Tag Archives: death

The Widow’s Mite: Resigned to Death

Mark 12:38-44

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then 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. 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.”

We are coming near to the end. The end of the church year in just a few weeks, the end of the year of Mark. Mark who has been squeezing hard to make us squirm, trying to get us, along with the disciples, to let go of our baggage so that we can just maybe glimpse the Kingdom of God that Jesus is bringing near to us. The last two weeks we got a bit of a reprieve from Mark, as we observed Reformation Sunday and All Saints. Yet, even today, as our nation take times to remember the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, Mark still presses to look forward to the coming Kingdom of God.

In fact, Mark has been making us ready for months. It began last June, and throughout the summer and fall, Mark has been challenging the ways we understand the world by telling us the stories of the disciples’ failures. Peter is called Satan, James and John conspire to sit at the right and left of Jesus, the whole group argues over who is the greatest.

And now in this moment in the days and hours before Jesus is betrayed, put on trial and crucified, he is in the temple teaching. And then Jesus watches as a widow comes and puts her final two coins into the treasury. This is no moment of great faithfulness, rather a moment of tragedy Jesus tells his disciples. While widows are not obligated to give to the temple, but rather receive alms from the temple, this woman puts her last two coins, two nearly worthless pennies into the treasury. Not an act of sacrifice, but of resignation. She is preparing herself for the end, for someone who cannot afford food or shelter is certainly destined soon to die.

It is a story connected deeply to the story of the Widow of Zerephath and Elijah. A story that could have very well been picked out of our nightly news.

Elijah has just been told by God to flee his homeland, and God provides for a starving Elijah with dry creek bed and a raven who brings him food. Finally God sends Elijah to a foreign land, to a widow who will feed him.

Now imagine the widow, already a woman struggling to make ends meet and to feed her family. And here comes a foreigner, a refugee from a war torn country asking for help. Certainly we have heard that story in the news, we have even lived here in Selkirk with the refugees families that we have been a part of sponsoring.

Yet, the widow of Zerephath, a woman who is not a Hebrew, who worships a different God and is of a different people than Elijah, responds curiously to his request. She says that she only has enough grain and oil for one more meal for herself and her son. One last meal before they will go hungry and die. Elijah has barely survived escaping his homeland, only to survive with the minimum provision. And God sends him to a woman in the same predicament.

People who are not just facing scarcity, who have not just experienced decline and loss, who are not longing for what they once had… but people are resigned to the end, who can see death on horizon. There is no perspective change or reimagining of ways to use the resources they have, no pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, no visioning program or stewardship drive that will help. No amount of resumes sent to prospective employers or unpaid internships will turn this around.

For the widow and her son, and for Elijah this is the end. The greatest fear of scarcity has become reality – scarcity has led to death.

And is not that precisely the fear we carry with us, the mindset that pervades our world. Things are tight, resources are scarce, there is not enough to go around. It is the loudest message being told in our world these days. It is the message of advertising, of politicians, struggling institutions, and even often churches. And underneath this warning that there is not enough is the fear that running out will mean death. That caravans will cross borders and take what is ours. That people with different skin, who worship God differently, who speak a differently language will steal our way of life. That technology is taking our jobs, employers are taking our time, sports and Sunday Shopping and a host of other activities are stealing our numbers in the pews. That we are taking the life the planet to drive more cars and make more plastic things. Everything is being taken from us… that is the message of the world. And if we are not careful everything will be taken from us until there is nothing left to give… until we are dead.

Then Elijah responds to the widow. “Do not be afraid.”

Elijah speaks with words usually reserved for divine messengers. Words from Angels, and Arch-Angels, Cherubim and Seraphim.

“Do not be afraid. Go and do as you have said.”

And she does it.

This woman who has nothing, decides to give a refugee her last morsel of food, surely not because of her faith, but because all is lost for anyways, so why not feed someone who has a chance to go on living.

And all of a sudden there is enough. Enough for her, for her son and for this strange Hebrew man who will become the greatest prophet of Israel.

And the widow in the temple does the same, puts her last two morsels in to the treasury in order to maybe feed someone who has a chance to go on living.

And all of sudden there is a cross followed by an empty tomb – and life goes on. Death is no longer the end, but the one who raised Lazarus, lives as well.

“Do not be afraid. Because even where there is never enough in this world, even when all roads lead to death… in Jesus Christ is there more, there is enough, there is life.”

Of course this is what God has been promising to us all along. That when all roads lead to death there is more.

When the world tells us to fear others, people with the wrong language and religion and skin colour who might come and take our way of life, Jesus says to us come and hear my promise of forgiveness, come and be reconciled, come and receive mercy.

When jobs and economies and trade deals makes us wonder how we are going to pay our bills, fill our pension plans, and care for our families Jesus says, come and be washed, come and be named, come and be welcomed into my body.

