Friday, March 25, 2016

"An Unfinished Story" - Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

Text: Mark 16:1-8

When we gathered here last Sunday, Jesus was riding into Jerusalem to the shouts of an adoring crowd.  We joined in, waving our palms and singing “Hosanna.”  But how quickly things can change.  As the week went on, Jesus kept talking about suffering and death - even at the Passover meal.  The meal that was filled with tradition.  Certain things were said, and everyone knew the words by heart.  But Jesus didn’t say the right things.  Instead, he said “This bread is my body, broken for you.  This is my blood, shed for you.”

After the meal, Judas showed up with the chief priests and their guards.  Jesus was arrested and taken away.  He was beaten and mocked and ridiculed.  Pilate, the governor, really wanted no part of it.  He even tried to release Jesus.  The custom was to release a prisoner at Passover.  Pilate asked the crowd, “Do you want Jesus?” but they answered, “Give us Barrabas.”  What about Jesus?  “Crucify him,” they said.  By the time Jesus was hung on a cross, most all of his followers had fled the scene.  Peter denied even knowing him, but most everybody else had denied him in actions, if not in words.  Only a few women remained with him through the crucifixion, watching from a distance.

Joseph of Arimathea, someone nobody would have expected, a member of the council that had ordered Jesus’ death, asked for Jesus’ body to bury it.  He hurriedly placed the body in a tomb before the Sabbath began on Friday evening.  And so on Sunday, the first day of the week, three women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.  They could not realistically expect to get inside the tomb, because it had been sealed with a great stone.  And the tomb was guarded by soldiers.  But one doesn’t think logically or realistically in moments like this.  When they arrived, they found a startling thing.  The stone was rolled away!  The body was gone.  A young man was in the tomb, and the Bible says (with some understatement) that the women were alarmed.  Of course they were alarmed!  They were terrified.

The young man said, “He has been raised, he is not here.  Tell Peter and the disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; he will see you there, just as he told you.”

This was incredible news!  Jesus was alive!  He had risen from the dead!  What do you suppose the women did?  Jump for joy?  Dance in the street?  Run to tell others?  No, not at first, anyway.  Verse 8 gives their response: “Terror and amazement seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

This is not the part of the Easter story that gets most of the press, is it? “Terror and amazement seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  Why terror?  Why amazement?  Why did they keep the news to themselves?

If we are honest with ourselves, we may not be all that different from those women on that first Easter morning.  The fact is, new life can be scary.  Resurrection can be very threatening.  In a way, we may actually fear new life more than we do death.  Death is familiar.  Death is a known quantity.  The possibility of new life bursting forth against all expectations, against what we believe to be possible, can be very frightening.

This has not been a particularly easy week.  The bombings in Brussels have reminded us of the evil that is present in our world.  We live in a world of sin and hurt and pain, a Good Friday kind of world.  But the world has been this way for a long, long time.  It happened in Brussels, but it also happened in Baghdad, and Beirut, and Damascus, and Gaza, and Yemen.  It happened in Flint.  It happened in Charleston and Colorado Springs and San Bernardino and Boston.  It happened in Istanbul and Timbuktu and Paris.  And it happened two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.  In places too many to count, violence has been used in service of greed and intolerance and fanaticism, justified by the belief that some lives are important and others are not.

Bad news, we are accustomed to.  Cancer and poverty and disappointment and conflict and hatred and losses of all kinds – we know what that is.  Let’s face it: Good Friday doesn’t just come once a year, Good Friday is the world we live in.

The women went to Jesus’ burial place early on a Sunday morning.  They found an empty tomb and a message that Jesus had gone before them into Galilee.  And it was literally beyond belief.  They had seen Jesus on the cross.  Everybody else had left, but not them.  They watched as his body was taken down from the cross.  They saw Joseph of Arimathea lay the body in the tomb and the great stone rolled into the entrance.

Death was their reality.  And so what they found on that Sunday morning left them absolutely terrified.  It challenged everything they knew, everything they had experienced.   Jesus’ death was awful.  It was heartbreaking, but death was a known quantity.  Resurrection – that was another story.  They had no frame of reference for it.  To find that what you believe to be true, what you know to be true about how life is, is not true, can be terrifying.

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  What is all the more surprising about this verse is that apparently, this is the way Mark ends his gospel.  The earliest copies we have of Mark all end with verse 8.  The early church found this abrupt ending unsatisfying, and it is no wonder that by the second century, Christians had added a few verses to the end of Mark, to explain what happened next.  In your Bible you will find a shorter ending and also a longer ending of Mark, usually in brackets or in a footnote.

But Mark himself seems to have ended the gospel with verse 8.  Terror, amazement, fear.  That’s the way it ends.  And if you think about it, this is entirely in keeping with Mark.  As we have read through this gospel these past three months, Jesus will again and again heal a person and then ask them not to tell anyone because he wants others to discover who he is for themselves.

Jesus tells parables for the same reason. “The kingdom of God is like...,” he says and, then tells a story—about a woman and a coin or a shepherd and sheep or a mustard seed or a vineyard or a Father and his sons, and the point is not always obvious, not always readily apparent.  It is left to Jesus’ hearers to figure it out for themselves.  And so just as he has done all along, Mark leaves it up to us to decide for ourselves.  It is up to each one of us to finish the story.

