Devouring Stones, Birthing Stones

Mark 12:38-44

Jesus is in the temple.  He has been in the temple now for a couple chapters.  He entered it turning over the tables of money changers.  He has been confronting and challenging the temple hierarchy and is challenged by the scribes and the Pharisees; they try to trap him into saying something incriminating.  And now, there is a final episode in the temple.  Jesus sits and watches as the long-robed, elaborately-dressed scribes swoosh through the temple and he watches as the crowd makes its offerings, among them a widow, who drops her two coins in the coffers.

This edifice of a building, the temple, ‘As far as Mark is concerned, it is the temple itself that ‘robs’ the poor.’ (Myers, 302)  These stones like the robes of the scribes that walk in the marketplace and demand the best seats at the table, are symbols for all that is messed up and wrong about the economic system.  They are part of a system that ‘devours widows’ houses’.

This both is and isn’t a metaphor.  There was a practice of scribal trusteeship for the estates of widows – because of course women could not be trusted with their late husbands’ assets.  Because of their public reputation for trustworthiness – all those long public prayers, I guess – they had earned this right of legal administration.  They did this for a percentage, but they would/could use this position to skim money for themselves and/or misuse these moneys in all sorts of corrupt ways – devouring the resources of the most vulnerable.

And the word that Jesus uses, (devours the houses of widows) it’s the same word as he uses in the parable of the sower.  You’ll remember that the sower sows seeds three time.  Here it is from Mark 4:  “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.” (that is, they devoured it).  And then he interprets his own parable later on:  “14The sower sows the word. 15These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”  That is, it is devoured.  This language of devouring is not gentle.  It is correlated with evil.

And here is the widow in the midst of this edifice of evil bringing her last two coins.  Jesus does not laud; he laments.  This is a story that is trotted out to congregations to challenge them: if this poorest of the poor can faithfully give up all she has, how much more should we.  I do not believe this is not a ‘how much more’ lesson.  The many wealthy who put their offerings into the treasury give out of their abundance.  The temple has no obligation to them.  They can do it easily.  This widow, of obligation?  Out of true faith?  She believes that the temple system – the treasury across (opposite) from which Jesus sits – is going to support and care for her.  She is indeed being faithful.  Perhaps her faith is misplaced.

Writer Peter Lockhart says,

“The giving was in the wrong direction. It was not the widow who needed to give to the Temple as if somehow this would validate her relationship with God. No: the Temple had a responsibility to the widow as one for whom God had specific concern. His challenge here ties directly to the point made by the scribe in verse 33 that loving God and neighbour is central and “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When I was a kid, we had this book [Sing and Rejoice] on the piano.  One of this things I liked about it was that there were at least a handful of songs were simple enough for me to play (it is still the case) and one of the songs I liked best to sing and play was ‘Living Stones’ [sing and play first verse].  I liked it for the simple melody and because I liked the imagery of people made up of rocks, or of rocks that walked and talked like people.  In my kid mind I literally imagined a rock wall but the rocks had smiley, happy faces.  And maybe arms?

“With our risen Lord we are living stones.”  We are the stones.  This text is from the 1 Peter passage.  Megan quoted it in her newsletter piece this week.  1 Peter 2:5 “like living stones, you yourselves are being built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” We are stones – the worshiping, gathered family of God.   Not scribes or priests – not Jon, Melanie, Megan or me – we. With Christ as our cornerstone.  We are living stones.  That widow and all like her who made up the worshiping body of the temple – they are the living stones.

Rocks that live?  Yes!  But before we get too excited (or is that just me?) we the living stones that are built into Seattle Mennonite Church. We are, at least most of us, not sculpted in the form of widow, so much as those that approached the treasury before her.  “For all of them contributed out of their abundance.”  Henry Langknecht from Trinity Lutheran Seminary says,

We’d like to identify ourselves with the widow…but most of us North American Christians are the scribes… Even when we live simply, [I don’t think he is, but he could be talking directly to Mennos on that one] we enjoy products and infrastructures whose provision devours the lives of the poor in the world.

This is most no all of us, of course – there are certainly some among us whose home have been consumed by circumstance and by an unbalanced system.  So how do we, from our position inside a stone temple repent from our scribal behavior?  And as we do so, offering life instead of devouring it, how can this place, these stones, which we steward reflect the God who gives life?

God the rock is not an uncommon metaphor in Hebrew scripture.  The images are of foundation and of strength.  And they are also of birth.  A rock that gives birth!  Deut 32:18 “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”  Through God there is life, there is birth and there is comfort and rest.

You now know one of my favorite hymns as a child was ‘Living Stones’.  As a teen I attended Rosthern Junior College and was a part of the College Chorale.  And one of the hymns, which was originally in German, but which we sang in both German and English, was ‘In the rifted rock.’  It’s number 526 in the blue hymnal.  “In the rifted rock I’m resting/safely sheltered I abide/there no foes nor storms molest me/while within the cleft I hide./Now I’m resting, sweetly resting/in the cleft once made for me./Jesus blessed rock of ages, I will hide myself in thee.”

So here we sit in a space made of stone – I really though the cinder blocks behind me were stones for a long time- kudos to the folks who faux finished that wall.  How do our stones reflect the God that is place of life and rest, place of thriving and caring.  How do our stones speak God’s name?  If temple stones were devouring stones, how do we sit opposite that narrative and offer birthing stones – stones that give testimony to God the rock that gives us birth, to Christ the cornerstone on which we are built? How does our space help us to encounter God’s presence?

That was the question Marlene Kropf asked in adult forum when she visited with us.  So often I wish I could be in two places at once on Sunday mornings and that morning was no exception because I wish I could have been a part of that conversation, as well as last Sunday’s spectrum exercise.  How does our space help us to encounter God’s presence?  What does our space communicate about our understanding of God?

This is a space which might help us encounter God understood as open and expansive.  Might help us encounter God who hear and sees our prayers in language and color.  Might help us encounter a God who welcomes people into the center, and lets people take their time coming into God and community,  choosing places on the periphery.  This space may be as helpful in encountering a God who is intimate.  The God reflected in this space may not be welcoming to those who can’t hear or see well.

This is a space that lives when we are gathered here.  We are challenged to make these stones reflect the living stones that are the true church.  Reflect the rock and foundation of our faith. They could all fall down tomorrow.  The Big One is on it’s way, so they say.  I understand that these are not stones to get attached to.  But in our calling to ‘Radical Hospitality’ may our stones reflect the life that dwells within them and welcome all who enter them.

You’ve all been holding stones in your hands.  Perhaps they are warm by now.  Some of what animates and make you alive has been taken into that stone.  You have an opportunity, while we sing, to bring your stone and add it to the cairn.  Like the inukshuk, this cairn will say, “We live!”  It will mark this place as God’s living temple.

You are welcome to bring your stone and place it on the cairn.