Tuesday, 11 December 2018

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Established May 2009, Little Rock, AR

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A Close Look at Living and Giving

November 11, 2018

A CLOSE LOOK AT LIVING AND GIVING

November 11, 2018 (Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

New Millennium Church

Little Rock, Arkansas

 

Mark 12:38-44


38 As he 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, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.43Then 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. 44For 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.’ 

 

God of widows and strangers,
you protect the oppressed and forgotten
and feed the hungry with good things.
You stand among us in Christ, offering life to all.
Give us open hearts and minds
to respond with love to the world,
caring for those for whom you care. Amen.

 

Autumn is the season of Thanksgiving, colorful leaves, and cooling temperatures.  It is the harvest season for farmers to reap crops from fields planted months ago and cultivated faithfully during the growing months of spring and summer.  For many churches, autumn is the season for “in-gathering,” a term based on the harvest festival of the Tabernacles (Booths) mentioned at Exodus 23:16, Exodus 34:22, and Deuteronomy 16:13.  In the same way that farmers harvest crops of grain and fruit during autumn, autumn is when some congregations ask people to prayerfully assess their stewardship commitments of time, talents, and treasure for the coming year.  

Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Mark is not based on the festival of the Tabernacles (Booths) that inspires “ingathering” stewardship efforts by many churches.  Jesus was not in Jerusalem for the annual harvest season Feast of Tabernacles (Booths).  Jesus was in Jerusalem to observe the Feast of Passover.  

Each day of the week before Passover Jesus walked to Jerusalem from the home of his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in Bethany.  At the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus shared his perspectives about living for God with religious pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for Passover.  And Jesus responded to questions and accusations from the religious leaders associated with the Temple about his ministry.  

Mark 12:38-40 shows that Jesus did not hold a high opinion of the scribes in Jerusalem.  Eugene Peterson has paraphrased that passage in the following words:

He continued teaching.  “Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function.  And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless.  The longer their prayers, the worse they get.  But they’ll pay for it in the end.”

 

Jesus considered the leaders of religion in the Jerusalem Temple to be vain, self-dealing, and materialistic hypocrites who used religion to advance themselves and exploit people who were weak and helpless. 

Then the scene shifts from the place on the Temple grounds where Jesus had been teaching the multitude and debating Temple scribes to a spot where he could observe people as they brought their offerings to support the Temple and its religious leaders.  Jesus watched as wealthy people gave large amounts.  And he watched a poor widow give two copper coins – an amount far below anything the wealthy faithful had given but much larger in proportion to her total income than what wealthy people gave.  Jesus watched as rich people and poor people brought and gave money to support a Temple whose leadership he opposed, criticized, and denounced as unfaithful to God and unfair to faithful people regardless of their incomes and personal situations.  

Although Jesus cautioned the multitude to watch out for the religious scholars who ran the Temple, Jesus did not interfere with people who brought their offerings.  Jesus told people the religious authorities were unreliable, but never told people to quit serving God or contributing to the work of the Temple.  However much Jesus criticized and denounced the Temple leaders, he was faithful to observe Passover.  Jesus said the religious leaders in Jerusalem were untrustworthy, but he never told people that God was untrustworthy.  

Now, as during the time of Jesus, there are many reasons to take a cautious approach towards religious leaders.  Now, as was the case during the time of Jesus, some religious leaders appear more interested in serving themselves than serving God and others.   Now, as was the case during the time of Jesus, religious leaders and organizations seem to be more interested in their building personal and religious empires than in being prophets of divine grace, truth, justice, peace, and hope.  Many people use the factors that Jesus noticed and that remain obvious today as reasons to not be involved with organized religion.  

 

According to a September 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), for every four adults in the United States, one of them is not affiliated with any religion.  That group is called the “nones” and is larger than any religious denomination.  The survey shows that the number of unaffiliated young people has jumped from 10 percent in 1986 to 39 percent in 2016, a 400 percent increase. 

 

A 2017 research study published by PRRIalso contains the following findings.

  • White persons who now self-identify as “Christians” are less than half of the public.
  • White evangelical Protestants, white mainline church Protestants, and white Catholics are in decline.
  • There are 20 states in which no religious group comprises a greater share of residents than the religiously unaffiliated. These states tend to be more concentrated in the Western U.S., although they include a couple of New England states, as well. More than four in ten (41%) residents of Vermont and approximately one-third of Americans in Oregon (36%), Washington (35%), Hawaii (34%), Colorado (33%), and New Hampshire (33%) are religiously unaffiliated.
  • Atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. Most are secular. Atheists and agnostics account for only about one-quarter (27%) of all religiously unaffiliated Americans. Nearly six in ten (58%) religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as secular, someone who is not religious; 16% of religiously unaffiliated Americans nonetheless report that they identify as a “religious person.” 
  • Nearly half of LGBT Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Nearly half (46%) of Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) are religiously unaffiliated. This is roughly twice the number of Americans overall (24%) who are religiously unaffiliated.