N.T. Wright wrote about how Mark’s gospel originally would have been read aloud to the gathered community.  They would read the gospel – probably in its entirety, as a whole, and after verse 8 was read – which was the end of the gospel – he imagines that eyewitnesses in the crowd would be called upon to tell “the rest of the story.”

It is still this way.  It is up to us – through our words and through our lives – to tell the rest of the story.  Back when we started in Mark, we read the very first verse – “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  Mark wasn’t just saying that these next few verse are what happened at the beginning; I think he was referring to the whole thing.  “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” is a description of the entire book.  Jesus’ resurrection was the end of the “beginning of the gospel,” if you will.   Where it goes now is up to us.

Now, you may have come here this morning for any number of reasons--maybe you always come on Easter Sunday, maybe you came for the wonderful music or for the good breakfast.  Or maybe you just woke up this morning and said, “What the heck—I’ll go.”  But I wonder if we may have come here this morning for the same reason those women went to the tomb--to pay our respects to Jesus.  To do the proper thing.  To do what is right and what is expected.  We know exactly what to expect when we come to worship on Easter Sunday.  We know exactly what to expect with Jesus.

The problem is, that’s not the way Jesus works.  The women were completely, absolutely unprepared for what they found at the empty tomb.  And sometimes it’s that way for us.  Rather than certainty, what we get with Jesus is wonder and awe and amazement.  And compared to certainty, that can be very scary.

The women didn’t stay that way, in that amazed and terrified state.  They went and told others.  The fact that you and I are here this morning is testimony to the fact that they passed on the good news.  The unfinished story was lived out through their lives, through their faith.

The same is true for us.  Christ died and rose again to give us the promise of new life.  What will be your response?  What will you do with that news?  Easter is all about the victory of life over death.  And that is exactly what we need, because the specter of death is all around us.  We live in a Good Friday world, but we have Easter hope and we are an Easter people.

This past Wednesday I attended a conference sponsored by AMOS on Affordable Housing.  At the conference, Sipele Pablo, the homeless liaison for the Ames schools, told about a 7-year old boy whose family had lost their home.  They were staying at the Ames Motor Lodge temporarily.  Until transportation to school was worked out, she was giving him rides to school.  On about the third day, she asked him to get something out of his backpack.  He opened the backpack and she saw pots and pans and all kinds of household stuff inside.  She told him that that he couldn’t take all of that stuff to school and asked him what was going on.

It turned out that when they were evicted recently, they had no transportation – no way to take their stuff with them and no place to take it anyway.  And so they lost everything.  Since then, he would look around every morning and see what he thought was important and put what he could in his backpack, so that if he came home and they had been evicted, his family would at least have something.  This 7 year old boy put pots and pans in his backpack as a way of taking care of his family.

It’s not only seen in the news headlines from Brussels or Damascus or wherever.  It is all around us.  In a world in which bombs go off in airports and train stations and 7-year old boys carry pots and pans to school in their backpacks, we desperately need Easter.  We need to know and to experience and to live in the power of resurrection.

Easter is not only about the hope of new life beyond this life.  It means far more than that.  Keith Russell said,

Easter is not (simply) triumph over the idea of death; it is the discovery of life in the midst of the experience of death.  It is the experience that God’s presence makes a difference in how we live our lives and deal with our losses.  With death being present in so much of our experience, the promise of God’s presence is power, power that helps us to develop both courage and action.  Easter helps us face not just a future reality but the manifold manifestations of death’s power present in our lives now.(1)  
Peter Gomes was the chaplain at Harvard.  An American Baptist, he was one of America’s great preachers, and died in 2011.  Gomes wrote,
When I talk with some of my psychiatrist friends and some of my psychologist friends and some of my medical and clerical friends, and even with the few legal friends I have… we discover that the basic fundamental thing that appears to hold our professional lives together and define all of our relationships with our clients and our parishioners and our colleagues is not sin, which you might expect me to say, but fear.  Everybody is fearful, terrified of some public or private demon, some terrible unnamed fear that gnaws away even in the midst of our joy, some cloud that hangs over our head or in the recesses of our spirit.

It is fear that not only holds us together but keeps us from being whole.  Fear is the great curse.  Fear that I’ll be recognized for the fraud I am – the great imposter complex.  Fear that I will fail in some worthy endeavor or fear that I will succeed in some unworthy enterprise.  Fear that I will not have enough time to do what I must.  Fear that I will hurt or be hurt.  Fear that I will not know love.  Fear that my love will be painful and hurtful.  Fear that the things that I most believe and trust are not so.  Fear that I am untrustworthy.  Every one of us is a hostage to fear.(2)
The women at the tomb were fearful.  They were just like us.  But the power of God, the power of resurrection, was greater than their fear.  They gained courage, they experienced the Risen Christ, and they spread the Good News.  And here we are, nearly 2000 years later, celebrating that same good news.  This was not simply good news for those women and for the other disciples.  It is Good News for us. 

Howard Thurman, the great African-American theologian said, “Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come fully alive.”  People who have come fully alive – that is what resurrection looks like.  And that is not just a future hope, for after we die.  We can experience the power of resurrection right now.


