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Stay in place, make a difference

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We can feel in exile in our neighborhoods. Small acts in response can make a difference. So can confronting the larger forces in our world that exile us from each other.

Today’s texts: Jeremiah 29 selections and Mark 12: 38-44

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

Our parish nurse, Mary Icrink, told a story this week that I think captures the spirit of both scripture readings that we heard today – the call of Jeremiah for exiles to make a home in the midst of their displacement, the image of Jesus sitting in the temple watching how people were using their resources.

Mary lives in one of the neighborhoods off of Raymond Road on Madison’s southwest side that has been undergoing a difficult transition in the past few years. The old middle-class stability of the area has shifted to not only a fair number of people who are living in poverty, but also to the people who would exploit them with drug deals and mayhem.

The-Widows-Mite1It’s been an uncomfortable time for Mary and her husband and their neighbors. They watched a house across their back yard become what appeared to be a drug house, the yard deteriorating, the people coming and going creating a sense of unease and vulnerability among the neighbors. They were beginning to feel like exiles in their own town.

Sure, they could listen to Jeremiah’s advice to the Jewish exiles, dragged in captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce.”

But it was hard for the long-term residents to think of themselves as exiles in their own neighborhood and the new residents did not seem interested in settling down or planting gardens. Mary and her neighbors struggled with how to respond in the midst of their own fears and their own hopes for their area.

Then one day, things changed. The yard was cleaned up. New residents were moving in. Things seemed to be settling down. But these were no ordinary neighbors.

The drug house had been turned into a half-way house for returning prisoners. They were indeed exiles removed from their homeland, yet here they were looking to settle down before their exile would end. The guys would sit in the back yard and talk. They’d enjoy watching one of the neighbor’s dogs play outside.

A few months earlier, if the neighbors had learned that former prisoners were taking up residence across the back yard, they would have been unnerved. Now they were relieved. Better former offender with supervision than future offenders on the loose.

So now Mary said she faced a new question. How could she help make these new neighbors feel a little more welcome? She came up with a pretty simple answer. Bring them some cookies.

It’s a simple, unostentatious response. Kind of like dropping a couple of small coins into a temple collection box. But in the process, Mary and her husband are making themselves with quiet hospitality a bit more vulnerable, not engaging in any flashy show of their generosity.

Like Jeremiah told the exiles about 600 years before Jesus: Promote the welfare of the city where you are because your future depends on its welfare.

I think there are times in many of our lives where we may feel displaced. We may not be literal exiles like the Jewish people of Jeremiah’s time, forcibly removed to another land. We can surely see literal exiles in our own time with the tragic flood of refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern nations occurring right now or the migrants from Mexico and point south seeking new opportunities in the U.S.

But we can feel displaced in many other ways as well. Moving to a new city, even to a new home, can be disorienting. Starting a new job or leaving a familiar one can leave us spinning.

prisonBonnie Van Overbeke talks of sitting with guys in prison – surely people in a forced exile. She tells of how the guys she talks with are trying to find some meaning in the situation where they are living lest they simply become captives of resentment.

And they also need to find shreds of hope, as do we all. When we find ourselves in those hard places – a neighborhood where violence is becoming too common, a school where a bully seems to rule the hallways, a workplace where exploitation pushes aside dignity – in those hard places, we need to find glimmers of hope to keep moving forward.

“I know the plans I have in mind for you,” God told the Israelites through the writings of Jeremiah. “They are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope…I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the Lord.”

That sense of God’s presence with them gave them hope. It allowed them to have a life with promise even when all was not as they wished it could be. Their daily fate was controlled by the Babylonian rulers. Their ultimate fate was held in the embrace of God’s love.

That temple scene in the Gospel also dealt with powerful, often oppressive forces.

There’s an interesting choice made by the people who select the readings for the seasons and Sundays of the year – readings that are shared by many Christian denominations is what is called a common lectionary. This reading from Mark always seems to wind up right around stewardship season.

I guess the idea is inspire us to be as generous as the poor woman in the story, maybe even placing our last coins into the collection plate – or feeling guilty if we don’t.

