32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2021b
Old Testament – Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
New Testament - Mark 12:38-44
INTRODUCTION: So our reading from Mark this morning is one of those passages that always makes me a bit nervous and uncomfortable.
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes,” says Jesus, “and to be greeted with respect in the market places.” (Uh-oh!) Granted, while I don’t often go to Aldi in my robe to pick over the cheese selections (I do love the cheeses at Aldi!), you are still, more often than not, likely to find me decked out in my “long robe” on Sunday mornings.
And while I could give you assorted reasons why Presbyterian ministers tend to wear robes, I am not sure Jesus would find any of them very convincing! Jesus, after all, rarely seemed to care much for pomp and circumstance when it came to religion. Nope. If there is one thing that seemed to really get under Jesus’ craw, it was religious people making a big show of their faith.
As a good Jew, of course, Jesus went to the Temple and participated in the required rituals and worship services, make no mistake about that. But he also seemed to be acutely aware that such formal, high “church” functions were also frequently just an easy way for people to put on airs.
Yep, in an ironic little twist, Jesus seemed to know that people being religious could actually morph into a way for them to be, well, really not very religious at all. You know, all flash and glitz, but with no substance.
ONE: And people making their donations at the Temple quickly becomes a real life example of the kind of religion that tended to drive Jesus bonkers.
As folks mill about the outer courts of the Temple, some can be seen placing their donations into what amounted to collection boxes. Shaped like horned instruments, narrow at the top and then widening out at the bottom, there were 13 different donation chests, or trumpets as they were known because of their shape, for people to make their contributions.
And some people, of course, can be seen making some pretty sizable contributions. The implication in the story, however, seems to be they aren’t really making a good faith effort to be inconspicuous during the process.
With fanfare, they grandly drop their offerings into the treasury boxes drawing the attention of people as their coins rattle and clank while sliding down the necks of those trumpet-shaped chests. While probably not correct, I have always imagined the sound being like one of those old school slot machines dumping thousands of dollars worth of coins after someone hits the jack-pot.
But then, in contrast, there is the poor widow. As she drops her two coins into one of the offering trumpets, why, they barely even make a sound.
But while the widow’s offering is clearly meager compared to those making large donations, Jesus actually argues hers is greater than all the others because it comes at a personal cost. Sure, there are others getting noticed because of their large donations tumbling down into the trumpets, but they are donations they won’t even miss when it’s all said and done. They just go on with their day without even a second thought.
The widow, after making her donation on the other hand, quickly finds herself trying to figure out how she is now going to buy food at the market. Because what money she did have, well, she had just given it all away.
TWO: And so the widow, just like Jesus’ words about being weary of scribes that like to run around in long robes, well, she too makes me nervous and uncomfortable. After all, when it comes to her religion, well, she is all in, right?
She might be on the verge of falling through the cracks into social oblivion, but that doesn’t stop her from tossing what little dough she has into the offering coffers.
If she had any family, well, they’d probably be trying to figure out what had gotten into her while talking in hushed tones at the dinner table. After all, while it’s good to be religious, there’s also got to be a limit to such stuff, right?
But not for the widow. She’s committed and nothing else is going to get in the way of that. So she scares the livin’ daylights out of me. Because for her, it’s all or nothin’.
As legend has it, the famous theologian, physician, and teacher Albert Schweitzer was busy at his desk one evening preparing his lecture for class the next morning.
Shuffling through a pile of mail that the housekeeper had left on his desk, Schweitzer began casually throwing most of it into the wastebasket. But then by chance, he caught sight of a mailing from a missionary society that had mistakenly been placed in his mailbox by the postman.
Flipping through the misplaced mailing, Schweitzer soon found himself reading about the Congo and the desperate need for people to work there. And just like that, Schweitzer was also all in. He dropped everything he was doing and became a medical missionary, along with his wife Helene, in the Congo. He gave up his teaching post, a promising career, and the comforts of a good life, so he could go be a doctor in the jungles of the Congo.
Well, we hear Schweitzer’s story and I have to wonder if maybe he hadn’t been reading the story of that widow just before coming across that missionary pamphlet. Because Schweitzer, it turns out, was a bit rash too when it came to his religion, right?
THREE: And at the risk of having a little fun at our own expense, such wild and rash behavior from people when it comes to their religion can be especially nerve-racking for good Presbyterians like us, right?
We are the folks, after all, who believe in doing things “decently and in order.” And so people throwing caution to the wind and dashing off willy-nilly, well, that’s just dangerous and foolhardy, as far as we’re concerned. If people want to run off and do crazy things, so be it. But for heaven’s sake, they should at least have a plan in place for how they’re going to be crazy!
Several years ago a man named Bob Reed wrote a funny little book called How to Survive Being Presbyterian. A whimsical book, Reed has a little fun over how we Presbyterians can be, at times, a bit staid. Or as he says at one point, “Presbyterianism is a series of meetings occasionally interrupted by a worship service.”
Also noting that Presbyterians are very passionate about the idea of not being, well, passionate, Reed offers up this humorous description of retired Presbyterians who live in Florida: “They subscribe to the view that the ocean is to be watched - from a safe distance - fully clothed.”
Now don’t get me wrong, just because I think we should be able to laugh at ourselves, that doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up being Presbyterian. But there’s also no doubt our desire to do things “decently and in order” (which I wholeheartedly support!), can cause us to be baffled by people like the widow and even Albert Schweitzer.
Because they’re just so…passionate and committed.
FOUR: In C.S. Lewis’ highly humorous novel The Screwtape Letters, a demon (named Screwtape) spends a good deal of his time giving advice to a nephew of his named Wormwood.
You see, Wormwood, a young demon himself, has been tasked with trying to tempt a man, known only as “the Patient”, into committing assorted sins so his soul can be acquired by Satan.
And so Screwtape, older and wiser about such matters, writes his nephew various letters providing helpful tidbits on how to be successful at his new job.
And of course, Wormwood, being young and energetic, thinks the best way to tempt his Patient is to rely on extravagant and large offers to sin. As far as Wormwood is concerned, the bigger the temptation to sin he can offer his Patient the better the chance he has at winning.
Screwtape, however, has a much more sedated approach. Rather than trying to get his Patient to commit some sort of spectacular sin, Screwtape encourages Wormwood to focus more on getting the man to commit a series of small and minor ones. For “the safest path to hell” writes Screwtape at one point “is the gradual one.”
And so one of the things that Screwtape advises Wormwood to do is to make sure the Patient doesn’t do anything too excessive or extreme – especially when it comes to his faith.
“Talk to him about ‘moderation in all things’” writes Screwtape in one letter. “If you can once get [your Patient] to the point of thinking that ‘religion is all very well up to a point’, you can feel quite happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all – and more amusing.”
Hopefully, if things go well for him, Screwtape thinks Wormwood’s Patient might even get to the point where he looks back on his faith as a just phase in his life that he has now simply outgrown.
But to get there, Wormwood has to make sure his Patient avoids extremes by convincing him that moderation, especially when it comes to his religion, is always the preferred path.
CONCLUSION: But that’s the way it can go sometimes with religion, right?
Sometimes religion can be a way to avoid actually having to be, well, religious. Jesus sure seemed to feel that way, right?
So thank heavens for that widow and all those other people even today who are all in when it comes to their faith. For even though such people make me nervous and uncomfortable, they also remind me there is always more to being religious than just puttin’ on a good show.
Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.