When the threats of violence and war, catastrophe and danger consume our minds and hearts, and makes us wonder about the future of this planet for our children and grandchildren, Jesus says come and eat, bread and wine, body and blood that never runs out, food that will fill your empty hearts and longing souls.

When we look to the past and long for what once was, when we feel shame as though we have failed those who have gone before us, when there seems to be no future but death for churches and communities of faith Jesus says, you are my body and my body has an abundance that you can never imagine. An abundance of life that overcomes sin and death.

These two widows and Elijah and Mark are all preparing us for this reality about to be glimpsed. The reality that scarcity and death cannot imagine… the reality of God’s Kingdom coming into the world. The reality that in the very moment when we have nothing left but to simply die, God will show up and say,

“Do not be afraid”

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How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you… (Read the whole passage)

Just a few days ago we along with Jesus and the disciples as they came across a Blind Man. Jesus spoke words reminiscent of creation, “I am the light of the world.” And then reached down into the mud, touched the eyes of the blind man. And then after washing in the pool of Siloam, the Blind Man’s eyes were opened.

The light streamed in. The world was revealed to him in a brand new way.

He could see.

It was a story of Transfiguration. A mountain top revelation.

But that was then.

Because here is the thing about shining a light… it reveal things that we might not want to see.

Everything looks great from the mountain top, everything looks great when there has been only the dark ness for so long.

But it isn’t long until, when we go down into the valley, when we get up close to the difficult and challenging places of the world… that we begin to see the flaws and faults.

The scratch and chips and cracks reveal themselves.

And the perfect beautiful world that we could see from the mountain top, the brilliant colours streaming through to eyes that had so long been dark, the vibrant wold that seems to be so full of good… becomes tainted.

The longer we look the more something seems off. The more see, the more truth is revealed.

The world is good but it is also bad. There is goodness and righteousness out there. But there is also evil and suffering.

And then, after we have been looking long enough, after we come close to the reality of the world too many times, after we have been hurt, and burned, and sinned against… we realize that most of what we are seeing is the bad stuff, the hard stuff, the tragic stuff.

And that is when we see them.

And what is when we see the ashes.

The ashes of a scorched world.

The ashes of broken relationships, broken promises, broken people.

The ashes show us death.

And then we find ourselves searching. Searching for the incredible light we once saw. Searching for the bright and vibrant colours. Searching to see like we did from the mountaintop.

So we end up here.

And when we keep showing up here, week after week, year after year… we begin to see some mountain tops. The Angels singing to shepherds, the magi coming searching after the star, and of course a transfiguration on the mountaintop.

And then somehow, inexplicably, we end up here.

We end up here, on the night of ashes.

The night that reminds of all the things we don’t want to remember.

Sin and suffering and death.

How can we ever see the light again on this night?

How can we find life in the scorched earth of this world?

How there be anything but death?

How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

And so we come and confess our sin. We hope for mercy.

It is here, on this night of death and ashes that God says,

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We are not the ones who find the light.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”

We are not the ones who bring life to scorched and ash filled world.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We cannot conquer death.

Christ does.

Christ is the light. Christ brings life from the ashes. Christ conquers death.

You see, God does something on this night that is not found in the light or on the mountaintop.

God finds us in the ashes.

In the very thing thing, the dark, mucky, staining residue of death…. God finds us.

Remember that you are dust.

Because in the very substance of suffering, sin and death… God finds us in order to something that we could have never imaged, something that our eyes would never let us see.

In the ashes of lenten sin and repentance and wilderness.

In the ashes of our demand for a warlord messiah.

In the ashes of our cries for crucified blood.

In the ashes of cross.

God finds us… God finds us with forgiveness for sin.

God finds us… with Messiah who brings peace.

God finds us… with a God willing to die on a cross.

God finds us… in an empty grave.

We come here tonight, looking for light, looking for the mountaintop, looking for goodness and hope in the midst our darkness.

And we find ashes.

Ashes that remind us that we are dead. Dead people walking.

And yet, in the ashes of death… in the dark, grimy, lifeless ashes…

God finds us

And God re-members.

God re-members us to life.

Can we kill the church?

It is no secret that Christianity in Europe and North America is in decline, at least in terms of numbers, attendance, budgets and societal influence. Christian leaders in the United States, in particular, are really starting to name and deal with this reality more and more. What many Americans may not know, is that Canada is about 20 years ahead  in this process, and the UK 20 years ahead of Canada. In a way, I am speaking from the future of American Christianity, if things continue on the same path of decline.

dying churchThere have been a number of articles and/or sermons, making their way across social media, exploring the “Dying Church.” Sojourners (sojo.net) has recently run a series called “Letters to a Dying Church.Mark Sandlin’s letter, in particular, articulates the decline of the influential church of the middle 20th Century that rested at the centre of western society. Mark describes a church that has moved into a fringe community that exists in the largely forgotten margins. The letter also articulates great hope in dying, and promise in God’s resurrecting work.