The young man in the empty tomb said, “Do not be alarmed.  Do not be afraid.  You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised, he is not here...He is going ahead of you.”

Now it is up to us to finish the story.  Will you take hold of the new life that Christ offers?  The Good News of Easter, the amazing news of Easter, is that God's love is stronger than the power of empire, stronger than heavy stones, stronger than our greatest fears, and stronger even than death.  Christ brings new life, even in this Good Friday world.
The Lord is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen. 



(1) Living Pulpit, Jan-March, 1998, p. 21.
(2) Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, p. 77.



Friday, March 11, 2016

“Time Change” - March 13, 2016

Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

Like allergies, spring break, the NCAA tournament, and mud, another rite of spring is upon us: Daylight Savings Time.  It began in World War I as an energy-saving measure and has become widespread in more recent years, with just a few US states opting out.  Less electric lighting is required in the evenings, and Daylight Savings Time saves about 0.03% on the average electric bill.  Which doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up and is enough to power 122,000 homes for a year.

There are often calls to end daylight savings time.   For some it just seems like a confusing and unnecessary hassle.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce always fights these efforts, with the reasoning that if it is still light outside, people are more likely to stop and shop on the way home from work.  They are probably right.  Golf courses make an estimated $400 million in annual revenue thanks to the extended hours, and sales of barbecue grills and outdoor recreational equipment benefit from the time change.

On the other hand, one study showed a spike in heart attacks in the days after the time change, and one researcher reported a 5 to 7% increase in traffic fatalities in the 3 days following the switch.  CNBC reported that the stock market historically does worse in the day after the time change, which it speculates may come in part from traders not getting enough sleep.

Well, you may be a little more tired than usual this morning, but I applaud you for getting up and making it here on time, or at least in time for the sermon.  As it turns out, Jesus has a word for us in today’s scripture: “Stay awake.”  Stay awake.

I have to confess that Mark chapter 13, sometimes called Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” is not my favorite passage in the Bible.  I have studiously avoided dealing with such apocalyptic passages that can be confusing and lead to all kinds of wild speculation.  I have been a local church pastor for close to 25 years and I preach over 40 sermons a year, so I have preached more than 1000 sermons, and as far as I can tell, I have never preached on this passage before.  So – I guess it’s time.  We have been following the story line through Mark’s gospel, and now we come to this strange and troubling text.

Jesus has been in the temple complex, made up of several buildings and outdoor areas.  He has been teaching and responding to questions and detractors.  He has just made an observation about the widow who gave her two coins, which we looked at last week, and as Jesus and his disciples left the temple, some of his disciples looked up and commented on what a magnificent building it was.  “Look at those massive stones,” they say.  “Look at these awesome buildings.”

They were not just making idle chatter.  The disciples were rural folks, from Galilee, not big-city types from Jerusalem.  The temple was an impressive structure that dominated the Jerusalem skyline.  It was not as large or extravagant as the first temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, but the temple that was rebuilt in 515 BC after the return of the Jews from Babylon was nevertheless an impressive structure.  It took 23 years to build it.  Herod had made improvements and renovations to the temple just a few years before, in 20 BC.

Like everything in the ancient world, construction was done with manual labor.  There was no power equipment; they did not have diesel powered cranes all over the place like we have had in Campustown the last couple of years.  It was and still is amazing to see such structures built in antiquity and to contemplate how in the world they moved such massive stones and built such impressive structures.  

Micah Kiehl reports that when later Greeks saw the stonework from abandoned Bronze Age settlements, they called the style “cyclopean” because, to their eye, the only way such large stones could have been moved and arranged would be if a Cyclops had done it.  Many of the stones used in construction of the temple were about 2.5 x 3.5 x 15 feet and weighed about 28 tons, but some weighed well over 100 tons; scholars estimate that the largest weighed around 600 tons.  Now think about moving and setting a 600 ton stone in the ancient world.  The temple in Jerusalem was a monumental structure.  The disciples, being out-of-towners, didn’t just see this kind of thing every day.  They comment on what a magnificent structure it was.  What massive stones!  What ginormous buildings!

But Jesus is not thinking about stonework or architecture right now.  He is in the midst of the last week of his life.  His arrest and death are near.  He says, “Yeah, these are big buildings.  And guess what: it is all coming down.  Not one stone will be left upon another.”

From there, it only gets worse.  False prophets will lead people astray.  There will be arrests and persecutions.  There will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famine, suffering, the sun will go dark and the heavens will be shaken.    And then the Son of Man will come in great glory.”

We looked at this passage of scripture in Sunday School last week, and since then, I have had that song going in my head: “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.”  Images of wild-eyed prophets on street corners with signs saying “The End is Near” come to mind.  Preachers warning about the end of the world.  Folks who have overdosed on Bible prophecy announcing the day and time that the world will end, and how the elect (which always includes them) will be saved while there will literally be hell to pay for everybody else.

