A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
Those devouring the homes of the widows and praying at great length for show, these shall receive condemnation in greater abundance.
The Gospel this morning picks up at the end of a series of dramatic encounters between Jesus and people who wanted to catch him out or trip him up. You may remember two weeks ago, Jesus healed the blind beggar, Bartimaeus who then followed him on the way to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. What follows in the Gospel of Mark is an intense series of events, including Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple. That is followed by different groups of people, basically all people with notable ecclesiastical status approaching Jesus with loaded questions appropriate to their group: “By what authority do you do these things?” “Is it lawful to pay the poll tax to Caesar?” “Who would a woman be married to in the resurrection if she became the widow of seven brothers in sequence?” “What is the greatest commandment?”
You know these kind of questions, posing as sincere or curious, but really in bad faith, trying to manipulate a conversation to criticize or embarrass the person being asked the question. The questions aren’t questions, they are attacks. Jesus answered them with grace and compassion. And that is the context for the first part of today’s Gospel:
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 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.”
Jesus is talking about this bad faith behavior. It’s not about costumes, or offices or what group or party people might belong to; Jesus is taking note of how these people manipulate their image as pious and respectable, solely for their own benefit without regard for the well-being of others. It describes plenty of people who regard their own religious practices and piety as deeper religion than caring for others—“they devour widows’ houses” without a thought that it has anything to do with their Christian faith. The depth of our prayer and the depth of our compassion are the same thing.
So Jesus talks about this widow. She puts two lepta into the treasury. They were just little wafers of copper, far smaller than a penny and not worth much even in a world of poor people with very little cash. As we come into stewardship season many sermons will be preached on this: some will talk about her giving of her substance, all that she had. Others will note that the lady got away with giving almost nothing, just those two tiny discs, so maybe they can too! Most people won’t say that aloud.
But I think Jesus is less concerned with what went into the box than in observing the woman. A widow, it says. It was well-known in that time and place that widows were the most financially imperiled, with precious few possible sources of income, and vulnerable to being cheated or bullied out of whatever assets they may have inherited. Yet this woman maintained her dignity as a member of the community. She took part in the shared responsibility of the community. She gave of what she had. She was devout in the way she lived her life, though those around looked past her, if not down on her. She is contrasted with those who display their wealth, their piety and their smarts in trying to show up Jesus in the marketplace of teachings in the Temple precincts.
What Jesus taught, and what Christianity is, is not high-flown or complex. It’s about living in faith—good faith rather than bad faith. It is simple generosity rather than trying to trick people and show them up by appearing to be the most generous one, or the most religious one. Not that the goal is to wait to be pure before doing anything: if the widows keep their houses and the poor are fed, it’s a good thing in any case. But Jesus is unimpressed by any competition to be seen as the best—he’s impressed by the simple faith of the widow: living in God’s mercy, simply, humbly, generously; accepting God’s generosity and rejoicing in it.
This is my last Sunday at Calvary. Over the past 14 months we have walked the path of Jesus together. I have received much blessing from you, from your generosity and hospitality, your willingness to grow and change. Calvary celebrates being a welcoming community, and as it lives that mission, there are more and more depths of God’s hospitality that we discover in our life together. As you move forward and Fr. Nathan joins you, you will discover more ways in which Calvary will be the welcoming community that God wants. What makes me most proud is that you are a community that will change and see the new opportunities God has in store—nothing that we have done together will be forgotten, but nothing will stay unchanged. Our life together is simple. We worship together, celebrate together, sing together, learn together. We have shared our stories with one another. Following Jesus is not a matter of learning every detail of everything he said or did. It is not about demonstrating that we have the most thoroughgoing practices of piety or engagement with every Christian practice that has ever been. Following Jesus is living out his compassion, of seeing when someone needs a cup of water and giving it to them, knowing when someone needs to be listened to just a little longer. Jesus’ compassion doesn’t just indulge peoples’ desires, it calls them to be more compassionate themselves and to grow away from self-indulgence and self-pity. Jesus loved those people who he criticized just as much as those that he comforted. So, thank you for having compassion to me, and walking with me for this past year. You will continue to walk with Jesus in the years ahead.
One hundred years ago today was the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. It’s the source of our Veterans’ Day. On that day, my grandfather was with the Fifth Marines in the Argonne Forest, the final campaign of the war. A few months before, he had been in the Battle of Belleau Wood, which is a defining moment in the modern Marine Corps. Half a century ago, when I was a teenager, I asked him about the war, because I hadn’t heard anything about it from him. We talked for a while. He said, “It was terrible.” He told me about people he saw who were killed, about poison gas and losing his gas mask. He paid a significant personal price in that war. But the thing is, for him, and for most of the veterans that I have known, being in the military or being in a war, was not about being different, or part of a special group. It was about being part of us—about going home to Kansas, marrying and having twelve kids and building a farm and losing it in the dust bowl. And moving on. Raising the kids, being part of a functioning society where people could prosper and grow together. I know that for my grandfather, Armistice Day was about the end of war and the chance to build peace. So thank you to those who are veterans, for your service, particularly for your service in helping to build peace.
It takes great courage to be simple and to follow Jesus. It’s easier to go along and to pretend to be better than we are. Yet we can be builders of peace, just like that old widow with her two tiny copper coins.
O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life; Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.