Walls, Come Tumbling
The message from Sunday, Sept. 30th, 2018 - since we’re having some technical issues with our podcast, Brenna decided to approximate it here in written form!
We’ve been wandering on purpose together through the book of Luke, and our focus recently has been on the idea of “learning to be little” with Jesus. Today’s conversation fits that theme, and also begins to shift us towards a new one: Jesus, Deconstructionist. Now the term “deconstruction” can sound a bit intimidating if you’re not already familiar with it, and if we delve into its philosophical roots, things do get a bit heady. But at its simplest, deconstruction is really just asking questions about how we know what we think we know and if we can really know those things.
In terms of faith, deconstruction works something like this. Imagine your understanding of the world, and especially of the spiritual, of the good life, as a house you’re building out of blocks. You start out with some simple pieces and add on over time, building a more and more complicated structure – God is good, I can learn about God by reading the Bible, Jesus loves me… But inevitably, challenges come, things that make you want to rethink your design, to pull a few bricks free and reconsider if and where they really belong. You read a certain book, or meet a certain person; you lose a baby, a relationship or a job. Soon pieces may be flying everywhere! And brick by brick, the house of your early understanding is pulled down. Sometimes the process is relatively gradual; sometimes it’s so fast and fierce, a wrecking ball to the foundations of your faith, that demolition feels like a more appropriate word. You wonder if things can ever be put together again.
What if Jesus embraces the messy process of deconstruction? What if he sees in the midst of this chaos and confusion that we feel, an opportunity to build our faith even stronger and better than before? We’re going to find a space to wrestle and imagine our way through these questions in an unexpected place – the classic story of the widow’s mite, read in its full context.
While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
If you’ve been part of church life for a while, there’s a good chance you’ve heard this story before, or at least part of it. The middle section above, the first four verses in Luke 21, are traditionally taught as a standalone unit, and the widow is presented as a beautiful example, heralded by none other than Jesus, of cheerful and sacrificial giving. The take-away point for listeners, of course, is that we too should give, to whatever the point of true sacrifice is for us, because that is the kind of heart God applauds, the kind of person God call us to be.
Now this is the point where I start to mess with things a little, and that may make you happy or it may make you nervous. You see, while this reading of the story can feel encouraging, validating the heart behind acts of generosity that might seem small or even a little shabby on the surface (an invitation to a simple dinner with a family of limited means), it can also feel manipulative. How awkward (or if you’re more of a skeptic, how convenient) for a religious person like me to teach from a text that seems to instruct you to give, and give a lot, to God, which by implication probably means this church. Give so much it hurts! This text can be encouraging; it can also be uncomfortable.
Let’s problematize it some more – pull out a few more bricks from the traditional interpretation. (Footnote 1) If we continue just to look at this set of four verses, do they really say what for so long we’ve thought they mean? It’s interesting to notice that there are actually no words describing the state of the widow’s heart or what her motivations are; the text just describes very matter-of-factly what she did. There are also none of the phrases Jesus commonly uses to show his approval or admiration of someone - no “go and do likewise,” no “she is not far from the kingdom,” not even a “he looked on her and loved her.” Given that all of these words are missing, it’s at least worth exploring whether we’ve actually missed the point of the passage.
If you were to go back and carefully read again, beginning at Luke 20:45, you might be startled to notice some key contextual details. We can tell these earlier verses are closely connected to the widow’s story in a few ways. First, they’re connected by time and place. Jesus is teaching in the temple immediately prior to his observation of the widow; that’s why Luke 21:1 describes him as simply looking up to see her. Second, they are connected by this very word, widow, repeated in both sections. Roving revolutionary and religious reformer that Jesus was, the point of his teaching in the temple was to warn his listeners and especially his followers about the self-interested agendas of their spiritual leaders, as illustrated by their showiness and pomp and by the way they “devour widows’ houses.” (20:47) That phrase, devouring widows’ houses, seems a bit mysterious at first – what exactly are they doing to the widows’, to the vulnerable and marginalized among them? And then along comes a widow to illustrate Jesus’s concern in the flesh.
