This sermon was delivered on November 11th, 2012, at Wallace UMC.
Common English Bible (CEB)
38 As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. 39 They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40 They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”
41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.[a] 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44 All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”
Once upon a time, in the 90’s, there was a show called “The Simpsons.”
You all remember that, right? Yes, yes, I know, the Simpsons are still around, but it’s not near the phenomenon it once was—nor does it generate the controversy that it once did in the 90s. Of course, now it’s fairly tame compared to what’s out there now as well, but in the 90s, it was cutting edge, and it caused a lot of controversy. For the longest time, my parents (remember, I’m the son of a preacher man) didn’t want me or my brother to watch it—mainly because they didn’t think that there could be any value in it. They thought what a lot of people thought, or rather, they though what they were told to think; that it was garbage. That is, until my brother begged and begged them to let me and him watch it (we were about ages 11 and 8 at the time.) And so, my parents reluctantly let us start watching it—as long as they were watching it along with us, to supervise. Well we watched many an episode, my brothers and sisters. And we laughed, and laughed, and laughed. Soon enough, it became a regular part of our television watching repertoire. Yes, even my parents, the parental figures worried that it was worthless garbage, really liked it. And do you know why?
Because it was smart. It was well written. It was satire of the highest order. It pulled no punches. It was, in many ways, one of the best shows on television. And you know the biggest belly laughs that it got out of my family? It was when it made fun of religion. You wouldn’t think so, but if you watch an episode of the Simpsons that tackles a topic of religion, you’d understand. We laughed because it was obvious that the writers of the show knew their stuff. It was obvious that they did their research, and when they did jokes on religion, it was because they had done something important: they had watched it, and learned it, and knew what to focus their attention on. They watched, and learned. And my parents recognized the value in the Simpsons; it wasn’t something to be ignored because it might be bad. They tested it, saw the good in it, and learned from it. In essence, we watched, and learned.
It proved to be a kind of turning point in my life. It was tangible evidence for me that good comes out of watching, and learning. It gave me permission to try out new things, see if there was value in it. It gave me courage to not completely discount something without at least giving it a fair trial. It inspired me to read different kinds of books, listen to different kinds of music, and entertain different kinds of ideas. If the ideas were bad, I rejected them if they were good, I kept hold of them, and added them to my experience.
I think it’s safe to say that you could point to that experience as when I truly became a pop culture junkie. I love music—all kinds, from classical to rock, jazz to pop. I love television. I love books. I love comic books. I love all kinds of different media. I love a great many genres: drama, comedy, animation of every stripe, science fiction, fantasy, horror. In many ways, pop culture is a natural habitat for me. You can tell; how many sermons have I started with an example from popular culture? How many ideas have I gleaned from sources maybe not everyone here has even thought of, or encountered, even though it is out there for all to see? How many times have I referenced superheroes, movies, musicals, books, and songs? I do that for many reasons, I am this way for many reasons, of which I’ll get into in a little bit, but let’s just start with the claim that I am a pop culture junkie.
Which quite honestly, puts me in a bit of a predicament, especially in the Christian community.
It does so because I realize that, in the Christian community, that mindset isn’t necessarily valued. The notion of “Watch, and learn,” is not valued. I know this because of just a few of the things that I have heard and read just in my short 25 years on this planet. And it’s something I know you are all familiar with—the Christian cultural bubble.
I want us to start thinking about this, this bubble we have placed ourselves into, because it’s based around an impulse, a gut reaction. The impulse I’m talking about is that of completely shutting out the world, and closing our eyes to what is happening in our culture. It can be basically summed up by this maxim I’ve heard a lot growing up in the church, from my family, and from many other people as well: garbage in, garbage out. What you take into your life, you will only produce it. Therefore, shut it out, and don’t have anything to do with it. Now, this definitely is true of eating habits. I know that if I eat nothing but cheeseburgers, I will in fact become a cheeseburger. But as for the culture, as for being a people in the world but not of the world, we miss the mark by focusing on the “not of” part and skip over the “in the world” part. Because if we don’t live in the world, we won’t see where we as Christians are needed as witnesses. But if we are not witnesses of what the world does, we can’t be effective witnesses of Christ to the world. In essence, we need to watch… and learn.
In many ways, this is a practice that Jesus often used in his teaching. Jesus was a great observer, a great learner, and in turn because of these observations, he was a great teacher. He used the culture around him, the world around him, to weave beautiful stories and powerful parables, tools he used in his teaching to share a vision of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was a teacher of the highest order in this regard. He used examples from the natural world, like birds, and lilies, and seeds, and stones. He used little fables about everyday life, like the parable of the lost sheep, or the lost coin; the good Samaritan, or the prodigal son. He used humor to teach, like telling people to take the log out of their own eye before they remove the speck from their neighbors, or that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than to enter the kingdom of God. Of course, humor has a way of cutting right to the heart of the matter like no other, for it takes a brave soul to point out that the emperor is in fact naked.