But it’s not just that kind of religious mindset that sees an end of the world coming.  This is a time of anxiety for an awful lot of us.  Global warming, rising sea levels, increases in extreme weather.  Terrorism in the Middle East that spills over to our part of the world.  The plague of gun violence and mass shootings.  A political system that seems gridlocked.  Increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots.  Strange new diseases.  And as our text puts it, “wars and rumors of war.” 

A lot of people are anxious.  A lot of people are worried.  In times of trouble and stress and persecution and great fear, apocalyptic literature and language is often employed.

One commentator said, “Contrary to what you have been led to believe, when Jesus goes apocalyptic, and talks of the end, he’s not predicting the future; he is speaking of the precariousness of the present.  This temple, this world is not as stable, not as eternal as it appears.”

Scholars believe that Mark was written sometime around 70 AD.  Guess what happened in 70 AD?  The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.  It was a cataclysmic event for Israel.  The temple was the center of worship and national life, and it was a powerful symbol of the nation, going back centuries, back to the temple that preceded it and all the way to King Solomon.  Now, there was not one stone left upon another.

Without the temple, it was hard to imagine that they could even exist as a people.  Take 9/11 and multiply it a hundredfold, and you start to get a sense of what the loss of the temple meant to the national consciousness.

It really was The End of the World as They Knew It.  And this is exactly what Jesus is saying.  This temple, this magnificent structure that holds so much meaning, that represents so much – it is just a building.  It is just a building made of stones, even if they are big stones, and it is all coming down.

But Jesus is saying more than that.  He is working on more than one level here.  Jesus has three different times spoken of the destruction of the temple that is his own body, and of rising again after three days.  After he is arrested, accusers will conflate the two temples, saying “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”

While Jesus may have been speaking of the temple in Jerusalem, he is also speaking of himself.  Much of the language and imagery of this chapter comes to pass in Jesus’ passion and death.  Jesus says “Stay awake” – which he will repeat to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The sun will turn dark – which we read as happening during the crucifixion.  The temple will be destroyed – which happened in 70 AD, but which in a sense takes place when Jesus is crucified, as the curtain of the temple is town in two.  And the glory of God will be seen – as voiced by the Roman centurion, who said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

This was as much about the present as it was the future.

Jesus is near the end.  And when you are near the end, there is a lot of fear.  There is a lot of anxiety.  It can be very painful.   

In one way or another, we all know about this.  We have all experienced this.  We have all experienced those times when it seems to be “The End of the World as We Know It.”

You lose a job.  Immediately there are concerns over paying your bills, but it is more than that.  Your job may have been a big part of your identity, and you are not sure what you are going to do.

As a child, your parents tell you that you are moving to a new town, and you will have to leave behind your school and your friends and everything you know.  It’s terrible.

You have done well at Iowa State and you are ready to graduate.  But as great as this is, there is also loss.  You will be leaving behind your friends and the world you have known and moving on to a new place and a new stage of life.  It's the end of an era. 

You receive a difficult diagnosis.  It hits you like a ton of bricks.  In an instant you know that life will literally never be the same. 

A relationship is fractured beyond repair; you realize that you have burned a bridge and cannot go back.

You go through a breakup or a divorce, and your future will take a different course from what you had planned and hoped for.

A parent, or spouse, or friend dies.  A child dies.  The world will never be the same.

We have all experienced, in different ways and to different degrees, “The End of the World as We Know It.”  We read this chapter in Mark, and it seems very dark.  It is depressing.  There is a reason that a lot of preachers are not eager to preach on it.  And yet, here it is.  And yet, there is hope to be found here.

William Willimon told about a student mission trip to Honduras.  A group of was working in an impoverished village, running a makeshift health clinic.  Each night they built a fire and sat around the fire singing with villagers.  One night a student had the bright idea that they all go around and share their favorite Bible verse.  Of course, some didn’t have much of a favorite verse – some mentioned John 3:16 or “The Lord is my shepherd.”  Some quoted other verses.  And then a Honduran woman said through an interpreter that her favorite verse was from Mark 13.  “Not one stone will be left, there will be earthquakes and famine and fire.”  She said, “That passage has always been such a comfort to me.”

Willimon was stunned.  How could this possibly be a comfort?  It sounds more like Jesus having a really bad day.  How could a warning of coming apocalypse be comforting?

But then a nurse sitting told Willimon, “I was talking with that woman.  She has given birth five times and three of her children have died due to malnutrition.”

We hear that God is going to dismantle all of this, upend the status quo, and it sounds frightening.  We have nice homes and decent jobs and retirement accounts.  We are relatively confortable; the way things are is not too bad for most of us.  But for this woman, the status quo has been hell.  And the notion that God was going to end all of this and turn this world upside down was welcome.  It was hopeful.  It sounded like gospel.

That is where she found hope in Mark’s Apocalypse.  But how about us?

Jesus says that when all of this happens, it will be but the beginning of the birth pangs.  The beginning of something brand new.

That is the way it often works.  We may suffer loss that is awful, that is devastating, but it can lead to something new.  The end of something can serve as the beginning of something else.

Sometimes, it is only after suffering painful loss that we are open to new possibilities.  Sometimes, on the other side of loss comes new life.  As we will celebrate in a couple of weeks, on the other side of death comes resurrection.

