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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

November 8, 2015

Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
1st Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-16
2nd Reading: Hebrews 9:24-28

“As Jesus 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.'” The truth of this teaching of Jesus always brings up a lot of emotions for me. First, I always think of some of the televangelists from the '70s and '80s who were very rich, with mansions and limos, pleading and crying and reading scripture to manipulate poor widows at home to send them their last dime. This makes me so angry. But I also feel ashamed, because I as a pastor get lumped in with these thieves, and I know that's what some people think of when they think of religion or church—religious leaders swindling people out of what little they have to line their own pockets. Now, thankfully we have safeguards in our congregation and in our larger church structure to make sure that donations actually go where we say they do and that people are not shamed or manipulated into giving. There is transparency to our budget and a congregational discussion and vote about where the money goes that each of you donates. I am quite proud of the amount of money this congregation gives away to those in need, both the pantry and in a tithe to the Oregon Synod and national church, who feed the poor, fund ministry grants, give scholarships and camperships, provide mosquito nets and emergency relief from natural disasters. Lutheran World Relief consistently receives the highest marks for the greatest percentage of gifts going to help people in need. They keep their administrative costs low and work through partner agencies on the ground in the particular area experiencing the need to make sure that the local culture is honored and actual needs met during a particular crisis.

The other thing this reading brings to mind is income disparity and the gap between the poor and the rich—the way the rich control more and more of the world's wealth. The economy is set up this way, to benefit a few. It wasn't always this way. The early years of this nation's capitalistic economy was balanced by our moral values, of caring for the poor and making sure that widows and all those in need were cared for. Churches and synagogues played an important part in making sure that we remembered these values when we voted and as we went about our day and our business. But as our churches have lost power and religion is viewed with more skepticism, we've lost that influence and story that our lives aren't just about amassing money and things, but that we need to care for the most vulnerable. We've lost the story that we are all connected, and that my wellbeing has anything to do with that widow's wellbeing. In some ways the church's losing influence and power is our fault—a few leaders abused their power, they abused their parishioners, they lied and stole. Many more of us pointed the finger at other people instead of taking the stick out of our own eye, so now religion is seen as judgmental. Other parts of the story are shaped by outside influences—the story that we deserve what we earn, that people who don't have much are just lazy, and that we need more and more things to keep us happy. These are stories cultivated by our consumer culture. 

The scribes had lost the story of their faith in Jesus' time, too. Their scriptures told them feed the poor and care for widows and orphans. However, they were more interested in their own power and influence. They had forgotten that we are all connected and that the widow had anything to do with them. They were telling themselves a new story, a lie, that they needed more and more and more and they deserved it and God was blessing them because they were special, or that God wasn't paying much attention at all. In the meantime, they were missing God right there in their midst, in Jesus and in the widow. And they were missing a greater connection, a greater peace. Instead of peace, they experienced this uneasiness and insecurity and fear that they would be found out for what they really were, that they could lose everything and no one would care. Any of us could become the widow at any time, alone and helpless.

Finally, environmental degradation comes to mind, as it often does, for me. In order to provide for the desires of the rich, it is the poor who suffer the environmental consequences. In order for me to have my I-phone, poor people mine dangerous chemicals deep in the earth, ruining their health, and destroying the land that should sustain them. Trash incinerating facilities are consistently built in poor neighborhoods, leading to asthma in people who can't afford to move away from there or take time off work to protest. Those of us rich enough to drive and fly places we like to go are burning up the oil, adding to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and heating things up. The people most adversely affected are those who rely on fishing for their livelihood, who live near the sea where levels are rising, those who rely on the land or the forest as topsoil degrades and trees are burned. 

To keep the priests in fine robes, to keep all of us in the latest styles of clothes and technology, the poorest people pay the price. Rather than gaining in prosperity, most of them find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty and even their ability to grow their own food or live on the land their family has lived on for centuries is no longer an option as the land is poisoned or water becomes scarce in times of prolonged drought in the new climate we are experiencing. We will end up destroying ourselves if we don't change our direction by changing our story, if we don't quit lying to ourselves.
Thankfully, we haven't fully lost the true story. We live in a culture that is telling us lies. Sometimes we believe those lies, in fact a lot of times. Still we know there is something more, there has to be something better. So we come here to be reminded of our story—the story of what God values, the story of what really matters in the long run, the story of sacrifice, the story of new and abundant life. I've bombarded you with bad news, here comes the good news.