But don’t you wonder how that fits with the first half of the story – the temple leaders walking around in long robes, seeking places of honor while cheating widows out of their homes and showing off with long prayers? This woman is supposed to give up her two copper coins to support them?

It’s an issue that remains in the religious culture of our time as well. You all know of the TV preachers who promise healing or salvation if you will just send them a few more dollars.

You may have seen the story in a new book published this past week about the inner workings of the Vatican. The book is called Merchants in the Temple and it is by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi.

sciaccaOne story in that book is about Monsignor Giuseppe Sciacca, the number two in the Vatican City state administration. It seems that top Vatican officials get enormous apartments. But that was not enough for Msgr. Sciacca.

When the monsignor’s neighbor, an elderly priest, was hospitalized for an extended time, Sciacca knocked through the wall between their apartments and incorporated the extra room into his own apartment.

An Associated Press recounts what the book says: “The elderly prelate eventually came home to find his possessions in boxes, and died a short time later.”

This did not sit well with Pope Francis, who you may recall refused to move into the elegant papal residence and lives in a hotel where he has breakfast in the morning with a wide variety of Vatican workers. Francis summarily demoted Sciacca, forcing him to move out of this newly expanded home.

Remember that line from Luke: “They are the ones who will cheat widows out of their homes?” Or cheat elderly priests out of their apartments?

Maybe as Jesus sat across from the collection box in the temple, watching the rich make a big deal out of how much they were giving and the widow give out of her poverty, maybe he was not holding up the widow as a model emulate but as an example that ought to make us feel as outraged about the situation as he felt.

There are lots of things that keep people trapped in poverty, after all. Drug dealers who prey on them, used cars dealers that overcharge for clunky cars, laws that make it hard for people to make the leap to self-sufficiency, educational systems that fail to adapt to changing populations, low expectations by people who themselves have been living in poverty… the list goes on and on.

If we were sitting there with Jesus on that day, I’m not sure the response he would be looking for is for us to throw a little more money into the temple treasury. I think he might be wondering if this oppressive system should survive.

In fact, the very next verses in the Gospel according to Mark have Jesus telling his followers, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another.”

Yes, I know this has a bit of an odd sound for a Sunday when we are celebrating our own pledges of financial support to Memorial for the coming year. I can sense the trustees and the stewardship committee asking themselves, “What the heck is he doing up there?”

One of the things I am doing up here is reminding myself and all of us here that as a church community, we need to be really clear about how we are using the money that you entrust to us. It is your money and you have a right to know how it is being used. We have clear checks and balances in the process and we strive to be transparent about how the money is used. The only thing held in confidence is who gives how much.

Yes, a sizeable portion of our annual budget – one third, in fact – goes to pay for my salary and benefits. So I have a stake in this. And just to be clear, I have not knocked out the walls of any neighbors in our condo.

The expectation of churches like Memorial is that the pastor is here to serve the congregation, not the other way around. And it the expectation here is that we will use our resources to provide programming and to sustain our building, but even more, that we will use what we have as a base of operations to serve the community around us and to work on tackling the oppressive systems in our world that exploit others.

Some of that we do on a small scale as individuals, not unlike the spirit of generosity shown by that widow in the temple — or by Mary in her neighborhood.

It may not always involve giving money. It may be tutoring a student, helping someone fill out a job application, bringing in sheets to help a family get through today’s crisis. It may be advocating locally and nationally for justice in our court system or fairness in our economic system.

Whether we are helping exiles survive in the midst of displacement or turning over tables in the temple,
we have a place in the stories of our scriptures that call us to do justice and to love kindness as we walk humbly with our God.

Whether we are celebrating a pledge today to help Memorial be a launching pad for the kinds of things that heal the wounded or confront the powerful or we are honoring the work that we do outside the walls of this building to bring the world closer to God’s vision of justice and peace,
we are part of the stories of our scriptures that call us plant the seeds of hope in the midst of despair.

We each have gifts we bring to the life of Memorial, to our neighborhoods, to the farthest reaches of the globe. In a few moments, we will bring forward representations of those gifts.

For now, let’s sing about them. Could you join together singing #562 – Take My Gifts?