Jesus warns his friends that changes are coming, changes that will shake the earth, changes that will bring destruction and so they should be ready.  But it is not only the end.  It is also the beginning.

Some things need to end so that God’s promise and hope can be fulfilled.  One age ends so that a new age, the age of Christ’s Kingdom, can begin.  

We need to keep awake, says Jesus.  Keep awake, pay attention, because things will change.  The times, they are a –changing.  God will bring one age to an end so that a new age may begin.  Stay awake, for there will most definitely be a Time Change.  Amen.
 

“Seeing Our Neighbor” - March 6, 2016

Text: Mark 12:28-44  

Sometimes it's funny the way things work out.
Last fall, when it came time for our stewardship campaign, we had stewardship moments in worship and highlighted giving of our time, talents, and finances.  We had bulletin inserts and articles in the Spire.  What we didn't have were sermons specifically on giving or stewardship. We just continued with our readings from the Old Testament in the Narrative Lectionary.  Part of the thinkning was that as we read through the scriptures, we will find themes of stewardship all through the year and all across the scriptures.  

Well, we have had an especially good dose of that the last few weeks.  First, there was the story that we call the Rich Young Ruler.  A wealthy young man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  He has been faithful in keeping the Law and genuinely wants to do what is right.  Jesus tells him to sell all that he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow me.

Then last week, Jesus is asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not.  Jesus response was, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God’s the things that are God’s.”  We were left with the realization that all that we have comes from God and belongs to God, and we are to be faithful stewards of what God has given us.

It was a one-two punch, and now, we are again confronted with yet another passage that raises questions about generosity and stewardship.

Jesus has been challenged and questioned and in a sense attacked by folks from all over the cultural and religious spectrum: by chief priests and scribes – the temple leaders and bureaucracy; by Pharisees – very pious, very righteous  reformers; by Herodians – supporters of King Herod who were OK with collaborating with the Romans and making the best of things; and by Saducees – who were the more conservative establishment party and a counterweight to the Pharisees.  These groups all disagree with each other, yet they are all out to get Jesus.

Following repeated questioning and controversy from these various factions, all of which takes place in the temple, one of the scribes came away impressed with Jesus.  He asked him, which is the greatest commandment?  And Jesus replies with a kind of 1a and 1b answer – love God with your heart, mind, soul, and strength and lover your neighbor as yourself.  Everything else hinges on these two commands, says Jesus.  The scribe agrees with Jesus’ answer, and after that no one questioned Jesus.

But that did not mean that Jesus was through with the conversation.  While he had words of encouragement for this man, telling him that he is not far from the kingdom of God, he did not have kind words for the scribes in general.

He said, “Beware of the scribes – they love to wear their long robes, they love to be seen in public places, they love having the best seats in the synagogue and places of honor at banquets and dinner parties.  They may say long flowery prayers for the sake of appearance, but they will at the same time devour widow’s houses.”

This is rough stuff – and remember, Jesus is on their turf.  He is at the temple while saying this.

This is the background, this is the set-up for the story of the widow’s mite.  It is a familiar story for many of us.  Jesus is watching as people give their offerings.  They would drop their offering in a metal collection receptacle, and it was obvious who was giving a lot.  It would clank around – the more noise, the bigger the offering.  Some apparently wanted others to see them as they brought their offering.  But then a poor widow came and put in two small coins, worth about a penny.  Jesus said that this woman had given more than anyone else, because while they had given out of their abundance, she had given out of her poverty and given all that she had.

Now we have often taken this to be a story about generosity.  The widow is the hero of the story and a role model for us.  We are to give generously, just as this woman did.  It is not the size of the gift so much as the sacrifice.

Now, such an understanding of the passage is not wrong, and her generosity is certainly to be commended.  But I am not sure if this woman is the hero of the story, or if she is the victim in the story.  And I think that this is where reading a longer section of scripture, as we did today and as we have often been doing, can be very helpful in setting things in context.  When I first looked at the passage for today, I thought of it as two stories.  Or at least two stories, or sections.  There was the part about the Greatest Commandment, then a short section where Jesus is kind of trash-talking the scribes, and then the story of the Widow’s Mite.  But I think it may be more helpful to think of this passage as a whole.

Jesus has already described the scribes as “devouring widows’ houses.”  What was that about?

Care for widows was a crucial need in the ancient world.  In Hebrew culture, many believed that death before old age was a judgment for sin, and that that judgment was extended to the wife who was left; therefore it was a disgrace to be a widow.  Some believed that there was shame in being a widow.

And yet the scriptures again and again spoke of the need to care for the widow.  Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.”  Deuteronomy 24 says that when you harvest grain, you are to leave some behind in the fields for orphans and widows.  Deuteronomy 27 says, “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”

Psalm 68 speaks of God as the protector of widows.  The prophets time and again speak of the need to care for widows.  Isaiah 1:17 is one example: “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

And then in the New Testament, James writes that pure religion is to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

No, why do you think that the scriptures time and time again speak of the need to treat widows well and care for widows and orphans?  Why would they keep saying that?  Of course – because widows were often mistreated.

Generally, a woman could not own property, and if there were no man in the family, a woman was in danger of losing her land.  According to the law, the deceased husband’s brother was to take in and care for the widow, but if there were no brothers or if they were too poor, the widow had little recourse and was very vulnerable.

