Sermon November 13: Luke 21:5-11 Lifting the Veil Rev. Betsy Hogan
Know what comes right before this passage from the gospel of Luke that we heard just now? The story of the Widow’s Mite. Jesus’ disgust, his outrage, his fury that what a corrupt and unjust world expects and demands of a woman who literally only possesses two tiny coins, it’s all she has to live on -- is that she hand them over to the powers that be. Who care about her well-being not one whit. As though it’s a privilege that she’s allowed to. Which is what they’ve actually convinced her.
And us too, in fact. Because we so often hear and understand the story of the widow’s mite – M I T E, her tiny tiny offering of those two tiny coins, all she has to live on – as a story of Jesus’ commendation for her generosity. For her sacrifice. For her selflessness.
Like, “Consider the widow and her mite – M I T E”, we imagine Jesus proclaiming, and what follows we imagine will be a sermon about great gifts that only SEEM small, but are much bigger on the inside. Filled to the brim with love beyond value and outsized grace. For God celebrates not the size of our contribution, but the generosity of our hearts and our willingness to sacrifice. So “Consider the widow”, we imagine Jesus proclaiming, “and go and do likewise”.
And there’s nothing wrong with that message! It hits all the right notes: it’s entirely consistent with everything we believe about what’s good and what’s faithful and what’s righteous in God’s eyes. And it’s also absolutely true that what we’re called to is exactly the kind of unselfish and wholehearted generous love that the widow embodies, in offering her two tiny coins.
It just really wasn’t Jesus’ point here. Which is a lot less fun to have to think about. Because instead, Jesus’ reaction to that widow and her offering of her two tiny coins… is pretty fraught and it’s kind of messy and it’s not very pleasant at all.
Because for Jesus, that widow is sort of like the last straw. In a disgust and an outrage and a fury that’s been building. Against a system that is so revoltingly unjust, so unrelentingly wrong, that it doesn’t just expect but in fact it demands that its ever-increasing prosperity and wealth and magnificence be built on the backs of its poorest citizens who have the least to live on.
So Jesus’ reaction, when he sees that widow – it’s just fury. Look at that widow, he says to the disciples. Look at her, putting her last two tiny coins in the treasury, when everyone else can just give out of their abundance. It’s all she has to live on.
And how is that okay? That all this temple glory around us, he’s telling the disciples, somehow gets away with expecting that? It’s NOT okay. Because if all this temple glory depends on the poorest widow handing over her last two coins, all she has to live on – that’s not glory at all. It’s an abomination.
He’s really hit the wall. But frankly, the disciples have sort of stopped listening. Because the fact is, while Jesus has been kind of rattling on about the poor widow and her M I T E mite – it’s actually been kind of hard for them to keep paying attention.
Because they’re in the actual temple. In Jerusalem. And it is… awesome. It is absolutely breath-taking. Inside it’s by far the biggest, most glorious, most spectacular place they’ve ever been, and when they walk back outside with Jesus at the beginning of the passage we just heard, they’re still just awestruck.
By its sheer size. By its splendour and its colour and its jewel-toned mosaics and… all of it. It was built to inspire and wow, it sure does. The disciples are pretty ordinary folks, and they are bowled over by the place.
Which, it’s pretty hard to just stop being bowled over by the place, even if Jesus has obviously gotten annoyed by something, and he’s still looking pretty grim….
So one of them… sort of tries to change the subject! Brighten up his mood! “Look, Teacher – look at the size of this place! It’s absolutely amazing! Look how huge those stones are – how is this place even possible??”
And bless him for the effort, that one disciple, but he could hardly have done a worse job “changing the subject” – because for Jesus, right now in this moment, the sheer size and splendour of the temple pretty much IS the subject. Because here in actual building form is exactly that revoltingly unjust and unrelentingly wrong system that for way too long has been wringing the poorest out of all they have to live on – and “I’m here to tell you,” Jesus says to the disciples, “it’s going down.”
Wait, what? “Oh yes,” he says to them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Well now that doesn’t sound very pleasant at all. In fact, it sounds like Jesus going “apocalyptic”. Pointing at the temple and pretty much terrifying them. “It’s all going down.”
So they start to ask for details. When will this happen, what’ll be the signs, how will we know? And what they’re looking for is warnings. Because what they’re imagining is a kind of catastrophic incendiary EVENT that God will make happen. Not because that’s in any way consistent with the promise their faith has derived from the ancient myth of the flood-and-fresh-start that for them is the story of Noah’s Ark – and so such a thing need NEVER be something to be afraid of –
But because apocalyptic stories, notwithstanding Noah’s Ark, are still pervasive in their culture. Epic battles between good and evil, God destroying everything bad and wrong and terrible, tearing it all down to be replaced with perfection. For the few filled with goodness. Apocalyptic stories are pervasive in the context in which Jesus and his disciples lived, and they’re still pervasive in our own culture.
And why not? Apocalypic traditions are thousands of years old and they represent probably the ultimate human daydream -- they always have. So of course they have staying power. Of course they captured imaginations then and still do now. Because when we feel powerless, when we're oppressed, when we want revenge, or even just better, what do we as humans dream of? The destruction of our enemies or everything wrong and the triumph of our own vision of what the world should be.
