May 19, 2019

Devouring Widows’ Houses

Passage: Mark 12:28-44

20190519 Sermon Rev

 

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.[1] 

 

This morning we continue our consideration of the stewardship of creation.  Two weeks ago we read from the Psalms, Leviticus, Job, Jeremiah, Hosea, Romans, Colossians, Genesis, and Matthew.

 

I offered four key points we find in Scripture concerning creation.  (1) The earth belongs to God – wild animals, birds, plants, flowers, the land itself.  (2) All parts of nature are valuable, even if humans don’t find something useful.  (3) Creation speaks.  It dances, claps, and praises God.  It sings for joy.  It laments.  (4) Nature teaches us about God.  We encounter God through the world outdoors.  God speaks through nature.

 

We looked at the two creation accounts found in Genesis, ach one emphasizing different aspects of God’s character.  In both accounts, Adam and Eve are entrusted with caring for, protecting, and enjoying what God has created.

 

And then I proposed that how we use the earth’s resources is connected with the second greatest commandment quoted by Jesus in Matthew 22.[2]  How we care for our part of the earth, the way we live, affects our neighbors, both locally and globally.

 

I ended the sermon two weeks ago with a promise to talk about practicalities this Sunday.  I didn’t know that Eugene Bales, last week’s guest speaker, would help me with this by talking about the work he’s involved with in trying to reduce the use of single use plastics in Lindsborg.

 

An obvious connection between my first sermon on stewardship of creation and this one is the reuse of Jesus’ response to the question of which commandment is the greatest.  Two weeks ago, we heard it from Matthew.  Today, we heard it from Mark.[3]  There are a few differences between the two, but the essence is the same.  Love God with your whole being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

 

But I didn’t choose the Mark passage because of these two commandments.  I choose it because it includes the story of the widow’s mite.  What in the world does that have to do taking care of the earth and the people in it?

 

The answer comes from something I read in The Bible Unwrapped by Meghan Larissa Good.   Meghan uses this scripture in her discussion of the importance of literary context when reading the Bible.  How does the passage I’m reading relate to what comes immediately before and after it?

 

This is what Meghan writes. [4]

 

In Mark 12:41-44, Jesus and his disciples are in the temple, their place of worship, watching an impoverished woman put her very last pennies into the offering plate.  Jesus turns to his disciples and says,

 

I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury.  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. [5]

 

Read on its own, removed from its literary context, this story sounds for all the world like a straightforward object lesson in radical generosity:  if only more people would be like the widow, who gave all she had to her religious community!  However, if you pay careful attention to what appears around this story, Jesus’ observation about the widow becomes more complicated.  Just before pointing out the widow to his followers, in Mark 12:38-40, Jesus says, Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets.  They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets.  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.[6]  [In the NRSV, verse 40 reads, They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  Thus, the title of today’s sermon.]

 

Notice that in this statement, Jesus critiques the religious leadership of his day and specifically accuses them of cheating widows – the very sort of impoverished person whom he is about to make the center of attention.

 

Now look at what happens in the story immediately after Jesus’ encounter with the widow. In Mark 12:1-2, on their way out of the temple after seeing the widow, the disciples speak admiringly of the enormous stones and buildings that make up the temple complex – symbols of the religious system which the woman’s offering supports.  Instead of marveling with them over the grandeur of the architecture, Jesus replies, Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished. [7]

 

The story of the widow’s offering in the book of Mark is sandwiched between a statement indicting religious leaders for robbing widows and a prediction of the destruction of religious space.  While this poor woman does indeed have much to teach in her example of radical faith and generosity, within the literary context it also becomes clear that for Jesus, her story is also a challenge to the religious status quo of his day.  It raises many complex questions:  Why does this widow only have two pennies?  What is the reason for her “hopeless poverty”?  What exactly is the relationship between this dazzling religious system and this invisible woman whose plight apparently no one but Jesus has even noticed?

 

The way Meghan connects these stories along with their proximity to the commandment to love your neighbor challenges me when I consider my stewardship of creation.  What is the relationship between my consumption and my seemingly invisible neighbors?  How do my actions devour widows’ houses, or help other people, corporations, or nations to devour widows’ houses?

 

When I was looking for pictures of the story of the widow’s mite to use in my PowerPoint presentation, the first one that caught my eye was of an elderly woman dropping her coins into the collection box.  This fits the image I usually have when I read the story, of an older person struggling to survive.  Next, I found the one I’ve been using this morning, of a younger women holding a small child.  This caught my heart in a different way than the first one.  My heartstrings were tugged in a different way, when I looked at a more modern picture depicting a scene in Africa of a woman and child.  These three pictures caused me to ask an uncomfortable question.  How are my choices concerning stewardship of creation affecting people of all ages across generations and across geography?