Now, who were the go-to experts in such matters of the Law?  The scribes.  And what had Jesus said about the scribes?  “They devour widow’s houses.”

This story may be about the widow and her example of faith and generosity.  But I think that maybe more so, it is about the scribes.  It is about the leaders of society.  It is about a culture that would allow widow’s homes to be taken away.  And the real question that Jesus is raising is, when those around her obviously have so much, why does this woman only have two coins, to her name?

The scribe had asked Jesus about the greatest commandment, and Jesus said love God and love your neighbor.  Well, how well was the community doing in loving the neighbor when this neighbor, this poor widow, had nothing to live on?  How well were they doing in following the repeated injunction of the scriptures to care for the widow?

The scene at the treasury, where people were bringing their offerings, illustrated the problem that Jesus was addressing.  Why did this woman have so little?  Why did so many feel obligated to bring their tithes to the temple but not obligated to love their neighbor and care for the widow?  Like long and impressive public prayers and fine clothing and seats of honor, their offerings were mostly for show.  The way they treated the most vulnerable revealed the true condition their hearts.

Now, it is easy to read this story and think of those terrible scribes who could take away what little a poor widow owned.  It is easy to become angry and judgmental about the way these people made a show of how good and upstanding they were but whose faith proved to be pretty shallow, pretty empty.  It would be easy to do that, but this is a powerful and challenging story because it confronts us with the question of how we care for those who are vulnerable among us, those who are on the margins in our community.

Next Sunday, several of us are going to Kansas City for a mission trip.  We will be working at the Bethel Neighborhood Center.  It has served its neighborhood for over 100 years.  The neighborhood has changed a great deal over that time; it began as a ministry to those working in the meat packing plants, largely Eastern Europeans in the beginning.  Now it is a diverse neighborhood with a lot of need, and they have a variety of programs for seniors, for children, for youth, health programs, tutoring, food programs, assistance for refugees, as well as weekly worship.

I always enjoy these trips, and I always learn something.  I remember a trip I took with college students many years ago to New York City.  We worked at a place called the Graffiti Center, and we were in a Bible study where several of the regular participants were homeless people.  We had a prayer time, and a guy named Franco had a prayer of thanksgiving.  We were there over spring break, and he was thankful that he had made it through a cold winter.  He knew people who hadn’t survived the winter, he said, and he was grateful that he was doing OK.

There was another guy there, another homeless man named Frank.  Frank was well known at the center where we worked and a very friendly and positive guy.  A local TV station had done a news story about poverty and homelessness and had interviewed Frank.  Somehow, out of this story on the news somebody had given Frank $500.  And like the widow at the temple, Frank had given it all away.  He had a big dinner for his friends, and he helped out people who were in worse shape than he was.

I learned a lot from Franco and from Frank – people that most of us are inclined not to notice.  People who are in the shadows – people to whom we may not pay much attention. And maybe that is part of what Jesus was saying.

This poor woman was a part of the community.  She too was a child of God.  She too had something to contribute.  Perhaps her heart was in a better place and perhaps she had as much or more to contribute as the people who get noticed.

The story is in some ways about perspective.  Who is to say who has more to offer?  And why does it need to be a contest in the first place?  From our perspective, of course – a big check is worth more than a couple of coins.  From our perspective, a person of limited means and limited resources doesn’t have that much to offer.  But God sees from a different perspective.  In God’s eyes, the giver has value, regardless of the gift.  Lives, identities, relationships have value.  Compassion, wisdom, faithfulness, integrity have value.

Imagine this poor widow.  She has no resources, no power, no prospects.  She is there at the temple where very wealthy people are making a show of their wealth, clanging their large offerings in the collection.  People are impressed.  People see their generosity.  People see their wealth.  People see what fine, upstanding people these are. 

How intimidating would it be for this widow to follow the great demonstration of wealth and generosity with two little coins?  Who did she think she was?  Did she even belong in this place?

But she was there, and she was giving all that she had.  It would have been easier – not just physically, but mentally and emotionally and maybe spiritually – to have stayed home.  Fewer reminders of the lot that had fallen to her, fewer reminders of what she didn’t have, fewer reminders of the cold-heartedness of those who were supposed to be temple leaders.  Yet here she was, bringing all she had to give to God.  This woman actually has a great deal to offer: not just generosity, but faith and courage and strength and constancy.

Jesus noticed this woman giving her offering.  I doubt that those of whom Jesus was speaking had noticed her at all.  Maybe that is the point.  And maybe that is the starting point of loving our neighbor.  Amen.



Friday, February 26, 2016

“God and Caesar” - February 28, 2016

Text: Mark 12:1-17

The only sure things in life, they say, are death and taxes.  Neither is anything to look forward to, and to be real honest about it, it appears that some of us may have a bigger issue with taxes than we do with death.

Taxes are in the news constantly.  Most of the presidential candidates have something to say about taxes, mostly with plans for lowering taxes, which is no surprise.  It is hard to find people who are real excited about taxation, and all things being equal, we would just as soon keep our own tax bill low.

