Caring about God's Truth
Rev. Peter Faass
The Rev. Peter Faass' homily was part of the round-robin series preached by the Rev. Faass, the Rev. Daniel Budd (First Unitarian Church of Cleveland), and the Rev. Roger Osgood (Heights Christian Church), who took turns preaching at every congregation in November 2015.
Teaching in the temple, Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces…’
As I stand here before you this morning in my Anglican choir-dress regalia, it is not lost on me that I may give just a teeny-tiny bit of appearing like one of those scribes Jesus speaks of in our text; you know, those guys who like to flaunt about in their fancy long robes to impress people, like Joseph and his amazing Technicolor dream coat!
We Episcopal clergy like to dress up for worship. If you think this (particular vestment) is fancy, you should see what I wear to celebrate the Eucharist! On our good days, we ideally wear the fancy robes to please and honor God, just like people who put on their Sunday best when going to church. On our bad days… well, they didn’t call the liturgical practice classroom at my seminary the “Barbie Dream Chapel” for nothing!
I hope that in my time with you, I can persuade you that today is a good day.
Our reading from Mark’s gospel (12:38) is broken into two scenes, or pericopes, as we in the world of theology like to call them. Both take place within the Jerusalem Temple.
In the first scene, Jesus is teaching. The class he is conducting has actually been going on for some time, having begun back in chapter 11, verse 27. The religious authorities haves been relentless; chief priests, elders, scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees have been confronting Jesus to verbally entangle him. They hope he’ll commit some sort of religious verbal faux pas and lose his credibility by offending the crowds gathered around him. Of course, Jesus is too savvy for that. He can’t be out-debated. Like any good debater, he turns the tables on those conniving to outwit him.
“Beware of the scribes,” he says, launching a list of offensive, hypocritical behaviors that they and the well-off elites of Jerusalem engage in.
Jesus says these are meaningless prayers and trust me, God sees right through their hypocrisy, their abuse of others and their lack of humility. “They will receive the greater condemnation,” he states. In other words, behaviors have consequences, and God doesn’t miss a thing.
The description of the scribes’ behaviors describes the aristocracy’s “normal practices” in Jesus’ day. While Jesus’ comments focused on the scribes who were verbally taunting him, he intended to point a finger at the ostentatious display and abuse of power of all who took on the trappings of wealth and power – especially those who did so on the backs of the vulnerable, like widows.
The charge against the scribes devouring widow’s houses is evocative of earlier Biblical prophetic charges against the rich and powerful who attained riches at the expense of others. The prophet Amos decried this behavior and spoke of God’s judgment on it:
11“Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins--
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate. (Amos 5:11-12)
Throughout scripture, God persistently calls us to care and provide for the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged. This call often focuses on the widowed and orphaned, but that phrase is meant to encompass all who are disadvantaged by the rich and powerful.
In today’s story, the rich and powerful prey on widows in scene one, and prominently in the reading’s second scene. The focus on widows links the two pericopes into one object lesson about God’s morality and the immoral behavior of the rich and powerful.
In the second scene, Jesus points to the rich placing money into the treasury boxes at the Temple. He then focuses on a poor widow who comes along and gives two small copper coins worth a penny.
Jesus indicates that the rich give large sums out of their abundance; sums that are pocket change because of their net worth. Their donations don’t impact their financial status because they’re surplus funds; therefore they’re not a sacrifice to God. The widow, on the other hand, has given out of her poverty, as she has “put in everything she had.”
We need to be clear: Jesus’ praise of the widow’s actions should not be misconstrued as approving the social conditions that created her poverty. They are a condemnation of those whose lust for wealth and ostentation – people who have created the very circumstances that cause the widow’s poverty. Ultimately, Jesus points a finger at those who devour widows’ houses. Their behavior is the root cause that creates impoverished people like the widow at the treasury box.
The Hebrew and Christian Testaments often assert that God created a world with more than enough for all: that the world is a place of abundance. In that abundance, God desires equity in creation so that it is a place of distributive justice:
That is God’s morality… that is God’s truth.
Jesus teaches at the Temple that those who do not adequately provide for the most vulnerable do not care about God’s truth. They only care about their own lust for money and power.
In the New York Times article, The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping’ the Poor,1 writer Paul Theroux examines the recent phenomena of some very rich people “helping” those hit hard by the jobless economic recovery. He writes,
“[we] hear [about] grotesquely wealthy American chief executives [who] announce in sanctimonious tones the intention to use their accumulated hundreds of millions or billions, ‘to lift people out of poverty.’ Sometimes they are referring to Africans, but sometimes they are referring to Americans. And here’s the funny thing about that: In most cases they have made their fortunes by impoverishing whole American communities, having outsourced their manufacturing to China or India, Vietnam or Mexico.”
