Sunday, November 8, 2009

So... Who's the center of YOUR universe?

First off, I have to mention Matthew Paul Turner,who does a better job of addressing the tomfoolery that is Joel Osteen than I ever could.

Haven't posted the last couple because, frankly, they were embarrassing. My church is extremely patient with me, though, and loves me even when I preach stinkers.

Please comment, even if it's hate mail.

Mark 12:38-44
As he 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 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."
This is the Word of the Lord.

Today’s Gospel reading is a study in extremes. On the one end, we see religious leaders whose chief concern was for their own comfort and fame. On the other end, there's a woman who is dependent on the church of the day for her continued existence, who faithfully gives every penny she has.

Now, I know that I've complained in the past about the way the Lectionary knocks passages together sometimes, and other times leaves a bunch of stuff out – our Old Testament reading skips over a lot of the story of Ruth, for example. But I think those cute little Lectionary Elves did us a huge favor in this morning's Gospel reading in treating this not like two separate events, but as halves of one whole event. If we are going to be faithful to the written Word of God, and in particular the Gospels, we can't look at isolated events, single accounts, parables and such without understanding them in the context of the overall Gospel. And to be honest, a lot of the commentaries and sermons I read this week seemed to emphasize the widow instead of the Scribes, and while I think that's a mistake, I also understand the reason behind it. It's easy to boo and hiss the scribes, or to wax poetic about the poor widow, and let that be that, or to look at the widow's side of the passage alone and thus avoid the danger of examining the Scribes too closely, and perhaps finding them a little too familiar.
First-century Palestine was a completely patriarchal system. Men ran the government, the religion, owned the businesses, sold the goods, handled the money, made the rules. In fact, it was a part of their daily ritual for a Jewish man to pray, “I thank You that I was not born a woman...” Women were regarded almost as property, and had no real rights. When a woman became a widow, she had to rely on family members to survive – and if there were no family members, then it was the responsibility of the Temple to care for her. This put them at the mercy of the Scribes Jesus was talking about. Too often, if it was a choice between the nicest robes and allowing a widow to stay in her home, the robes won out.

The Temple treasury would have been a noisy place. The collection boxes had brass trumpet-shaped receptacles for donations, and since there was no such thing as paper money, you could tell how much someone was giving by how loud and how long the coins rang as they were poured into the box. The widow's two small coins would have made barely a sound. Together the coins were probably equivalent to half a day's wages – around twenty bucks or so if you figure minimum wage – a respectable amount, and a big chunk of money when that's all you have.

Some preachers have painted the widow as someone who hid in the shadows, waiting for an opening where she could sneak up unseen and put her coins in, almost literally dying from embarrassment at how small her gift was. In fact, there's nothing in the Gospel account to suggest this; rather, she seems to have come up just like everyone else and dropped the money in. It wasn't a tithe or something given out of her abundance, she threw everything in the offering plate. Now, this is an important thing to see: Jesus praises the gift, but neither encourages his followers to do the same, nor disparages those who gave more, but out of their abundance. What's going on in the reading isn't at all about money at all! The focus is on priority, on what takes precedence in our lives. What the reading asks us, today, is this: who is the center of your universe – you, or God?

If we look at American Christian culture, whatever that means, we'll find that it mirrors, very often, American culture in general, and I think we can all agree that in American culture, the person is the center of the universe. It's all about “me.”

Walk in a Christian bookstore (and, increasingly, any bookstore, and even Wal-Mart) and you'll find lots of books by well-known preachers and authors that emphasize the WIFM – “What's In It For Me.” What started fairly innocently with Norman Vincent Peale and “The Power of Positive Thinking” has grown to a billion dollar industry.

Joel Osteen, a megachurch pastor in Texas, has become a multimillionaire by publishing bestsellers with titles like “Your Best life Now” and “Becoming A Better You,” all focused on how God is just waiting to pour abundant blessing on you if you'll do and say and think the right things and open yourself up to it! In a world where, just this past year, more than 176,000 Christians were murdered for their faith, the clear message of Osteen's “Gospel” is what's in it for you.

He's like a Christian version of Oprah, and he isn't alone. There are an abundance of television and radio ministries, and large churches, that espouse what is called “Word of Faith” or the “Prosperity Gospel,” where the measure of a person's dedication to God is how healthy and affluent they are. Poor and middle-class viewers of these TV Preachers are often encouraged to give what are called “seed faith” gifts of thousands of dollars to these ministries as evidence of their faith in God to provide for their needs. There's a story, hopefully apocryphal, about one of these preachers who was at a prayer meeting and accepted a donation from a woman. The story goes that after she walked away, he turned to his entourage and said, “See, boys? I got her last five dollars!”

The Prosperity Gospel, Word of Faith, Osteen and the rest feed on what Christian theology views as our fallen nature. In being separated from God through sin, we by nature view ourselves as the center of the universe.
Even when we respond to God's call to salvation and relationship, our automatic tendency, our nature, is to view that relationship in terms of WIFM – whether it's Prosperity Gospel or “fire insurance” or simply being “better than those sinners over there,” our nature is to be like the Scribes.

By contrast, the poor widow stands out as someone who was not the center of her own universe. Her comfort and security wasn't found in her meager possessions, nor did she need to show off her piety.

I've read and heard a lot about how she could have just given one coin and kept the other one. There's a story about a little girl who was walking to church with her parents. Mom gave her two quarters, one for herself and one to put in the offering plate “for Jesus.” As they walked the little girl dropped one of the quarters and it fell in a storm drain. “Oh, no!” she cried, “I just dropped Jesus' quarter!”

For the widow, I'd like to suggest that the struggle over giving half or giving all never even took place within her. She gave it all because that's what there was to give. The center of her universe was God, and God resided in the Jewish mind in the Temple, and if part of worship was giving, then that is what she would do. Her security was found in God, and that's all there was to it.
One of the observations about the widow is that, in giving all that she had, she was being just like Jesus, who not many days after he sat in the Treasury would give everything he had for you and I on the cross. I've actually witnessed this kind of selflessness firsthand.

This has been about 15 years ago, I was working in development and public relations at a home for abused children. Part of that is, of course, asking for donations, and one day the Executive Director came in to my office and handed me an envelope we'd received in the mail. In that envelope was, I think, a five-dollar bill and a handwritten note: “I'm sorry this isn't much. This is all I've got and I want the children to have it.” I've opened envelopes with ten-thousand dollar checks in them, and I've secured grants and in-kind gifts for probably ten times that much over the 20 years I was in nonprofit ministry, not to mention all the mass mailings and commercials and fundraising events I've done, but that letter with that crumpled five-dollar bill was the single largest donation I have ever seen in my life.

Who is the center of your universe? Is the question you ask “what's in it for me?” or do you echo the prophet Micah in asking, “what does the Lord require of you?” Is your security in your portfolio, or in your retirement fund, or in your stuff, or is it in God?

Again, this isn't about money. The session assures me that the church is in good shape financially and I don't want a raise. It's about taking some time to examine yourself and answer the question: Who is the center of your universe? If the answer is anything but God, then decide how your life, your decisions, your prayers and your worship would be different if the answer was God – then begin to act that way.

Let us pray, with St. Francis of Assisi,

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

1 comment:

  1. Very good message. I agree wholeheartedly with your position on the Word of Faith ministries - I've been preaching against that theology myself for years.

    That kind of preaching offers a false freedom b/c it traps the hearer in covetousness - which is deeply entrenched in the church today.

    Good word - you're congregation is blessed to have heard it.