Beware of the Church

Mark 12.38-44

As he 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.”

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The story of the Widow’s gift of the two small copper coins is a favorite among pastors for their stewardship sermons. All of the perfect details are there to entice, and guilt, a congregation into giving more money as they follow the example of the widow. It does not matter how much you make, but what you do with what you make! Pastors will be clear about thanking the rich for making their offering, but they will emphasize how even the poor have money to give.

But the story is much more complicated than that.

Jesus was teaching in the temple when he warned everyone with ears to hear about the religious elite. “Watch out for those scribes and priests. You know the ones who like to walk around in long robes and get all the respect in the marketplaces? You know those ministers and preachers who love to get the seats of honor at banquets? They are the type of people who prey on the widows and for the sake of appearance will fill their prayers with big and long words. They are not praying out of faithfulness but out of expectation and perception. Watch out for them.”

Then he immediately gathered around the treasury and watched as people filed in line to drop off their donations. Many rich people lined up, proud of the donation they were about to make publicly, but then a poor widow came up and put in two small copper coins, coins that amounted to a penny. Jesus pulled the disciples close and said, “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: her whole life.”

Is the widow an example of profound faith? Of course she is. She embodies the call to witness to God’s faithfulness by returning her gifts to the Lord, recognizing that the Lord will truly provide. She sacrifices deeply and stands as a worthy saint to be modeled after.

But does Jesus point her out to the disciples because of her worthy example of sacrifice, or does he point her out as a tragic example of how religious institutions can fail the people they are supposed to protect?

St. Mary’s Cathedral is a beautiful church in San Francisco that stands as a beacon of beauty and power to the people of the local community. For years its steeple has cut across the horizon as a worthy witness to God’s power. It is the kind of church that is filled with wealthy and put together people who want to hear about God’s love and grace. The parking lot is filled with expensive cars Sunday after Sunday. And they rarely worry about the future of the church because they believe God has a plan for them.

The church is also known for its beautiful and gothic architecture. The alcoves have been carved with deliberate care and focus and you can’t help but marvel when you see the structure. However, the beautiful alcoves create a problem for the church because homeless men, women, and children like to sleep in them to stay out of the rain. For some time the church attempted to turn a blind eye to the homeless who would gather on the property every night, but it got to the point where the lingering smell was so strong on Sunday mornings that the leaders of the church were worried about losing some of their strongest financial givers.

The church decided to install a sprinkler system in the ceilings of the three major alcoves in order to deter the homeless population from staying in them. Every night, from the time the Sun goes down until the early morning, the sprinklers will turn on for 75 seconds every 30 minutes for the pure and simple purpose of removing the people from where they gather. This church, in a state suffering from a tremendous drought, believed that installing the sprinkler system was the right thing to do.

Is that church an example of faithfulness? Or is it a tragic example of how the church has failed the people its supposed to protect?

Can you imagine how strange it would be to hear about this story from the gospel of Mark on a Sunday when the preacher asks for you to give more? I wrestle with how difficult it is to encourage generosity, particularly from those who are already sacrificing so much to the church. To be perfectly frank, the poor and vulnerable are often the strongest givers to the church and if the church fails to be good stewards of their gift, then we are failing our purpose.

Throughout the bible, both the Old and New Testaments, most of God’s anger is kindled against people who preserve their own wealth and power at the expense of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor. God commands the Israelites to not pick up the crops they drop in the fields so that the sojourner has something to eat. Just about every prophet addresses how the wealthy leaders neglected their responsibility to the poor and underprivileged. Even in the gospels, Jesus specifically references money and the care of it in regard to the last, least, and lost, more than almost any other ethical claim.

What we do with our money is incredibly important, particularly because we are supposed to use our blessings to bless others.

The church can only be a faithful place for the giving of gifts when we heed Jesus’ call to care for the outcast. If we were the kind of church that installed a sprinkler system to remove homeless people from sleeping under our bell tower, then we would have no right to ask for people to give generously because we would have failed to be the church.

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The church has little use for hypocrites; the world already has enough. For far too long we have missed the value of this story from scripture and have perpetuated a system whereby the pretentious and powerful show off their status only to draw more attention to themselves at the expense of the less fortunate.

I know it sounds strange to hear someone, particularly a pastor who wears a long robe, talk about hypocrisy in the church, when I am standing in this high pulpit for everyone to see. I know that it sounds strange to hear a sermon entitled “Beware of the Church,” while you are sitting in a church. But if we aren’t willing to be generous for the sake of God and others (more than ourselves), then we have no business calling ourselves “the church” in the first place.

There was once another church in the midst of a stewardship drive and the finance committee could not stop arguing. They gathered in one of the Sunday school rooms and bickered back and forth about who they could hit up for more money this year. They debated about how much money they would need to bring in in order to buy new brass flower holders next to the altar. They argued about whether the pastor should know who gave what and how much.

The meeting got to such a boiling point that they never came to any conclusions about what to do, and the argument spilled into the parking lot as they prepared to leave. However, sitting on the front steps of the church was a homeless man holding out a cup for donations. He had been there for most of the afternoon, hopeful for any gift, and he could not help from overhearing the church folk arguing in the parking lot.

After some time had passed he stood up from the steps, walked over to one of the older women, grabbed her by the hand, dumped the few dollars and spare change he had received and said, “You clearly need this more than I do.”

In the story from scripture, the widow’s gift is great because of her sacrifice. She is worthy of our attention and focus, but her sacrifice would not have been as much of a struggle if the wealthy and religious elite had done what they could to comfort the afflicted. The whole religious system had become perverted during the time of Jesus. It did not protect the widows, the poor, and the vulnerable. Instead, it lived off of them.

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Giving money and sacrificing to the church is a good and righteous thing to do, but only when the church uses the gifts as Jesus commands us. Feeding the hungry and providing clothing to the poor is an important thing to do, but we have to see that not as just a program or opportunity, but see it as the very life that flows from our worship.

This church is not perfect. After all, it’s filled with broken people like you and me. But we strive for transparency in our finances and a commitment to serving those in need. We believe in the power of the blessings God has given us to bless others. We believe that God can use us to change this community and the world.

Because the truth is, we can’t take our money with us to heaven. But we can use it here and now to make people feel a little bit of heaven on earth. Amen.

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