Sermon for Year B, Proper 27
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
November 11, 2012
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
There is a very happy, very common interpretation of this gospel passage
That you have heard many a time.
It paints a quaint little tableau, and it goes like this:
Jesus commends and uplifts this woman for giving more than her fair share
To the ongoing purposes of the Temple. Isn’t she great.
Because this passage has lately been showing up in October and in November,
When churches engage in stewardship talks for the coming year,
When churches engage in stewardship talks for the coming year,
It has become common practice to embrace this happy interpretation.
And why not? It fits really well!
See how the widow gives! She gives and gives, beyond her means!
She gives until it hurts, as they say, out of her very poverty, as Jesus says,
In contrast to those who have much to give but who only put in a little,
And all without thinking about it very much.
There is a far less popular, but I believe much more accurate and faith-filled,
Interpretation of this gospel passage.
I don’t think Jesus is praising this woman’s action.
I don’t think Jesus wants to see any more people
Being trampeled under the heel of the Temple-tax as she is.
In fact, I don’t think Jesus is supporting the Temple in virtually any way.
And this point of view,
While it would be understandably mute during stewardship season,
Nevertheless is all very clearly supported by this whole section of Mark.
See, in only the last few days, according to Mark, Jesus has made enemies.
He has clearly pointed to those who have made the Temple system what it is,
This ravenous thing, and he has condemned them in the strongest possible terms.
Don’t forget, too, that he has already ritually “cleansed” the Temple
By causing a ruckus, turning over tables and blocking foot traffic
And calling the Temple complex “a den of robbers”;
And that already, because of this, the local religious élites are now
Trying to find something to use against him so they can have him killed.
He has publicly told everyone around him a thinly veiled parable
About some wicked squatters of a vineyard planted by a gracious master
Who overtake the vineyard and put it to evil purposes and kill the master’s son.
Adding insult to injury, he has said that Caesar is nothing but a face on a coin,
And certainly nothing compared to the vision, power, and providence of God.
He has said, to the delight of many crowded around him,
That it is God’s intention that this whole corrupt system, symbolized by the Temple,
Will one day begin to serve others rather than itself.
His image for that is of an enemy used as a footstool.
All of this, again, in just the past few days.
The gauntlet is down; the truth is exposed through the words and actions of Jesus.
And for those who sit in the shadows and plot, the long knives have been drawn.
So, when Jesus contrasts the sacrifices of the woman with the greed of the scribes,
He’s really just leveling a very legitimate but highly incendiary charge at them.
He wants to know: What’s so good about anyone
Having to sacrifice him- or herself any further
Just so that a corrupt and rapacious institution can go on sucking people dry?
Why should one more person be forced to throw her life down that collection hole
Into the treasury of the Temple?
But now, two thousand years after the fact,
Is it still a live question? Is Jesus still leveling a legitimate accusation?
Do we continue to live in an age of self-perpetuating institutions
That name themselves after the causes of God
But do not in fact walk the walk of God?
Do the people of God still bleed widows dry?
I think so.
Let me prayerfully and carefully paint one obvious example for you.
In 1972, my mother’s mother, my Grandma East,
Became financially crippled, saddled with a farming operation in Waldron, Kansas,
After her husband, my grandfather, died, leaving her as a widow.
She scraped for every penny she ever made after that,
And I know that many times God provided for her and her family.
In the early 80s,
Grandma became so enamored of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker on TV
And enamored of their ministry, PTL (or Praise The Lord)
And enamored of the good work she felt the Bakkers were doing out east.
You might remember PTL from the perspective
Of seeing a few televangelists,
One of whom had big hair and shoulder pads and makeup
And who sang about being blessed;
My memory of PTL is through my grandma.
She felt connected – heart-to-heart connected – to Jim and Tammy Faye through the TV
And through the publications that came to her house.
She wouldn’t miss PTL if she happened to be inside
And could get the rabbit ears on her old black-and-white to bring it in.
She welcomed Jim and Tammy Faye and their cadre of backup singers into her home.
And, … she gave PTL so much money, out of her poverty.
They sent her a Bible and a series of offering envelopes
So she could make a pledge and stay current with it.
In letter after letter, they thanked her profusely and explained to her
How her donations were making the purposes of God come alive.
By now, of course, just about everyone knows the story of PTL.
Of how Jim and Tammy Faye fell from grace in such a hard, public way.
How their extravagant tastes and pecadilloes
Led, in some cases, to the rank abuse of their power.
How they built a sprawling empire on sand;
How, although it bore the name of Christ,
PTL’s chief cornerstone was not God, but something else.
Grandma didn’t know.
She saw the surface impression,
Which was aimed straight for the gut, and she was moved to give to it.
My mother has four brothers.
Before that hard fall from grace at PTL by the Bakkers, everybody chipped in
And bought Grandma a trip to PTL, in Heritage Mill, South Carolina,
And my mom got to go with her.
To “Heritage USA.”
It was like going to Mecca or the Wailing Wall!
Grandma, you see, wasn’t the only one in the family with a connection to this Temple.
My uncle had grown up with a guy named Roe Messner who was largely responsible
For the construction of Heritage USA.
