Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Many of you probably remember the original Godfather movie from the 1970s. It’s about an aging patriarch of an organized crime family who transfers control of his empire to his reluctant son, Michael. As the film goes along we discover what this responsibility and the power that goes with it does to Michael.
The closing scene of The Godfather is particularly memorable. It is, as we are gathered today for, a baptism. Michael Corleone’s nephew is being baptized, and Michael is there participating as the child’s godfather.
As the baptism is taking place, the film cuts to images showing the murders of the leaders of five Mafia families, murders that Michael has himself ordered. The images imply that the murders and the baptism are taking place at the same time.
As the juxtaposition between these two scenes takes place, the music and voice of the priest get louder and louder. The voice reaches its loudest point when the priest asks Michael if he rejects Satan and all the spiritual forces of evil that corrupt and destroy the children of God. Words that we will also hear today. The scene then cuts back again and shows Michael’s rivals being murdered by Michael’s henchmen men. The guns are, at that point, just as loud as the priest’s voice. The end of the scene cements the idea that Michael is now the new head of the Corleone crime family. It also implies that the price he has paid to attain that position has been his very soul.
This scene is one of the most dramatic movie portrayals of not only corruption and violence, but of sheer hypocrisy as well. A baby is being baptized while his godfather is having his rivals murdered.
Now, you may be wondering why on this beautiful day I am referencing such a gruesome scene from a movie. It is because when referencing today’s gospel reading, one biblical commentator has suggested that the juxtaposition of these images from The Godfather is actually no more jarring than the words that Jesus speaks in today’s reading from Mark.
So, what does Jesus say that is so jarring? Well, speaking about some of the teachers of the Law in his time, Jesus says, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
Now, I will admit, I have been guilty of saying long prayers, but what on earth is Jesus saying about devouring widows’ houses? Well, it turns out that some religious leaders in Jesus’ time were employed in making wills and conveyances of property. And some of them abused that position.
When a man died, these officers of the temple made a visit to the man’s widow under the guise of counseling her about settling her husband’s estate. In those days, the wife did not automatically inherit her deceased husband’s property or money. Men often left their whole fortune to the temple, and a good deal of the temple’s money went, in the end, to these unscrupulous clergy. It was a despicable practice, and Jesus gave it the condemnation that it deserved.
It even still happens today.
As many of you know, I have a fascination with late-night televangelists. I saw one once who was offering to give his viewers a tiny little vile of “miracle spring water” for a mere $125 gift to his ministry. That’s pretty expensive water. Of course, it came with a promise that anyone who gave money to the ministry and used this water would receive a hundredfold in return. Fleecing gullible religious people out of their money is nothing new. It happened in Jesus’ day and it happens today.
But here is what is important. At this point in the gospel text, we have an amazing transition that simply cannot be accidental. The scene cuts from the court of the Gentiles where Jesus has been conducting his public teachings and where he has been condemning religious leaders who take advantage of vulnerable people, to the court of the women which Jesus enters after making these pronouncements. Against the wall of this courtyard are 13 trumpet-shaped vessels for collecting offerings. Jesus is observing how the Passover crowd is putting money into the temple treasury. And in contrast to the many wealthy people who are giving large amounts of gold and silver coins, his attention zooms in on one poor widow . . . whose name we do not even know. She drops into one of the temple vessels two small coins worth only a few cents.
Jesus looks at her gift, given in secret without any show and praise from other worshippers and says solemnly, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything–all she had to live on.” In other words, she gave the church her last two cents.
When we hear this story we say, “Wow. What wonderful faith she had”. But here is what both disturbs me and also gives me hope. And it is why I think these two scenes are placed together in Mark’s gospel.
What if this woman was one of the widows who had been victimized by an unethical temple official? Think about that for a moment.
This woman may have been giving her last few cents and at the same time, she may have been giving it to the very institution that employed the people who caused her to be in that condition of poverty. If that is true, this woman would have had every reason to be angry—and yet, she did what she did out of love.
There are people in churches today who have been hurt by clergy or other church leaders, or perhaps by the church itself. I like to believe – I need to believe – that in most cases that hurt was unintentional. Most clergy are good, ethical, caring people. But it doesn’t excuse the fact that this happens. And what has been the response of Christian lay people who have been hurt by the Church? Yes, some have dropped out. But, thankfully, many hang in there. They stay committed to their church. Somehow, some people who have been hurt by their encounter with the Church have been able to separate their hurt by someone in the church from their commitment to God and to the church. And they are greatly to be praised.
Certainly this widow in the temple that day was faithful in her commitment. So much so that Jesus noticed her and held her up as an example for others. She was faithful in spite of the circumstances of her life. She could have had many reasons to be angry with God. It would have been very human for her to have issues with God as well as the institution that represented God. She could easily have blamed God for taking her husband away from her. This widow could have been angry with God over her poverty. That happens too. In fact, people get angry with God over many things. Getting angry with God is quite normal.
The amazing thing is that there are so many people who have been hurt by life or hurt by the church – like that widow – who do not transfer their feelings of anger to God. They may have felt that way at one time, but somehow their faith has conquered their feeling of betrayal. With time they have both remembered and discovered that God is the best friend they could have in a time of hurt.
I bring this up in the context of our celebration of the baptisms of Charles and John today for one reason. Mat and Kim. Nick and Mary Beth. I want you to know that what you are doing today matters. It really matters. Not just in the lives of your sons. It also matters in the life of the faithful people who are gathered here today.
You know, what you’re doing here today has, oddly enough, become rather counter-cultural. Truly. Think about it. If we’re honest about it, we have to admit that whether it is due to changes in society or failings of the Church itself, the reality is that the institution of the Church just does not hold the place in society that it once did.
That does not mean, however, that God does not still hold the same place in people’s hearts and lives that God always has. And that is at the core of what we are here to do and proclaim today.
One of the things that Nick and MB, and Mat and Kim and I discussed in preparation for today was what baptism really means.
The fact is, the Church has, in some ways, “used” its authority to convey baptism by telling people that if you’re not baptized in the Church, you’re not going to heaven. But I think we all know in our hearts that’s not true.
These two beautiful boys are loved by God right now just as much as they will be in a few minutes after we have baptized them. But, having a relationship with God as we have come to know God through Jesus Christ will, I believe, make a big difference in the lives these boys live. It will affect the choices they make and it will affect their relationship with God in this life and in the life to come. And I do believe that baptism in some way opens us to that deeper relationship with God.
So, the important thing for us today is that in the baptism of these 2 boys, you, Mat, Kim, Nick, and Mary Beth, as their parents, are making the same statement that was made by that widow with her 2 coins. You are saying that you trust in God’s faithfulness. You are saying that you want to support your boys by helping them know God and know that God loves them and will always be with them. And you are saying that even with all its flaws, the community of the Church – the gathering of the community of people who share that faith in God as we have come to know God in Jesus – is still one of the best ways we know of to nurture, build upon, and live out our faith.
So today, as a community we bless you and your families. We pray that God’s presence will always be known to you. And we promise to be there for you ourselves as you strive to raise these two boys to live lives that will be filled with joy, and love, and an awareness of the sacred in life.