While these executives boasted of how relocating manufacturing to other nations has lifted people out of poverty in those places, this was hardly done for altruistic reasons. It was cheap labor, cheaper raw products and less government oversight for worker safety and mandated benefits (such as healthcare) that drove this outsourcing.
Theroux continues, “To me, globalization is the search for the new plantation, and cheaper labor; globalization means that by outsourcing, it is possible to impoverish an American community to the point where it is indistinguishable from a hard-up town in the dusty heartland of a Third World country.”
Those who created this impoverishment and took advantage of others because of their own lust for material gain, placing untold numbers of people in vulnerable circumstances, now suffer pangs of guilt about their companies’ profits and their own stupendous salaries. To assuage this guilt, they give a donation out of their largess to supply food banks, shelters and job retraining programs (although no job opportunities). These are band-aids which haven’t resolved this immoral situation.
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.
God does not miss a thing and won’t be foiled. The radicality of God’s love for all creation, for all God’s children, combined with God’s intent to bring about the full fruition of what Christians call “The Kingdom” or “Reign of God” demands distributive justice for all. Distributive justice means we work with God to end the world’s evil, unjust practices, oppression, violence and war. This is God’s vision for creation given to us through the prophets and Jesus.
Admittedly, the achievement of that vision can seem daunting at times. Some of you may even be thinking that it is some starry-eyed, pie-in-the-sky, impossible utopia.
Roman Catholic Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan offers this insight on those feelings:
“Maybe [in speaking of God’s reign] it is prudent to distinguish between rhapsodic and impossible utopia and an ecstatic and possible eutopia. Eutopia imagines a social world of universal peace, a human world of non-violent distributive justice where all get a fair and adequate share of God’s world as God’s Kingdom. If that is a silly fantasy or utopian delusion with no possible eventual advent, our human species may be a magnificent and as doomed as was the saber-toothed tiger.2”
We stand at a crossroads in 2015. It is no secret that wealth distribution in our nation becomes increasingly inequitable each day. The one percent figure bandied about is not some fiction.
Enormous amounts of wealth accrue to a tiny fraction, while more people sink into living at the margins, poor and struggling. The famous American middle class – a group of people who arguably benefited from the greatest era of distributive justice in our history in the 1950’s and 1960’s – is disappearing.
This all occurs because of a tiny minority’s insatiable lust for money and power that leads to immoral practices in business and in government. Scribes win – and widows loose.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose God’s truth.
God’s truth is a clarion call to us as we confront this crisis in our own time. The choice is ours, God says. We can go the way of Crossan’s saber-toothed tiger, or we can heed God’s call to work passionately for distributive justice for all God’s children. But we must participate with God. We must be proactive. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu wisely observed, “God, without us, will not; as we, without God, cannot.”
Keeping Up Appearances
The Rev. Roger Osgood
The Rev. Roger Osgood is pastor at Heights Christian Church, an open and affirming congregation in Shaker Heights. The Rev. Osgood presented his homily as part of a round-robin preaching series among the clerical leadership of Heights Christian, Christ Church, and The First Unitarian Church of Cleveland.
If you are a follower of PBS, you are probably acquainted with Hyacinth Bucket, the indomitable aspirant to upper-class society in the never-ending reruns of “Keeping Up Appearances.” With her high teas, expensive china, and fragile airs, she is constantly knocking at the door of a world she longs to be a part of, and yet can never enter. It does not stop her from pretending, though, and her efforts are so glaringly transparent that they are comical.
This British sitcom shines a satiric and exaggerated light on both the snobbery and pretense which can be found among those who believe their privilege and place in society makes them better than the average person. In Hyacinth’s world, it is funny (sometimes very funny). In our day-to-day world, not so much.
As I was contemplating today’s gospel, my imagination augmented the scene a bit, as it tends to often do. I saw Jesus and his disciples leaving the temple where he had been teaching and finding a vendor in the street. Ordering a beverage – perhaps tea – and settling in to watch the crowd, Jesus could not help but notice the activity around the temple treasury. The disciples are, of course, distracted with all the commotion on the street, and Jesus has to call their attention to what is going on. Giving a nod to the obviously wealthy folks who feel the need to make a big deal about their contributions, he says,
“Remember what I said in the temple about the folks who like to strut around in their expensive robes and be seen in the best seats and places of honor? Well, here they are again, doing the same….