This widow, you see, coming to the temple treasury “put in all she had to live.” (21:4) It’s so interesting that we’ve learned to hear this in the story as a good or even an okay thing, when practically speaking, what Jesus is saying is that through her giving, she bankrupted herself. Now while there are certainly places in scripture where Jesus challenges his followers to give all they have to the poor and live in radical dependence on God (e.g., Luke 18:22), the same can’t be said about the temple treasury. True, all throughout scripture the giving of gifts dedicated to God is presented as normal, expected, and even spiritually healthy. Also true - a sense of proportionality is meant to permeate that ethos of giving.(Footnote 2) In the first chapters of Leviticus, for example, a variety of possible sin sacrifices are described, from expensive gifts like lambs (5:6), to humble ones like a bit of your best flour (5:11). The determining factor on what kind of gift you should bring? What you can afford (5:7, 11). What you can afford… What you have capacity for… Key phrases we should come back to.
Given his diatribe against the religious leaders, it’s clear that Jesus holds them responsible for twisting God’s original purposes. This is how they were devouring widows’ houses, pressuring and demanding more from them than they could really afford. Jesus wasn’t praising the widow, he was defending her! He was angry with the spiritual authorities of the day on her behalf.
I so wish I could just use this story to point fingers at other religious leaders in our world today, to storm over the obvious abuses of pastors asking sick people to send them outrageous sums of money as “faith seeds” to secure their healing, or suggesting that people looking for relief from enormous debt make those “faith gifts” by credit card. But I know that wouldn’t be honest. Run-of-the-mill, non-televised religious leaders like me still devour widows’ houses every day. We do it every time we pressure you, more or less subtly, to give more – in time, money or even emotional energy – than you can really afford. Every time we let our agendas (and they’re often such beautiful agendas, all about building the church so people can know God and love others), when we let our beautiful agendas get in the way of God’s best for the person right in front of us, in all your complexity, we devour you. I’m so sorry.
You know, thinking about how long we’ve gotten this passage wrong, if it’s any consolation, Jesus’s followers didn’t understand what he was teaching them either. In Luke 21:5-7, they’re still right there in the temple, still talking about gifts (another word showing the continuity of these anecdotes), and all they can see is how beautiful the space is, how fancy. It’s an incredible symbol of religious power – a symbol built, as we’ve seen, on the backs of the poor and the marginalized through a subtle twisting of God’s plan. It’s a power the disciples are perhaps dreaming about sharing, now that they’ve been invited to the inner circle of this up and coming rabbi. Unsurprisingly, Jesus is less impressed. This temple, he reminds them, will not even last. Like the bricks that keep tumbling in our attempts to understand life and get it right, every last stone of the temple will be knocked to the ground.
When churches go really wrong, friends, when they start devouring people, so often it’s because they begin to forget their original purpose. They think it’s their job to protect the institution – to defend and keep building up their leaders and their agenda. To be clear, institutions aren’t bad – they’re powerful. And power, as we all know, can be used for good or for evil. So we celebrate when companies commit to paying decent wages and investing in their employees, and when churches devote themselves to serving their communities and to neighborhood flourishing. And we mourn (sometimes after we rage), when banks prey on the vulnerable, or the authority we give our law enforcement officers is abused. When powerful men are revealed as sexual predators.
The #metoo movement can, sadly, provide an easy and helpful illustration of how the church devours the vulnerable in her midst. I say easy because of the multitude of examples of churches quickly rallying around leaders who have been accused, rather than caring for and listening carefully to those who have brought forward their stories of pain and abuse. Of congregations giving leaders standing ovations for vague and limited words of contrition, instead of insisting on a humble clarity and a commitment to justice for the victims. Yet even in these horrible stories, there have been glimmers of hope, as churches begin to understand and repent of this reflexive defensiveness of their leaders and ministries, a reflex that does so much damage to the already-battered souls of survivors.