 

Another image that gave me pause was one making the rounds on Facebook.  It depicts what happens then the abundance of God’s creation, where there is enough for everyone, is filtered through unjust human systems.  Most of the abundance goes to a privileged few.  A good portion of it is wasted.  A few drops, some of them from the waste bucket, make their way to the majority of the population.  And the privileged few use force to protect their abundance.

 

This drawing could be used to illustrate many situations in our current world.  Distribution of wealth, water, or food, to name a few.  What’s interesting is that this image was drawn by Daniel Erlander for his book, Manna and Mercy:  A Brief History of God’s Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe.[8]  Daniel describes this book as his attempt to tell the story of God found in the pages of the Bible – both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.[9]  He drew this picture to illustrate the way Israel and Judah became during the time of the kings and prophets.  More and more the rich exploited the poor, practicing neither righteousness nor mercy.  They did not love their neighbor as they loved themselves.  And God was not pleased with their actions.

 

One of the questions I posed two weeks ago was “How does caring for creation connect with loving my neighbor?”  I hope that all the biblical references from both Sundays have illustrated a strong connection between our care for the earth and the second greatest commandment.

 

Now, let’s address some practicalities.  What can I do, what can you do, what we can we do to care for, protect, and enjoy what God has created?  Of course, a big part of the problem is the unjust systems that are in place.  It’s difficult as individuals or as a congregation to feel like we can make much of a difference in the way governments or multi-national corporations treat the earth and the people in it.  But we can participate in local efforts to care for the earth.  Smoky Hill River renewal and the work of the Land Institute would be two examples.  We can support organizations and businesses that we know are working on projects to make the earth livable for people and the rest of God’s marvelous creation.  Both Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Central Committee have projects that help with this.

 

What else can we do?  A good starting point is the 3 R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.  Actually, in my research I found quite a few more R’s.  Here are some of them.  Refuse what you don’t need.  Reduce what you do need.  Reuse anything you can.  Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse.  Rehome what you no longer need or want.  Recover energy from waste.  Rot (compost) the rest.  Other helpful R’s include Replenish, Restore, Renew, Replace, and Reform.  I’m confident that everyone in this congregation regularly practices some of these R’s.  I’m also sure everyone runs into complications when doing so.

 

Let’s look at one issue, the one our speaker introduced last week, the problem with single use plastics.  I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of plastics in landfills, beaches, and oceans and their effects on the animals that live there.  What’s not shown in the pictures is the effect of microplastics on people and animals.  Microplastics are the extremely small pieces of plastic debris that result from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste.  They are found in oceans, fresh water, soil, and air.  They are consumed by people and animals.

 

I’ve been recycling plastics for a long time, but I confess I’ve not spent much time considering how even recycling is detrimental to humans and the rest of the environment.  With single use plastics, it’s important to spend more time on refusing, reducing, and reusing.  But even when we have the best intentions, things quickly get complicated.  Our goal is the holistic stewardship of time, talents, health, money, creation, and relationships.  Sometimes, maybe even often, stewardship in one of these areas interferes with stewardship of another.

 

Let me illustrate this with a bit of show and tell from my life.

 

A cloth Dillons bag:  On one of my first visits to Salina, someone took me to shop at Dillons.  She carried some cloth bags into the store and received a 10¢ credit for each bag.  I don’t remember utilizing reusable bags much before then.  Since then, I regularly do what I can to avoid plastic shopping bags.  I keep cloth bags in the trunk of my car and use them for most any kind of shopping.  Or, for small purchases, I don’t use a bag at all.  This is one action that is fairly easy to do and can be done consistently.  Of course, you still will find some plastic bags in my home and office.  I try to reuse the ones I have often as possible.

 

Distilled water jug:  Our piano is an important part of our worship.  It’s a beautiful instrument and we want to take good care of it.  If you’ve ever wondered why our piano is plugged in, it’s because there is a humidifier inside of it.  The moisture keeps the wood in good condition and helps to keep the piano in tune.  We use distilled water instead of tap water in order to avoid build-up of minerals on the belt and other parts of the humidifier and piano.  But distilled water comes in plastic jugs and I can’t reuse all of them.