But you know, the services provided by our taxes can make a big difference in our lives.  Personally, I don’t mind paying my fair share for things that benefit me and my family and build up the common good.  24th Street was reconstructed last summer, and while it was a pain to deal with at the time, it is really nice to not have to drive over potholes all the time.  We have a great public library and I am glad to support it.  I am glad we have fire and police protection.  We have great schools in Ames and our daughter received an excellent education at a public university. 

When I fly somewhere, I am glad that the Federal Aviation Administration has safety standards for aircraft.  I am glad that pilots have to be qualified and licensed and that we have air traffic controllers and security personnel working at the airport.  Last summer we visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and I think it is important that we have beautiful and unspoiled natural places in our country that are protected and maintained.  Many of you have served in the military, and is important that we support our armed forces to have a safe and strong nation.  It is important that we have a social safety net - having compassion and care for those in need is a part of our faith.  Taxes support a lot of important things, things that we need for society to function well and things that we need for life to be richer and fuller and more enjoyable for everyone.

But imagine if our taxes did not go to educate our children and protect our communities and maintain our roads and bridges and water systems.  What if, instead, our taxes were going to support a foreign power whose army was occupying our country?  What if our taxes went to prop up the empire that was oppressing us?  What if our taxes went to pay the enemy soldiers who were making our lives miserable?

That was life in Jesus’ day.  You think there are anti-tax people around now?  Just imagine what it would have been like in first century Israel.  If taxes are a bit of a touchy issue today, they were absolutely explosive in Jesus’ day.

We have been following along in Mark, reading sequentially.  You may have noticed that we skipped chapter 11.  Chapter 11 includes the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, what we remember on Palm Sunday.  So we will come back to that in a few weeks.  Today we have moved on ahead to chapter 12.  In the first reading, Jesus tells a parable of wicked tenants who abuse, hit upside the head, and in some cases outright kill the representatives of the vineyard owner, including servants, slaves, and finally the vineyard owner’s beloved son, who was killed as well.

It is a parable of judgment, and if you go back to chapter 11, you find that this parable is told against the chief priests, scribes, and elders – the religious elite, the power brokers of society.  These are the people to whom Jesus is speaking.  And they want to arrest Jesus, but they can’t do it while Jesus is in a large crowd of supporters.

Our second reading involves a different set of people.  We read, “They sent to him some Pharisees and Herodians.”  These are two entirely different groups from the chief priests and scribes.  And then in the passage that follows ours, we have some Saducees, yet another political and religious movement, coming to Jesus with a controversial question intended stir up trouble.  Basically, in one chapter, we have a variety of groups from all over the board, all working against Jesus and in some cases working together against Jesus.

The Pharisees are often mentioned in scripture.  They are pious religious folks, people who followed the law very closely and believed that everyone should do so.  The Pharisees don’t have the kind of power or official positions that the scribes and chief priests  have, but they are very concerned about righteousness.  Jesus would actually have more in common and more natural affinity with the Pharisees than most of the groups who opposed him.

The Herodians we know a lot less about; in fact, this is the only mention of the Herodians in the gospels.  They were supporters of Herod, the Jewish king who was essentially a puppet ruler.  Herod ruled only with the approval and support of Rome; he did whatever Rome told him to do.  So the Herodians were Jews who collaborated with the Roman overlords while the Pharisees were pious, strictly religious Jews who resented the Roman occupation.  The Pharisees wanted nothing to do with the Romans.

Do you get the picture here?  The Pharisees and Herodians are not friends.  Far from it.  But they have made common cause against an even greater common enemy.  They are brought together by their common disdain for Jesus, and they have a doozie of a question for him, one of those questions that no matter how you answer it, you get yourself in trouble.  It reminds me of the questions we would ask each other in junior high, questions like, “Are you the only ugly one in your family?” 

“Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the word of God in accordance with the truth...”  That’s funny; these people didn’t usually speak to Jesus with such admiration and deference.  If they think he speaks the truth, why didn’t they act accordingly?  What is this all about?

We know you always speak the truth, Jesus, we know you always have the right answer, so here’s the question: is it permitted to pay taxes to Caesar or not?

It seems like a simple enough question.  And that’s all the Pharisees and Herodians want: just a simple answer.  The simpler, the better.  A simple yes or no would be great.  Because either way, Jesus would get himself in a mess of trouble.

No matter what Jesus says, he will alienate people.  To say “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,” would mean alienating Jewish nationalists, who felt that paying taxes to Rome was intolerable.  He would lose standing with the people.  Who would follow a leader perceived to be in sympathy with Rome?  But to say “No, taxes should not be paid to Caesar,” would mean risking imprisonment by the Romans for insurrection.  So it is a perfect question for someone wanting to do damage to Jesus: he either loses credibility with the people, or he goes to jail.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

But Jesus is way ahead of his questioners.  Maybe those nice words helped to tip him off.  Jesus dispenses with the niceties.  He is not into games.  “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks.  Because that is all it was, a test.  And to show their hypocrisy, he asks for a coin. 

They brought him a denarius, and he asked, “Whose image and title is this?”  They answered, perhaps somewhat sheepishly, “the emperor’s.”

