Mutually Assured Distraction

A sermon preached by Faithful Servant Lisa Larges at member church Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian on November 11, 2012. Scripture: Mark 12:38-43

Then Jesus sat down and watched as a poor woman took everything she had left in the world and put it in the collection box to pay her Temple fees. In another time, another place, another poor woman approached a box and slid something in. The box was not a collection box but a suggestion box. The place was not the Temple in Jerusalem in the first century A.D., but a make-shift camp near Corail-Cesselesse in Haiti, in September 2010, nine months after the devastating earthquake rocked that country. The suggestion boxes, distributed to each camp, had been set up as a kind of afterthought by a non-governmental organization.

“When the International Organization for Migration added suggestion boxes to its information kiosks in scores of camps, it did not expect to tap directly into a well of pent-up emotions,” wrote Jake Price in the New York Times, “I anticipated maybe a few cranky letters,” said Leonard Doyle, who handles communications for the organization in Haiti. “But to my absolute, blow-me-down surprise, we got 700 letters in three days from our first boxes — real individualized expressions of suffering that give a human face to this ongoing tragedy.”

“In some cases,” the Times piece continues, “the letters contain a breathless litany of miseries, a chain of woes strung together by commas: “I feel discouraged, I don’t sleep comfortably, I gave birth six months ago, the baby died, I have six other children, they don’t have a father, I don’t have work, my tarp is torn, the rain panics me, my house was crushed, I don’t have money to feed my family, I would really love it if you would help me,” wrote Marie Jean Jean.

In others, despair is expressed formally, with remarkable restraint: “Living under a tent is not favorable neither to me nor to my children” or “We would appreciate your assistance in obtaining a future as one does not appear to be on our horizon.”

The article focuses in on one regular writer from the camp at Corails, Sandra Felicien, “An earthquake widow,” as the article puts it,  “whose husband was crushed to death in the school where he taught adult education courses, Ms. Felicien said she wrote letters almost daily because doing so made her feel as if she were taking action. “We are so powerless,” she said. “It is like we are bobbing along on the waves of the ocean, waiting to be saved.”

The Times reporter catches Felicien as she writes her daily letter for the suggestion box, and then the article concludes this way, referencing again the official, Mr. Doyle, who’s organization put up the suggestion boxes.

“Mr. Doyle said that all the letters are read, some aloud on Radio Guinen, which broadcasts daily from tent camps as part of an International Organization for Migration communication program. But the $400,000 program was intended to give voice to the voiceless and not food to the hungry or money to the destitute. So unless the writers express a need for protection, as from rape or abuse by camp leaders, their individual requests are not likely to be answered.

Told this, Ms. Felicien said, “Ay yi yi” and shook her head. And then she posted her letter all the same.”

2,000 years earlier, another woman approaches the collection box with two coins in her hand. If someone had said to her what she must have already known, “You know, that money goes to keep the Scribes in fine robes and fancy houses,” perhaps she too would have said, “Ay ai yi,” and dropped her coins in all the same.

As those two small coins slid out of her hand she went from having next to nothing to having exactly nothing. In the Greek she is called Ptochoi, which means folded over; which means that she was so poor she could only beg.

How had it come to this? Over and over and over the clear teaching of the Torah is only to care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. The Law demands it; the prophets cry for it, the Psalms sing of it, God requires it. The point in the Law and Prophets could not have been more clear: care for the widow. But somehow that point was lost, and so much so that the very opposite had come to pass: care for the Scribe, the Pharisee, the elite, and nothing for the widow. At that time, when a man died, another man would manage his assets for the widow and her children. Often this function would fall to a leader like a scribe. And of course, for their trouble they would compensate themselves generously by taking for their part her land, or her house, or any money there was left to her.

We human beings have within us an extraordinary capacity to miss the point. Care for the widow can quickly and incredibly become “take from the widow and give to the scribe.”

Maybe some of you, like me, grew up hearing this story in Sunday School. We heard it from the King James Version, where the two coins are referred to has a mite. We were taught that the point of the story of the widow’s mite was that we ought to give like the widow gave.

Read this way, it’s a wonderful story to pull out every year when pledging for the next year’s budget comes around. It’s got an excellent guilt quotient built right in. A good preacher or even a mediocre preacher can work this story for all it’s worth. If this poor

Widow gave everything she had, and Jesus himself called attention to her, then maybe you ought to be adding some more zeros to that check you’re about to put in the offering plate.

