Sunday, November 08, 2015

Remembrance Sunday

Mark 12
38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

A great philosopher once compared our journey through life to the simple act of driving through town.

Think of it: you are driving through town and the engine light comes on. Suddenly, all you can do is look for a garage. If you are hungry, you look for a restaurant. If you have an abiding passion, say reading or learning, you may be looking for libraries or schools. And for church folk: we tend to look at churches.

What the philosopher (Ram Dass) was trying to suggest, was that we travel through life with needs and interests, and these things colour the way we see the world. What we look for defines us, and the self-critical will take this into account and occasionally look for other things.

But back to churches. Like all interests, we like to compare and contrast. ‘Such a big church for a small town,’ or ‘look at that crooked steeple—I guess only God is perfect after all.’ The most dangerous is the minister’s tendency to try to read the sign on the front, a distracted driver of ever there was one. ‘The Rev. So-and-so. I wonder who that is...?’

But the interest/obsession truly falls within the ‘priesthood of all believers’ category. Ask a church person from a small town to describe their church and they will tell you about every church in town, details flattering and unflattering. And church friends go on holiday, and you have occasion to see a few snaps, there is a good chance church photos will be among them. Ask Carmen about all my church photos, or better yet, don’t ask her.

The reason I share this is that every time Jesus drove through Jerusalem, he could only see the temple. The temple was an interest/obsession that appears throughout the Gospels—sometimes neutral, sometimes negative. Sometimes it is little more than a backdrop—like the location of the widow’s mite—and sometimes it’s the point of the story. Yet whatever the role, the temple is usually a character worth noting.

Think way back to the beginning of the year, as Jesus is presented in the Temple, and the temple is a place of acknowledgement. Simeon, long waiting for Messiah, meets the child and says something akin to “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’ A week later we’re back, and this time a precocious twelve year-old, is asking questions and providing a few answers of his own.

As an adult, Jesus is back in the temple, either teaching in the outer court or already seized with righteous anger, if John has the chronology right. Either way, tension is in the air. The temple is the place where his authority is questioned, his arrest is debated, and his own body is conflated with the three-day destruction of the place. And if you put the turning of the tables at the end, you get the means, motive and opportunity that leads to the cross.

And in the brief passage that Joyce read this morning, we find a distillation of these temple themes in just seven short verses. Jesus begins with a thumbnail sketch of the religious elite, the ones with the gold-embossed cards and the all-cotton clergy shirts made in Italy. They demand a place at the head table and can no longer see the widow or the orphan from where they sit.

And then perhaps the greatest object lesson found in scripture: the one-percent paid the revised temple tax—another election promise kept—but they hardly noticed the difference. The poor widow, however, added two copper coins, and in case the disciples missed it, Jesus underlined the point:

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

This would normally be the moment that I would tell you about our budget deficit, approaching the approximate retail value of a BMW 6-Series coupe, but that would be too obvious, a maybe a little crass. There is a stewardship sermon coming, but just not this week.

Back to temple, this would be the moment to turn to our old friend Walter Brueggemann, who describes the temple as an “ambiguous figure in Israel’s imagination,” a noteworthy character in the story that is constantly being used and misused for various ends.

On one extreme, the temple is an extension of royal pretensions, an arm of the governing elite set up to instill awe and collect taxes. At the other extreme, it is the literal ‘house of God’ where religious identity is confirmed and perpetuated. On one hand it seems that the various kings who built and rebuilt the temple were trying to hold God captive, adding much needed legitimacy to their reign, while on the other hand they were simply responding to the abiding presence of God on which the furtherance of the nation depended.

And into this steps Jesus. He sat down opposite the place where people paid the temple tax, and he watched. He chose the very place where piety and pretension collide, the place where some try to be faithful and some try to demonstrate their place in the temple system. He underlined why people share: some to gain something and others to give all they have.

In effect, Jesus is describing in a thousand year-old tension in the simple act of paying the temple tax. You could make a showy payment in support of the temple administration or you could make a sacrificial payment to the place where God dwells. Both payments end up in the same place, but each supports a different vision of the temple. One will be destroyed in three-days, and one Jesus calls simply “my father’s house.”

Driving through town, in early November, we are more apt to see memorials to the fallen. They line the great avenues, they appear in town squares, they are found on the walls of churches, schools and community centres. There are names, or locations, or perhaps a solitary figure in granite or bronze.

One of the great contrasts to our neighbour to the south is the extent to which we do not honour leaders. A student of history might know Arthur Currie or Harry Crerar, but most do not. Some may know that Pearson made it to France and Diefenbaker didn’t, but most are unaware. Contrast this with Eisenhower, MacArthur and the various ‘profiles in courage’ that place various presidents in the context of war.

Instead, we tend toward the names of those who paid the ultimate price: Private Charles Plumridge, bricklayer. Year by year we hear these biographies, and we note how citizen-soldiers left homes and families to serve overseas, at great risk to themselves, giving—like to poor widow—all that they had.

May we continue to honour their sacrificial giving, the extent to which they did not think of themselves, but thought instead of our future. Amen.


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