The Jews considered a coin bearing the image of someone to be a graven image – an idol, specifically prohibited in the Ten Commandments.  A Roman coin bore the image of Caesar and the words “son of the divine Augustus,” a reminder of the emperor-worship of the Roman Empire.  The Jews considered this to be blasphemous.  It was unclean; it was “dirty money.”  This was such an issue that you could not bring this Roman money into the temple.  If you wanted to make an offering when you went to the temple, you had to convert your Roman money into temple coinage.  When Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple, this is what they were doing – converting Roman currency into temple currency, and at a tidy profit.

Some Pharisees and Herodians had asked Jesus a question in order to trap him or at the very least to embarrass him.  But now, who was embarrassed?  Those questioning whether taxes should be paid to Caesar were shown to themselves be fully involved in the Roman economy, with its blasphemous money and all.  Whether it was OK to pay taxes to Rome was not a real question for them, and Jesus points this out in dramatic fashion. 

As you read through the gospels, have you ever wondered why they kept asking Jesus these kinds of questions?  Those who try to trip him up with trick questions always come off looking bad, but they just keep asking.

Jesus points out that whether to pay taxes to Caesar is not a real question for them, but then he goes on to answer it – at least, he engages the question.  He says, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  It sounds brilliant, but then upon reflection we realize it really doesn’t answer the question.  It is left up to us to decide, what is Caesar’s and what is God’s?

What Jesus does is to reframe the question.  What is due Caesar, and what is due God?  What claims does Caesar have on us, and what claims does God have on us?

This passage is sometimes taken to be Jesus’ teaching on church and state, and while it no doubt has something to say about that issue, that is not the crux of what he is trying to get across.  The state, the government, may have claims on us, but so does God, and we have to weight this and struggle with this for ourselves.  We have to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul put it.

The question of the relationship between church and state has always been an important question for Baptists.  Our history and heritage is as a persecuted minority who understood all too well the coercive power of the state and who fought for religious freedom for all people, even those with whom we disagree. 

A clergy group that Susan and I are a part of is watching and discussing the PBS series “God in America.”  The episode we watched this week told the story of Jeremiah Moore, a Baptist from Fairfax County, Virginia.  In 1773, the 27-year-old Moore found himself arrested and thrown in jail.  His crime: preaching without a license.  Soon after, numerous Baptist ministers in Virginia were thrown in jail.  The ironic thing was that being willing to go to jail proved the commitment and sincerity of these Baptists and rather than hurting the Baptist movement, it only served to make it grow.

What is due Caesar and what is due God?  The early Baptists answered this question by saying that the state had no claim whatsoever on one’s religious conscience and no right to regulate religious practice.  In 1644 Baptist Roger Williams argued for “soul liberty” for all people, “paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian.”  Williams was centuries ahead of his time and maybe even ahead of our time.  The Baptists argued that for the state to impose its own brand of religion, whether emperor worship in Rome or Puritan religion in New England or the Anglican Church in Virginia or even Baptist faith in Rhode Island, was to make a claim on individuals that was not the state’s to make.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians gives us the opportunity to think on such matters, but as I said, this is not really Jesus’ main intent here.  The crux of what he is saying goes far deeper than church-state relations.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  Jesus doesn’t really answer the question.  It is kind of thrown back at us.  But it is interesting to go back and consider the original question.  Jesus is asked if it is OK to pay Roman taxes.  That’s it.  There was no mention of God at all.

Caesar’s image was imprinted on the Roman coin.  But God’s image is imprinted on us – on every one of us.  The very first chapter of Genesis tells us that we are created in God’s image.  God is Creator of the whole world, the whole universe, every last atom.   Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness therof.”  It’s all God’s.  When we give to God the things that are God’s, there is nothing left for Caesar. 

Next to the Creator of the universe, Caesar becomes small and insignificant.  Caesar’s empire and Caesar’s image just don’t stack up against the greatness of God.  This story is not about taxes, not really.  It is about what belongs to God and what obedience to God looks like.

It is not that the government has no claims on us.  And it is not that we do not give allegiance to the state.  It is just that these claims are not ultimate claims on us.

Sometimes we want to pigeonhole the various areas of our life.  We can be good at compartmentalizing: school is over here, work is over here, family is over here, church is over here.  We divide sacred and secular, public and private.  But this doesn’t hold true in God’s economy.  This doesn’t work in a world in which everything belongs to God.

What does it mean, in a world in which we pledge allegiance to so many things – not just the state, not just the flag, but work and family and clubs and organizations and friends and school and sports teams – what does it mean that our allegiance to God is ultimate, above all else?

Giving to God the things that are God’s, it seems to me, means remembering that we bear God’s image and acting with God’s love and mercy and compassion and working for God’s justice in all of the various arenas of our lives. 

Marjorie Thompson wrote,

If the word I hear on Sunday has no bearing on the way I relate to my spouse, child, neighbor, or colleague; no bearing on how I make decisions, spend my resources, cast my vote, or offer my service, then my faith and my life are unrelated.  The spiritual life is not one slice in a larger loaf of reality but leaven for the whole loaf.
Caesar may be one slice, but God’s claims, and God’s grace, are found throughout all of life.  May we be faithful in giving to God what is God’s.  Amen.