What Is This Baby? Mark 13.1-8

November 15, 2015 – 25th Sunday after Pentecost

So whatever this sermon was going to be about earlier this week, it took a different turn when I got home on Friday night and learned about the coordinated set of attacks in Paris which now count 129 dead and 352 injured. Those attacks were preceded by suicide bombings in Beirut the day before that killed 43 and a suicide bombing in Baghdad that killed 23 and injured dozens and garnered only four sentences in the New York Times[1], perhaps because bombings now happen on an almost daily basis in Baghdad. And all of this preceded by murders and shootings and killings with such regularity that often we’re no longer astounded or outraged or grieved.

So far this year in the US alone, there have been 325 mass shootings—that means a shooting where a minimum of four people are shot—325 of them so far in 2015 and today is the 318th day of the year. That’s more than one mass shooting a day.[2]

Honestly, I’ve struggled with what to say this morning. It did not feel faithful to go on as if nothing had happened. On the other hand, for me it feels too soon to know quite what to say.

At a time like this I am more inclined to turn to music or poetry or silence. But I wasn’t sure about suggesting we sit together in prayerful silence for ten minutes this morning. (I would be happy to do that but I’m not sure all of you would be happy to do that.)

So I’ve cobbled together some words, included some poetry, we’ll sing together words of our faith and hear the choir sing the beautiful anthem “Cantique de Jean Racine” by French composer Gabriel Fauré.

In Mark’s gospel we find Jesus leaving the temple with his disciples after being in the Temple through much of chapter 11 and all of chapter 12. We know it’s not going to go down well for Jesus from here on out. The religious authorities are afraid of him and angry at him. Jesus has already predicted three times that he will be handed over to the religious leaders who will condemn him to death and he will be killed. He will rise again he has predicted but before then we know that trouble is coming.

As Jesus and the disciples walk out of the temple, one of the disciples looks up at the huge buildings—the temple and the surrounding buildings—and with stars in his eyes, admires the grand architecture. And it probably was impressive. The temple was perhaps 3 football fields by 4 football fields.[3] Built of huge white stones, with gold and silver on the façade, all of it glistening in the bright Mediterranean sun. Jesus is less impressed and tells the disciple that as grand as these buildings are, they will all be destroyed—all of the stones knocked down.

Historically, the gospel of Mark was written around the time of the destruction of the temple during the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70CE. Scholars are not of one mind as to whether the writer of this gospel wrote before the temple was destroyed or after its destruction. But either way, what we are left with now is commentary on the destruction of the temple. When life as the Israelites knew it was decentered, upended, disoriented, laid in ruins.

The second part of this story has Jesus and the disciples leaving the temple area in the city, walking through the Kidron valley and up to the Mount of Olives. They sit down now looking across the valley at the temple. Four of the disciples want to know when the destruction Jesus talks about is going to happen.

All that Jesus describes sounds like the nightly news: wars, rumors of war, nation rising up against another nation, earthquakes, famines. The disciples hear what Jesus says as the end of the world. But Jesus says, “Don’t focus on that. And don’t be afraid.” (Even though he is talking about frightening things!) This is not the end, it’s the beginning of birth pangs. All the upheaval, all the destruction, all the disorientation, all the anxiety and unknowns, it’s not the end, says Jesus. This is not a death knell, it’s the beginning of something new.

One pastor suggests this chapter in Mark is Jesus preparing his followers for what he knows lies ahead. And knowing what is coming, how will they witness to hope when surrounded by fear, violence, demagoguery and…indifference?”[4]

It’s a good question for the followers of Jesus now. We are surrounded by fear: Who will be next? Am I and my loved ones safe? We are surrounded by violence: There are so many shootings in our country they don’t all get news coverage. Too many of us have witnessed violence in our neighborhoods, in our homes, or have watched it over and over as entertainment. We are surrounded by the noise of demagogues who exploit the suffering of others for political gain or to stir up the prejudices of one group of people against another. And we are surrounded by indifference: the lack of political will to do anything about gun violence; we’ve grown used to another report about a shooting or a bombing that we barely notice unless someone injured or killed is directly related to us. And if we’re honest, aren’t there also times when we hear about another disaster and we say to ourselves, “I don’t want to hear or think about this because it makes me feel bad/guilty/ scared/angry/ helpless.”