We have an important story. It is the story of a world created good and balanced for the thriving of all life. It is a story in which humans make mistakes and learn from them, in the presence of God who loves and forgives. It is a story of the interconnectedness of us all, plants, animals, humankind, rich and poor. It is a story of sharing and healing, brokenness and connectedness. We know this story deep inside us and it is a story the world needs to hear, in order to heal, to come to a point where we can change the course of where we're headed. The Gospel is clear that a small group can make a difference—it only takes a little salt to season a whole dish, if we can get our light out from under the bushel basket, it will light up the room, a tiny bit of yeast raises the whole loaf, the one sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient to give us new life.

These are some of the values that we must lift up from the Bible, that will help. Participation—everyone is empowered to have a voice, to use their gifts, to have a say. We've seen this value lifted up in the story from a couple of weeks ago, when Jesus Disciples were complaining to him that some people were casting out demons and healing people without permission from Jesus. Jesus said, “If they are not against us, they are for us.” Let them do God's work. You don't need special permission to participate.

Another value is sufficiency—this is about basic needs. The widow's needs are more important than the scribes. The scribes don't need a thing, but they take, take, take. The widow has nothing to live on. Her needs must come first.

Another is equity—fairness. When I think of equity, I think of the scripture from Galatians chapter 3, “There is no Jew or Greek, male or female.” There is another from several scriptures, “God shows no partiality.”

Another is accountability—transparency, people know how decisions are made and there are structures and procedures for hold decision-makers accountable. We might think of the shalom process from Matthew in which when you have a quarrel with your neighbor, go to him or her and work it out alone. But if that person won't listen, bring someone with you. If that doesn't work, take it to the elders, and then finally if it can't be resolved, someone may have to be removed from the community. We don't ignore problems, but there is a process and procedure to help us make a better community and world.

Then there is simplicity—having fewer possessions. Remember the rich man who was greatly grieved when Jesus told him to give up all he owned and follow him? Remember Lent when we simplify our lives to focus more on God's love.

Then there is responsibility—the fact that there are consequences for our actions. The consequences for the scribes actions of having to have fancy clothes and the places of honor, is that poor people don't have enough. The consequences of our use of biofuel, means that people who have corn as their staple food can't afford it anymore. 

Finally, there is something called subsidiary, in which the people who get to make the decisions are those who are most affected. For example, those who get to decide whether a tree is cut down might be the immediate neighbors, and might even be the creatures who live in that tree. We see this in the Bible when Jesus interacts with people who don't usually have a voice, where those who are sick are the ones to decide to seek a cure in Jesus presence, and actively participate in their own health. Or remember Naaman who is told to go wash in the river Jordan? He almost refuses, but with the encouragement of others who are affected by his disease, he does it and his leprosy is healed.

According to one definition, sin is wild arrogance, and grace is setting limits. For instance, we know by now that if we eat the whole package of Oreos in one sitting we will get sick. We know that because at one time or another we ate too many cookies in a moment of selfishness and uncontrolled desire. Eat one or two, and there is something beautiful. Refuse to eat them all yourself and share some with others and you're building community. That is what grace looks like. Even better if we share something nutritious and life-giving! To set a limit is to combine your trips, to set the timer for your shower, to walk or ride your bicycle, to eat less meat, to live in a smaller house or apartment. To set limits, is to experience grace, God with us when we have less and more to share with others. One example I have from riding my bicycle. I was just wanting to ride my bicycle for fitness and to try to use less gasoline. However, I have found that when I am not in my car, it makes it easier to greet people and make eye contact. The other day at the library, a homeless man was on his bicycle, too, and we made eye contact and greeted one another and Sterling remarked on that nice man who smiled at him. We made a connection. We experienced grace.

I want to caution us about the story of these two widows , that we don't decide if we are poor to give away all we have, or if we are rich to decide we don't have to help the poor because God will take care of that by a miracle. The story is an inspiration to us who are rich, to give more and to take care of those who need our help, like the widow gives away her last coin or her last biscuit. It is no less a miracle that we help one another and make sure that no one has an empty cupboard or frig. In fact, what a gift to be part of the miracle!

It is God's love and grace that make sure there is enough food and basic necessities to go around. God created this world for life, this earth shares with us and we share with each other. We know we can limit ourselves, because of the inspiration of our Savior who limited himself from being all knowing and all powerful to being a human with all our aches and pains and worries limitations. We know to limit our impact on this earth, despite it being inconvenient for us, so that it can continue to provide a bounty for all inhabitants. We know how to share because God showed us how to share through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Jesus is finally the widow, the one no one cares about, who gives his last coin to save us all and to make us his family. He lives to show us how to live the values that are life-giving and empowering. He dies to show us how to let go. He rises again to show us that isn't the end of the story. God can turn this world around, working through us, a miracle of sharing, a miracle of caring for one another, a miracle of abundant life.

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