Meanwhile, while Sojourners was running their series, Nadia Bolz-Weber published a sermon entitled, “Stop Saying the Church is Dying.” Her sermon also articulates the distinction between the social-cultural church of influence, which is in decline, versus the church that proclaims the Gospel, administers the sacraments and declares forgiveness of sins. While her title provocatively suggests the opposite of the Sojourners series, the point is largely the same.

So, we all know that Christendom or imperial Christianity is losing ground and is, by all economic and social measures, dying. 

And we all know that the Church – that is primarily concerned with announcing the Gospel, providing the sacraments, providing the Body of Christ a time and place to gather and reconciling creation with creator – is alive and well.

But there is an aspect to all this dying talk that I find curious, if not troubling. It is hard to argue that the church isn’t dying or transforming from what it was a generation or two ago. However, I think there is a flaw in our diagnosis.

I think there is no small amount of hubris in the notion that the church is dying and we are killing it. Consider the weight of this claim. In nearly 2000 years, the church has survived barely getting off the ground for 400 years, it survived being imperialized, spreading across the known world, going to war, reformations, counter-reformations, splits, scientific revolutions, the discovery of new worlds, nationalism, revival, charismatic movements and global wars.

2361002313_58cdf68fffAnd while yes, the church is in decline by all social metrics and economic indicators like membership numbers, budgets and sociopolitical influence, do we really think that because current generations are more interested in iPhones, new age spirituality, worshipping God in sunsets and grocery shopping after kid’s soccer on Sunday mornings, that the church is going to die because of us.

Now let me be clear like Mark Sandlin and Nadia Bolz-Weber were clear, the Church, as the body of Christ, the spirit-led community tasked with proclaiming the gospel, administering the sacraments and declaring forgiveness of sins will continue to exist long after the structures of imperial Christianity are gone, long after the institution is gone.

But even that claim misses the point.

When I hear Christians talk about this institution-less, egalitarian, consensus church to come, I think we are dreaming. I think we have forgotten the realities of human communities. I think we have forgotten that almost immediately after the Ascension, Christian communities started setting up structures and systems to govern church life. And over time, these institutions have grown, changed, become flawed, reformed, and declined. But they are necessary.

Just like the rules of grammar that allow language to convey meaning, foster creativity and breed emotion, the structure, institution even, of the church allows the gospel to be preached, sacraments administered and forgiveness declared. More importantly, the free, open, consensus based community that many Christians hope for in the midst of decline is a church that will cease to exist faster than our current iteration. Without structures to carry on our practice, everything that we believe would be forgotten in a generation.

Even though the institution is guilty of oppression, violence, murder, war, discrimination and many other atrocities, the institution is also what carries the community through history. The institution bears the life of the community in a way that we time-bound humans cannot. The institution has preserved the good along side the perpetration of tremendous evil – a sinner/saint motif. All along the way, the institution has borne the witness of those who have gone before, whose words and music and art and actions are worth remembering beyond the lifespan of their originators. The institution is imbedded in our doctrine, theology and liturgy. The church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, not because human beings have kept is so, but because in the traditions, structure and institution those four marks have somehow remained, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

So what does this mean for our declining church? As much as many of us would like, we are not headed to a Christianity without buildings, budgets, and constitutions. We won’t get far without hierarchies, structures and systems. We will always need pastors, leaders and teachers. We even need, dare I say, bishops. Here is the thing, we can’t all preach and nor can we all listen. There will always be some doing one and some doing the other – that is structure.

So yeah, our current version of the institutional church will probably continue to decline, at least for a while. But church has never really successfully changed itself… rather the world has changed around it. In in 1950s, the church did nothing to create a society in desperate need of an institution to rely on, to find hope in, to experience reconciliation with. Decline has mostly happened to us as the Church today, and before we can adapt to that, our world will change again.

In fact, as economic inequality grows, as conflict looms in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, as the environment faces crisis, as nations and economies become increasingly globalized, I don’t think it will be long until people start looking for organized communities and institutional structures that proclaim the gospel, administer the sacraments, and declare the forgiveness of sins. Before we can do ourselves in, the world will need us again… in fact, the world needs us now. 

So, can we really kill the church?

We never had a chance.

The Featured Photo at the top of this post is the burned down St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg - this is the new rebuilt one.
The Featured Photo at the top of this post is the burned down St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg – this is the new rebuilt one.

So what do you think about all this dying talk? Is the church dying? Can we kill it? Share in the comments, on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik