“Be Thou My Vision” is one of my favorite hymns of all time, and is packed with profound truth about vision and perspective and purpose , which is why I have chosen it to be our guide over the course of the next few weeks in worship. I hope these phrases and words will help us ask together what is our vision for First Baptist Church?
This is a question that we have asked and answered before. The Four W’s answer this question: We Welcome, Worship, Work, and Wonder. Our mission statement, sometimes referred to as a vision statement, answers this question: We love God. We love others as self. We serve the world.
So, in some ways, we already know what our vision is. But this is a conversation that is important to revisit from time to time, because we have this tendency to forget. The world is filled with so many options – competing visions. It is helpful to remind ourselves who we are.
So, over these three weeks, we will explore together three passages of Scripture from the lectionary, inviting us to a new vision – a new perspective. I want us to see the world in a new way. I want us to see ourselves in a new way. I want us to see God in a new way. Let us change our perspective together, and invite God to “be thou our vision.”
Today’s passage comes from the 12th Chapter in Mark, as Jesus teaches in the Temple:
8As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Author Pete Perry suggests that whatever you do, DO NOT preach on this passage during an annual Stewardship Campaign! Unfortunately, Pete did not happen to share this information with me until after this passage was already in the newsletter! So, without further ado, I’d like to pass out brochures from Together in Faith our annual campaign….
Just kidding. But actually, perhaps this is a good thing. Perry’s argument is that if we oversimplify this passage, we can easily miss the point. Here is a passage in Mark that describes a woman who is poor. She is a widow, which at that time meant she did not have income of her own, and is required to receive support by the community. And yet, while she has so little, what does she do? She gives everything she has to the treasury at church! Two copper coins, adding up to just a penny!
Now, the easy interpretation, especially during a Stewardship Campaign, is to laud this woman’s generosity and sacrifice. While others give out of their abundance, she gives out of her poverty. What faith! What sacrifice! What a great example for all of us! Let’s pass around those pledge cards!
Not so fast, says Perry. While it may be good for the church’s bottom line if everyone gives as much as this woman does, that is not the message that Jesus gives his disciples. He does not laud praise or honor on this woman. He does not celebrate her faith or her example. Hear again what he says: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those 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 everything she had, all she had to live on.”
If Jesus were lauding praise on her, he would go onto say, “and so she is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Or “she has pleased God with her faith.” Really, Jesus doesn’t say anything about her, besides the fact that she has given to the treasury. Perry’s point is that that’s because he is not commenting on the woman. But on the situation. The system that she is a part of that requires her to give out of her poverty, while those around her – demanding her allegiance to that system – give comfortably out of their abundance. Jesus is not commenting on the good example of the woman, but on the tragic example of the system that she is trapped in, and those who benefit from such a system.
And Jesus’ commentary here fits in the larger context in Chapters 12 and 13, and the larger picture Jesus is painting. Before the story of the woman and the copper coins, Jesus blasts the scribes who fail to care for widows such as these. They yearn for the spotlight and the attention, and not for justice, not to care for the “least of these” in their midst. After the widow story, in Chapter 13, he tells the disciples that the Temple and the system that supports it, will soon be torn down and reduced to rubble. Finally, he teaches his disciples that they will be persecuted, hated because of their connection to him and his vision of the world.
Over the course of several verses in a couple of chapters, Jesus paints this picture of an institution and system that is diseased, broken, and abusive, one that will persecute the true followers, and then will crumble under the weight of its own self-interest. The widow in the passage is not the hero, but one of many victims. It is not a story of “what a good disciple looks like.” Instead, it is an example of “what a bad faith institution looks like.”
And so, Perry – and other scholars who are challenging the traditional interpretation of this passage – have a point when they say that this is a horrible passage to read when you are looking for a Biblical example of good and generous and sacrificial givers. But, with apologies to Rev. Perry, I would argue that this is exactly what our church needs to hear during Stewardship season. Because every institution of faith, of every single age, is in danger of becoming exactly what Jesus railed against.
This is a hard passage for me to read. Because the bottom line is that the badguys are the preachers. The staff of the local synagogue who Jesus takes aim at. I pointed this out in the two-way conversation on Wednesday, about how I bear a resemblance to the scribes who walk around in their “long robes.” Of course, hoping to be helpful, someone chimed in, “and long prayers. Don’t forget looooooong prayers, too! He talks about those!” Thanks, guys!
But it is a challenge to me, personally, to ask how I participate in the system that chews up and spits up the “widows” of our world. The most vulnerable. The most deeply hurting. These chapters in Mark should be challenging to all of us. Our entire congregation.
It reminds me of the Parable of the Lighthouse. Different variations are repeated often online, but always with an anonymous author, but it usually sounds something like this:
There was once a lighthouse whose purpose it was to save those in need. Ships would often crash on the rocks off the shore from the lighthouse, and those who worked inside it took it upon themselves to rush into the icy waters and save them. But over time, the lighthouse came under disrepair and needed to be upgraded. As a part of the upgrade, the facilities were now new and fancy. People wanted to come and see and experience the lighthouse. And eventually, the lighthouse became a kind of club…it was the place to be. As a result, it became harder for those who worked in the lighthouse to choose to leave its comfort.