We may not walk around all the time in a full-on apocalypic fervour, warning everyone who's behaving badly "just you wait till Jesus comes" -- but as a human family, if we're being really honest, we can see why the notion of God swooping into the world in some cataclysmic explosive way to end how things are? And make them how we think they should be? We can see, we can understand the appeal.
Especially for those who otherwise feel completely powerless.
So the disciples start to ask for details. When will this happen, what’ll be the signs, how will we know? And what they’re looking for is warnings. Because what they’re imagining is the apocalypse as a kind of catastrophic incendiary EVENT that God will make happen. And it’s not so much that they’re scared – they’re probably feeling fairly secure as Jesus’ actual disciples – they really just want to be ready.
They’d like to know when. When will things fall apart, because the centre cannot hold. When will the EVENT occur when God turns up with a mighty sword. What signs should they watch for. It’s not that they’re anxious, exactly… though it does all sound a bit fraught. They’d just like to have some warning.
But here’s the thing. Jesus isn’t talking here about a kind of EVENT. Quite apart from the fact that when God promised not to destroy everything, rainbow in the sky, God meant it – what apocalypse actually means is uncovering. Revealing. It derives from the Greek verb apokalyptein – ἀπoκαλύφtην -- to take the cover away.
So it’s not an event, like THE apocalypse. It’s a process. An uncovering, an unveiling, a revealing. It’s Jesus moving aside the widow’s generosity and uncovering, revealing, the revoltingly unjust system that’s enriching itself on her back. It’s Jesus moving away the splendour and magnificence of the breath-taking temple and uncovering, revealing, the epic dehumanizing exploitative wrongness that built it.
So the wrongness gets SEEN. And can’t be unseen. It has to be addressed, it has to be repaired, it has to be healed – and it WILL be addressed, and it WILL be healed – not one stone will be left, Jesus says to the disciples, to us, of this unjust construct we’re all bound by. Because I’m here to tell you, he says, it’s going down.
But not as an EVENT. Most of the disciples actually lived long enough to experience the literal destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. But then life went on. Some people thought the Plague was the great epic THING God had unleashed. Others were sure it was Great War. But apocalypse was never meant to be understood as an event.
It’s a process God inspires as an act of love. It’s an uncovering, it’s a laying bare of what’s broken and has to be healed, what’s wrong and has to be changed. So that there it is and it can’t be unseen and now we have to face it.
So if it’s all feeling a little apocalyptic right now, in the colloquial sense, it’s because it IS a little apocalyptic right now. But in the Jesus sense. It’s not about things suddenly getting worse – what’s broken and wrong has been there this whole time. It’s just about it suddenly being visible to US. Here. It’s just about us noticing. Because there’s nothing God doesn’t know about our capacity not to see what we don’t want to know about. God makes things a little apocalyptic for a reason.
It's what African American theologian Adrienne Maree Brown was getting at when she wrote about the faithful Christian response to the heaviness of now. Things are not getting worse, she said, they’re getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil. And she’s right. We must.
With all the urgency we’d feel if it were The Apocalypse. Because for us right now it is – things are getting uncovered for us. And we can’t look away, like what we’re seeing can be unseen. Because it can’t.
And that’s not pleasant. We DO have to hold each other tight as we continue to pull back the veil. But Jesus is firm with the disciples here and he’s firm with us too. We don’t get to look away. And in fact, and this is even LESS pleasant, we shouldn’t want to.
Because this apocalyptic uncovering, this apocalypic revealing, this is Godness at work. It’s GOD acting with love FOR us, FOR the human family… so we’ll get that urgency for healing and rightness and change. So “Look at that widow,” Jesus says to the disciples.
“Pause in the midst of these sparkly temples and the executive salaries and the sunshine list, and look at her,” Jesus says to the disciples, “with the two tiny coins that are all she has to live on. Look at her,” Jesus says to us, “and ask yourselves how she’s going to heat her home and buy groceries this winter.
“And don’t look away,” he says to us, “You shouldn’t WANT to look away. Because with every compassionate and loving bone in your body, you should be furiously unwilling to let this wrongness continue. So look at the tents,” Jesus says to us. “Look at the seniors in Bridgewater with their residential care sold out from under them, look at the protections that get waived for the right price, look at homecare workers using foodbanks and students trying to write papers on one meal a day, and farmers throwing out produce because the grocery monopolies would rather import.”
If it all feels a little apocalyptic, it’s because it is – the veil’s being drawn aside and the wrongness that’s long been wrong, there it is. But don’t be led astray and don’t be terrified, Jesus says to the disciples and to us. Because it’s being uncovered, it’s being revealed FOR us.
So we’ll know. So we’ll say Enough. So we’ll recognize this ISN’T okay, and if repairing it demands systemic change that means we’ll take a hit, then we’ll ante up and demand that systemic change and make that sacrifice.
Because Jesus is clear: on the way to God’s vision of what’s just and what’s right, where everyone has enough and a safe place to live, it’s not the wars and insurrections that are “The Apocalypse”. They’re what happens if we don’t pay attention to the ACTUAL apocalypse of the veil being drawn aside so we can see HOW MUCH injustice and pain there is, that isn’t okay. That has to be repaired and healed. That we’re on the hook for, if we say we love our neighbour.
The urgency’s real. There can’t be a sermon about Jesus’ furious proclamation about the destruction of the temple that’s not really about a widow with her two small coins who’s just been seen. And can’t be unseen, God being our helper. Amen.