The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, November 12, 2018

"Widow’s Houses and The Widow’s Mite” A Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

[In lieu of the usual invocation of the Trinity, the Deacon, with the help of the Director of Music, leads the congregation in the hymn Dona Nobis Pacem]

On Friday evening, at the Diocesan Convention, I participated in a Liturgy for Listening and Lamentation in which our bishops played an unusual part for them. They were supplicants, confessing “sinful complicity with the evil actions of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse within our Church.” Imagine, all our bishops—Andy Dietsche, Mary Glasspool, and Allen Shin—confessing to the laity and the clergy gathered in Convention.

We heard stories of the victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation, and all three orders of the Church—bishops, clergy and the people of God—lamented and confessed our “arrogance in insisting that our claims to being right outweigh” our duty to build honest relationships, and to acknowledge that we contribute to the injustices within our diocese, the larger church, and—let me add one more category—the world.

And at the end of the Liturgy, we sang, as we just have tonight, Dona Nobis Pacem.

Give us Peace.

Just before that, we had watched a drama with music and movement, and dance, in which the complicity of our diocese, the Diocese of New York, in slavery was laid bare. Using stories of the enslaved, those who enslaved them, the defenses of slavery written by Samuel Seabury, the grandson and namesake of the first Episcopal Bishop in America, and the story of William Jay, the abolitionist son of the first Chief Justice of the United States, we confronted again the shadow side of our beloved Episcopal Church.

Now, this morning just at the 11:00 service, as I sat in the marble seat reserved for me just to the right of the altar—very nice, really, one of the best seats in the house, if you don’t mind my using the theatrical jargon—I was dressed in this nice long white alb, the richly embroidered green deacon’s stole I’m wearing now, and the heavy but handsome dalmatic—that’s green and gold, with two bands across the front, in case you’re wondering what a dalmatic is—I was mentally rehearsing the Gospel, and—well, actually, I was beginning to wonder just how much trouble I was in. I was, quite frankly, a bit nervous.
Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.

You see, the shadow side of the Church stretches all the way back to before there was a Church. To when the Temple had to be cleansed, to when the scribes leading the synagogues, the priests, the Pharisees and the Saducees all had to be rebuked.

But today it's the scribes' turn. Ah, the scribes. Actually, they’re also referred to as the lawyers. And since deacons are non-stipendiary, did I mention my day job is--you guessed it--a lawyer. My tribe doesn’t get rave reviews in the Gospels. So here I am, wondering why I agreed to preach tonight, anyway.

Bt since we're here: Today, Jesus focuses his righteous indignation on the scribes. He’s in Jerusalem, at the Temple, but he’s not indicting the priests. No, he’s condemning those who made copies by hand of the scriptures, and who taught the law, and interpreted it. Outside of Jerusalem, they often kept the lights on at the synagogues, keeping alive the tradition of prayer and reading of the scriptures for those too far away to go to the Temple.

So, maybe they got a little puffed up, a little arrogant. They liked the distinctive apparel, the prominent seats. Understandable, isn’t it?

Maybe they were showboating with increasingly ornate prayers, and were losing themselves in the part. Is that really so bad?

Yes. Yes it is, Jesus tells us. Because that arrogance brings complacency with the way things are, and institutional thinking, and that in turn leads to entitlement—the kind of entitlement that leads to exploitation and covers up abuses.

The very entitlement to which our bishops, clergy, and laity confessed, and the effects of which we lamented just this past Friday night.

And Jesus levels a charge of just such abuse against the scribes—they “devour widow’s houses,” he says. But what does he mean by that?

As it happens, the question answers itself. Jesus is sitting opposite the Treasury, in front of the trumpet shaped chests into which the members of the congregation throw their offerings to support the Temple. And a widow, comes up, and throws in two copper coins, amounting to the equivalent of a penny. Jesus says to his disciples “this poor widow has put in more than all who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in all she had, all she had to live on.”

Heartwarming, isn’t it? Emphasizing the widow’s devotion to her faith, and to God? On one level, yes, but there’s a deep irony here. The widow is in fact a victim of the scribes’ exploitation of her faith, of their betrayal of her love of God, which they have manipulated through their teaching to the point where her gift is more akin to an act of self-immolation.

Remember the status of widows in Biblical times. Robin Gallagher Branch, in the Biblical Archaeology Review reminds us that a widow is “lacking the protective care of a husband” in the patriarchal society in which that care is often critical for survival.[1] That’s why widows are, as Branch notes, “grouped together with the fatherless, poor, and resident alien,” and “come under God’s protective care,” with God “command[ing] that they not be oppressed.”[2]

Branch evokes the precarious status of widowhood in the Bible by quoting the Book of Lamentations, which uses the word “widow” to describe Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar razed the City. “Gone is her resemblance to a queen,” Branch writes, “vanished are her protectors, lovers, friends. Slavery, affliction and harsh labor await her in exile.” [3]

The widow who gives, as Jesus put it, “all she had, all she had to live on,” is not an exemplar of stewardship, but rather a vulnerable woman who is being preyed upon by the scribes, who are literally consuming her household, and her ability to support herself. Jesus acknowledges the sincerity of that love, and the magnitude of her generosity—but as the very next verses, the start of the next chapter, indicate, her self-sacrifice is in vain; every stone of the Temple will be thrown down.[4]

The predation is not sexual in nature, it’s financial, but as Robertson Davies has an investigator say in The Cunning Man, “financial fraud is awfully dull," but it’s awfully cruel. I can tell you this myself from any one of a number of cases my wife has handled in her practice of defending homeowners in foreclosure cases.

And, as we are gathered in a Byzantine style national landmark of extraordinary beauty, well—this passage can’t help but make us ask—ok, make me ask—have we got it wrong? Are we as far from the teachings of Jesus as the false prophets of the Prosperity Gospel—you know the ones, they tell you that if you just give enough and believe enough you’ll be rich yourself. And not just in heavenly wealth that you can’t touch until you die. Oh, no, good solid coin of the realm.

Of course, if it doesn’t work out that way, you’ve only yourself to blame. You just didn’t have enough faith to move that mountain.

That’s how exploitation works: The abuser takes what he wants, and uses his authority to convince the victim that it’s her own fault, that she brought it on herself, or, at a minimum, that the consequences to her fro reporting the abuse will be devastating, and she won’t be believed anyway.

Recent events have shown that those dire promises can come true. Just this past Thursday, NPR reported that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is still receiving death threats. She had to move four times, has had to pay for a private security detail, and hasn’t been able to return to work.

Dona Nobis Pacem.

Give us Peace.

But how can there be peace without justice?

That’s the question the Diocese is wrestling with, both as to our complicity in slavery and as to the exploitation by clergy of vulnerable lay and clergy members of our church.

What would justice even look like?

Question: What was the crime the scribes committed?

Proposition: to use the language of Friday’s Litany, it was that they failed to honor the indwelling God-given dignity of those entrusted to their care.

More bluntly, they viewed the widow who gave all she had as a means to their end—preservation and glorification of the Temple—and not as an end, a person in her own right. They treated her as a thing, and taught themselves to believe that their treatment of her was justified because it served the Temple.

You can be sure, as Jesus indicated, that she was not alone.

So, in addition to dehumanizing the widow, and those like her, they made an idol of the Temple. It became more important to beautify and honor the thing than to care for the people for whom it was built.

No wonder the thing was torn down.

If we—all of us, clergy and laity—fail to honor the indwelling God-given dignity of those who come to us trusting us to care for them, we too will fall.

And we’ll deserve it.

But we don't have to. We can choose the alternative. We can use this building, our combined treasure and talent, to honor the indwelling, God-given dignity of all who come to us. And when I say we, I mean we--clergy, laity, all of us. We can welcome the stranger, comfort the grieving, be with each there, for each other.

We can meet each other in the love of Christ.

Then we won't fall. And we won't fail, even if, one day, we do fall.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.


[1] Robin Gallagher Branch, “Biblical Views: Biblical Widows—Groveling Grannies or Teaching Tools,” Biblical Archaeology Review 39:1 (Jan/Feb. 2013).
[2] Id., citing Deut. 24:17, Ezek 22:7, James 1:27, Zech 7:10.
[3] Id., paraphrasing Lamentations, 1:1-3.
[4] Mark 13: 1-2.

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