Monday, November 12, 2012

Sermon: "The Widow's Might, or, When Mission Means Nothing"

"The Widow's Might, or, When Mission Means Nothing"

Preached at South Wedge Mission 
Mission Partner Worship
Rochester, New York
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
11 November 2012

Day Texts: 1 Kings 17.8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9.24-28
Mark 12.38-44


-The poor widow and her mite: how can we not love her?  Here she comes, onto the scene and into our hearts, clad in babushka and mourner’s black, faithfully dropping with wizened, trembling fingers those worthless little pieces of metal into the offering plate with a prayer and a dream of blessing.  Two pennies! we exclaim.  What quaint, simple, beautiful faith! We need to find the widows in our midst, and serve them, and be more like them. 

-I'm all for the widow, of course.  But, well, while this way of telling the story makes for happy-ending feel-good television, I’m not sure that was Jesus’ intention.  I don’t think Jesus wants us to feel-good at the end of this story.  If we do, something is very, very wrong. 

-First off, we’re not even actually told that the widow was  “faithful.”  For all we know, the widow was told in sermon after sermon in the synagogue that if she gave her money, she’d find “health wealth and prosperity.”  For all we know, while one hand gives her offering, the other is clenched in frustration, despair, and defiance of the whole corrupt religious system that drowns out the sound of her clinking coins with torrents of waterfalls of glimmering wealth. And at the end of the day, the widow is still poor - in fact, utterly destitute, worse off than when the story began.  And there’s nothing admirable or romantic about such absolute poverty.
-See, I wonder if I see the widow a certain not have to see her.  If I idealize the widow to avoid a hard truth.  And that hard truth is this: if I had been in the temple that day, I’m not sure I would have ever known the widow existed.  Not because I don’t care about the poor.  But as members of a religious people steeped in a society of privilege, I fear that you and I would have been standing with the scribes and the publicans.  The one’s who feel the burden of keeping the whole church-thing going.  Who think: “well, the reason we can see the widow’s offering at all is because we’re the ones paying the bills to keep the temple lights turned on in the first place!” 

-I think that the real irony, the real challenge to our "seeing blindness" here is that, we, of the church fail to truly take heed of the widow’s mite, not because we are necessarily heartless, but, often, because we care so much about being visible ourselves.  We care so much about being “missional.”  About working to “renew the church,” about regaining our influence and our witness in the world.  We want desperately for the church to once again be a viable force for good.  We pray and give of our resources that the church might be seen once more.  

-So, when Jesus rips into the scribes and the publicans for caring about being seen in fancy, flowing robes in places of honor in the synagogue, the banquet table, and the marketplace, I can’t help but hear Jesus also speaking directly to us, His church today.  Because whether we are an established congregation or a new mission start, Christians across the nation are obsessed with being “relevant” to the public we are rapidly losing.  And we are terrified of remaining invisible and forgotten.    

-And so we lament the loss of our visibility, even as we scramble to be seen.  We grieve that our synagogues and sanctuaries are empty, and so engage in battles over “traditional” and “contemporary” worship and building projects and capital campaigns, hoping that if we build it, they will come.  

-We long for the days when pastors shared the banquet table of the public square with politicians and the powerful, and so we drink the kool-aid of either progressive or conservative agendas in the hopes of being recognized in the papers or the board meeting for our prophetic-ness.  

-And, perhaps most prominent, fearing the exodus of the young from our ranks, we drive ourselves crazy trying to understand the new religious marketplace, taking to twitter and facebook and gimmicks and visioning processes and church growth plans, all in the hopes of securing a future for the communities we love. 

-In our desperation not to die, the church has even made noticing the widow into another arrow for the quiver of our social justice resume, hoping to prove to the world that we are not like those other “unwelcoming” churches, that, of course, we stand with the 99%, and so on and so forth.    

-The irony, of course, is that in our most sincere efforts to save the church, we are in fact doing our best to avoid having nothing.  We can admire the widow and her sacrifice from the pulpit and blogosphere, but at the end of the day, we do not want to be destitute.  We are scared of powerlessness.  We are terrified of being naked.  We’d rather give out of abundance. We want to admire the widow’s faith.  But we do not want to be in her position. 

