he people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On March 3, 2019, we considered the scripture that terrifies me as few others do: Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders and worship practices of his day. Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:35-44. The Old Testament reading was another frightening passage – God’s judgment on the religious leaders as found in Ezekiel 34:1-10.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.
I suspect that I am not the only person in the room who is guilty of having watched a television program called “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. This show ran on Comedy Central from 1988-1999 and was revived on Netflix last year. What you need to know about that program this morning is that it featured a human and several robotic companions watching B-grade movies in an empty theater; the movie would be shown in its entirety and the characters, visible in silhouette on the bottom of the screen, would provide humorous or sarcastic commentary while the film played. Some days, it was pretty funny.
I think about Mystery Science Theater 3000 as I read today’s gospel. Jesus and his friends have gone to the Temple to offer worship to the Lord. Like everyone else there, they’ve participated in the prayers, sung along, and made some sort of an offering.
And then something happens – there’s a slight shift. In my mind, it’s like we are watching a drama unfold over Jesus’ shoulder. We are hearing his commentary on the story of worship that day – the religious figures who are leading worship as well as the poor people who take part in other ways. And just as the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 hoped, this program of Jesus’ commentary on worship was a smash hit. We read in verse 37 that “the large crowd listened to him with delight.” Everybody was having a good time.
Can I tell you something? Jesus’ teaching here in Mark 12 is the absolute scariest passage of the entire Bible to me. And when I read the text from Ezekiel? I get a pit in my stomach. In fact, sometimes I think that I’m asking the Lay Readers to share the scripture because I want them to have a meaningful part in the morning worship. Today, it’s because I’d rather have Rayna and Jon reading that than me. I mean, did you hear what was going on there?
Here’s Jesus, delighting the crowd with his observations about pompous, self-righteous religious authorities who walk around in long robes (…maybe like this alb I’ve got on this morning?). The Greek word that is used there is stola– as in “stole” (…maybe like this stole I’m wearing now?). And these people of whom Jesus is so critical demand respect. Maybe you know that most of the time when I introduce myself, I’m “Dave”, or maybe “Pastor Dave”. But on days when I’m cranky, or when I want the people at the hospital or the prison to take me seriously, I introduce myself as “The ReverendDavid B. Carver…” Jesus talks about those pretentious leaders as people who long to have the best seats in the front of the worship space (…maybe you’ve noticed that there are only 3 upholstered arm chairs in the room, and you-know-who is seated in one of them every week…). Incidentally, you might not know that Rayna’s dad is the craftsman who upholstered these chairs a few years ago…
But do you see why this passage frightens me? Jesus is talking about people like me! What if he’s even talking about me?!? To the cheers of the crowd he is taking these self-righteous, arrogant, religious hypocrites down a peg or two.
What makes me any different?
I’ve seen it – far too often. I’m sure you have too. One of the scenes that sticks in my mind happened some years ago in a place far away. I was a guest in the home of a pastor, and the pastor’s wife warned me about another pastor in the area. “Stay away from that one,” she warned. “He eats the money that people bring to the Lord.”
Her husband attempted to quiet her, but she waved her hand and continued. “Listen, a long time ago in another place that man was the treasurer for his Presbytery. Somehow, he stole a receipt book then, and he carries it with him now. When elders from the churches bring in their offerings, he writes them receipts from his own book, rather than the official book, and he takes the money from the poor home and he eats it. It is a terrible thing for a person to call himself a ‘man of God’ and then do something like that.”
You’ve seen it, and I hope you’ve been troubled by it – those who would hold themselves up as authorities or somehow important or especially blessed by God who wind up deceiving themselves or their audience.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? We as humans find it so easy to get puffed up, we find ourselves so desperate to impress either ourselves or each other that we become blind to the purpose, glory, and hope of the Kingdom that is proclaimed throughout Mark’s Gospel.
The Good News of the Gospel, my friends, is that we are not presented with a problem and then left hanging. Just after Jesus states the lamentable nature of the human condition to preen and strut and fill ourselves with pride, he offers a set of practices that will help us to deal with that problem.
While some of these very important and impressive men are parading up to the front of the temple and putting on a show as they drop in the money for a new roof on the temple, or maybe a scholarship in grandpa’s name or a sizable donation to the organ fund, Jesus isn’t even looking. After all, whatever they give is inconsequential – it’s their extra money, and they know where to get more if they need it.
Instead of focusing on the doctors of the Law and their flowing robes, Jesus invites us to notice a small, impoverished woman making her way up the side aisle. She’s coming while all the attention is on the goings-on in another part of the building, and she’s putting some coins in the offering plate.
When she thinks that no one is looking, she drops everything she has into the basket. Her offering consists of two coins that are called leptons– which means literally “a thin one”. It was the smallest coin known to that culture, and it would buy about one slice of bread. Clearly, Jesus is not impressed with the size of her gift – but he makes special note of the substance and the manner of that gift. He says that “she put in everything that she had”. Jesus points out that this woman is modeling a set of behaviors that are demonstrably different from those that he’s critiqued in the previous verses. Rather than trusting in herself, her own giftedness, her own respectability, she is trusting God with her very self as she gives all that she is to God.