“But whoa, wait a sec. See that poor widow. Watch her. She just put a penny in the till, one tiny penny. And yet, that’s all she has, and she quietly and humbly gave it away. If you weren’t paying attention, you could have missed it.
“That’s what I’m talking about. Secure and generous in her faith, she doesn’t need anyone else to notice. It’s who she is, and she acts out of that integrity. Those other guys? You know what I like to say about them: they already have their reward….”
Now, I know that is a bit of an imaginative stretch, but not too far I think, for Jesus is teaching out of one of his basic bottom lines: Keep it real. You are made in the image of God; act accordingly.
Wrapping yourself in some sort of sacred finery will not make you holy, nor will it give you a bye on doing the work of searching out your connection with the Spirit.
And yet appearances still trick us, so much so that teachings about them continue through the decades and centuries after Jesus.
In Sufi lore, for instance, there is a character known as the Mullah Nasrudin. He is something of a trickster, often teaching by irony and example, or by sometimes taking things to an exaggerated, but illustrative end. So he does in a story what Idries Shah calls, “The Food of the Cloak.”
It seems that Nasrudin was invited to a feast at the Emir’s palace. Having no time to change from his work clothes in order to get there on time, Nasrudin showed up at the feast just as he was. He mingled among the other guests, but no one spoke with him. The events of the day were discussed and argued, but no one asked his opinion. Eventually the Chamberlain announced dinner and all the guests were shown to their seats. Nasrudin was shown to a seat just about as far as you could get from the head table where the Emir sat. Nasrudin quickly noted that it would be at least an hour before the servers would get to him with any food, so he slipped out and ran home.
There, he dressed himself in a magnificent sable cloak and turban and returned to the palace. Even though he was now late to the festivities, he was greeted with great fanfare – with trumpets and drums as is fitting a visitor of high rank – and the Chamberlain himself led Nasrudin to the head table where he was seated just a few chairs from the Emir. Immediately after he was seated, a dish of the finest food was placed before him. Without a pause, Nasrudin scooped up a handful of the food and began rubbing it into his cloak and onto his turban.
It took a minute for those around him to notice, but when they did, the murmuring traveled quickly to the Emir, who rose and came over to Nasrudin.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said, “but I am curious as to your eating habits, which are new to me.”
Nasrudin paused. “Your Eminence,” he said, “I am but feeding the guest you have truly invited. When I arrived at first, I was given no notice at all. But I return with this cloak and turban and here I am, seated at your own table. It is this cloak and turban that got me in, so surely they deserve their portion of this fine feast.”
Keeping up appearances…. Nasrudin and the poor widow would have a lot to talk about. And, moving along the decades and centuries in my spiritual time-traveling, so do I believe would Henry David Thoreau.
“Yes,” he might add to the conversation, “as I once admonished, ‘Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.’”
Keep it real. You are made in the image of God; act accordingly. Wrapping yourself in some sort of sacred finery will not make you holy, nor will it give you a bye on doing the work of searching out your connection with the Spirit.
That is one of the core principles of my own Unitarian Universalist tradition and faith: that of searching out your connection with the Spirit. This gets described differently by different people among us, but its essence, I believe, is consistent. Many, even in my own tradition, understand this to mean that we can believe anything we want to. Not much gives me more of a headache and heartache than that, for nothing could be more false. We may state it in different terms, in varying language – theological, philosophical, psychological, poetic – but the bottom line is the same: the religious task of our lives is searching out our connection with the Spirit, with our deepest self, with God. It is finding and living the faith that upholds and guides us, that nurtures the best that is in us and connects us with one another and our world. It is a faith that knows where our true treasure lies.
There is a Hasidic story told of one Rabbi Eisek who lived in the country in a one room house with a dirt floor. His bed was in one corner, his chair in another, and in the corner in between was his stove and hearth. One night he dreamed that if he ventured into the city, and found the bridge that spanned the moat which surrounded the king’s palace, and dug on the bank underneath that bridge, he would find a treasure that would end his poverty. The next night he dreamed the same dream, and again the night after that. He figured God was trying to tell him something so he packed up a few items to take with him and set out for the city.
Days later, when he arrived, he wandered the streets until he found that bridge. But there was a palace guard there, and he surely would see the Rabbi should he go under the bridge and start digging. So he hung around, thinking there would be a moment when he could slip down the bank. He paced back and forth and eventually drew the attention of the guard anyway, who came over and asked him, “Rebbe, what brings you here?” And the Rabbi, in his innocence, told the guard of his dreams.
