Jesus said, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
Really? Jesus might as well have said, “That's great, it starts with an earthquake, Birds and snakes, an aeroplane, Lenny Bruce is not afraid, Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn, World serves its own needs, Regardless of your own needs...It's the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.” (REM-It’s the End of the World lyrics)
For those of you who have no idea what I just said, it’s ok. Those are the lyrics from REM’s “It’s the End of the World” which was released in November 1987. Like Jesus’ apocalyptic and cryptic message in Luke this morning, it seems more like a stream of consciousness from an anxious person that anything truly meaningful.
But for me, a child of the 80s, this song has it’s place in my cultural awareness. Ask anyone in their late 30s to about mid-50s, about this song, and they can sing the chorus...it has meaning. They probably even remember the music video and watching it on MTV (before MTV stopped showing videos).
Similarly, for Luke’s audience, Jesus’ message about the end of times would have had meaning...apocalyptic messages were “a genre of prophetical writing that developed in post-Exilic Jewish culture.” According to scholars, “The object of this literature in general was to solve the difficulties connected with the righteousness of God and the suffering condition of His righteous servants on earth.” (wikipedia article on apocalyptic literature)
So what does all this mean? Should we be looking for signs in nature to tell us that the rapture is about to happen? I hope not. Otherwise, we should all be getting ready based on this summer’s past drought and the cataclysmic storms that raged across the globe. Should we be looking at the events in Paris, the shootings happening in our schools and neighborhoods, and the fleeing of refugees from Syria as signs that the end is near? I hope not.
When I was in my third year of seminary, a pastor in Oakland, CA predicted that the end of the world was coming. He was so convinced that he paid to have billboards put along the freeway, he held lectures at his church, and he bought ads on the radio. He had interpreted the events of the world as a sign that the end was near. And you know what? That day came and went.
I could make a list of all the things that SHOULD be signs of the end times. I could write a song that “it’s the end of the world” as we know it. I could spend hours being anxious about what comes next. But somehow I don’t think Jesus really meant for us to look for signs. I don’t think the message that we’re reading today in Luke was meant to be taken literally. Remember...Luke’s audience would have been familiar with this kind of literature. They were trying to make sense of the world around them.
So what do we do with this? Where is the good news in our gospel this morning?
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I FINALLY started reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new book “Accidental Saints”. It’s been on my bedside table since earlier this fall when I got the chance to hear her speak in Portland at Trinity Cathedral. Nadia is unlike any other Lutheran pastor I’ve ever encountered. She’s covered in tattoos and deeply professes the love of God in Christ. She is the embodiment of contradictions and flaws and totally honest about it. In many ways, she’s my hero because she’s incredibly honest and thoughtful, and in other ways, she scares me to death because she’s incredibly honest and thoughtful. But y’all didn’t come here today to hear a sermon on Nadia, so let’s move on.
In her book, she has a chapter about the first Sunday of Advent. Now the passage she refers to is from Matthew, but I think it applies to our passage from Luke as well. Nadia writes about the in-breaking of God and that no matter how hard we try, we can’t be totally prepared; we can’t predict, determine or forsee what God is going to do...we just have to wait because “There was and is and will be a [breaking in] because God is…[interested] in saving us from ourselves and saving us from our culture and saving us even from our certainties….That’s how God works sometimes. Not through the things we are prepared for but through the things we don’t expect” (58-59).
Jesus tells us not to let our hearts be weighed down with the worries of this life, even amidst the heavens and the earth being shaken. Jesus tells us not to be pre-occupied with ourselves, and not to be worried about calculating the exact day of the end of the world because through all this, his “words will not pass away”. And what are his words? To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourselves. And we see this throughout our lessons today...God is full of compassion and love, God guides us in paths of love and faithfulness, God is preparing us for a time of justice and righteousness...and there’s nothing we can do except wait and pray.
So as we enter into this season of Advent, a season of hope, joy, love, and expectation, the new year of the church’s calendar, and a time of beginning afresh “in individual hearts, in relationships, ...and in our yearning for a promise worth living for” (Wesley D. Avram in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Advent 1) all we can do is actively wait for the in-breaking of God “because your redemption is drawing near.”
The Widow’s Mite. That’s how this text is commonly known. And the idea of this poor widow stirs the imagination. She enters into the busy temple and places her two copper coins into the offering box. Is she old, bent over, and moving slowly? Or is she a young widow with several children clinging to the hem of her dress? We don’t know for sure either way. But imagining her as either old woman or a young mother evokes a variety of responses.
