Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

Sunday Worship:
8:30am & 10:45am

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

The Poor Widow and the Immoral Church


Mark 12:38-44 (NRSV)

As [Jesus] taught, he said, "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." He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then 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. For 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."


Partners in Mission here at Cross of Grace have recently received packets of information and a pledge card regarding our upcoming Commitment Sunday for the Building Fund. You might imagine we scheduled the Commitment Sunday to conveniently coincide with today’s gospel reading. After all, this story is often understood as scripture’s exemplary story of generous giving. The story of the “widow’s mite” as it is often referred, lends itself nicely to the message that the church needs your money and you would be blessed to give it away. However…

…we didn’t pick the Commitment Sunday to coincide with this text. Truth be told, the gospel texts for this Sunday and next are perhaps the worse we could have picked to coincide with a building fund campaign. The gospel lesson next week is about Jesus’ promise that the temple (aka, the church building) would come crashing down…and why that’s a good and holy thing. That story is directly related to today’s gospel and its real, though often obscured, message of how the temple system of Jesus’ day and age was set up to exploit the vulnerable.

Here’s some context about today’s gospel story that could completely change what you thought you knew about the story of the widow’s offering. This section of Mark’s gospel is an explicit warning against the scribes – the powerful religious figures who controlled every aspect of Hebrew life through the Temple system. You can see that in the first verses, “Beware of the scribes…”

In verse 40 Jesus illustrates scribes as people who “devour widows’ houses” – a reference to the practice of scribes automatically taking over as trustees of widows’ estates following the death of their husbands. The scribes were seen as the people most suited for this responsibility because they were pious and trustworthy, as evidenced by the fact that they wore long robes said long prayers (wink wink). “As compensation [the scribes] would usually get a percentage of the assets; the practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 320).

Knowing full well the depths of injustice at the hands of the scribes, Jesus watches the events at the treasury. The treasury was a public space where people could either make a show of how much they were worth and how generous they were; or a place where people had to confess just how little they had.

At the treasury, there are many there who are extremely wealthy and they give abundantly, both because they can and because it serves their own interests. Their giving supports the very religious, political, and cultural structure that enabled them to get and stay wealthy. It’s a self-perpetuating system that ensures the wealth stays distributed only among the upper class.

Then there’s the widow. The widow gives two coins, which the gospel writer points out were practically worthless. Jesus understands this woman, out of a sense of obligation and powerlessness just gave away all she had to live on. Like others before her, this widow has been taken advantage of by an institution that claimed it would take care of her. Her estate has been stolen from under her in her grief; and still she has to obey the oppressive religious obligation to give. It’s not admirable, it’s deplorable.

This isn’t a story to inspire generous giving. Instead, it is a story that condemns a religiously-supported system that props up the wealthy on the broken backs of the poor who have been abused, neglected, and stolen from. And as you’ll see next week, Jesus tells his disciples that when they confront this system, they will suffer the consequences.

This might seem like a downer of a gospel text, but there is good news. The good news is that Jesus recognizes oppressive systems in our world and does not approve. God the Father, who is very Christ-like, also does not approve. Systems of oppression that keep people impoverished while the rich feast, are neither divinely inspired nor divinely maintained. They are not products of the Kingdom of Heaven, and therefore they will not ultimately endure.

God’s favor does not rest on those people who keep their boot heel pushed on the neck of the poor. That is the good news.

The good news is that we still have time to choose a better way: the way that will endure, the way that is part of the Kingdom of Heaven, the way of God, the way that recognizes how one’s actions ripple down the river and affect the poor, vulnerable, outcast, and afraid.

It’s your responsibility to allow this scriptural truth to work in your own life, raise your awareness, and let it lead to you repentance – a change your actions.

As for me, as a pastor, as part of a religious institution that makes financial demands on its practitioners, here is the message I have to proclaim today: If you find Cross of Grace to be an oppressive and unjust system that props up select few at the expense of the most vulnerable, then you have two options: 1) find somewhere else to be spiritually nourished, or 2) stand and fight. Point out the ways that we fail to live in the light of the good news as announced by Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Point out the error of our ways before it’s too late and our church crumbles just like the Temple two thousand years ago.

But, if you find that Cross of Grace is a place that proclaims the good news in word and deed, regardless of what it might cost us in the eyes of others in this community; if you sense that Cross of Grace stands for something good and beautiful in this world as it does the work of liberating the oppressed and advocating for the outcasts of society, then join us. Reaffirm your commitment to the unique mission and ministry God has gifted this congregation. Yes, that means giving abundantly if you have financial means. But it also means following Jesus beyond these walls. It means experiencing a daily dying to yourself and daily allowing God to change your mind so that you can follow Christ instead of your own fears, instincts, or desires.


Amen.

For All the Saints (and Peggy)

John 11:38-44 (NRSV)

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”


On this All Saints Sunday, I’m going to preach a funeral sermon that never got preached for a woman named Peggy Ann Lester, whom none of you knew, but who is one of my favorite, newly anointed saints. Peggy was a friend of mine and of my family’s for the last 35 years or so, who died this summer with no fanfare and no funeral – no obituary, even – which is what she requested. So I’m praying she won’t mind what I’m about to do.

