31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
March 6, 2016
Mark 12:28-34, 38-44
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Our Capital Campaign consultant, Maryann Doyle, is fond of saying, “When you ask for money, you’ll get advice; and when you ask for advice, you’ll get money.” Luckily, we got lots of both during our very successful United in Ministry Capital Campaign. Pledges and donations total 92% of the campaign goal, and as of last Sunday, 38% of that money has already been given. When we asked for money, our church community gave generously to support our much needed accessibility renovation. And just like Maryann said, we also got a bit of advice as well.
Some of that advice had to do with worship, and one comment was that the scripture passages from the narrative lectionary can sometimes be quite long. That was very true with our suggested passage today so you will notice I chose to drop out some middle verses.
You might be wondering though – why not just end after ‘we should love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds, and with all our strengths, and we should love our neighbor as ourselves.’ (Mark 12:29-31).
It is a great passage. It’s the heart of the Christian faith, the heart of many faiths. I could have shared a meaningful message based on these three verses; however the second half of the passage shows us how we should love God and our neighbor.
In speaking of the scribes and their inclination to toward self-importance, in pointing out the poor widow putting her two small copper coins into the treasury, Jesus is calling attention to a religious system that is corrupt, to a religious system that is out of whack.
Which commandment is first of all? To love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength, but those in authority have tied lots of little commandments to that one. If you are going to be faithful to God, you must treat the scribes with respect; you must give them the best seats in the synagogue, and the places of honor at banquets. To love the Lord your God and be blessed by God, you must place a coin in each of the seven horns of the Temple treasury. Anything less than seven; no blessing.
The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7). God loves a cheerful giver, a generous and willing giver. God does not want gifts of guilt or obligation. God is going to bless this poor widow whether she has seven coins or two – because she gave generously and abundantly and not out of a desire to gain status or human approval.
In speaking of the scribes and the widow, Jesus is calling attention to a corrupt system where those in authority are using love of God to take advantage of their neighbor, and that is no way to love our neighbor.
The writer of the first letter of John says, you cannot love God, who we have not seen, if you do not love your brothers and sisters who you have seen. “The commandment we have from [God] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (1 John 4:21).
Love their brothers and sisters, not devour them, not take advantage of them or their love and devotion for God.
We still live in a world where our religious systems allow their leaders to take advantage of others’ love for God. The recent movie, Spotlight, tells the story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive cover-up that the Roman Catholic Church had done of priests abusing children in their parishes. Just last Monday, Seymour police arrested a Roman Catholic priest on charges of embezzlement.
The Roman Catholic Church is not the only faith community with abuses of power and people. There is a reason why we, at the First Congregational Church, have a safe church policy to protect children, youth, and adults as well as proper safeguards for the handling of our money.
We cannot love God fully without loving our neighbor, but what is the best way to love our neighbor? For many of us, the way we love our neighbors, near and far, is by giving to charity, by giving charity. We take a tag to make an Easter basket for a child in need. We donate gift cards and sheets to the Prudence Crandall Center. We shop for fruits and vegetables to put into the Family Resource Center backpacks. We buy a ticket for the St. Vincent DePaul Homeless shelter pasta dinner or sign up to run in the St. Patty’s fundraiser.
These are wonderful charitable acts. They speak of loving and wanting to care for the homeless, the hungry, and the abused, but are they the best way to love our neighbor and thus God?
Charity is a good thing. It makes us feel good inside. It also answers an immediate need in our world, however charity also creates a sense of dependence and even entitlement, and charity does not solve the long-term problem.
Someone once explained charity to me like this. Charity is seeing a child drowning in the lake and pulling them out to safety, and the next day, finding another child drowning and saving them, and the next day, finding another child and saving them and so on.
Justice is asking ‘why do children keep drowning in the lake?’ and working to solve that problem.
Justice is asking the question, ‘Why is there hunger and food insecurity in a country that has an abundance of food?’ Justice is asking, ‘Why are people living in tents in Bristol?’ Justice is asking ‘Why do such a high percentage of Bristol children qualify for free breakfast and lunch?’ Justice is asking ‘Why does a single mother of two, working full time in the service industry, still not earn enough to live in non-subsidized housing?’
Justice is asking those questions and then working tirelessly for the answers and solutions.
What is the first commandment? “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and will all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29-30)
And what is the best way to love God with your whole self? Love your neighbor.
How can we love God whom we have not seen if we do not love our neighbor who we have seen.
And what is the best way to love our neighbor? To step inside their shoes and begin asking the tough questions – what is life like for them? If they were empowered, what assistance would they ask for? What would transform their lives from dependent to independent?
In this season of Lent, we reflect upon our relationship with God as made known to us in Jesus Christ. We reflect on how we can love God with our whole selves, and we discover that only comes with caring for our neighbor as well as we care for ourselves.