"Let God Do The Communicating"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 12, 2006
Psalm 127; Mark 12:38-44
Jesus had this remarkable ability to teach people by drawing from the common everyday experiences of his audiences. On this occasion he chose to discuss the visible markers of people’s faithfulness to God as such qualities are displayed through daily attitudes, thoughtfulness and trust. As Jesus began teaching, he contrasted the differences between those who practiced their faithfulness and those who lived it. It is fascinating how Jesus’ insights are as instructive today as they were in his day.
Jesus cautioned his listeners not to develop any assumptions about the faithfulness of people based on their dress code. Jesus wanted his listeners to become suspicious of judging a book by its cover. He warned people not to be fooled when they observed the social posturing among the Scribes and Pharisees as these men communicated their priestly piety as though they were highly favored by God.
These teachers of The Law were easily recognized because of their uniforms. They enjoyed their status as righteous people wearing their long flowing robes -- a sign of leisure, privilege and honor. They loved the respect their clothing granted them. After all, God had prescribed such a dress code to remind people of their faithfulness in the Book of Numbers.
God spoke to Moses: “Speak to the People of Israel. Tell them that from now on they are to make tassels on the corners of their robes and to mark each corner tassel with a blue thread. When you look at these tassels you will remember and keep all my commandments, and not become distracted by everything you feel or see that seduces you into infidelities. The tassels will remind you to live a holy life. I am your God who rescued you from the land of Egypt to be your personal God. Yes, I am God, your God.” (Numbers 37-41)
The Scribes and Pharisees were also known for their long, articulate prayers that perhaps were more engineered for their listeners than for God. Those who practiced their righteousness let everyone know about it. Rather than inspiring others to learn from them, they frequently placed themselves on a pedestal to be admired.
As many of you know, last week Lois and I were in San Francisco attending the annual meeting of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. I was part of a delegation representing Asbury Communities, Inc.
As we were preparing to leave, I noticed the hotel foyer was filling with men who were wearing dark suits. Their dress code was virtually the same. Not one of them had come dressed in more casual clothes. As I was heading back to our room to pick up our suitcases for the flight home, I decided to ask the five men in the elevator with me what group was meeting that week. They told me that they were all representatives of The American Association of Realtors.
I found that curious. I was tempted to ask them, “Do you guys ever lighten up?” but a higher wisdom prevailed since I was dressed in jeans. This was the Marriott in San Francisco and not the Ritz Carlton in Manhattan.
In every generation, even before the birth of Jesus, social status was often communicated by what people wore. While most of us have no idea who lives inside the packaging, we still draw a number of tentative assumptions from what we see.
We learned from Friday’s article in the Washington Post, for example, that Paul Pelosi picks out most of the wardrobe worn by his wife, Nancy, our new Speaker of the House. No doubt he has an eye for style and appearance and what both have the power to communicate. The fact that the newspaper discussed at some length the dress code of the person who is second in line for the Presidency lifts up our tendency to associate power with what people wear.
Jesus’ admonition to move beyond the packaging is well engrained in us, but still we fall prey to the way people present themselves. What does a disciple of Jesus really look and sound like? What kind of clothes do disciples wear? Are they out there in the world engaged in “heathen hunting” as one of my friends used to call the practice of some who considered themselves among the saved and faithful? Are they giving witness to serving Jesus with a spiritual swagger and a relentless tongue that is always quoting from the Scriptures?
There is a story from ancient times about a monk who truly was a very holy man. He was sent by his bishop to a monastery to take up the office of abbot. When he arrived, he looked so humbly dressed that the more senior monks sent him to work in the kitchen. Without a single word about their misunderstanding, he did as they directed. He performed the most menial tasks in the presence of all the others. He served them, washed the dishes and scrubbed the floors.
It was only when the bishop arrived to install the new abbot that the monks were made aware of their mistake. The humble master had been totally ignored. During the months in the kitchen, the new abbot had the opportunity to observe the behavior and attitudes of all the other monks.
When he assumed office formally, he knew all of them fairly well. However, he chose only to see their potential, their abilities and the new attitudes and values they could reach when they stretched. He was there to encourage and lead them, not punish them for being where they were. All of them sensed God’s presence radiating from the humble spirit of this abbot.
Would that every pastor, rabbi or imam could enter a new setting communicating such a spirit. So many clerics want to fix what they perceive is wrong. They pontificate about what God has in mind for humankind. Or, worse yet, they preach about destroying all others who will not submit to a new world order governed solely by their religion.
Who knows what disciples look like? Who knows what they are supposed to say? Who knows what they should be wearing? Such people are found in all shapes, sizes, colors, ethnicity and are at different levels of education. What really communicates comes not from looks, words or wardrobes. Have you ever noticed how some stories, some images, some messages get through to us in spite of how distracted we are? What causes that recognition?
Someone sent me a small video over a year or so ago that lasted about one minute. The scene could have been recorded in any airport in America. People were scurrying around with their luggage, wearing I-pod earplugs, reading books and newspapers. Suddenly, I heard one person clapping and then two and then a dozen. Eventually everyone in that section of the airport stopped what he or she was doing, rose to their feet and was applauding. Some observers were wiping away tears. The occasion was a group of our troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. To this day I get tears when I see that video.