See, back in the early 80’s, Peggy showed up for the first time to Providence Lutheran Church where my dad was the Pastor in Toledo, Ohio. She showed up after having been in jail and thumbing through the Yellow Pages to find a church. She had had a rough night – and a rough life – up until that point, and was looking for something even she wasn’t sure about at the time.

I don’t know all of the details about her previous life and some of what I do know isn’t rated for Sunday morning worship. Suffice it to say, she was abused in all the ways by many of the men in her own life as an adult and by some of the men in her mother’s life as a child. Peggy was in and out of jail – and other places of ill-repute – often enough that she kept a change of clothes in her detached garage on Toledo’s eastside, so she wouldn’t infest her home with whatever she may have picked up in those places along the way.

She drank too much… smoked like a chimney, without apology… and swore like a sailor, too. (She actually swore better than most sailors, I imagine.) And I loved her for every bit of it.

I loved her, too, because she was all of those things – she had all of that history – and by the time I met her and got to hear some of it, she was also the most faithfully passionate follower of Jesus I’d ever met. In fact, she was such a Jesus freak by the time my parents started inviting her over to our house for dinner and special occasions that I thought she might just be one of those kinds of Christians. (A Jesus freak, I mean. As her pastor, my dad convinced Peggy to “fall in love” with Jesus instead of all the losers, married men and so-and-so’s she was hanging around with and it worked to such a degree that she started telling people that Jesus was her boyfriend.)

Anyway, Peggy began to participate in Bible studies in our typically traditional, straight-laced, suburban Lutheran church, listening and learning and asking hard questions in ways that only Peggy could. She wasn’t one to temper her language or hold her tongue, no matter who she was talking to, or in what context. She could leave a circle of little ol’ Lutheran ladies in a state of shock with an F-bomb over coffee during a Sunday morning Adult Forum. But they were shocked as much by her fluent cursing as they were surprised by the faithful truth and spiritual wisdom she could communicate with those words. (It’s was her own kind of spiritual gift, really.)

Eventually, Peggy went back to jail, too – but this time to lead Bible studies there, based on all she’d come to know and believe about God’s love for her and for the prisoners, for the sick, for the outcast, the abused, the poor, and all the rest. And, now that you all have some idea in your head about what Peggy might have looked like, here’s a picture of what she actually looked like.

Peggy.jpg

So, Peggy’s on my mind this All Saints Sunday because she died this summer, July 8th to be exact, but we didn’t find out about it until a couple of weeks ago, when some of our mail started to get unceremoniously “returned to sender” by the United States Postal Service. (She wasn’t online, never had an e-mail address, and talking on the phone was hard after a stroke and hip replacement surgery in the last few years, but I’d send her my sermons each week in the mail and newsletters, too.)

And she prayed often, if not daily, for this congregation, because of it. She was even here once, when we dedicated the building and I’m 99% sure she smoked a cigarette in the women’s restroom.

Anyway, Peggy didn’t want a funeral – there wasn’t any money for that and there weren’t many people who’d care to come, or be able to make it, she thought. Her mother was long gone and her sister died about ten years ago, so her only wish was that her ashes be scattered, dumped, buried – whatever – on her mother’s marked grave. Whether that’s legal or kosher or normal or expected, Peggy really didn’t give a … “you know what.”

My point – and goal, in this funeral sermon that wasn’t – is to pay some measure of tribute to my friend and spiritual mentor. My prayer is – as with any funeral sermon – that we realize the truths we speak and the promises we remember are as much for us as we believe them to be for the saints who have died. And my hope, too, is that we all might learn some of the things a life and a faith like Peggy’s has taught me:

…I learned that the Scriptural command to show hospitality to strangers is no joke. (You know the one about how you might just entertain an angel without knowing it?) Only God knows what might have become of Peggy – the fun, faithful, foul-mouthed angel so many may never have known – if my dad hadn’t chased her out the church doors that first Sunday morning, invited her back, and remembered her name when she had the nerve to show up again.

…I learned that SAINTS come in unexpected ways and shapes and forms a lot of the time – and that they’re staring back at each of us when we look in the mirror, even on our worst days.

…I learned that we are not the sum of our sins. Nor are we to let any one of our sins get the best of us. Our sins – individually or collectively – are never enough to keep God from finding and transforming what we, the world, and even the church and its people, suggest is too far gone to find and redeem.

…I learned that it is God’s grace that makes a SINNER a SAINT, and that it’s our job to recognize that and to treat people with love, respect and hope because of it.

…I learned that it is God’s grace that makes a SINNER a SAINT and that it’s our job to recognize that and to be grateful for our own saintly status and calling because of that truth.

…I learned that sometimes our saintly calling means asking hard questions and speaking even harder truths – sometimes with a purple word or two, if necessary – for the sake of grace, justice, fairness and love.

And from Peggy I learned to hope – against all common sense and good reason – that God’s love wins at all costs, and that it is that kind of love – big and wide and deep enough – that draws all the SAINTS who are on our minds and in our hearts this morning, together into one, big, beautiful heaven that is and will be ours, by the grace of God.

Amen

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.