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Sunday, March 11, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Conversations on the Way

Lenten Sermon Series: Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 89:1–8
Mark 12:28–44

G. K. Chesterton wrote, “I have found only one religion that dares to go down with me into the depth of myself.” No other religion dares to take me down to the new beginning.  .  . . Lent is a journey that could be called an upward descent, but I prefer to call it a downward ascent. It ends before the cross, where we stand in the white light of a new beginning.

Edna Hong, The Downward Ascent

“You are not far from the kingdom, the reign, of God.” I wonder how the scribe felt when Jesus said that to him that day in Jerusalem. By this point in Mark’s Gospel, it has been made known to us that the scribes, religious leaders, are among Jesus’ chief adversaries. They are constantly questioning him, arguing with him, talking about him, and plotting against him. From the way Mark tells Jesus’ story, the scribes are completely threatened by this rabbi Jesus.

They are threatened by his popularity with the crowd; threatened by his deep knowledge of scripture; threatened by the way he reinterprets that scripture for their own day and time; threatened by Jesus’ desire to reform or throw out the way they had always done things; threatened by the rumors that he is the Messiah. And that threat made them determined to work with Jesus’ other opponents—both within the religious house and the empire’s house—to get rid of him. Permanently.

Yet in today’s text, we watch as this one unnamed scribe steps forward out of the crowd of his colleagues. After getting Jesus’ attention, he engages Jesus in what seems to be an honest and earnest conversation. Mark tells us the reason this scribe broke with the others was because the scribe was quite impressed with Jesus’ theological acumen. That could be. Jesus was good at debate and always proved his point with either a straightforward accusation or with a parable containing a humorous or conflictual twist.

Yet the scribes’ response to Jesus also seems to indicate that at some level he understood what Jesus was about. He asked Jesus what Jesus believed was the most critical commandment for their shared faith. Jesus responded by proclaiming a resolute trust that God is one, that our love for God is paramount and is to take possession of our whole selves, and that our love of God is inextricably connected to our love for neighbor. The scribe agreed with him. And then the scribe made a rather interesting theological statement of his own, a statement that sounded a whole lot like the prophet Amos and like Jesus himself.

Presumably in front of his colleagues, this lone unnamed scribe stated with confidence that he believed this kind of love for God, for self, for neighbor, was even more important than any ritual or liturgy they participated in during worship or during other events in their faith community. “This (love) is much more important that all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” he said. The scribe’s declaration of the absolute importance of doing love was something not even the disciples had figured out yet.

Even the disciples had not yet realized that so much of what drove Jesus in terms of his critique of the religious institution and its grasp on power mirrored what the prophet Amos once proclaimed: “I hate,” Amos preached on God’s belief, “I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5).

Somehow, even from the inside, this scribe saw what Jesus saw—a religious institution more concerned with its own survival than it was with the survival, the healing, the liberation of the people who were a part of it. In this casual conversation with Jesus, this unnamed scribe protested that mix-up of religious priorities. Jesus heard the genuineness of his protest. Furthermore, he noticed the courage of the scribe in stepping forward and choosing not to treat Jesus as an adversary but rather as an equal, possibly as a friend. So Jesus responded in kind: “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” he said.

Scholar Joseph Vleck Kozar, makes the case that “in this . . . scene Mark plays off the preceding series of conflicts by ending with the amiable encounter of an opposition figure. Indeed, the interplay of this scribe and Jesus serves both as a counterfoil to reader’s expectations and as a demonstration of why Jesus is to be feared. Jesus has the ability to blur boundaries and embrace an enemy” (Proceedings, p. 35). Jesus has the ability to blur boundaries and embrace an enemy. In this story, the so-called “enemy” also had a similar ability and did the same with Jesus. They mirror each other in this text, the scribe and Jesus. How do you think this interaction was received by his peers? My guess is they did not throw him a party.

But the scribe did not seem to care about any societal repercussions. Perhaps that’s because he knew Jesus had recognized his genuineness and his courage. “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus told him. I hope that pronouncement felt like goodness to the unnamed scribe. I hope it felt like grace, perhaps even like blessing. I’d give anything to hear Jesus say that to me, wouldn’t you? You are not far from the kingdom of God. At least then we would know we were headed in the right direction, in the direction of goodness, of grace, in the direction of God’s mercy and kindness. It would be a gift to hear those words.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” If Jesus and the widow had engaged in conversation after she made her offering at the temple that same day, he might have said it to her, too. She is the other unnamed solitary person in our text for today—the one who, along with the scribe in the beginning, frames this entire story with faithfulness to God. But whereas the scribe expressed his faithfulness to following God verbally, the widow expressed it with her actions. If Jesus had asked her what is the greatest commandment, the one that ought to shape your entire life, my assumption, based on what we see, is that she would have also said God is one; our love for God is paramount and is to take possession of our whole selves; and our love of God is inextricably connected to our love for neighbor. We see these beliefs expressed through the quiet, unassuming, courageous, and generous way she gives of what she has for the work of the temple.

Now, a whole plethora of scholars claim her offerings fit hand in hand with Jesus’ warnings about scribes who devour widows’ houses. She is giving all that she has to a corrupt system, they claim, a system that has forgotten about her, the same system the unnamed scribe also warned against. Perhaps that is indeed true. However, to only see her story through the lens that she was taken advantage of ends up taking away or completely discounting her own agency, her power, her decision to be generous for God’s work in the world regardless of any societal consequences.