So if this bad news isn’t the end of the world, what is this baby that is trying to be born? What are the birth pangs leading to?

Scripture tells us it is the advent of the realm of God. As the prophet Habakkuk says, “When the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.” (2.14) It is when everyone is able to share in the abundant life that God intends. It is when justice and peace will be a reality for everyone—not just something we long for.

That is the promise of the gospel. It is what we set our sights on and wait and watch for, trusting that even as the world seems to fall apart, we will be held, that the world will be held in God’s hands.

Sometimes it takes some stillness to trust that this might be true. There’s a poem by Wendell Berry that speaks to a time like this:

“When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”[5]

We always have a choice: Will we live in fear or open our hearts to trust? Will we retreat into the safety of who and what we already know or will we open our hands to receive something unexpected that the Spirit will bring? Will we seek revenge or walk the long path of forgiveness?

We often sing the words of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“Goodness is stronger than evil.

Love is stronger than hate.

Light is stronger than darkness.

Life is stronger than death.

Victory is ours. Victory is ours.

Through God who loves us.”[6]

On a day like today, in a week like this one, from Paris to Beirut to Baghdad to Missouri University, I don’t hear those words as a warrior’s song of victory. I hear it as a winsome promise. A promise of the way God intends for the world to be. A promise that continues to be born in your life and in mine; in the lives of God’s beloved daughters and sons all around the world.

* * *

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/14/world/middleeast/iraq-suicide-bomb-and-road-blast-kill-26-in-baghdad.html, accessed 14 November 2015.
[2] http://www.shootingtracker.com/, accessed 14 November 2015.
[3] William C. PLacher, Mark, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 184.
[4] John E. Cole, “Mark 13.1-8 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 398.
[5] Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things,” Collected Poems: 1957-1982, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 69.
[6] Desmond Tutu, “Goodness is Stronger than Evil” © 1995.

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An Offering of Generosity – Mark 12.38-44 & 2 Corinthians 9.6-12

November 8, 2015 – 24th Sunday after Pentecost

In 23 years of preaching, I’m always surprised when there is a gospel passage in the lectionary that I haven’t preached from. 23 years is nearly 8 times through the lectionary cycle. But I can’t find that I ever preached this passage.

Probably for good reason.

This is one of those stories in the Bible where you start out thinking it’s about one thing and then the more you sit with it, the more you realize it’s about some other things and, at least initially, you wish you hadn’t chosen this passage.

I mean, I’m just speaking hypothetically, of course.

So here we have this widow, who comes to the Temple. Jesus is there too and he’s watching what’s going on. The woman drops in two tiny coins—the smallest value coins available. Like two pennies. And Jesus says, “Do you see what she just did? She put in all the money she had left to her name. She gave more, proportionately, than the people who put in bigger sums but still have lots left to live on.”

So you might say Jesus was noting the woman’s sacrifice. You could say he was highlighting that not all small gifts are small. You could wonder if Jesus recognizes the value of gifts that are large. You could also wonder if we’re supposed to now be like that woman, giving all our money—so we have nothing left to live on.

Also note that the first part of this story includes Jesus’ comments on the actions of the religious leaders. Some commentators are not sure if Jesus is describing all the scribes or just some scribes who like to walk around in long robes, command respect in the marketplace, get the best seats in worship and impress people with their long prayers. (Which, I will tell you, makes me self-conscious about my attire this morning and you can count on my part of the prayers of the people being short.) At least some of them are guilty of devouring the houses of widows which probably has to do with the scribes being legal writers so a widow might come for legal assistance and the untrustworthy scribe writes a legal document that takes advantage of her house, personal property and land,[1] thereby exploiting the vulnerability of the widow and padding the Temple bank account.

And then the widow turns around and puts the tiny little bit of money she has left into the offering plate of those who have exploited her.