 

Paper bowl and Styrofoam cup:  I appreciate the fact that this congregation regularly uses real table service at our Third Sunday Potlucks.  It appears people do a decent job of taking turns washing the dishes afterward.  Last month, when planning the Maundy Thursday service, I wanted to ensure that we could end the evening as silently as possible.  I wanted to avoid the noise and commotion that comes with washing dishes and folding up tables and chairs.  So we decided to use disposable bowls, plates, and cups.  At the last minute, we had difficulty finding paper cups, so we ended up with Styrofoam ones.

 

Items from Qdoba (gift card, cup, and lid):  As a person living alone, I run into lots of complications when considering good stewardship of food, money, and time.  Of course decisions about meals affect stewardship of health and relationships as well.  When I cook at home, it’s not unusual to end up with produce, bread, or cheese that begin to mold before I use them up.  Prepared foods usually come in disposable containers that I’d like to avoid.  The many meal delivery kits that are available provide only the exact amount of ingredients needed, but they come with packaging that gets complicated to recycle.  Not to mention the fuel it takes to get them to your house.

 

I eat out much more often than I used to.  One of my regular places is Qdoba.  They use paper bowls, but the utensils, cups, and take out lids are plastic.  And, the workers use a new pair of plastic gloves each time they serve a new customer.  I’ve begun saving cups and lids and taking them to the restaurant with me so I can reuse them.  I need to remember to take a fork with me too.  I have a few straws, but I usually do whatever I can to avoid disposable plastic straws.  I pay for my food with a gift card.  When I purchase these at Dillons, the church benefits through the Dillons Community Rewards Program.  I’m happy to receive double or quadruple fuel points.  We get a bonus when I pay for the cards with my Everence My Neighbor credit card.  I’ve designated Salina Mennonite Church as the recipient of the percentage of my sales Everence donates to charity.  But the cards are plastic and I can’t reload them at Dillons so I throw them away.

 

Take out box:  I also eat at IHOP with people from this congregation on a fairly regular basis.  I buy IHOP gift cards at Dillons too.  I don’t want to waste food or money so I take home the food I don’t eat at IHOP or at other restaurants.  And that involves a box – maybe plastic like this one, maybe Styrofoam.  My collection of these containers is growing.  I’ve taken some to Circles or to the food bank, but I don’t reuse or rehome all of them.  I’ve recycled plastic ones and thrown away Styrofoam ones.  I’m not going to stop eating at IHOP because I enjoy the fellowship with people from this congregation.  And, we’ve developed a relationship with  our favorite server.  Even if I’m tired of eating at IHOP, I want to help pay her wages.

 

And so it goes.  It’s complicated.  Even the single use plastics I’m trying to avoid have their benefits.  Especially when they’re used to prevent disease, not only here in Salina, but also for our global neighbors who don’t have access to good drinking water and sanitary conditions.  And, of course, there are many other topics I haven’t mentioned at all.  Like the electronic devices I like to use and the danger they cause for the people who mine the minerals used to make them.  Or the harm caused to humans and the earth to make the cloths I like to wear.

 

I’m convinced that we should do what we can to care for and protect all of creation.  It’s important that we recognize that we use more than our share of God’s abundance.  And that the people who have less, the equivalent of the widows and orphans of Jesus’ time, tend to be the ones who bear the brunt of the earth’s groaning.  We need to do what we can, recognizing that the actions each of us takes will likely be different than the actions of someone else.  At the same time, we need to offer grace – to ourselves and to each other.  None of us can do everything all of the time, but each of us can do something most of the time.

 

And so I ask you to do two things today.  (1)  Name one action you will take to reduce, reuse, or recycle.  I’ve prepared a bag with containers to use for bringing home leftovers.  I’ll do my best to take it with me when I eat in a restaurant.  (2) Name one action our church can take to reduce, reuse, or recycle.  I suggest that after we use any plastic or Styrofoam items that we still have in our building, we buy only paper products to use on the occasions when we decide not to wash dishes.

 

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.[10]

 

Let’s care for, protect, and enjoy it.

 

[1] Psalm 24:1-2, New Revised Standard Version

[2] “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

[3] “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31, New Revised Standard Version

[4] Meghan Larissa Good, The Bible Unwrapped:  Making Sense of Scripture Today, Herald Press, 2018, pp. 101-103.

[5] Mark 12:43-44, Common English Bible.

[6] Mark 12:38-40, Common English Bible.

[7] Mark 13:2, Common English Bible.

[8] Daniel Erlander, Manna and Mercy:  A Brief History of God’s Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe, The Order of Saints Martin and Teresa, 1992, p. 83.

[9] Elander, p, v.

[10] Psalm 24:1-2, New Revised Standard Version

 

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