I was blessed this Sunday to visit a historic church in Oxford, NC. If you think the town of Oxford is familiar, it might be because of the play Blood Done Sign My Name, a book later turned into a play which tells of the 1970 murder of Henry “Dickie” Marrow in Oxford, NC for getting out of his “place” as a black man in the segregated south. The racial violence perpetrated against people of color that followed has given the town of Oxford a place in infamy in the history of the struggle for civil rights in my home of the Carolinas.
What a wonderful surprise then to hear Rev. Caleb Tabor, the new pastor of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church of Oxford, NC, preach. In my Week in the Word post, I like to highlight progressive voices of faith here in the south-land, and I feel I’ve heard a powerful and prophetic voice that also speaks in a down-to-earth, plain-speaking way which reminds me of the best of the southern faith I learned from grandparents and role models of faith growing up.
Besides Pastor Caleb’s powerful preaching, St. Cyprian’s is a historic Episcopal church in North Carolina, one of the first Episcopal churches planted with a focus on the black community, linked to the work of the first black Episcopal bishop of North Carolina who helped start numerous churches serving the black community as well as St. Ambrose College. The church today is a truly multicultural mecca in the midst of the often still racially divided south, with people of all races joining in worship and the service itself being done in ways that include both English and Spanish language, as well as a blending of historically Catholic and Protestant modes of worship.
I was especially touched by seeing the warm embrace this historic congregation gave to Pastor Caleb and his husband, with how often queer voices are silenced in traditional churches in the south. Visiting this service and seeing such tearing down of barriers was touching to me as I continue to grieve the loss of my dear wife who worked tirelessly for reconciliation for all people and was also a queer person of faith in ministry. Hearing Pastor Caleb speak these words of courage and faith in a church so committed to all my dear Katharine stood for and all I think is possible for those of us who speak up for justice, peace, and the liberating word of Jesus her in the south-land gave me great hope. Not only did Pastor Caleb speak with true fire and conviction of the Holy Spirit, but his words also made me feel that he is one of the rising ministers who are taking on that same baton of justice my wife carried throughout her ministry.
I hope the spirit and power of this message which Father Tabor expressed so beautifully in today’s service comes out in his manuscript. May it light your fire of justice deep in your soul this week.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
38As 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.”
Focus Text: He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.
You know, I am really excited to be here with everyone this morning. Sincerely. This is an amazing place where God is inspiring people to do some amazing things, and I’m incredibly blessed that God put it on your hearts to call me to be your next vicar, and I thank God for putting it on my own heart to say “yes”. I pray that this is the beginning of a wonderful new chapter in all of our lives.
Now, happy as I am to be coming here, this time in the church year is a really weird one to begin such a transition. Advent and Christmas are coming up — which is not slow time in the life of the church. And just sitting in the back of my mind for a while has been the question — “aren’t we getting close to stewardship season?” When I read the Gospel text for today and saw that it was about the widow’s mite, I realized that yes — indeed — it is stewardship season.
And as indicative as this story is of our stewardship season — this story isn’t actually about stewardship. Stewardship is involved here, sure, but as a detail, as a means to illustrate a bigger point. You see, the story of the widow’s mite comes to us this morning in conjunction with a little peek into the hearts and true intentions of the scribes of Jesus’ day. And this isn’t just because the coordinators of the Revised Common Lectionary thought that it’d be nice to give the preachers a little more text to go on. No, it is because these two scenes are inseparably related.
Now, a lot of times in the past, especially when I was a little kid growing up in an evangelical megachurch, I heard this story as one about the faithful giving of a person who had almost nothing to give. It was kind of a long way around saying, “every little bit helps.” While you might be able to look at it that way if you stand on one foot and squint both eyes real hard, I think that isn’t the fullest meaning of the text this morning. I know this is just the first Sunday, but, folks, let me be so bold as to say that this morning’s Gospel reading isn’t principally about donating or not donating money.
Now, I could take this moment to preach a sermon about how good stewardship is important for keeping the amazing work of this congregation going, but I won’t because I know y’all already know that.
I could take this moment to preach a sermon to tell the common sense message that we need money to keep the lights on to keep the building up and to keep this blessed house of God a place where all people can come and worship and find Christ, but I won’t because I know y’all already know that.
And it’s a good thing I don’t have to preach that sermon because our Gospel lesson today isn’t specifically about stewardship, it is more broadly a lesson for us in the importance of being aware of priorities, both the priorities of others and our own. It does this with the hopes of getting us to more fully live into our call as Christians to pay attention to the world and when we see things amiss, to speak out for the Gospel of Jesus Christ which covers a multitude of sins and yes can even cure this sin-sick world in which we live.
Now, when I say that this is a Gospel story about the importance of being aware of priorities, I mean that the scribes here are prime examples, prime examples, of poor priorities. They like to walk around in fancy clothes and be treated with respect by others and like VIP seating at the big dinners. They like to buy fancy cars and purchase vacation homes. Now, having a sense of style isn’t a sin. Jesus calls us to humility, not to being boring. And there is nothing wrong with liking to be treated with respect or spending money you worked hard for on things that make your life and the lives of others better.
No, the issue here is that the scribes were prioritizing these things as more important than loving and serving God and loving and serving others. They were so bad, they were so turned around, they were so down right wicked and corrupt that they’d take money from a widow — who along with orphans was the most downtrodden and vulnerable person in that society.