If we imagine her as an older woman, with grey hair and wrinkles, bent over and moving slowly through the temple, we may feel a sense of pity for her. Based on the way she carries herself, we might assume that she has had a life of hard labor, that she has been on her own for many years, and barely scraping by.
If we imagine her as a young mother, still upright, perhaps in her 20s or 30s, with children running around the hem of her dress, but with tired eyes and slumped shoulders, we might have a mixed reaction. Why has she not remarried? Where is her extended family? How is she managing with extra mouths to feed?
We project a lot onto this woman depending on how we imagine her, but what if we encountered her today?
What if she was an older woman, living alone with her only income being a meager social security check and her husband’s pension? She may have adult children or neighbors who check on her, but based on her limited mobility, she doesn’t get out much on her own. She needs as many community resources as she is eligible for, but often these are limited in their overall support.
What if she is a young mother, with several children, whose husband died unexpectedly? She’s working 60+ hours a week, having to pay for not only living expenses, but also child-care. She may or may not have family nearby, or a community of support to ease the burden she has inherited as a single-parent. She too needs as many community resources as she is eligible for, but finds that the overall support they provide is fairly limited.
I don’t think I have to tell you that these women are very real and part of our community. However, the are often “invisible” because they don’t have any special standing or honor. They aren’t big donors to churches or other philanthropic organizations. They aren’t living extravagantly. These are women who are living simple lives, trying to survive day to day.
And yet, the woman of today’s gospel story in Mark, be she an old or young, catches the attention of Jesus.
Jesus had been teaching in the temple. Just 10 verses before today’s gospel, he had been asked what the most important commandment is by a young lawyer, and his response was to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And now Jesus is giving a warning to his disciples as he watches people come in and out of the temple he says be careful not to be like the scribes who seek honor for themselves while they ignore the plight of the poor and the needy.
There is real power in this warning that applies to all of us. Seeking honor (or recognition, or awards, or success, or power, or special attention) can be a bit of a trap. In that seeking we get wrapped up in our ego, in our limited world-view...we become “naval gazers”. When we spend all of our time and effort on heaping up recognition or power for ourselves, we miss those who so desperately need our time and attention. We aren’t able to live out the great commandment--to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
When we spend all of our time and attention on ourselves, we aren’t able to live out the great commandment.
But that’s also not the end of the story here.
Jesus watched as people made contributions to the temple. According to the Message translation:
“Many of the rich were making large contributions. One poor widow came up and put in two small coins...and Jesus said, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford--she gave her all.”
She gave her all.
A friend of mine used to work for a non-profit that provided financial assistance to people who found themselves in a crisis situation and couldn’t afford their rent. When it came time for their annual fundraising drive, a woman walked into the office with a brown paper bag. She looked tired. Her clothes were disheveled. My friend assumed that she was coming in looking for assistance, so she invited her to sit down and asked how she could help. The woman handed my friend the brown paper bag and said, “I’d like to make a contribution. It’s not much, but you helped me out a while ago. I have a job now.” Inside the paper bag were coins--pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters--the “pocket change” she’d been collecting. My friend was flabbergasted. “Are you sure” she asked. And the woman responded “You helped me out when I needed it. Now I want to help someone else.” My friend thanked her and the woman left the office.
This is what the widow in Mark is doing. She’s giving to the temple because the temple had made a difference in her life. We don’t know how or in what way...the gospel doesn’t say. But she felt the deep desire to contribute; not because she was required to, or because she was seeking attention or recognition, but because it mattered.
And I think this is what we’re supposed to take away from this story. We give because it matters.
We give because the church has made a difference in our lives and in the lives of those in our community, and we are thankful.
Last week I was talking with a colleague about small town ministry. And it filled my heart to be able to say that in Hood River, if St. Mark’s were to close it’s doors, the community would notice. Our church may not be the biggest one in town (or the diocese), but we make a difference in the lives of those inside AND outside our walls.
It matters that we participate in FISH, the Warming Shelter and the Emergency Voucher Program.
It matters that we send out a van to pick up parishioners on Sunday.
It matters that we provide education and formation for our young members.
It matters that we visit one another when we’re at home sick or in the hospital.
It matters that we host AA and other 12-step programs.
It matters that we have a preschool downstairs.
It matters because we love God and our neighbors as ourselves.
In a little while, we’ll collect the pledge cards so we can plan for next year’s budget. Whatever you give, I hope you will give extravagantly as a way of saying thank you to God, as a way to show care and concern for your neighbor and because this place makes a difference in your life and the lives of others.
I hope that you will give all that you can freely and generously because it matters.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.