Lent 4 (Narrative Lectionary, Year B)
I like to start sermons with a story. I feel like a story helps us to get into the groove of listening and pondering what’s happening in the Scripture reading. The story is like a little bridge that we cross over into history and that history crosses over to meet us.
However, in order to be true to the gospel of Christ according to Mark, today’s passage does not lend itself to a good story, to a catchy story, to a story that I want to remember and to tell. In Luke, the widow with her two coins is the hero of the story. In Luke’s account of this story, Jesus praises the woman for giving her last two coins. For generations, she has been upheld as the model of sacrificial giving for the cause of the church.
For Mark, the woman is symbolic, too. But she doesn’t represent sacrificial giving. Instead, in Mark’s gospel, the woman is a sacrificial lamb, preyed upon by greedy church leaders who posture at showy displays of piety, but in truth consume the goods of the poor, down to their last coins and then their houses. Mark’s version of this story puts me in mind of all of church history, the bad parts, not a story I want to open with today.
In 70 A.D., the temple in Jerusalem is destroyed. This is the second temple. The first temple is built under Solomon’s direction, with the conscripted labor of the Israelites. (Conscripted labor is a fancy phrase for slavery.) When it is destroyed and the people of Israel are held captive in Babylon, there is a deep longing for a place to connect with God. After the time of captivity, the second temple is built with money from Cyrus the Great. No matter how great he was, no matter how respectful of Hebrew history, Cyrus is Persian. This is not a king of Israel.
The building project that is begun by Cyrus continues until it is finished under Herod the Great. By now, the structure of worship life in the temple is strictly monitored. Animals must be bought from the temple. Money has to be changed to temple coinage. The scribes and temple leaders demand, in the name of God, offerings for all kinds of sins. The cost of living righteously keeps many people in a cycle of poverty.
Many people, regular people, probably have a deep sense of ambivalence about the temple because of this history. The building itself, the worship inside, the people who run the show. Yet it is also the place where people have felt close to God, where they have had deeply moving moments in their hearts or with members of their family, it is a place that is connected with hope, a future, and promises. This is what the woman believes she is giving her last two coins, too. So that someone else may have what she has experienced.
Mark is trying to convey all of this in his story, in this fleeting description of Jesus and the disciples witnessing temple life. If Mark is writing before the temple falls, he is trying to remind people of what the story of the building is and of what Jesus said it would be, should be. If Mark is writing after the temple has fallen, he is trying to remind people of the corruption that was and the wholeness that can be.
What Mark is conveying, what Jesus is showing, what the widow remembers is the best of what a community of faith can be. The truth that is revealed to and through a community of faith comes via the story that it tells. Is it a story of obvious glory, of fancy structures, of powerful leaders, of devouring the houses of widows for the sake of show? Or is the story of glory in the cross, of welcome and consolation, of quiet conversations, food and fellowship, support, and making ends meet?
It’s amazing to me, though it shouldn’t be, that church history is filled with this story repeating over and over again. The story of people whose power or position went to their head and they began to build towers, cathedrals, and cities. They expected their influence to last forever. It didn’t and it can’t.
We can’t hold the earthly idea of power, the idea that the scribes and so many since them have had… we can’t hold that idea and, at the same time, say that we trust God-in-Jesus who noticed the widow, who called unschooled fishermen, who spoke with isolated women, who healed lepers, who blessed children. The theology of glory, honor, and triumph can’t hold a candle to the theology of the cross. One is empty because it is hollow. The other is empty because of the power of God. One is pyrite, sparkly and worth nothing. The other is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
The deep, dark valleys of church history, the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly, can’t overcome the hope and comfort that is the story of God. This is the call to us, to each of us and to our congregation. We are called to remember that the life of faith isn’t about the story of this church, but about the story of God. The story of God-in-us and with us. The story of the family into which we have been adopted through baptism, the family table at which we eat together, the family circle that we see here and is completed in heaven.
The story of the temple, of the building, of the scribes… the stories of seeking earthly power never end well. These things do pass.
The story to which the widow belonged, the story into which we are called, the story of abundant life, the story of grace… it’s a story for the ages. For all ages. It’s the story that will carry us into the life that is to come.