Just to clarify, the exploitation in this passage is not unique to any one religious tradition or any one group of religious authorities or any one point in time. I suspect we can all think of examples in our lifetimes where religious authorities have exploited and harmed those who are vulnerable. This is not a Jewish problem as one might casually, and erroneously, assume from this story. This is a human problem.[2]

Has there ever been a generation in time where there wasn’t corruption? Ever since people existed and could figure out how to take advantage of one another, we have done that—individually and collectively. “Acts of violence, the mistreatment of the vulnerable…the greed built into economic systems.”[3] It’s not new to us nor is it limited to the past.

And it’s human nature to get hung up on looking at what’s bad. Obsessing about what went wrong. Focusing on problems and blaming others. I heard someone say recently “One bad apple can spoil a barrel, but one good egg does not make a dozen.”[4]

And there might have been just the tiniest little bit of this getting hung up on looking at what’s bad, say late Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning this week.

When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, there was a lot of euphoria among people I knew. I remember hearing a lecture at Princeton Seminary shortly after that election in which the speaker reminded us that no political party or political candidate was ever going to usher in the realm of God. Because politics will always be corrupt. It will always leave somebody out and always sell someone short because that’s how politics works. Because politics is a human endeavor.

Of course, there’s also great good that comes through political action and political leaders. I am not anti-government nor would I ever suggest we ignore politics or not get involved in political action.

This week’s elections may have turned out differently than you expected, better than you imagined, or worse than you imagined. Depending on your perspective, the names and faces in this story from Mark’s gospel could be changed to reflect two very different Christian convictions in these days in Kentucky about who is corrupt and who is not; who is faithful to the Gospel and who is not.

So what are we do to with that?

I said in another venue this week that we Christians are part a religious tradition that for 2,000 years (and Christianity, of course, was born out of Judaism which for a few thousand years longer than that) has looked at the world and said, “This is not all that God intends” and for all those thousands of years our ancestors in faith, in one way or another, have committed themselves to enacting change in the world that we believe more fully reveals the love and justice of God. So no matter who is elected, what do we do today and tomorrow and the next day? We commit ourselves to joining with our sisters and brother as we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

And because our commitment is not simply to oppose what we believe thwarts God’s desires for the world, as we walk humbly with God, we pay attention and speak about the goodness and blessing of God in the world: the justice and the kindness that has taken root and is sprouting and flourishing.

Emilie Townes, the dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, suggests we think about the two small coins of the widow as an offering, not a sacrifice. The woman gives all that she has—literally, verse 44 says “the whole of her life.”[5] Dr. Townes writes, “the coins represent faith-filled offering found in presenting all of who we are and all we hope to become to God for service to the world.”[6] And that kind of offering is not dependent or constricted or determined by one’s circumstances. That kind of offering of ourselves and of our lives comes from a place of gratitude and hope and generosity and love.

The Apostle Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully…God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (9.6,8) This does not mean there will not be suffering or disappointment. There will be because that is part of what happens in life. But suffering or disappointment is not the overriding story of the people of God.

The bigger story in which we make the offering of our lives is this: In life and in death we belong to God. God adopts us into God’s family, calling us and claiming us as dearly beloved daughters and sons. Not because we have earned it but because God is gracious and loving. With gratitude for God’s grace and love, we respond with our whole lives, committing ourselves to know and follow Christ and to be God’s people in the world. And along the way we find blessings in abundance to share.

* * *

[1] Robert A. Bryant, “Mark 12.38-44 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 289.

[2] And it’s not limited to religious corruption. I read this article, “Real Estate Shell Companies Scheme to Defraud Owners Out of Their Homes” right after I finished writing this sermon. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/nyregion/real-estate-shell-companies-scheme-to-defraud-owners-out-of-their-homes.html?ref=realestate&_r=0, accessed November 7, 2015

[3] “Unoriginal sin” Christian Century, June 11, 2014.

[4] OnBeing interview with Adam Grant, http://onbeing.org/program/adam-grant-successful-givers-toxic-takers-and-the-life-we-spend-at-work/transcript/8064#main_content, accessed November 7, 2015.

[5] Pete Peery, “Mark 12.38-44 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 287.

[6] Emilie M. Townes, “Mark 12.38-44 – Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 286.