The 2017 study does not suggest why so many people are religiously unaffiliated.  However, the September 2016 study provides the following answers.

  • Among the reasons Americans identified as important motivations in leaving their childhood religion are: they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings (60%), their family was never that religious when they were growing up (32%), and their experience of negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people (29%).
  • Fewer than one in five Americans who left their childhood religion point to the clergy sexual-abuse scandal (19%), a traumatic event in their life (18%), or their congregation becoming too focused on politics (16%) as an important reason for disaffiliating.
  • Among those who left their childhood religion, women are twice as likely as men to say negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian individuals was a major reason they chose to leave their religion (40% vs. 20%, respectively). Women are also about twice as likely as men to cite the clergy sexual-abuse scandal as an important reason they left their childhood faith (26% vs. 13%, respectively).
  • Young adults (age 18 to 29) who left their childhood religion are about three times more likely than seniors (age 65 and older) to say negative religious teachings about and treatment of the gay and lesbian community was a primary reason for leaving their childhood faith (39% vs 12%, respectively). Young adults are also more likely than seniors to say being raised in a family that was not that religious was a major reason they no longer affiliate with a religion (36% vs. 23%, respectively).

 

Jesus criticized the scribes who led organized religion in Jerusalem and cautioned the multitude to beware of them.  Yet nowhere in this passage do we see Jesus telling people to give up on God or even stop being affiliated with the religion whose leadership he denounced for being vain, self-serving, -materialistic, and even predatory.  

 

Jesus didn’t tell people to stop observing Passover.

 

 

Jesus didn’t tell people to stop bringing offerings to support the Temple treasury.  

 

Jesus didn’t give up on religion despite his bitter condemnation of the people who were leading it.  

 

Jesus didn’t stop the poor widow from giving her two coins to support the Temple.  She was a widow in a patriarchal society and age.  She probably had no income.  She had no pension on account of being a widow.  She was not living under the financial protection of her father, a brother, or other male relative.  

 

Unlike the wealthy people who paid large offerings into the Temple treasury from their prosperous incomes and land holdings, this poor woman gave two coins – the proverbial “two cents” – from her poverty.  Her offering, like the offerings given by people who were wealthy, was a symbol of her life!  The offering brought and given by the impoverished widow was her declaration that her whole life belonged to God!   

 

Jesus saw people – whether wealthy and privileged or widowed and poor – bring their offerings to the Temple.  Their offerings – whether from wealthy and privileged people or from a poor widow – testified that God was worthy of their faith even when the leaders of religion were corrupt.  The poor widow’s offerings testified that God is worthy of our faith even when religious leaders use their positions and power to discriminate against women, immigrants, disabled persons, and sexual minorities. 

 

We must not ignore or excuse people who use religion in oppressive ways.  We should condemn and denounce people who use religion as excuses for doing injustice.  We should disregard religious leaders who distort and corrupt the gospel of divine grace and truth so that the moral authority of religion is contaminated and produces poisonous results on people and in God’s world.  

 

But that does not require us to give up on religion.  The poor widow did not give up on religion despite the fact that women were not allowed to become priests and scribes.  She did not give up on religion despite the fact that women, people who were not ethnic Jews, people who were not Jewish, people afflicted by physical disabilities, and sexual minorities were not affirmed, embraced, and permitted to experience all the rituals and benefits of divine worship.  

 

God is worthy of our devotion even when people misuse religion to oppress us.  God is worthy of our devotion even when people are unfaithful concerning their religious duties.  God is faithful even though we live in an age when people have become so disgusted with religion that they are forsaking religious affiliation.  

 

Now, as in the time of Jesus, there are charlatans, hypocrites, and opportunists in religious institutions.  Now, as in the time of Jesus, there is a wide gap between people who are wealthy and privileged and people who, like the widow Jesus saw giving her two coins, are poor and vulnerable.  Now, as in the time of Jesus, the question for people who are committed to living for God is whether we will believe that God is somehow worth more than the unworthiness of religious hypocrites, religious opportunists, and religious oppressors.  

 

Like the poor widow, Jesus was in Jerusalem the week of Passover to offer his “two cents” for God.  Jesus was in Jerusalem to offer his “two cents” for God because God believes imperfect humanity is worth living and dying to save.  Jesus was in Jerusalem to offer his “two cents” because God refuses to be unaffiliated with us, even when we have given up on ourselves and religion.  

 

Beloved, we are heirs to a faith that stubbornly insists on trusting God despite human wickedness, whether the wickedness appears in religion or not.  We are heirs to the faith of a poor widow who gave her “two cents” because she refused to allow human wickedness to turn her away from God.  In the same way that Jesus marveled at her faith, let us live and give ourselves to God.  In the same way that Jesus offered his life, let our living – and our giving – show we trust the redeeming power of God’s love worth more and stronger than human oppression in religion and in the rest of life.  

 

Amen.

 

©Wendell Griffen, 2018