Our lesson from Mark today is one that a fairly popular one in culture, especially in the Christian bubble, one told over and over again, but honestly I think it is misread as a Precious Moments greeting card, a cute and overly reduced story with none of the bite today than it once had. My brothers and sisters, before we can say anything about this passage, we need to see and understand what Jesus is in fact doing.
He’s teaching the people near the temple in Jerusalem, yes. One can assume he’s drawing a crowd, as well, one large enough to attract all kinds of people, including people in authority. Throughout his teaching, though, we need to notice that Jesus is an active participant in this crowd, and he’s bouncing ideas off of them left and right. Just before this, he was fielding questions from priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes. More importantly, though, he’s taking part in one of my own personal favorite pastimes, that of “people watching.” Jesus is people watching, in his people watching, he hits upon a very harsh, but accurate, judgment of the culture. Specifically, the religious culture.
He tells the people: Look closely and see what is happening. Look closely at the people who call themselves “legal experts.” Look at what they do. And it’s at this point in the scripture that I begin to feel about 1 inch tall, because he’s talking about people like me, and about religious people in general.
He says look out for these people, who want power and acclaim. Look out for these people who like to wear fine clothes, who like to be greeted with respect, who like to sit at the head of the table as a guest, who like to be given all this authority, and who lord their authority over you. They, in lording their power over you, destroy and devour the poor and impoverished in their wake. In siding with the powerful of this world, these people who are supposed to be not of this world have declared war on the innocent. On top of that, they bore us all to death with prayers that are waaaaaaay too long—just to show off.
Look at them. Look at the world that they have built, and look at the people that have to live there. Look at the people that they could—and should—be helping, but don’t. Look at the lives that they system they have constructed, the temple system, the religious system, the system that has become so interwoven and married to the government that the two are indistinguishable. They have become no better than the people who have brought our country to our knees, because they have ignored the poor.
And don’t get me wrong—wearing a robe doesn’t make you a bad person. Jesus wore a robe! Saying a long prayer doesn’t make you an evil person. Jesus said long prayers all the time! The problem is not their outward appearance. The problem is their inward sinfulness. Their problem is the temple that they have built on the backs of the widows and the orphans, the poor and the hopeless.
Soon after Jesus gave this thoroughly harsh judgment on the legal experts, the priests and the religious officials, his gaze moved over to the collection box outside the temple. And it says there, in the text, he observed how the crowds gave their money. Who was doing it, and how much they gave. We can see, then, that he was seeing patterns. Watching the crowds at work. And he learned himself what was going on, and taught it to the disciples, to see as he saw.
He saw these legal experts giving large amounts of money—money they had to spare. This translation says they were giving out of their spare change—money they could do without, and therefore didn’t have any emotional investment in. They didn’t have any personal investment in it, so it was meaningless to them. However, he saw some of the other people giving as well, specifically the people who didn’t have much. In fact, he zeroed in on a woman, a widow, who had nothing to live on. And she gave. She gave when she had nothing to give.
It takes a remarkable person to give when there’s nothing left to give. It’s incredible. And this is not something that we should trivialize or downplay, because what she gave was probably all she had to live on for the week. She gave to the temple when she could have used the money on bread. She gave the last of her money—for what? She gave it to the temple, with money that would only go to the people who would use the money she gave to cheat her out of house and home! She’s giving it to the same system that has ruined her! But she gives anyway, because of her belief in what the temple stands for, not what the temple is. She’s faithful to her belief in what the temple should be; not what it is. And so she gives out of her poverty.
Jesus watches, and learns. Jesus was able to see the system for what it was, but was also able to see what the people hoped for, what the people saw was right, and good, and just, and worth believing in. He saw the corruption that the world had injected into the leaders, but he also saw the faith of the people who believed in the kingdom of God. And he laid it bare for the disciples. He stripped away the preconceived notions of the bubble, he ripped off the blindfolds and exposed the ugliness of the world—but also the potential for goodness.
The takeaway here is a couple of things. One of course, is watch. Watch what happens in the world. That also means, don’t shut out the rest of the world because you think it might be harmful. Ephesians 5 verse 10 and eleven says “Therefore, test everything to see what’s pleasing to the Lord, 11 and don’t participate in the unfruitful actions of darkness. Instead, you should reveal the truth about them.” Test that which you aren’t sure about, and see if there’s good in it, but also test to see and expose what is evil in it. What his harmful. What is sinful. Director Akira Kurasawa once said that “The artist is the one who doesn’t look away.” Watch.
The second of course, is learn. Learn, and take that which is good into your life. Learn from the widow. Give out of what you feel to be right, because you know what is supposed to be right. Give, and have faith that it will be for God’s will, not your own. Give, and believe. But also, learn to be critical of those things that you think might be untouchable. Learn to be skeptical, and learn to test that which you may think may be all the way good, because there may be something underneath that needs closer examination.
Watch, and learn. It’s how Jesus was such an effective teacher, and it’s how you can be an effective witness, and an effective Christian. Don’t let the Christian bubble be all that you can see, because there’s more in this world to watch and learn from. And you may even see how fragile that bubble really is. Watch, and learn, and you will be a witness to the truth, and a light in the darkness.