The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s144g09 Sunday 32 8/11/2009
'this poor widow' Mark 12.43
It is important to see that today and next Sunday we have a quartet of lessons about practicing our faith. Today we have the saying about the scribes and their long robes and long prayers and those who give large sums to the Temple. They are tied together by the statement that the scribes: 'devour widows' houses'. Next week we have the saying that the stones of the Temple would be thrown down, and the warning not to follow those who would set themselves up as people to follow.
In the midst of this quartet, Jesus commends this unnamed woman, even though she was not one of his own disciples. She was contributing to the Temple treasury, not to his own cause. So Jesus is not anti-establishment. The Temple has a rightful place in worship, but even that will pass away. He doesn't criticise this woman for giving to the Temple. He criticises those who ostentatiously give large sums out of their prosperity.
The common denominator for the quartet of examples of false religion is the positions of superiority that one assumes over others. The long robes and the long prayers are not criticised but the mindset that they make the wearer and the person praying more important than others. The gifts people gave were not criticised, but those who gave for show that they were more important than others. Those who sought immortality in the invisible engraving of their names of the stones of the Temple are not criticised, but their temporality was asserted in contrast to the immortality conferred on this 'insignificant' gift of the poor widow; the memory of whom has manifestly lasted longer than those stones. And gurus will arise, pretending to be greater than others.
So all forms of expression of faith are accepted, the sacramental, the prayerful, the institutional, the prophetic, but none make anyone better than others. The faith that is commended is that which inspires the gift of the two small copper coins, even when given to the wrong god!
Each of this quartet is concerned for what the giver receives in return. The scribe looks for deference, the wealthy giver looks for thanks, the giver to the edifice looks for lasting immortality in the stones, the leader devotees. But Jesus calls us to acknowledge what others give to **their** god even when if it is not ours - even when our message, our temple, our institution, or our status does not benefit.
We are coming here to the 'sharp end' of Jesus' ministry. And at this 'sharp end' Jesus confrontation is NOT with the secular authorities but with how we exercise our faith. Jesus was therefore NOT killed because he opposed the secular authorities but that he confronted the orthodox expressions of religion that believes that the orthodox adherents as ritually, morally and spiritually superior to those in the rest of society. One has only to read the 23rd chapter of Matthew to see this put in an even more uncompromising manner.
Just before I returned to this sermon I had a ring on my door bell. It was a door to door evangelist wanting to engage me in conversation about something religious. These encounters always cause me to reflect on my own ministry. Am I visiting clients in hospital because they are a captive audience? Do I go because somehow I think that I am ritually, morally or spiritually superior to those I visit? And if I do, are not those I visit justified in giving me 'short shrift' as I did my visitor?
During the week after I had written the preceding words and I was preparing to complete this sermon, news came through that the Pope is setting up processes to admit groups of Anglicans into an ordinariate as part of the Roman Catholic Church, specifically aimed at assisting those Anglicans who have problems over the ordination of women and the acceptance of gay and lesbian persons. Of course a number of such people have already left the Anglican Church and formed their own 'Traditional Anglican Church' or variations thereof.
For me this seems to reflect a continuing concern for the ritual purity of the church. These orthodox adherents are ritually, morally and spiritually superior to those in the rest of Christendom, let alone society in general. Such superior people will be saved and the rest damned. This does not reflect an incarnational faith that has been at the heart of the Christian message from the beginning. It is this incarnational faith that scripture, creeds and tradition all seek to assert and make real, not to separate us from others.
For me, I seek to use reason to see in scripture, creeds and tradition this truth, and hopefully I live it out in my day to day life as well.
The churches are, of course, full of poor widows. The ordinary run of the mill person in the pew is not interested in those up the front and what they are wearing. They are content to 'go into (their) room and shut the door' to pray even as they come into community. They have no desire to become spectators to a liturgical performance. They get annoyed at long prayers and longer sermons. They know they will never make much of a lasting contribution to the fabric of the church and are not looking to someone to follow as a devotee. Their contribution to the event is miniscule, but it is this miniscule contribution that Jesus notices and affirms, in complete contrast to the others.
C S Lewis in his book "Letters to Malcolm" (chapter one) writes astringently of worship: "A good shoe is a shoe you don't notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God" and "Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant ... Try as one may to exclude it, the question "What on earth is he up to now?" will intrude. It lays one's devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, "I wish they'd remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks." (Quoted from "The Business of Heaven, daily readings from C S Lewis W Hooper editor Fount 1986 p205,6) I have a good deal of sympathy with this, though having been to the centenary celebrations at the local parish church today and 'enjoyed' a 1662 service one cannot but notice and grimace at the gender exclusive language used and the emphasis on sin. We have come a long way in our liturgical reform, and it is important that we do not sanctify gender exclusive language by using it in public worship.
Jesus sees faith in this poor woman giving to the wrong god - not in those who are renowned for their orthodox and ostentatious devotion. We are to always consider what effect our language has on others. Do our language and actions serve to notice and acknowledge the contributions others make, or do we continue to demand others only admire the contribution we make and contribute to ensuring our presumed immortality conferred by our contributions?
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