And, I’m not saying that you can’t read the story this way. But, when we read it in context – when we come to the example of the widow, who must resort to begging, giving up the tiny bit left to her, after hearing Jesus’s scorching indictment of the Scribes who devour widow’s houses -- isn’t perhaps the real point not that we should be more like the widow, but that we should be less like the scribes?

Those of us who followed the news of Hurricane Sandy from a comfortable distance experienced a disheartening episode of media spin. There were the usual TV shots of the weatherman or news anchor on the shore in the wind breaker with water coming up and the rain surging in on the gale. There were the accounts of flood damage and power outages. And then, fast on the heels of all of that came the breathless speculation as to what impact the storm would have on the presidential campaign.

There was President Obama, not wanting to get caught in sunny Florida, turning Air force One around and heading back to the White House. There was Mitt Romney, cancelling his campaign events, and instead, taking food donations for Hurricane relief, in the middle of Ohio, in a photo op that looked suspiciously like a campaign event. There were all the questions from the chattering classes – will this help Obama, hurt Romney? Who is up? Who is down? It was a grand demonstration of collectively missing the point.

The point was, or should have been, that in times like these, we pull together and help each other. We put away the maps with the red states and the blue states – that ubiquitous election-time graphic that reinforces and amplifies our division. We forget about the horse race, or the beauty contest, and all the other trivializing metaphors of the election, and we return our attention to serious matters. We help clean up and rebuild. We find those who don’t have heat and we help them get warm. We go to those who lost everything, and we give them what we have. We find those who are grieving, or afraid, and we comfort them. We stop talking about meaningless things, and we care for one another.

For the past 30 years our denomination, the Presbyterian Church, like other Denominations, has been fighting about whether or not we should allow gay and lesbian persons to have the same rights of membership as other baptized members. As a lesbian and a member of the Presbyterian church, and as a person who has felt called to ministry, this fight has obviously affected me directly. I care about it intensely, and I’ve given some time and energy to advocating for equal treatment and welcome for lgbtq persons.

But sometimes, as I’ve sat and listened to yet one more debate about ordination or marriage equality, I can’t help but think to myself, “Why are we doing this?” “How did we get here?” “Is the work of the church really about how I interpret 6 verses in the Bible as opposed to someone else’s interpretation of those same verses? Is it really all about church property? About whether loving another person is sin?”

Don’t get me wrong, I care deeply about these things, and the outcome of those debates matters to me. But I can’t help but thinking that all of us, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, Evangelical and progressive have engaged in a kind of mutually assured distraction. We had our petty arguments while people went hungry.  Mothers and fathers and children slept on the street, and we argued about Leviticus. our neighbors looked for work, and we called for one more study on homosexuality. Immigrants came to this country, afraid and uncertain, and we voted on whether the substitute motion should become the main motion. old people and young people faced medical bills they couldn’t pay, and we yelled at each other about whether two people who loved each other could get married in our sanctuary, or cut the wedding cake in our fellowship hall. As Jesus says to the scribes and Pharisees in an unrelenting throw down in Matthew, we did all this while neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy and faithfulness. We strained out a gnat, and swallowed the camel.

In short, we miss the point. It seems to be just what we do. I don’t know what it will be, but I do know, we will find something else to argue about in the church – something that will shield us from confronting the pain of the world breaking in all around us. It seems to be in our nature to miss it. But the point isn’t complicated. It isn’t now, and it never has been.

The point is that we are here to care for one another. When the flood waters come, and the lights go off, and the cold comes in, we help each other, and give what we have. We let go of judging, and we begin caring.

We love our neighbor. We do for others as we would have done for us. We welcome the stranger. We feed the hungry. We visit the prisoner, and care for the sick. We seek out those who are most vulnerable and we are for them the hands and feet of Christ. We comfort the lonely and the afflicted. We “bind up the nation’s wounds.” We bear one another’s burdens.

When the waters rise up, and the storm comes, we are there for one another. In good times and in hard times we are neighbors to one another.

This 12th chapter in the Book of Mark is a pivotal one in the Gospel. It begins Jesus’ journey to the cross. Before his indictment of the Scribes, and his brief commentary on the widow and her coins, Jesus has a series of intellectual skirmishes with the authorities. One or another will pose a question, seeking to trip him up, and forthwith he will quickly and easily dispose of it.

After a couple of rounds like this, he is at last asked a straightforward question, to which he gives a serious and simple answer:

“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”

Jesus could have stopped here. This is the answer to the question. But Jesus goes on:

“The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

It is just that simple.