Kilmorack and Erchless Church

Sunday 7th of November

we pause now                       to remember to be thankful

we come now                       to offer our worship

we promise now                   to listen for your word

Prayer

Indeed, eternal God, we come to remember to be thankful.  We are thankful for the marvelous beauty of this world, and this village, now set out in all the rich colours of the season.  We are thankful for mystery of life: the life given to us, the life through which we grow in understanding by our many rich experiences.  We are thankful for Christ, for his life, and death and resurrection, for his words, challenging our easy comfort and provoking us to be more fully awake and aware.  So we offer our worship, and we wait attentively for your word to us.

Yet we come also to receive mercy, as we remember how poorly we have handled all that you have given us.  We confess that our words have sometimes been hurtful, that our motives have often been selfish, that we have too often allowed fear and greed to drive us, rather than faith and hope.

May your salvation be made known again in our lives, as we discover the generosity of your grace, and allow it to change us, and to redirect us. Amen

Introduction

A woman was disturbed one morning by a persistent knocking on her door.  When she opened it, she was met by a man who looked anxious and troubled.

Excuse me for disturbing you like this,” he says,

I’m trying to find someone who can help this poor, tragic family who live round the corner.  They’ve had a really hard time.  The father just lost his job, and his wife is too ill to work and their little child is poorly.  Now because they can’t afford to pay their rent they’re about to be turned out into the cold streets unless someone can give them money for their rent.”

That’s terrible!” says the woman. “Of course I’ll help them if can, and I’m very impressed that you care enough to come here and look for help on their behalf.”  “Thank you”, the man said, “we’ve all got to do what we can.  As long as this family can pay the rent and not be thrown out on the street we will all be happy.”  “Absolutely”, the woman agreed.  “Are you a friend of this family”, she asked.  “No”, he replied, “I’m their landlord.”

That may be a rather extreme example of someone who looked as though they doing the right thing, but were in fact just looking out for themselves.  Every case might not be as blatant as that, but we know it goes on, and we know that we ourselves often feel the temptation to make ourselves look better than we are or to twist things just a little to suit ourselves.  It is easy for us all to drift in that direction, but one of the strongest messages we get in the gospels is the warning against hypocrisy.  Jesus was always more positive about an honest sinner who does what they can than someone who is anxious to appear righteous.

We’re certainly going to see that in our gospel reading shortly, and as always, while it might lead us to think about people we know, or people in the public eye, it might also lead us to ask some honest questions about ourselves.

Bible Readings

Psalm 127 consists of just five verses: the first two expressing the thought that without God any efforts we make will be worthless, and the final three speaking of the way God is with us and does bless us, with the arrival of children being used as an example.

Psalm 127

If the Lord does not build the house, the work of the builders is useless; if the Lord does not protect the city, it does no good for the sentries to stand guard.  It is useless to work so hard for a living, getting up early and going to bed late.  For the Lord provides for those he loves, while they are asleep.

Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a real blessing.  The sons a man has when he is young are like arrows in a soldier's hand.  Happy is the man who has many such arrows.  He will never be defeated when he meets his enemies in the place of judgment.

Our reading from Mark’s gospel this week is also rather short, consisting of two paragraphs.  They might seem quite separate, the first some teaching of Jesus, the second a little tale of something Jesus once saw and what he said about it.  Yet, as we shall see, the gospel writer brings these two together quite deliberately.

Mark 12: 38 - 44

38 As he taught them, he said, “Watch out for the teachers of the Law, who like to walk around in their long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplace, 39 who choose the reserved seats in the synagogues and the best places at feasts. 40 They take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes, and then make a show of saying long prayers. Their punishment will be all the worse!”

41 As Jesus sat near the Temple treasury, he watched the people as they dropped in their money. Many rich men dropped in a lot of money; 42 then a poor widow came along and dropped in two little copper coins, worth about a penny. 43 He called his disciples together and said to them, “I tell you that this poor widow put more in the offering box than all the others. 44 For the others put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had—she gave all she had to live on.”

Sermon

Our two sections from Mark’s gospel appear to be quite different, but the one thing they have in common is the mention of widows.  We should be clear that this word means something rather different in the culture of the bible than it does in our day.  Yes, the definition is the same: a woman who has lost her husband, but that was a sharper and more cruel category then than it is now.  Often put alongside orphans, widows were the most obvious example of people who were extremely vulnerable, with no good way to earn an income, no one to defend them and care for them, no obvious value to society.  That is why there are so many references to them in the bible, where there is the insistence that they ought to be treated with respect and dignity and care.

