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Sermon for Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B - Nov. 11, 2018)

Nov 11, 2018

Passage: Mark 12:38-44

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Sermons for Year B (2017-2018)

Category: Sermons for Year B (2017-2018)


Sermon for the Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27 - Year B (2018)
November 11th, 2018
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel at CCU)

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17      Hebrews 9:24-28      Mark 12:38-44

I always get a little self-conscious whenever I hear the Gospel lesson we have for today. Because I can’t help but think that Jesus’ warning about the scribes has has a modern parallel. And here I am wearing long robes! There’s kind of a joke amongst clergy of a certain sort that unless you have a cope in your wardrobe, you’re not doing church right. And there’s a thriving industry that caters to desire that some of us have to be dressed to the nines during worship. And while I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with dressing a certain way as an indication of function, it can be taken to extremes. And Jesus gives us a warning about that. 

I also can’t think of too many clergy who don’t want to be known and liked in their community. Most of us think that being greeted with respect in the market place is actually a good thing and a sign that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. But again, Jesus says we should be wary of those who only care about being well-known and treated with deference. So whenever I hear this Gospel reading, I wonder whether I should ask you all to ignore me or be rude to me if we run into each other at Food Lion.  

I also used to joke with people that the main reason I wanted to become a priest was so that I’d have a guaranteed seat in church at Christmas and Easter. And even though that’s just a joke, we’ve got Jesus saying you’d better watch out for folks who are serious about having the best seat in church. 

One thing I don’t worry too much about personally is Jesus’ warning against saying long prayers. If you’ve known me long enough, you’ve probably cordoned on to the fact that I’m not much of a long-winded, extemporaneous pray-er. My idea of a good prayer time is 20 minutes of contemplative silence; [[not fumbling around for words and telling God over and over how much I just wanna praise him.]]   

With all that said and with all of Jesus’ warnings in mind, I have to admit that I’m also a bit confused by this morning’s Gospel lesson. In it, Jesus starts off by saying that we’d best be on our guard against people who behave like the bad scribes. Because they are bad news. They “devour widows’ houses,” meaning that they are happy to take advantage of those who are powerless; and they abuse the trust that vulnerable people invest in them - purely for personal gain. You’d think that Jesus here might also be leveling a criticism at the power structure in place which allows the scribes to carry on devouring widows houses, but right after issuing his warning against the scribes, he notices a widow placing two small coins into the treasury, and he commends her for it. 

Now I find that interesting. Because you could argue that the treasury is there to help the scribes devour her house. And her putting in “everything she had, all she had to live on” seems to me to be a perfect example of the system helping the scribes to devour her house - the very thing that Jesus says will lead to the bad scribes’ condemnation.   

It kind of makes me think of people who send in money to televangelists instead of paying for their medication. It still happens to this day. Some folks really believe that if you send in your check and believe with all your heart - in that order, mind! - then you will get a clean bill of health at your next visit to the doctor. And there are plenty of huckster preachers out there who are more than happy to take advantage of that kind of faith.   

In any case, I find it kind of odd that Jesus condemns the scribes in one breath but in the very next commends the widow who is giving away all she has to live on in order to support the system that allows the scribes to take advantage of her. The point of the lesson, I think, is that God knows the heart and weighs the intention behind the gift; and that a gift given out of a true sense of dedication is worth more than merely its price tag. That’s a lesson which bears repeating over and over again.  

But it might still leave us a little unsettled if we consider the power structures in place which created the scenario in which a poor widow only had two copper coins to live on; or which might have made the widow think that it was somehow her duty to give away all that she had in order to maintain that power structure. Certainly, as Jesus points out, the widow’s devotion and charity is a good thing. The power structure being supported by her charity and devotion, though, are a different story. 

Now, here’s where I’m going to invite us all to look ahead to next week - because in the Gospel reading for next week, we get a description of what happens next; what happens right after Jesus commends the widow. As Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple, his disciples comment on how grand the temple building is. And Jesus tells them that the whole thing is going to be thrown down. The temple structure, into whose treasury a poor widow had just placed a penny, is not going to stand forever. Far from Jesus’ words being a prediction about the destruction of something good and beautiful, I think that following on the heels of the story of the widow, the Gospel provides us with a lesson about how pride that expects and rests solely upon the honorable sacrifices of the humble is bound eventually to collapse.       

Today is Veterans’ Day. It’s the day when we remember the sacrifices made by the women and men who offered themselves in service to their fellow countrymen. The history of the observance dates back to World War I. In that war tens of thousands made what we call the ultimate sacrifice. And tens of thousands since have done the same in various places all over this world. We honor their memory and give thanks for their willingness to lay down their lives. And it is right to do so. Because what little they had, they gave out of a true sense of dedication. 

But it is also a day for us to give some thought to what it is that we have asked our veterans to sacrifice for; a day for us to give some thought to what it is that we continue to ask our veterans to sacrifice for. There are not many who would argue that WWI was what one might call a “good” war. There was no noble cause; only the sinful pride of the powerful few willing to take advantage of the dedication of the many. And as a result of that war, you could argue that in much of Europe, all was thrown down. We would do well to remember that lesson; especially in light of what lately seems like a war going on inside our country, where making the ultimate sacrifice can come as a result of little more than going to a concert, to church, to school, to a synagogue, or to a bar.   

And so I’d like to close this morning with a poem written by Wilfred Owen during World War I and which I believe is even more relevant today.  

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

And builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.