-But it’s worth asking: who is Jesus pointing to in this story?  Where is Jesus’ attention?  Hint: it’s not in the banquets of honor and power.  It’s not in the marketplace.  It’s not on our successes.  It’s not on power or privilege.  Perhaps most chillingly, its not even on our sanctuaries and synagogues.

-Jesus holds up that little old widow, and her poverty, and her hope in God’s promises of abundance.  By pointing to her, Jesus is seeking with all his might to change the way we think, hear, notice and imagine.  In essence, he says to us today, brothers and sisters, “if you would be my disciple, go, and lose all you have, and come follow me. If you would be the church, forget about every idea you have about mission.  Fast from all programs.  Abandon respectability.  Deny relevancy.  If you’re serving me from those things, you are giving out of your self-made images of abundance.  There’s still something in it for you.” 

-Instead, I wonder if we may have to accept Jesus' revealation of the widow as the judgment of God on the church.  The judgment of God, that this the stripping away of our wealth, of our orientation, of our buildings and of our membership and even of our own sense of security and certainty.  The judgment that is in fact an act of God’s terrible, truth-seeking love.  

-It is an act of God’s truth-seeking love for us, trying to make us into people who can actually know ourselves as beloved of God.  And nothing else.  Who are able to be poor and naked and beggarly and unnoticed by all except for Jesus.  And no one else.  Who are the kind of people, not who God loves any more or any less, but who are fully alive and worthy of being pointed out by Jesus as witnesses to others.  And no one else.   

-My internship supervisor, recognized throughout our church as a guru of mission development, taught me all sorts of tricks of the trade for starting a church.  But again and again, she brought me back to a basic truth.  If I am not willing to be reduced to nothing by God, then I am of no use to God.  If I am unwilling to be completely stricken down and transformed by God, I am not able to preach the Gospel of the God who creates most powerfully out of brokenness and failure.  

-This is hard advice, and I’m not sure I’ve even begun to really understand or live into it.  But its advice that echoes the words Jesus gives to the church in the widow.  Its not any strategy or campaign or missional initiative that will save the church.  Though, I’m not sure God cares much about saving institutions anyway.  But God cares a great deal about the church’s mission, and about using the church as God’s instrument to save people.  And the only way the God of the cross knows how to get through to us will be to strip us of our ideas of enough-ness by revealing the poverty of our preconceived ideas of power and abundance. So that we can be shown the true overflowing power of God, revealed in two copper coins. 

-So is that it?  Is there any Gospel in this at all for us? Or is there just the judgment of being stripped to nothing?  I don’t think the feel-good ending “God loves us anyway” is enough here.  But I do think there is Gospel, even in God’s judgment of taking away our visibility and our security.  Because it means God has not given up on us.  Because it means God thinks there’s something worth saving underneath all of the confusion and self-deception, failure and brokenness.  It means that God, who did not spare God’s own son, will not spare us, in order to make us God’s instruments of grace.  God always loves us as we are, but also loves us enough not to leave us as we are.   

-And God is with us.  God in Christ, did not forget the widow.  And when we are at our most poor, and our most forgotten, and are giving from what feels like nothing, we are only ever able to do so, because we are held in the loving gaze of a God who loves our holiness more than our happiness, who loves truth more than lies, and who loves God’s world more than our prestige.  And whose mission for us, Jesus be praised, has nothing to do with power or relevancy. 

-The poverty of the church is Good News.  It means that if we are seen at all, it will not be because we have been effective, relevant, or anything else having to do with us.  But if we are seen, it will be because God sees us, and yearns to share us with the world.  It means God has not only saved us in the cross, but is also sanctifying us into its image.  God is forging us into two copper coins, so that we can be of real use to the widows of the world. 

-No other God is worth having or serving.  And as people claimed by the cross of Christ, no other God is for us and with us.  No other God is ours, except this God.  The God who is the might of the widows, of the destitute, and of us.  We will not be forgotten by this God.  The church will not be forgotten by her God.  And so we need not be afraid.