Because of course it’s not about the institution – that was never the main point. No institution, no church, no ministry will last forever, and that’s actually ok. Because it’s actually all about Jesus, about the community he’s gathering, the work he started and invited us into and will complete no matter what. It’s about that work of healing and restoring what’s been damaged and warped in us and in the world. So when we realize that we’ve started to forget that, when we can see that what we’ve built has warped and needs correction, it’s ok, it’s good, it’s necessary, for us to ask some questions. It’s ok, it’s good, it’s necessary for us to pull down some towers, dismantle some structures, and grieve and struggle and then… try again. Because it’s not just what we’re building - it’s how we’re building and why that matters.
Here’s one of the how’s, one of the guiding values, we want to live by as a community: UNFORCED. Listen to Jesus’s words to people who, like the widow, have been eaten up and worn out by religion:
“Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”” Matt. 11:28-30 (MSG)
Isn’t “unforced rhythms of grace” an intriguing and inviting phrase? Here’s the thing about rhythms – they are intrinsically about change, about periods of activity or work alternating with periods of silence and rest. So a rhythm of grace might be about alternating periods (each day, each week, each year) of giving and serving, of pouring yourself out for others, with periods of rest and renewal, of soaking in the grace available to you.
What if you have the inner freedom to discern and to choose, to talk with Jesus about what you can actually afford to give and what you need to receive? What if we as your leaders commit to honoring that freedom and apologizing when we begin to put our agenda over your soul? That might look like celebrating people who realize they need to give less financially right alongside those who decide to give more when both are hearing and responding to Jesus’s work in their lives. It might also look like encouraging you not to come to a meeting or to volunteer for something if being involved would put you over your capacity in other areas of your life, like family and friends. “What’s my capacity” should be a question we encourage you to pray over frequently, whether it leads you to have more people over for dinner that week or less, to give more or to rest more. (So don’t be surprised if we roll out a little speaker unit some Sunday in place of the full AV set-up – we’ll celebrate that if it means we didn’t devour some poor team member that morning!)
Here’s a different way of picturing what this kind of UNFORCED community is like. (Footnote 3) We’re so used to imagining leadership as coming from the top, managers from high atop the pyramid, barking out orders – build here, put that brick there, this way, not that way. What if spiritual leadership is meant to be more organic and work from the bottom, like the trunk of a spreading tree? The trunk isn’t particularly exciting; the branches are where the growth happens, the beautiful and dynamic stuff like blooming and bearing fruit. The trunk’s job is just to help connect those branches with the nourishment they need from the roots. You, my friends, are the branches.
If we commit to living this way, as a community, as an institution, it may not increase our budget. We may not grow bigger; I’m pretty confident we’re not going to grow much fancier! What if we focused instead on growing deeper, closer to Jesus and to each other? What if we grew wider and yes, even fruitier, and made more and more of a difference in the community God’s planted us in? We might find more people joining us on a Sunday morning, we might not. But we would be growing in the ways that matter most.
Postscript: At the end of this sermon, I invited up anyone who’d like to respond tangibly during the next worship song by adding or pulling down some bricks from the Duplo house a young friend had built for me up front. A few accepted and made some small adjustments. When the service was over and people were milling around talking, a woman came over, a mixture of eagerness and tentativeness, asking if she could still work with the bricks. Given an “of course,” she rapidly went to work, enthusiastically yanking brick after brick apart, laying almost the whole building to waste! “Are these the roots?” she asked me. Friend, if you tell me those are the roots, they’re the roots. “Good,” she responded, “I’ll leave the roots.”
1 The original paper presenting this alternative reading of the widow’s mite can be found here: http://www.pas.rochester.edu/~tim/study/Widow's%20Mite.pdf.
2 Thanks to V.R. Marianne Zahn for this insight, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/vr-marianne-zahn/post_10560_b_8596712.html.
3 This imagery is borrowed from a quirky and wonderful business classic, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, “The Pyramid v. the Plum Tree,” by Gordon MacKenzie.