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November 11, 2011
“Our Two Cents”
Last week Jesus told a scribe to “Love God, neighbor, and self.” This week, he compares a scribe who is all about himself, to a widow who is all about God.
Listen to Jesus’ teaching from Mark 12:38-44:
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 synagogue 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.”
May God bless our hearing and our understanding of Jesus’ teachings in this passage.
Jesus sees right through the scribe’s clothing and attitude; but the disciples would have seen an important man of great faith, deserving of all that honor and respect. To their eyes, that is what faith looks like.
On the other hand, no one notices yet another poor widow – No one, except Jesus, who saw in her a truly faithful person, someone who knew everything she had to live on was a gift from God.
To use Dottie’s example from two weeks ago, the scribe is showing off the pie he made all by himself, and wants everyone to notice how great his pie-making skills, and to give him lots of room so no one bumps into him and ruins his perfect pie. “Out of the way, out of the way – Make room for the great pie-maker!” And the scribe doesn’t realize he had taken everyone else’s pie ingredients to make his pie. He was too busy showing off his pie, and probably judging other people for not making pies as great as his. He just sees the pie he thinks he made with his own two hands.
That widow - Noticed only by Jesus as she gives back to God everything she has to live on – She knows that her whole pie, belongs to God and is a gift from God. She knows without a doubt is who she is and whose she is. She belongs to God.
And it’s this clarity that makes me envious of folk who have served in the military. I know, strange analogy. But on this Veterans’ Day, hang with me. I don’t know much first hand about military service -– My grandfather served in the Philippines in World War II to support his wife and three small kids back home. My father-in-law was recently honored by the Marines for his work as a translator during the Korean War. My father was not drafted for Viet Nam because he was in graduate school, and married, and a new father.
But I have this assumption I want to check out with everyone who has served, either themselves, or is the child or spouse of military – Would you mind standing a moment?
How many of you shopped most of the time at the military store – What’s it called? And did you Iive in military housing? And did you move because the military needed you somewhere else? And if you were in the military, did you wear a uniform most days? And always know your role and rank which determined how you interacted with everyone else in the room?
It seems that every minute of every day would be a constant reminder of your purpose and who you are. Because it was your life, not just your job, how could you ever forget who you were?
That constant reinforcement of identity and purpose – We don’t get that as Christians in this 21st century world. In fact, we’re bombarded with the opposite values, and we don’t even realize how much they affect our day to day lives and our unconscious beliefs.
The disciples assume that scribe is a good person of faith – But Jesus knows our hearts. And that scribe sure doesn’t know himself very well, let alone God or his neighbor. The scribe had no idea who he was; he had no idea how many people were responsible for the life he had; he never reflected on why it was so important to him to get the best seats in the house. He was blind to himself, and blind to God’s grace. It makes me wonder if the primary work of faith is knowing ourselves – what motivates us, what upsets us, what makes us feel like good people – and all the ways cultural values seep into our minds and shape how we see ourselves and others.
Augustine, that great ancestor of early Christianity, prayed this: “Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.” And in the 1500s, John Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism, insists “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.” Suggesting that unless we get to really know ourselves, we won’t really know God.
The scribe is the epitome of blindness, a complete lack of self-awareness. He is blind to the attention he is getting, blind to how that attention affects him, blind to how much attention he is calling to himself. He is blind to what God expects; and especially blind to how it’s the widows’ very homes that support his lifestyle and the Temple institution.
Blindness, to self, God, and neighbor. Maybe it is like loving God, neighbor, and self. We aren’t loving God if we aren’t loving our neighbor. If we don’t know ourselves very well, we can’t know God. Maybe it’s that blindness that is at the root of all sin, root of all evil. Maybe practicing faith means knowing ourselves better. Yeah, it doesn’t sound all that revolutionary or radical, does it. We expect a bigger splash from strong faith. A bigger, more outwardly focused effect of our faith.
