This sermon was originally preached in the UUMC chapel on November 11, 2012.
Text: Mark 12: As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then 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. 44For 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.”
Friends, the election is over.
Can we all take a big breath of relief together?
Whether you’ve been celebrating or mourning or just laughing all week, we can all share in the relief that the debates, the inflammatory rhetoric, the unashamedly smug facebook status (guilty!), and the yard signs will, at least, be minimized for now.
For the last few months all eyes and ears have been on American politics. Across the globe, people have been waiting and watching –tuning in to every word that comes out of the mouths of Obama, Romney, Biden, or Ryan. They have had our complete attention. Even those who aren’t interested much in politics can’t avoid the media coverage, the dinner conversations, or the political tweets.
Eagerly we went to the polls, some in anticipation, some in fear, and all of us with the need for a little patience for a long line. Overall, however, we were fortunate here in Texas that we could make it to the polls without a great deal of trouble. Our friends in the north east did not have it so easy. Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, many struggled through the voting process due to their displacement – they voted from unexpected locations, over e-mail, and some not at all, much to their dismay.
While we might have been able to keep our attention solely on the election season, hundreds of thousands of our sisters and brothers in New Jersey and New York have struggled in the aftermath of Sandy. While the media drew most of us in for a few days – with curiosity about this strange storm or fear about the possibility of its repercussions – when the climax of drama was over, the media turned our attention right back to the election and away from the northeast .
It has become all too easy to forget that residents throughout New York and New Jersey remain without power, heat, and properly functioning water systems in the midst of snow and freezing temperatures. Thousands of public housing tenants, most of whom are physically or mentally ailing or elderly, remain trapped in upper-floor apartments. They are receiving no assistance from the national guard, fema, NY City housing authority, or the red cross. Their only hope has come from the kindness of strangers who took the time to notice them and send blankets, food, and water.
My best friend called me last week and shared some of the stories of suffering surrounding him in Manhatten. He asked me, “does anyone there even know how bad things are? Are people talking about it?”
This situation has had me wondering: To what, or to whom, do we give our attention?
The attention of Americans is a prime commodity. We have incredibly low attention spans, a million different forms of social media vying for our gaze, terribly busy schedules that keep us in an unconscious frenzy, and a million headlines that reel us in to the “breaking news” of the moment, only to distract us with something else a day later.
If we are not careful, we can be programmed to give our attention to certain issues, certain people, certain concerns for certain periods of time without a conscious thought about it.
Simone Weil, Christian mystic and activist, says that “absolute attention is prayer.” By paying attention to something, we are, in fact praying. Are the people, places, or issues that garner our attention, the same people, places, or issues that actually need our attention and thus our prayers?
This is not to minimize the importance of paying attention to the election or politics. I am the justice associate after all – of course I think that’s important. But I mean to highlight the need to consciously choose to widen our vision to those on the periphery, and see who might not have the power to turn our faces in their direction.
In our text, Jesus had just warned his disciples to beware of those who demand our attention for selfish reasons. He points to the leaders who show off their good deeds, flaunt their status and perfect their religious piety. Blinded by all of the ways they meet the highest of social standards, Jesus reminds us, we can easily overlook those in our midst who are suffering under the weight of the invisibility we cast upon them.
Standing in the midst of the temple treasury with his followers, Jesus breaks the cycle of routine and steps back from the crowd. With people flooding up and down the treasury to deposit their gifts, Jesus removes himself from the chaos and makes a conscious decision to simply observe the room.
He sees the rich giving large sums of money.
It is good that the rich are generous in their giving. The temple undoubtedly needs their funds. But they do not need the attention of the masses. In the chaos of the temple treasury, they will be the ones noticed. Only Jesus, who took a step back to question the point of focus, notices the poor widow, giving everything she has.
The leaders of the temple are supposed to be concerned with her and with all the widows of society – those without resources, those without influence, those who are vulnerable. The scribes, with all their status and privilege, should be using their influence to draw attention to those who need it.
Be it by choice or by institutional oppression, everything the widow has is given up when her last two coins have been deposited. The greek text says she has given “her whole life.” And while the return for this should at minimum be the care, attention, and concern of the temple leaders and the community, no one will notice her – all eyes are on the influential. The crowd treats her as if she is invisible, but she is not. She is flesh and blood as much as anybody in the room. And Jesus has no trouble seeing her – all it took was the decision to look around.
This text reminds us that we cannot always rely on the influential, the powerful, or the religiously pious to direct our attention to whom it is needed. If we don’t stop, look around, and consciously question where our attention is going, we may never notice the widows amongst us.
We must take control of our attentiveness. When we do, we will see the widows of our current day society. They are the ones the media will never talk about. The ones who society will try to hide. They are in our children’s schools, shopping beside us at the grocery store, passing us on the sidewalk.
Our widows are the billions of animals we send to atrocious factory farms each and every day where they are tortured and brutally killed without regulation, all so we can have a hamburger. Our attention is directed only at the final product – meat. It is always directed away from the life they live in these factory farms or the way they are killed.
We choose what we want to see.
Our widows are the African American men we are systematically filing into our prisons under the guise of the war on drugs. There are more black men behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850.
But if we don’t look, we won’t see them there.
Our widows are the families living without homes on the East side of Austin. 70% of Austin’s homeless are single mothers with children. Many of these families are living out their cars.
We don’t see them, but they are our neighbors.
The local piece of last week’s election included seven bond proposals. All of these were tax-free decisions, and totaled together a $385 million dollar package which would cover things like parks, street repairs, locker rooms for female firefighters, library restoration, and additional clinics.
All amazing things and Austin citizens were eager pass each of these, with the exception of the one bond which would directly benefit low-income individuals. Prop 15 would have provided $78.3 million dollars for low-income and permanent supportive housing and housing repairs, but it was the only bond we did not accept.
We are called as Christians to work for justice, but what should compel us to such work, is the fact that we recognize the value of all God’s creatures. We cannot be agents of change with and for widows until we first stop and see them – see them as equals, as living….. breathing…. Beings who feel, who work, who struggle. But most importantly, beings who carry within them the Divine.
I say all of this knowing it is not easy to be attentive. It comes at a cost. When we begin to take control of our own minds, break the routine of where our attention is going, and look around, we run the risk of locking eyes with those that make us uncomfortable and those that remind us we are responsible for one another. But this is a risk we are called to take. There are lives at stake.
The widow gives her whole life. But she shouldn’t have to.
May we be people who see.