So why does Mark write this down? More than that, why does Mark choose to use this as the last of the public teachings of Jesus? Let’s remember that the original audience for Mark was a small community of Christians in Rome who lived under constant threat of persecution from both the civil and religious authorities. People were literally dying because they professed to be followers of Jesus; the self-important leaders in flowing robes and fancy stoles and rich togas were enjoying the good life, and those people who carried the name of Jesus were being put to death. And Mark, writing to encourage this community, keeps this important teaching here because he wants to remind people that it’s better to be nameless, poor, vulnerable and trusting in Godthan it is to be renowned, revered, and favored in the world’s eyes.
Mark’s first audience needed to hear this because each of them wasthe widow; they werethe ones who were reduced to nothing but poverty, trust, and hope. They needed to hear the blessing of the Christ.
But why has it survived? Why read this today, on Preschool Sunday of all days?
Because I am not the only one who longs for respect and affirmation. I may be the only person wearing a white dress and a stole this morning, but each and every one of us in the room this morning knows something about how it feels to simply lovewalking around claiming that there is something external that defines us, that makes us important, that gives us status or prestige or respectability.
Maybe it’s our nationality. “Hey,” we say. “I’m from _______. That makes me special.” Or we point to our race, or we crow about how we pay taxes and those other losers do not; maybe we’re proud to be homeowners and not renters, or we’ve impressed ourselves that our sexuality is somehow more pure than those other people. I remember this feeling of superiority very vividly as a teenager. A number of the people with whom I was connected had gotten themselves arrested for one thing or another, and one of the mothers looked at me and said, “Well, David – why are you looking so smug? Do you think you are better than these boys that you’re sitting with?” And – I said it. I’m not proud of it, but I shot back, right before she slapped me, “Well, actually, if we’re looking at things from a purely legal standpoint…”
If you’re going to be honest with yourself and with me, you’ve got to know how that feels – to look at someone else and say, “Look, I know that I may not be perfect, but I’m surely better than that slob over there…”
Mark’s first audience and the people gathered today are called to the same practices – to engage in disciplines that will lead us to lives that are characterized by humility, generosity, faith, and gratitude.
What do thoselives look like? In her stunning volume entitled, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott tells the story of Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of a group called Homeboy Industries, a ministry that helps former gang members re-enter society. He reminds us that
…gratitude is not about waving your arms in praise on Christian TV shows. That’s what we think God would want because we would love to have a few hundred people applauding us, waving their arms like palm fronds. Instead, God’s idea of a good time is to see us picking up litter. God must love to see us serving food at the soup kitchen at [a local] Church, or hear us calling our meth-head cousin just to check in because no one else in the family speaks to him. He can be long-winded and a handful, but we used to put each other’s peas in the glasses of root beer at holiday dinners, so we have history together. With two other cousins, we took naps together in one big bed, so we pick up the two-hundred-pound phone and dial his number, and say, ‘How are you?’
I really believe God’s idea of a good time is also to see us sharing what we have worked so hard to have, or to see us [chatting up] the old guy in line at the health food store, telling him our grandfather had a hat just like his, even though it is a lie.
When you have been able to cry out “Thank You” upon finding your lost child at the mall or getting off booze it can naturally make you willing to want to take time with the homeless…
Closer to home, you can see this in lots of places here in Crafton Heights. Did you see someone bringing a child to worship or after school? How about the person who called the church to make sure that we knew about her sick neighbor? You can walk into a room and hear people with quiet voices who speak last. You know someone who has spent time sitting with an old, sick man who doesn’t speak our language, and the two of them were laughing at jokes that only one of them could fully understand. There are those in our midst who have dedicated themselves to making room in this congregation and their lives for those who feel excluded or unsafe everywhere else in their world…
We are here and in all of those places, dear friends, not because the seats are all comfortable and the hymns are our favorites and the babies are all cute – we are here and in each of these places because this is where God is, and this is the world to which Christ is sending us. These are the places where we learn humility, generosity, faith, and gratitude. Is it hard? Sometimes. But it’s good.
Samuel Shoemaker was a religious leader in a difficult place in New York City. He was asked why he continued to pour his love out on those who were past the edges of society, even when it was taking a toll on his own health and well-being. He replied, “I would love to run away from it all, but a strange man on the cross won’t let me.”
Beloved, I started this message inviting you to recall a television program wherein we are sitting in the back of an auditorium, belittling a story that plays out on the screen. In our world, however, we are like the poor widow who lives for an audience of One. We seek to be humble, generous, faithful, and thankful because that is who God has made us to be. We are called to live and share and model this behavior in front of God and therefore, with and for each other. Thanks be to God for the ability to share in this life together. Amen.
Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott. (Riverhead, New York, 2012) pp 58-59.
Interpretation Bible Commentary on Hebrews,Thomas G. Long