to figure out what they did differently than all the rest to receive God’s healing, and try to let that guide our own lives.

 

There’s no secret formula, no best bargaining chip, no power we can use over God. It doesn’t quite seem fair. In our world, we believe those who work hard, who keep trying, will eventually succeed. If there’s an answer or a goal, we’re a people willing to do what it takes to get it.

 

Too many of us know that it doesn’t work like that with God and our work towards getting God’s healing. We’ve lost loved ones because of senseless disease and accidents. We’ve had to stand by as others suffer. We’ve come face to face with our own powerlessness.

 

Maybe we’ve had expectations of what God would do for us: how God would heal, why God would heal, how we would enlist God’s help. Perhaps we’ve seen things work out as they should for someone else. Why hasn’t it worked all the time for us, too?

 

God is not bound by our expectations. God gives healing and life out of who God is rather than what we have done or sacrificed. We are not in control. We do not have the power to give life or healing, nor to determine who receives it. This is difficult news, but it is also good news.

 

God gives based on who God is: God is generous and gracious. God freely gives what we think we need to bargain for. God has given us life! At many times in our lives and the lives of our loved ones, God has given us healing. Yes, there are times when the healing we have prayed for does not come, and death separates us from those we love. But even then, God still gives life. Those who have died are not outside God’s gift of life and healing, but are on their way towards experiencing healed life in God’s presence forever.

 

God goes beyond our expectations. God heals and gives life outside the bounds of our expectations: to those who we would call outsiders, sinners, and unworthy of God’s gifts. Our God is the one who healed a foreign general and who healed not only 9 Jewish lepers, but also a Samaritan. God doesn’t give life and healing only to those who deserved it, or worked for it, but gives freely to all creation.

 

When next you pray for someone in need of God’s healing, don’t be afraid to tell God what is needed. You may even find yourself bargaining for good news. God hears your prayer and the impulse that is behind your bargaining: your love for another. God understands this love. It is God’s love for us that led the Word to become flesh in Jesus Christ, God’s love that led Jesus to die for us, and God’s love that unites us all with the risen Jesus Christ in life forever. God knows what it is to give life and healing out of love. God gives those gifts to us. Our hope is in God and not in ourselves. At the end, hope in God’s faithfulness will not be disappointed.