“Hah!” exclaimed the guard. “I, too, have had the same dream three nights now. Only in mine, I travel to the home of a poor Rebbe such as yourself, and go into his home and dig under his hearth and there find the treasure of my life!”
Rabbi Eisek bowed to the guard, thanked him for his kindness, and made the journey back to his home. There he put down the few items he had packed, walked over to his stove, and dug into the dirt beneath it – where he found a treasure that put an end to his poverty.
Sometimes, we need to go on a long journey before we find the real treasure of our lives, the treasure that lies within our own hearths, within our own hearts. The journey is the work of searching out your connection with the Spirit.
The Rabbi and the poor widow, Nasrudin and even Thoreau, all have something in common. They have found a faith, which instead of giving them worldly wealth, gives them spiritual wealth instead. It enables them to speak from their true self, to know their connection with the Spirit and thus with the world around them, to know themselves as being made in the image of God, and acting accordingly.
By the trappings of the world, they are impoverished; but by the teachings of the Spirit – from Galilee to Walden and beyond – they are wealthy beyond measure. And so are we. Out of that place of being which these stories show us, we can give of ourselves – of our time and talent and treasure – and thus deepen that connection, keeping it real instead of keeping up appearances, not being taken in by some sort of sacred finery, but doing the work of searching out our connection with the Spirit, realizing ever and evermore deeply that we are all made in the image of God. Let us therefore give of ourselves and act accordingly.
Wisdom of Solomon 3: 1-9 or Isaiah 25; 6 - 9; Psalm 24; Revelations 21: 1 – 6a; John 11:32-44
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Dr. Carol Franklin is a retired higher education professional and is a member of Christ Church.
Given the lessons appointed for this day on which we celebrate the lives of the saints all I can say is WOW!! First up was Revelations and the image of a new heaven and a new earth and of all things made new and of God, God himself coming to dwell among us. The Gospel of John then reminds us that if we believe, we will see the glory of God. That vision of a New Jerusalem and of God among us speaks to the heart of me – a heart too frequently broken recently by the realities of our world:
Who among us in this world does not cry out for the hope and promise that death is not the end? You know that oft-repeated phrase, “…for God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that all that believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
There’s that thing called love again which has been the focus of my latest homilies. Love and life center on hope and God’s promise. God loves us:
Our lessons affirm that because He loves us, God and good will triumph over evil and bring to fruition a world transformed. In this world, and earth are knit together in one communion and fellowship.
When I think of the kingdom of heaven and that vision of a New Jerusalem, I know that it cannot be described in terms of geography or even anthropology. Instead, Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom is based on the transformation of human hearts.
The image of Jesus, of God made flesh weeping for us, speaks to the heart, turning our traditional ways of thinking upside down. It is a sign that God is concerned about the things that break our hearts and is moved by the tears of his children. Such a concept breaks all the rules for us in this very materialistic world. The imagery of our lessons today calls for us to embrace new attitudes that conflict with the usual ways we tend to approach life. (The lessons) call for a new discipline which believes that God is not through with us or this world through regeneration and renewal, transformation and change, and a world remade by God’s love.
But it’s not just the world that changes. If God is not through with us, it means each of us must go through the process of renewal as well. And there is the rub: If we are honest, none of us really like change because it takes work on ourselves and in our relationship with others.
When we add the element of the spiritual to the mix, what does such change or transformation mean for each of our lives? In the book Spiritual Transformation and Healing, psychologist Kenneth Pargament states "at its heart, spiritual transformation refers to a fundamental change in the . . . character of the sacred in the life of the individual. …." (p. 18).
When I think of transformation, I remember a period of great change in my life when the only thing that kept me from losing it was my firm belief that God was not through with me yet. He had more for me to do.
God had a plan for me which I couldn’t fathom at the time. Though I did not know it at the time, I was experiencing the work of the sacred, of God’s love in my life. I stepped out in faith and relied on God’s amazing grace to see me through. In my heart, I knew then and joyously affirm now that God was making good on his promise to me and each of us to make all things new.
When we often think of saints, we think of perfection. But saintliness is really about transformation, how we grow into the gift God has given us and become what God has called us to be.
We are clay in God’s hands and in faith we must allow him to shape our lives, our faith and our service. That is the life in Christ we are called to. Yes, we are works in progress, but it is through God’s amazing and loving grace that we can grow beyond what we think is possible in our lives and this place.
As we end the Feast of All Saints, let us pause and give thinks for God’s bounty. As individuals and a faith community, may we be open to God as he seeks to transform the world and ourselves, and our witness to His love and saving grace. May we always celebrate God’s gift of life and the communal spirit that pervades this place.