But Ian Morgan Cron’s words in his book, “The Road Back to You” strike a chord. He writes: “As long as we stay in the dark about how we see the world and the wounds and beliefs that have shaped who we are – that is, what we don’t know about ourselves - can and will hurt us, not to mention others…..The more (we) grow in self-knowledge, the more (we’ll) become aware of (our) need for God’s grace, and (we’ll) have more compassion for (ourselves) and other people.”
Self-knowledge sure isn’t considered a valid pursuit these days, and many, many Christians and other good people would argue it is down-right selfish and egotistical to focus on one’s self. But in his book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” Daniel Goleman says his research shows that the most important – And least valued characteristic – of a good leader, is self-awareness. Even in the business world it seems the better we know ourselves, the better we do.
Have you ever had something like this happen, where your response to something is a little over the top? A little more intense than the situation warranted? But in that moment, it feels entirely valid and everyone would agree with you? Today’s world offers many “triggering events,” if you want to use today’s language. Just notice how it feels to turn on the news. It does not fill us with sunshine and joy, no matter our political stance, right?
We all have our stated beliefs – Like this - everyone is a child of God, right? Every single one of us would agree. But this week, one man – someone who definitely tries to live as though every person is a child of God - found himself getting wound up and tense and a bit angry on election day when he saw a voter just standing there, but looking like someone from the other party. We all label people using external clues – Drives a Prius and wears Patagonia? Probably a Democrat. Has a gun rack and waves the confederate flag? Probably a Republican. So this man is getting really angry at this voter just standing there - until the voter shared this was the first time he had been allowed to vote in a decade, because he was guilty of a felony – A DUI, and how excited he was to be voting.
And boom, the man who had been getting more and more irate – at nothing, really – realized, “O, right, everyone is a child of God, only sometimes I don’t see everyone that way – Like people I assume are misguided or wrong. And it’s because I feel helpless that I can’t seem to make a difference. Today isn’t about winners and losers – It’s about the practice of democracy.”
That is an example of faith at work – That level of self-awareness. That reflective moment of getting honest with ourselves and God. Of realizing how our own brokenness can show up, and seep out.
It happened to me a couple of months ago during my sabbatical, when I found myself getting very caught up in an intense discussion with an older woman who told me something like, “Forty years ago I had trouble loving everyone, but now – well, once you’re my age, you’ll figure out it’s just about loving everybody.” This was in a political discussion, mind you, and she knew I was a minister, and I came back with “That seems awfully simplistic, and like you aren’t being honest about how hard it can be to love some people.” And I didn’t say it with a heart full of compassion. She then got mad at me for implying she was lying. And this was in a group, so lots of people were present. It was a mess.
Only after I walked away did I realize why I had gotten so upset - Some might say, “over-reacted.” It’s because I felt like she had patted me on the head and said, “There, there, honey. You’ll understand when you’re grown.” Which gets my goat every time, because how much of my life was spent looking too young to do this work. Happily, this isn’t so much of a problem these days – Finally my age and appearance are catching up with each other! But I hate feeling dismissed, or belittled, or condescended to. Because it feels like I don’t matter. So I came back with anger. Getting honest about that – About how important it is to me to be acknowledged as having something to offer – And how really unimportant it is that every person in the room agree that I have something important to offer – And how it wasn’t that woman’s fault she triggered some insecurity in me, and it was my responsibility to be honest – The next time the group met, I apologized to her.
I look at the scribe, and I know I don’t want to be like that – Blind to the effect I’m having on other people, on this world, how little I actually live my identity as belonging to God. That isn’t faith, says Jesus. The only way to become like the widow, who knows who she is and whose she is, is for us to keep being honest about not just when, and how, we fall short, but to reflect on why – What’s going on with us – What deeply buried belief are we acting out, that conflicts with God’s grace and compassion. And truly, we live in an amazing time to practice God’s grace. Every single day something will trigger you, and God will invite you to reflect on what this says about you, and about who you want to be. Dang, the work of faith is HARD! But maybe, in spite of what the world tells us, the only work that matters.