This past week I learned another story about another widow who also exercised her agency, her power, her decision to be generous with what she had for God’s work in the world even though others in her family were initially concerned by her actions, wondering if she was being taken advantage of too. Though it is not her name, we will call her Jane. Jane told her story to my husband when he was back in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and gave him permission to share it with me and gave me permission to share it with you. So let’s lay down her story alongside the ones of the unnamed scribe and the unnamed widow from scripture.

First, Jane wanted me to let you know that she primarily lives on her Social Security check each month, which is $1,452. She insisted I get the amount right. She is a faithful member of an Episcopal church in her small town of 8,000 people. She gives $30 a week to the church and is never late with her bills. Jane’s husband died five years ago, so she has had to learn a different way of going through the world with the new identity of “widow.” One of the new activities Jane enjoys is sitting outside almost year-round. She and her dog, a basset hound named Wendell, will go out several times a day to sit on the front porch of her downtown home in order to greet folks walking by. Jane lives on a rather busy street in Black Mountain, which means around twenty people a day pass by her home. It is a little more slow-paced than downtown Chicago.

Last year Jane and Wendell were out on their porch, watching people go by, when she noticed a particular woman. The woman had the appearance of someone who was barely making it through the day. Jane wondered if she was experiencing homelessness, because it looked like she was on her way to the shelter at the First Baptist Church. Now Wendell the dog likes to howl at everyone who comes by, so he howled at the woman Jane noticed. The woman looked over and asked if she could pet Wendell. Jane readily agreed, and as they stood there, Jane asked the woman if she lived around there. The woman replied no, she had no home. Jane’s intuition had been right. Well, according to Jane, as soon as those words came out of the woman’s mouth, Jane had this immediate thought: “Jesus would take her in.” That thought surprised her and caught her off guard.

Jane is an Episcopalian, after all, not a Baptist or Pentecostal, so she does not typically have these kinds of lightning-bolt spiritual moments. Yet she could not deny what she thought or heard. She told me it might sound crazy, but she cannot explain what that clarity felt like. So at that moment, she stopped trying to make sense of it and just went with it. “I have an extra room,” Jane immediately replied. “Why don’t you live with me?” Amazingly, the woman agreed. So Jane took her into her home at that very moment.

Now like the biblical scholars feel about the widow giving her offering at the temple, Jane’s adult children were also quite concerned about their mother’s actions of radical generosity. She did not know that woman. What if she were a con-artist? They each rushed over, as soon as they found out what Jane had done, to try and convince their mother it would not work. But Jane could not be dissuaded. After all, she told them, Jesus would have taken her in. How could she not? She has an extra room.

It turned out that stability of a regular safe place to stay was what that woman needed. She got a job at a bed-and-breakfast just down the road from Jane’s house. Now, remember, Jane lives on $1,452 a month, so she had to let her new roommate know that the budget was tight. She decided to keep the heat at 65 to try and pinch a few pennies. Thus, if they were cold, they just put on a jacket. Since the water bill went up with two of them in the house, her new guest would chip in by bringing home some of the food that did not get eaten at the bed-and-breakfast. Jane refused to take any money for rent or anything else. That allowed the woman to save much of what she earned.

One day, after Jane asked her about family, the woman mentioned that she and her sister had a falling out years before over $150 that her sister claimed was hers. Jane immediately responded, “I will give you $150 if you will go and call your sister. I’d give a million dollars to get to talk to mine again.” Jane’s sister had died decades before. The woman took Jane up on her offer, and over time she and her sister began to rebuild their relationship. She also reached out to her estranged daughter and was able to get a fresh start with her, as well. She stayed with Jane about nine months until she saved enough money to move out to Oregon, where both her sister and her daughter lived.

Each month $1,452, minus $30 to the church each week. It’s more than enough, Jane said. Besides, Jesus would have taken her in. How could she not? My husband, Greg, asked Jane if her Episcopal church helped at all with food or with the woman. Jane said no, because she never told them what she had done. She had not been generous with her hospitality in order to be seen or praised for it. She just did it because she knew that’s what Jesus would have done and the woman needed Jane’s generosity.

It turns out that Jane, like the unnamed scribe and the unnamed widow, is also convinced that we are called to love God with our whole selves—heart, mind, strength, and soul—and that our love for God is inextricably linked with a love for neighbor. Demonstrating love in action is how she daily tries to follow on Jesus’ way. “Jane, you are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus undoubtedly will one day say to her. I am still amazed at Jane’s courage and willingness to be so radically open in order to follow Jesus. She and that unnamed widow in Mark have so much in common it is mind-blowing.

But you know what else is mind-blowing? This kind of radical love for God and neighbor; this kind of readiness to live the gospel and not just preach it; this priority of faithful action in the world over only faithful worship in the sanctuary—the things that the scribe said and the widow did and Jane lives, this revolutionary discipleship-living Jesus inspired and embodied, a living that questioned authority, a living that protested against “that is just the way we have always done it,” a living that raised serious questions about any institution more concerned with its own survival than the survival and liberation of those for whom it had been created. All of that radical love and generous revolutionary living Jesus both inspired and embodied is why they killed him. “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus proclaimed. And in response, the serious ones, the leaders, those who liked to be noticed, those who felt threatened by that proclamation, continued to plot and plan and set his death into motion.