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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Paul Carling
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Twenty-third Day after Pentecost – November 8, 2009 – 8:00 a.m.

Good morning! My name is Paul Carling. I serve at Saint Luke’s in Darien, but I love Saint Paul’s. Whenever I have a Sunday off, I worship here, and because the parish retreat is going on, and I’m on sabbatical, Nicholas asked if I would preach. Unfortunately, today’s gospel focuses on the last thing preachers want to preach about, and the last thing parishioners want to hear about – money. In the church’s great wisdom, this passage always appears during “stewardship season.” Mark’s gospel story of the widow giving away her “mite,” her last penny, is paired with the Old Testament story of the widow from Zarephath who, rather than eat a final meal with her son before they starve to death, gives the last morsels of her food to the prophet Elijah. These are the kind of givers we want to fill our pews with, right? I bet you’ve heard that sermon a few times…

Well, if you have, you’ll be glad to know that there’s a huge debate among biblical scholars right now over what Jesus is really saying here. And the growing consensus is that Jesus is anything but approving of the widow giving away her last penny.

Let’s look again at the story. First, Jesus roundly condemns the scribes, the Temple leaders, for their self-importance, seeking the best seats in the synagogues, their endless public prayers, all the while they’re “devouring widow’s houses.” These are respected religious leaders by day, and thieves by night. In the middle of this “rant,” Jesus spies a widow, and points to her, not as the ideal Christian pledger, but as the perfect example of how these church leaders exploit people’s faith to do things that are profoundly contrary to their own needs. They want this widow’s last penny, all that stands between her and starvation, in order to support this glorious edifice, the Temple, even as they relegate her to minority status in the life of the Temple – along with foreigners, people with disabilities, anyone they see as “different.”

Jesus is having none of this – he condemns the powerful who flourish at the expense of the weak, and he condemns their message that she must sacrifice who she is and what she needs just to have a place on the margins of the church.

It’s no accident that the very next passage in Mark’s gospel is the one where Jesus’ often-clueless disciples, fresh from the countryside, look in awe at the Temple and proclaim, “Look teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” To which Jesus replies, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” And what will replace them? Mark’s vision of the new Temple, a Christian community that will have as its currency not silver and gold, not elaborate vestments and rituals, not an avaricious, hypocritical hierarchy, but love, pure and simple, love. A community that shares love – and everything it possesses – with each other; that has no barriers to entrance; no “in groups” and “out groups” – a community of welcome and inclusion.

My wife and I grew up Catholic. I even attended a Jesuit seminary for a while. But as adults, we found ourselves part of a minority, forced to the margins of the church, because we advocated for Mark’s kind of community; because we spoke out for women’s ordination, and for the full inclusion of divorced, and gay, and lesbian Catholics in the life of the church. The last straw was when the pope issued an “infallible decree” that women would never be ordained. It was then that we remembered the words of Joan Chittister, the activist Catholic nun, who was once asked by a woman full of pain, “How can you stay in a church that treats women the way it does?” “Prayer,” she replied, “and community.” Then she added, “Personally, I don’t care if you stay or if you go, but please, if you go, don’t go quietly, and if you stay, don’t stay quietly.” So we met with the local Catholic bishop to let him know why we were leaving, and the next Sunday, we found ourselves visiting the Episcopal Cathedral in Burlington, Vermont, and watching in awe as, behind the altar, chanting a gorgeous opening acclamation, stood… a woman. The sermon the Dean preached that day was all about Mark’s kind of community. We wept with joy… and knew we’d come home. We knew there’d still be struggles within this church – there always are – but we were determined to try to engage in them from the center, and not the margins.

So instead of morality tales about money or stewardship, today’s stories of the widow of Zarephath and the widow of Jerusalem, may be more about having enough faith to step up and do church in a radically different way.

It was her hospitality to the stranger Elijah, for example, that saved the widow of Zarephath’s life, and it was no accident that God choose this foreigner, this widow on the margins, as the means through which one of our greatest prophets survived. And through the widow of Jerusalem, Jesus challenges any church that exploits its members while relegating them to some minority status, just as he challenges us to look differently at those people in our midst whom we barely spare a second glance – the immigrant, the homeless person, the person from a different religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, race, class, or culture. He’s telling us that it’s our openness to inclusion, our passion for radical hospitality that allows us to be continuously surprised by how the strangers in our midst bless us and give us life.

But because church is us, church can still be mean, hurtful, annoying… or just plain boring. Make no mistake, the church does need our money, but if church is to be vital and life-giving, an agent of transformation, it also needs our presence, our passion, our prophecy.

Regardless of how we’ve been hurt by church in the past, or made to feel in the minority, today’s readings challenge all of us to dare to stand at the center of our church, at the heart of the Body of Christ. If we’re to have any shot at achieving Mark’s kind of community, we have to accept that the church needs all of our gifts, despite itself. It needs us to be open about who we are, and it needs us to reach out to anyone who’s been rejected or marginalized, and to welcome them to the center of our community until we discover, in the end, that each of us is part of the majority after all.

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