My uncle was awarded a major construction contract
To go out to South Carolina
And to install heating and air-conditioning in a number of buildings,
Working with his childhood friend.
But being there, my uncle heard and saw firsthand
Just a little bit of the excess and the corruption behind the scenes at PTL.
So he came back and I’m sure at some point he said to his brothers,
“Well, for good or ill, mom should probably have a chance to go see it for herself.”
I can only imagine what might have gone through Grandma’s head
As she walked the elaborate hallways of PTL on that trip
And saw what her money had helped to purchase –
Although, to be fair, it was her perspective
That once you gave to God, it wasn’t yours anymore and you didn’t have a say.
That would have been her opinion, not mine.
At any rate:
The religiously themed amusement park and sprawling Christian complex,
Where Jerry Falwell had slid down a massive water slide in a suit and tie. Remember?
That hundred-million-dollar-a-year operation, with its 2,500 employees
Spread out over 2,300 acres.
Mom says she still has a photo of Grandma East from that trip,
Looking out over the vestibule of the Heritage USA Grand Hotel,
Distantly admiring the baby grand piano as it was being played.
Grandma always said that trip was a dream come true. It might have been.
She was, after all, a warmhearted Christian woman.
And she was also a pragmatic Kansas woman who wanted things to be fair,
And since I myself ended up years later marrying a pragmatic Kansas woman,
I just have to wonder if any of what Grandma saw on that trip
Ever struck her as being excessive or unfair.
And I wonder about what’s left of Heritage USA these days:
2,300 crumbling acres of a Temple that’s tearing itself down, stone by stone,
As weather and the passage of time slowly erode it:
Some demolished, some falling apart, some being reclaimed by various groups.
And I wonder about the scribes – the scribes Jesus warns us off of in today’s lesson:
“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 and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.
They will receive the greater condemnation.”
And I wonder about people like Jim Bakker,
Who left PTL in disgrace over a sex scandal
And sat in jail for a while and ended up writing a book called I Was Wrong
And worked hard and rebounded a little and now has a church outside Branson.
And I wonder about people like Tammy Faye,
Who wandered for years as a kind of widow herself,
And who watched everything she owned, house and all, being devoured
By those left to feast on the remains;
And who in the end married my uncle’s friend Roe and moved, of all places,
Back to Roe’s family’s place in Waldron, Kansas;
Tammy Faye, who battled cancer for eleven years,
Before succumbing and being laid to rest in the tiny, hot, windy Waldron Cemetery.
Waldron’s population according to the last census was 11;
Everything is a stone’s throw there,
So believe me: Tammy Faye Lavalley Bakker Messner rests
Less than a stone’s throw from my Grandma East’s family:
Cousin Norma, Aunt Hazel, Aunt Myrtle, several cousins, uncles, and aunts,
And Grandma’s mom Nellie and her dad Rafael, my great-grandparents.
I wonder about these things …
We are the people of God.
We call ourselves Christians
Because although we wander around in the darkness,
Yet still we believe in the redeeming power of love
Made manifest by our Lord Jesus Christ:
In the life he led, in the things he taught and in the kinds of miracles he performed,
In the power of his death on the cross,
And in the old, old story of his rising to life again,
Which I take as fact.
We are the people who not only believe in that old, old story:
We rest in it, revel in it, stake our lives to it, learn to look for it wherever we go,
And, like so many other things in life, we wonder about it.
In faith, and with grace, we wonder.
This Temple stands among those to whom it ministers
As a worker of good deeds in a busted-up, tired old world.
We come here to be nourished by that old, old story.
We find the word broken open for us
And Christ’s body broken for us as bread
And Christ’s blood poured out for us as wine.
And in the midst of it all –
In the pain and anguish and joy and confusion and love that is our lives –
Even as we wonder –
We turn and greet one another and we catch reflections of ourselves and of Jesus
Mirrored in each other’s faces and eyes, and we call that grace.
This is the eternal moment of Now
In which Jesus Christ himself promises to be present among those who believe
As the chief cornerstone.
As long as this Temple stands – the Body of Christ, his Holy Church –
As long as this Temple looks not to itself but to others,
As long as it reaches beyond itself
Not to devour widows’ homes, but rather to build them –
Not to take great delight in wearing long robes, but rather to robe the poor –
Not to sit at the place of honor, but rather to serve the meal –
As long as we place the good of the order and of those we serve before ourselves –
We will continue to carry out the purposes for which we were instituted by God.
Brothers and sisters, for the church,
It’s never a matter of creating self-perpetuating, self-serving institutions.
It is always a matter of sharing the good news of that old, old story.
That’s a little of why I’ve come today.
And I hope it’s a little of why you’re here as well.
To be healed in the midst of my brokenness,
To emerge from this place knowing that God loves me beyond measure or reason.
I can’t imagine my life without this Temple,
Which is not this lovely and transcendent building,
But rather each of you:
Of how each of you, in your own way, sheds new light on the old, old story.
I give thanks for you each and every day.
You are that Temple.
Thanks be to God.
In the name of Christ. Amen.