We often feel that the Spirit of God must be connected to religion. It is not! God is not and will not ever be confined to the constructs that most people refer to as their religious belief systems. The moment we become locked away in some pattern like that, we will become like the Scribes and Pharisees mentioned in our lesson today.
Since our troops have been in Iraq, people have sent me pictures of our men and women in uniform playing with children, bandaging wounded Iraqis while they themselves were still bleeding. Other pictures showed troops praying, laughing and studying together. What images of caring and compassion such pictures provide.
Regardless of what others do or say to the contrary, truth will never be smothered by those who claim that the Kingdom of God is here or there. God will always be communicating to those who have learned to recognize our Shepherd’s voice through people, images, music, poetry, and a number of the Scriptures. If that voice were constantly coming through the world’s religious clerics, the world would now be at peace. That has not happened.
Jesus wanted his listeners to see beyond the forms and structures of righteousness to see how often God uses common everyday people to sow the seeds of compassion that will eventually change the way the world’s people perceive.
Jesus shifted his gaze from those practicing righteousness to someone whose trust in God has never been questioned from Jesus’ day to our own. This heroine creates a powerful image even though she will forever remain nameless.
Directly across from Jesus was the Court of the Women. In that court were 13 collecting boxes known as The Trumpets because of the way they were shaped. Each trumpet had a specific purpose. For example, some of them were to buy olive oil or wine for the sacrifices. All thirteen of these were there for the purpose of collecting money for the expenses associated with their Temple.
It would be as though we put in the narthex thirteen buckets marked, utilities, natural gas, staff salaries, custodial supplies, missions and so forth. Keep in mind that even though this is pledge Sunday, I preached my money sermon two weeks ago. I am only illustrating by giving you a little background surrounding Mark’s text.
Lots of people not only put in sizeable amounts of money, but they also made a minor social event as they did so. Jesus noticed a widow coming. She put in two coins that were called leptons – which translated means, “a thin one.” Each coin was worth 1/16th of a penny. Jesus said that her contribution was greater than all the rest. Others had given what they could spare, while she gave everything that she had.
It is a shame that in so many communities of faith today financial contributions have to be coaxed out of Church people. Fortunately, that has not been the case here. Today a number of people want to get something for their money. Some say that the only time the church contacts us is when they want money. Such was not the case in biblical times. Giving was more a sacred act that connected the giver to the One who gives without ceasing. I can tell you this, there are few people, myself included, who can read this timeless story without feeling a sense of shame. The story captures a powerful image of what complete trust in God looks like.
Again, the woman spoke nothing. She was not aware that a teacher who wrote nothing was observing her. Yet, somehow, someone remembered this moment in time, and the picture of that woman and the essence of her spirit have been communicated across 2,000 years of history. It is through such an image that God communicates.
A good story is one that engages our emotions while delivering what we all seek: meaning and purpose. How we parcel out our money reveals the nature of our personal story.
Some of you here this morning may be masters of trivia. Here is a question for you. In the story of Peter Pan, Wendy encounters the lost boys who lived in Neverland. She asked Peter, “Why don’t they ever grow up?” The answer is an obscure piece of information that places this story within the annals of so many others that contain very powerful messages. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and The Wizard of Oz – they all have within them profound metaphysical lessons. Peter answered Wendy’s question with these words, “They don’t know any stories.”
Can you imagine what our lives would be like if we did not have any stories? No lessons toward which to aspire. No higher ground upon which to stand. No role models to encourage us to grow beyond where we are. No Jesus to teach us that we are far more than our perceived deficits and sinfulness.
When we are open and ready to trust God with everything we are, that is when God’s guidance is the strongest and the clearest. It is we who have to fine-tune our receivers. God is always communicating, guiding and loving us. My hope is that one day the world’s people will understand this.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and ever present God, we come this morning with gratitude in our hearts for so many experiences that have blossomed around us. If we would lift our eyes beyond the issues that frequently remind us of our personal neediness, we would see that a remarkable revolution has just occurred in our country. From voting booths last Tuesday we have changed the consistency of our Congress without violence.
This weekend, we have remembered and honored those who have defended the principles upon which our country stands: “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Help us never to forget those who have made possible the opportunities we too often take for granted, of voting for change, of seeking greater possibilities for our future, of wanting balance and stability, but above all wanting peace to reign.
When we lift our eyes beyond our personal concerns, we see the changing leaves, the laughter of young children and the early smiles of new babies. We are aware of the lives in our midst that are transitioning from their sojourn here to experiences beyond those found in our solid forms. Teach us more fully to radiate our confidence that this is your world and we are temporary guests here. Stimulate us to want community rather than war, motivate us to join hands rather than build fences and inspire us to find the potential within our own identities rather than coming to you to unravel life’s complications that we too often have created ourselves. In spite of where we are in our evolution of spirit, thank you for your guidance. When we lift the barriers we have created with our ideologies and theologies, we would see that your presence is among all peoples. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .