Mark 12:1-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Let us pray.
Lord, we live in a world that we like to think we can control. Yet when things like pandemics and natural disasters happen, it is made crystal clear to us that our human powers are weak at best, and nonexistent at worst. So. What does it mean to be created in your image and likeness if even microscopic bugs can take us down? How are we to count ourselves as just a little less than angels when we can’t even be in the same room with each other for fear of contamination? When the measure of our survival becomes the ability to find toilet paper supplies? Yet you assure us that the world in which we move today is not the only one available to us, that in focusing on this world and its powers, we miss the larger picture and the truer story. Help us as we learn to see past the dire circumstances of the day and begin to trust – that power does not lie with us or our abilities but rather that true power and overcoming adversity comes from opening our hearts to the Divine love that flows from your heart to ours.
In your holy name we pray, Amen.
In the stories Mark writes in today’s Gospels, there is a central theme: That the Empire powers we think of as having control are not in fact the powers to which we ought to be paying attention. Power does NOT lie in the hands of the ones who seek to control the land or the government – nope. True Power does not wear a human face or reside in a human built structure. True Power lies literally outside those institutions and is only allowed to them for a short while. And for those of us who like to think that we are masters of our own destinies, that is hard, hard thing to hear.
I am not trying to undermine anyone’s understanding of the wonder of their being and their ability to make a life for themselves – but I am saying that if you walk around thinking that you and you alone are responsible for your successes and failures, you are missing a big piece of the puzzle. The very tools that you used to create that life were given to you. The determination, the Spirit, the lucky break – are all gifts placed in your hands by the God who made you. And the fears you had to let go of, the mountains you had to overcome – they were pretty much made with human hands too.
I think I have told this story before, but an old man was sitting by the fire and his teenage grandson came to sit by him. The old man could see his grandson was struggling with something and so he asked him, “What’s wrong?” The young man paused looking into the fire, and finally said, “I keep having this dream and in it, two wolves are fighting over my soul. One wolf is a terrible, mean, evil spirited beast and one is clearly a kind, gentle, Divine beast. Their fight is so huge and fierce that it is keeping me up at night. I can hardly sleep. And what’s worse, I don’t know which wolf will win control of my soul.” He stared into the flames, clearly upset and out of sorts. “It scares me, I just don’t know who will win the fight!” His grandfather was silent for a bit then reached out to hug the boy. “The wolf that will win, my son, is the wolf that you feed.”
I share this story with you again because it captures the essence of what Mark is trying to get at in his Gospel stories; the world that exists in front of us is the world that WE have created, the world that WE have fed. In the first story of the tenants who decide that they will keep the land they are leasing for themselves, they create the world that allows them to think that they can do all the evil acts possible to the representatives of the landowner, including the owner’s son, and that there will be no consequence for their actions. If we see the parable as Jesus alerting his listeners to the fact that the world they claim as their own is only on loan – then we have to acknowledge that the folks who have fed the wolf of intolerance and self-interest are hearing that they are about to have a day of reckoning with the landowner.
And FOR SURE the leaders DO realise what Jesus is saying; so much so, that they are ready right there and then to live out the story he is telling them and beat the snot out of him! But they are afraid of the crowd, and take their snarling wolf souls home. For now. Then the leaders try to feed the sneaky wolves again by trying to trap Jesus in a question about taxes. But here’s the thing – they miss the point entirely. The most important thing that they can conceive of is money and its control. But Jesus just shrugs – because money and its control are a problem for this world and for human institutions. God is not interested in our wealth. Again and again, the Scriptures lift up how much God wants nothing to do with our abundance per se – unless that abundance is reflecting a God-centred heart. It is why all the money the rich folks pour into the temple coffers is nothing as compared to the widow’s mite – they are only giving stuff and she is giving her heart. God does not want our stuff – God wants our heart.
So when the leaders ask Jesus to “show me the money!” Jesus obliges and says look at it – it has nothing to do with God. It does nothing to feed the flock, not in the ways that they need to be fed. And for people who are centered on that bottom line, focused on that human ability, planted in that definition of personal power – you might as well be speaking Martian. “What do you mean that God does not want our shiny bits?”
For those of us from a certain theatrical background, we might remember that in Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas is forever missing this message. When Mary anoints Jesus with perfume, Judas angrily confronts her:
Woman, your fine ointment, brand new and expensive
Could have been saved for the poor
Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe
Three hundred silver pieces or more
People who are hungry, people who are starving
Matter more than your feet and hair!
But Jesus, aware that Judas’ focus is NOT on the care of his neighbour but on the size of the Apostolic budget and its reflected glory and status for admiration by the powers of this world (cuz nothing says success like a fat bank balance, right?) – rebukes him saying:
Surely you’re not saying we have the resources
To save the poor from their lot?
There will be poor always, pathetically struggling
Look at the good things you’ve got!
Think! While you still have me
Move! While you still see me
You’ll be lost, you’ll be so sorry when I’m gone.
Jesus’ focus, God’s focus – is on feeding the Divine wolf, on creating a kindom where every living being is honored and respected. I lifted up last week that many Indigenous cultures are deeply aware of how interconnected we are as a creation. Part of that connectedness is a recognition that the world in which we move and breathe is a world that has been gifted to us for just a short time before we will return to the Creator who placed us in it. These short years that we have on this planet are not for accumulating stuff but for learning how very much we are intwined and interdependent with our neighbours as the body of Christ. We have to choose which wolf we will feed, indeed, if we want to learn that lesson well.
Today, as we dare to gather together in personal community, perhaps for the last time in a long time, we will be dedicating the work of our knitters and baptizing Dane Rokosh as the newest acknowledged member of that body of Christ. We will have communion, whether in elements or in spirit. Each of these acts places our focus not on the bottom line of profit and personal power, but on the grace filled heart of welcoming and serving our community. Nothing in these acts produces a worldly profit or enhances the bottom line. What they do is build the kindom of God, the body of Christ. They create the body of believers that is so very precious to our Heavenly Father. They awaken us to the fact that this world in which human empires strive and struggle for control over the land and the oceans and the air, that world is not parceled out to their dominant control. God is in ultimate control and God could give a fig about their power. Their empires won’t last. God alone is eternal. Those empire builders will have to face the consequences of feeding the wrong wolf.
The right wolf, the Divine wolf, shows up in some very surprising places, and when we feed her, we can be just as amazed and astounded as the Pharisees were to learn how and where God really acts in the world. I was blessed this past Thursday to go and see Nadia Bolz-Weber give a presentation about her new book, “Shameless”, which deals with how we talk about sex and human bodies in the church. She is earthy, occasionally foul mouthed, and just one of the truest, most faithful arrows we have in the Lutheran church today. She lifted up that in Luther’s Small Catechism when he expands on the Ten Commandments, he doesn’t stop with what we are NOT supposed to do but opens the commandment to include what we ARE supposed to do.
In the 8th Commandment, we are told not to bear false witness against our neighbour – but Nadia pointed out that Luther tells us we are to go beyond that negative and to the positive and work to support the narrative of our neighbour. In other words, we are to honour our neighbour’s story and try to understand their perspective. The only way to do that is to love them enough to care to learn about their story. The Empire doesn’t do that. The Kindom does. Every time Jesus meets someone, he is recorded as entering into their story; he forms the body of Christ from the connections he builds with the people who come to him with open and trusting hearts. The empire sees only the losers and the poor, and assigns them as having no value, throwing them on the rubbish heap. The kindom Jesus builds is with those empire rejected stones, himself being the most rejected cornerstone.
And that act of holy reclaiming our neighbours and their stories transforms the world. Our acceptance of that reclamation in Christ feeds the wolf that wants to bring us joy and wholeness. Following Jesus and entering into his kindom destroys the Empire, not by force but by love. Today we in this place we are building God’s kindom. The journey to the cross tells us that the Empire will fight back. But Easter assures us that by feeding the Divine wolf through our love for, and care about, our neighbours and their stories; by the revolutionary act of building our lives with Empire rejected stones to form God’s kindom, we shall be the people God has created us to be.