So they didn’t. It was too much of a burden. And frankly, many of them became less interested in saving those who crashed on the rocks. The people who crashed didn’t look the same as the lighthouse club members. They came from different places and looked different or talked differently. Many of the lighthouse club members suggested, “why did the crash on the rocks in the first place? Isn’t it their own fault that they are in the position that they are in?” So, they stopped rescuing people. They stayed in the lighthouse, and enjoyed one another’s company.
And to this day, ships will often crash on the rocks offshore, but those who work in the lighthouse never take it upon themselves to save anyone.
The parable is meant to be – and is a powerful indictment of the Church. And not unlike the one that Jesus offered here in Mark. And, I have to ask myself, and we need to ask ourselves as a congregation, what Jesus would see in us…
- What similarities exist between us as a congregation and the Lighthouse Club members?
- How do we participate in systems that do exactly what Jesus preached against, ignoring “widows” in our world, blaming them for their own condition, steering clear of the food pantry, the Deacon’s Fund, LINK, Family Promise, and Justice Matters, because “those people” don’t deserve our help?
- Are we more interested in buying our chairs and fixing our building than we are meeting the needs of those hurting in our world?
- How many bodies litter the rocks outside our walls because we would rather not be bothered?
These are important questions to ask. Especially as we enter into budget season. Especially as we ask who we are really supposed to be as a congregation. Because the history of the Church universal is littered with congregations who have become less interested in their true vocation and more interested in their self-preservation. Like the walls of the Temple, not one stone sitting upon another stone, a church that fails to understand their vocation in the world will cease to exist. No one needs a lighthouse that refuses to shine.
There is a lot of bad news in the 12th and 13th Chapters of Mark. Destruction. Persecution. Self-preservation. A lot of news that is difficult for us to hear.
But there is also good news.
Listen to the end of the passage, in Mark, chapter 13, verse 13: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Those who endure.
Those who listen to and follow the message of Jesus, all the way to the end.
Those who stay committed to this vision of the world in which we are rescuers and not pew sitters.
Those who are willing to live for and give to and sell out to the call of Christ.
Those who endure…Will. Be. Saved.
It will be hard to endure, says Jesus. The siren songs of comfort. And judgment. And oversimplification. Will never stop sounding tempting and easy.
But those who endure to the end. They will receive eternity.
And the good news in Mark is our good news as well!
That’s the good news in the hymn Be Thou My Vision: “Riches I heed not, or vain empty praise. Thou mine inheritance, now and always.”
The author realized that the riches of this world….the comfort….the affluence…the abundance from which so many of us give. None of that is worth it.
In its place? “Thou mine inheritance.” It is the very presence Thou…of God. The very real relationship with God. The ability to see God at work in the world and to participate in that work. That is our inheritance. Our inheritance is eternity! To endure is to receive eternity, both eternity infused into this life…and waiting for us after it. “Now and always.”
When we live the Jesus life, we are inheriting eternity.
- Ask those who have visited Haiti and watched firsthand the hope in the eyes of the children watching their school being built.
- Ask Carmella, who has seen in the eyes of the children of Hungary what it feels like to learn instead of living a life of despair on the streets.
- Ask Verlin and Suzanne Gilbert, or Lee and Carolyn Carlson, or Danny and Dawn Trent – any of the volunteers in our in-house or mobile food pantries, who have seen the desperation in the eyes of a first-time food pantry visitor turn to gratitude in front of them.
- Ask Nancy Bonner, who has quietly and faithfully met face to face with recipients of the Deacons Fund for several years now, what it is like to speak words of hope and help to the “widows” of our world.
- Ask Wendy Wheeler, who is right now, at this moment, cooking casseroles to take to LINK, what it is like to hand a plate of food to a person who is likely eating the only meal that she will eat today. Possibly the only one until the next LINK meal is served.
- Ask any of these people what eternity looks like. What it is like to see the very Spirit of God at work through their hands. Through their generosity. Through their service. This is what it means to be Church. And this is what it means to inherit eternity. Now and always.
And personally, that is what gives me hope. That while I and we participate in these systems that are not perfect, I look at these examples of these who understand what it means to inherit eternity. And I am humbled that I get to be your missionary in sacred times and spaces. To sit with a young man who slept outside the night before, tearfully telling about his mother’s diagnosis with cancer. To sit down with pastors from around the community, and pray for an end to homelessness, to racism, to the suffering of our children. To pray with a new mother who is not sure if her premature baby will survive, but who smiles and rejoices nonetheless for every second she has with her. That is what eternity feels like. And I am blessed to join you in its inheritance. May we inherit a piece of eternity together today.