Monday, November 12, 2012

Jesus' Critique of Temple Life

This is *roughly* the sermon I preached on Stewardship Sunday.  It's based on Mark 12:38-44.

You’ve heard the phrase “the widow’s mite” and probably plenty sermons about the sanctity of gifts from those who have little to give, but give it all.  These sermons said, “No matter how small, God will value and use your gift.  Be like the widow.  Put in your two cents.”
I think I’ve preached that sermon, as a matter of fact.  But I’m not going to preach it this time.  Because I think it misses the point of what the Bible is telling us. 

So I guess the first thing I’d ask from you is that you listen for something new.  Not the virtue of the widow and her gift.  Because it seems that the text brings up a a far subject  that Jesus was trying to address. 

This set of stories is all about Jesus challenging the most powerful people in Jerusalem right in the center of that power:  the Temple.  It all happens the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.  He enters the city - that’s a Sunday.  He goes to the Temple and starts a small riot - that’s Monday.  And Tuesday he’s back, stirring things up again, criticizing the very folks who make the Temple system function:  The scribes.  The priests.  The big donors.  He has a cutting remark to make about each one.  And it is these remarks that culminate in his observation of the impoverished widow who throws her life in, gives everything that makes for life, in service to these big shot hypocrites and thieves. 

It is quite possible that Jesus was not saying “What a good and faithful woman” but “What a perfect shame - that what passes for faith in God has come to this.”  And after this story, he predicts the destruction of the Temple, which actually occurred just a few years after his death and resurrection.

It’s all about Jesus challenging the corruption of the religious system of his day.
The Temple  - the primary religious institution of Jesus’ day - had become a sham.  And Jesus called them to something different and better by pointing out what was wrong. 

So, if that’s so, it behooves us to know something about what the Temple was supposed to be about and why it failed so spectacularly. 

The Temple was supposed to be a place where God met His people.
It was the house, the home of God.  That’s why the Temple was so beautiful and so big.  This church isn’t big - but it is beautiful.  And every year in planning our budget, maintaining the building is a part of what we consider.  There’s a built in tension there.  There are a lot of church buildings that eat up the lion’s share of the church budget.  Maintaining the building becomes the focus of concern and energy for congregations.  As moderator of the Committee on Ministry for our Presbytery, I encountered more than a few churches like that right in Central Illinois.  “What do you want your church to accomplish in the future?” We just want to be able to pay the bills and stay in our building until a few more of us die.  Then we’ll close.  Honestly.  I heard that. 
I love this sanctuary and this building.  But if preserving it as some sort of shrine ever becomes the focus of our life together, you should seek another, better place to give your money.

The Temple was supposed to be the meeting place for all of God’s people. 
It was the focus of community.  Every good Jew was supposed to be welcomed to the Temple several times a year where they would see themselves as part of God’s gathered people.  It was a way to give perspective to their individual and family lives. 
But in Jesus’ day, coming to the Temple was a hardship for the poor and the outcast.  They were expected to buy their way in with sacrifices that were marked up at an absurd rate.  And the rules for getting in were tightened up.  The Temple officials pronounced judgement on who was and who wasn’t allowed to participate.  It became more like a fraternal organization than a welcoming place. 
If this church starts to feel like a country club, where everyone shares the same lifestyle, political views and economic circumstance, a group that excludes those who don’t quite measure up, you should find a different and better place to invest the time and the treasure that God has entrusted to you.

The Temples was supposed to be a resource for poor people.
The Temple was referred to in the Old Testament as God’s storehouse.  People were instructed to bring a tithe - a tenth - of their wealth, which was mostly agricultural produce in that economy.  The Temple treasury then used that money and those agricultural commodities to provide for the poor.  Widows were the poorest folks in that society and God was very specific in saying that they should be protected and provided for from the Temple treasury. 
But in Jesus’ day, the whole structure had gotten so perverse.  Temple officials had themselves appointed trustees of widow’s estates.  Women couldn’t be trusted to make good decisions, you know.  And as the trustees, the Temple officials enriched themselves.  The poor were left with a pittance, and without any place to go to get assistance. 
If you ever see that someone is getting rich off the church, or that the church doesn’t use the offerings you bring to help the poorest and most vulnerable people in the community and the world, you should not support that church.  There are churches that say, “We just don’t have the money to do mission this year.”  Honestly.  A church that doesn’t give out of the storehouse of God is not a true Temple anymore than the one Jesus challenged.

The Temple was supposed to be a place where people were reconciled and brought into right relationship with God.  That’s what the system of sacrifice was supposed to be about.  When a person needed to repent of sin and begin a new relationship with God and the community, or when children were born or initiated into the community, the Temple was the place for that to happen.  Lives were transformed there.  God made people holy, and forgave sin there.
But in Jesus day, the focus was all on askew.  It became more about preserving the traditions and rituals than about the new life that those rituals were supposed to symbolize.  It is here that Jesus made the biggest change in Temple theology.  Because he declared that in his death, sacrifice religion was ended forever.  It is through a relationship with Jesus - in following Him and living in the Jesus Way - that lives are renewed and transformed. 
If a church isn’t a place where lives are transformed and where the separation between God and humanity is dealt with by Jesus Christ, then it is not worth your support.  You should keep your offering, whether it is two cents or something much bigger. 

Jesus’ critique of the corrupt Temple is not usually the focus of Stewardship Sunday.  But it does provide a framework for you to decide about what and where you will invest the money that God has put in your care, money that you’ve inherited, money that you’ve earned by the sweat of your brow, money that comes to you through ingenuity and invention.  The Biblical view of money is that God provides it in different measures to different people and that each of us should spend all of it in way that is pleasing to God.  Giving a tenth of it to a religious institution is the Biblical standard for living a joyous and generous life. 

But the character and the viability of the religious institution matters.  That’s why Session sent you an outline of how the money that you give here is spent.  Because you  need to ask yourself, as you decide your level of support for this church:

Does this institution maintain a building where people can meet God?

Does this institution welcome all of God’s people to participate in the community?

Is this institution a resource for the economically and socially vulnerable?

Does this institution transform lives and help people begin a new relationship with God though Jesus Christ?

If you believe it is like the Temple in Jesus’ day, then you should watch your head and clear the area, because like the Temple, this place will fall.
If you believe it needs some work, which all human institutions do, then I encourage you to become more actively involved in repairing its faults.
And if you believe it does what the Temple was intended to do, then it is worthy of generous support.

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