For us today, while all of those commands and teachings are of course valid on their own, there will almost certainly be other categories of people who would be a more obvious example of being destitute and helpless and vulnerable.  So when I use the word ‘widow’ here, remember that the meaning of the word is broader than a simple definition may suggest.

In the first section of our gospel reading today, widows are exploited and made destitute at the hands of the lawyers, and in the second, a poor widow gives the last of her money as a contribution to the work of the Temple.  Jesus clearly condemns the teachers of the law in the first section.  Those who exploit people who are already vulnerable, or at least who refuse to do anything to support them, are clearly condemned and we are told to ‘watch out’ for people like them.  That we can all understand and agree with.

How though are we to understand his comments about the poor widow’s offering?   Is he praising her willingness to give so sacrificially, setting her up as an example for others?  Or, is he giving an example of what he has just said about those who take advantage of vulnerable people; ‘look here is one woman who has next to nothing and after she has been to the Temple she is left with even less.’  She gave very little, but she gave everything she had.  Her two coins were the equivalent of enough money to buy a handful of flour.  In other words, all she had left was enough to feed herself that day, and she put it in the offering to support the work of the Temple.

Set beside Jesus words about powerful men swindling widows, it isn’t hard to see the connection.   Remember that the laws which those men are supposed to be implementing commanded the care of widows and orphans, and it states that part of the Temple offering can be used to support those in need.  If the woman is on her last two coins, doesn’t she need that sort of support?  Instead, it seems that those in charge are content to see her further impoverished, as long as she continues to support them and their work.  There are lots of people who could have helped her.  We’ve just been told about those rich men who passed her by, but no one did help her.

When we remember the commands that fill the pages of the bible about caring for those in need, we see that this story is not just a little anecdote, but an example of all that had gone wrong with religion.  Christ summarises the spirit of all the laws as loving God and loving our neighbours, but there is not much sign of that here.

Interestingly, and perhaps uncomfortably, there is no happy ending in this story.  We are not told of anyone coming to the rescue of the poor widow who had given her all in support of a system which was not doing what it should, which was not doing anything for her.  There is no happy ending here, but if we have followed the story before we know that two things are about to happen.

The first is that Jesus is about to go on to say that the whole system, that whole way of operating, even the Temple itself, will all come to an end.  None of that has a part in the future he envisages and promises and works towards.  That was deeply shocking to people because they assumed that the work of the Temple was the work of God, so how could it ever end.  That was so deeply shocking that it played a big part in the growing determination among some, not to reform the system, but to get rid of Jesus.

The other thing which will happen is he himself will, in an even fuller way that the widow, offer up everything he has.  He will give up his life, to make a different kind of future possible.  It is a future in which the systems which exploit the vulnerable will no longer be in control, in which the first will be last and the last will be first, in which the great principles which the ancient commandments speak of will be the principles which guide us.

Of course we have not exactly got there yet, but these short passages clarify the choice which we are invited to make each day, as to whether we believe in what the teachers of the law were about or what Jesus was about.  It is the choice we make each day as to whether we are going to be part of the old way, or part of Jesus’ way.  And we make those choices remembering what Jesus said about what will last and what will not last, about what will endure and what will survive.

What is described in the gospel is appalling; a vulnerable woman left to go hungry yet in the simple gesture of that woman there is the pointer to the different way that is possible and to the sacrifice which will save us; a pointer to the hope that we have and better way that we can choose.

Prayer

Eternal God, it is in response to your and generous love, that we respond with our worship.  It is because of glory and power that we are still only dimly aware of, that we respond to you.

We offer you our lives, that they may be used wisely and well.

We offer you our minds, that we may think your thoughts.

We offer you our hearts, that we may learn to love as you love.

We offer you all that we are, all that we do, all that we might become.

And in token of all this, we offer our gifts of money, earned with the talents that you have already placed within us, with the strength that you have created within us.

Help us then, to support your church, but also to be the church.

Help us to support the work of the gospel, but also to do the work of gospel.

Help us to echo your great generosity, in the way we use our time, and our talents, and our money.

So that our days on this earth might have more to show for them than simply buildings and possessions, so that we might have played a part in the great and eternal work for which Christ came, and for which he died.

Bless we pray our churches, as they grapple with finding the best way forward.

Bless we pray all those involved in discussions about tackling climate change, especially those the power to make a difference.

Bless we pray those who are left poor and vulnerable among us, whose needs we might so easily miss, or choose to ignore.

Bless we pray our families, and all those we care about the most.

Eternal God, you caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning.   Grant us to hear them that we may embrace and put our trust in the wisdom they offer, and the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever,

Amen.