To understand why this is so dangerous it is important for us to understand what a scribe was in that society. A scribe was a religious and civic leader whose livelihood came from the support of Temple Treasury. They were to be the first in leading the people spiritually and in seeing that laws were just and justly administers. A good scribe is a good thing, but the problem back then was that they had bad scribes. They were the kind of people who gave so that others would see them giving, prayed so that others would see them praying, whether or not they were true believers in God or in the causes of justice is entirely beside the point, because that wasn’t their top priority. Their top priority is that others perceive them as being good and pious. The rest as they say, is just gravy.
These scribes were so bad that Jesus says that they’d even “devour a widow’s house”. And the very next story we see is of them doing what? Devouring a widow’s house. You see, when the widow gave everything she had to the treasury, she was giving it to the pot of money that was used by the scribes to perpetuate their lives of luxury. Jesus mentions that she puts in all she’s got, nothing’s left when she’s done, but if you look closely those famous words of “well done, my good and faithful servant” are missing here. There are no words from Jesus declaring her a model of commitment and charity. No. He tells us that bad scribes will gobble up what a widow had and he then shows us the tragedy in action. I can almost see the tears welling up in his eyes as he looks on, just like when he wept with Martha and Mary as they mourned their brother Lazarus.
There isn’t a doubt in my mind that Jesus loved that widow and saw the goodness in her heart, but it was sort of like watching someone get tricked into making a bad investment, or even worse, someone who was forced into a bad situation and they simply had to comply. I don’t know if any of you know of someone whose ever given money to a bad scheme or who as lost money they didn’t have to spare to a scam, but I have to tell you it is ugly and heartbreaking.
Well, some of you might be asking, why didn’t Jesus do something? What’s the Good News here, preacher?
Good questions, church. The thing is, Jesus is doing something. First off, he’s done something before. His whole life was dedicated to serving those who are cast aside and down trodden, to helping those be lifted up who have been put down, to taking the cast aside and bringing them front-and-center and loving them like no one else would and, honestly, like no one else could — because no one can love you like Jesus. His whole life and the Gospel message are to care for the widows and orphans and the outcast and the poor in spirit and the sick and those in prison and the aged, as TOP priorities for his followers, for his church, for his spiritual body of believers and he calls on us to join with him in response to this kind horrible situation.
And the text this morning also tells us that Jesus sat and watched the treasury. Jesus paid attention to what was going on and in so doing gives us the grace of being able to confirm that it is not just reasonable or sensible to use an analytical eye on the injustices and corruptions of our day, it is our Christian Duty to keep an eye on things, he sat and watched the treasury and so we watch and ask questions, he sat and watched the treasury, so we take a step back and look over the situations in our community and in the world, he sat and watched the treasury and kept an eye on the scribes and so we pay attention to what people entrusted with responsibility are doing and how it affects others.
If no one else is paying attention to the hustling scribes, Jesus’ people are paying attention to the hustling scribes.
If no one else is pointing out the systemic problems in our (in)justice systems, Jesus’ people are pointing out the problems.
If no one else is calling out the corrupt government officials on soaking up public money and then leaving seniors with piddly pension checks, or short-changing our children on their needed resources, or leaving families to drown in crushing poverty, the Jesus’ people are calling them out.
If no one else is demanding that the government deal in a real and compassionate way with immigration issues, that respect the dignity of all those who’ve come to this country, and not just respects the legacy of the descendants of Europeans who showed up a century or two ago, then Jesus’ people are demanding it.
If no one else is demanding the basic respect of the dignity of every human being, regardless of race, gender, or walk of life, then Jesus’ people are out there not just demanding it, but living it. Jesus people are out there loving others as Jesus loved us. Jesus people are out there making sure that widow has something to eat and people to talk to so she isn’t lonely and that she is taken care of. Jesus’ people are out there working with others to make the community and the world a better place. Jesus people are out there living out the Gospel and telling people, when they ask why we do this when we could be doing anything else, “It is because I’ve got the right priorities. I love God, I love my neighbors, and love myself. It is because I believe that everyone is worthy of respect and dignity.”
St. Cyprian’s, from what I can tell, y’all are on the right track with this. Now I said before that the scribes here are bad scribes, they do their jobs poorly, but let me tell you, what if they were doing them well? What if the people teaching spiritual lessons and working for the government and working for the justice system actually prioritized the love of God and Jesus’ Gospel of Compassion and Fairness? What kind of world would that be? It’d be a lot better than the one we’ve got now.
So don’t just strive to call people out, strive to be that change, live that Gospel as much as you preach it. And always be ready to look inside, with that same discerning eye Jesus uses this morning, at the little hustling scribe inside of you. Oh yes, it’s there. And if you don’t look for it. If you aren’t on top of keeping it in check, it takes over, and you’ll turn around one day and be just as shallow and just as confused in your priorities as the scribes in today’s reading.
Today, today is a day to think about that, to take the rest of the week and look over your own life and your own priorities and intentions and see where you are being a scribe and where you are being a student of the Gospel. Don’t be afraid to look. Jesus is with you. Jesus is looking, not just to condemn you, but to help you, to help you better see and know yourself, so that you can better see and know others and ultimately so that you can better see and know God. Dedicate yourself to the Gospel anew, not just today, but every day. Walk as a joyful child of the light as much as you can. And you’ll get a foretaste of that great glory that is the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.