Unless the Lord Builds the House, Those who Build it Will Labor in Vain

Transcribed from the sermon preached November 8, 201

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

 Scripture Readings: Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44


This morning Jesus emphasizes what we offer to God. The value of our giving is not judged by monetary value, but by the giving heart. It is the level of care, dedication and love that we carry internally in our heart that matters to God.


Do you ever sit around and people watch? Certain places are better for people watching than others. I figure coffee shops have made it big in part because people like to see other people. Parades are organized people watching events. It Guatemala the best place to watch people is the market on market day. And the biggest market and the biggest market day is in Chichicastenango during the celebration of Santo Thomas, the town’s patron saint. People come from in from outlying villages all dressed up in their most beautiful clothes to sell and buy goods. I spent three days there just sitting and watching.


Jerusalem is a similar set up. It is the big market town, where peasants come to sell their produce and livestock, and to worship. When our group went to Israel we spent hours wondering through the narrow streets of old Jerusalem. Local people from every ethnicity and religion live work and sell together. Plus there are thousands of pilgrims from all over the world. I spent a couple of hours in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher watching Christians from various parts of the world and various degrees of piety walk, talk, and pray.


The Western or “Wailing” Wall is another sacred place that is awesome for people watching. The young Jewish boys and their teachers reminded me of the locals at Hawaiian surf break. Even among hundreds of other people you can recognize a difference in body language that says, “I belong here.”


They live and study the scripture there every day and have the look of bemused tolerance of all the tourists who make quick hit and run prayer stops. They have their own desks and their own Torah, or they use the special Torah’s inside the cave, they know all the right moves and all the right prayers. I found myself wondering what kind of connections and money parents would have to have to send their young boys to school at the Wailing Wall. I guess there are Churches and school clubs and night clubs and business functions like that where the officials and popular known people are clear not only by their dress but by their body language: They have all the right clothes, know all the right people, speak the right language in the right way, and have all the right moves.


Jesus is there, hanging out at the temple, watching people. Now what isn’t said is that Jesus had been watching people all over the place. Some commentators suggest the scribes devour widow’s houses by teaching them the kind of piety where they give away all they have like the widow in our story. Certainly there are those religious people and institutions that seem to sucker unknowing poor into giving away all they have in hope that God will then make them rich. The comedian John Oliver has a great segment on TV preachers milking their viewers for money; like the pastor who recently said God was calling him to buy a private jet, and the pastor who suggested the way to get out of credit card debt was to give a thousand dollars to his ministry by charging it on your credit card. These TV preachers are vulgar and in your face with taking money.


But the scribes Jesus is talking about appear to be pious and faithful, enjoying respect and honor and the best seats at the markets and banquets.


And it looks to me like Jesus is not criticizing the woman’s ignorance but praising her piety. It is more likely that in the agrarian culture of 1st century Palestine, Jesus is talking about the less visible but more common tactic of the rich – to dispose of the property of the poor when they are vulnerable. When a woman lost her husband, she might also lose her ability to make a living or pay off debt. The scribes would have been wealthy landowners who could lease property to the poor or give loans either for property or for food when the harvest came up short. When payments could no longer be made, the house or land would be confiscated. The honorable and respected landowner wouldn’t even show his face, but would send his workers to evict a widow. But everybody in a village including Jesus would know who the big land owners and lenders were who sent the thugs to evict widows and others. This would not be an uncommon story.


I suspect Jesus’ criticism here is leveled not just at a flashy scribe or priests or two or three but the whole economic system. Rather than the TV preacher, the actions of the scribes would be more analogous to the wealthy businessman who gives to his church, the symphony and the university, is then honored at their annual dinners, but makes his money off predatory lending or cheap labor in unstable countries.


Thus Jesus is not only speaking about how we give our money but how we make our money, and how we consider ourselves when we have money and privilege. He is talking not just about how we act when we get to church but who we are during the week too.


All of our talents are gifts from God. It is a temptation of the especially gifted to think they are special and good – they may even think that because they are wealthy they might be especially good in the eyes of God. John Updike called this egotheism – the conviction that one’s exalted sense of self amounts to divine privilege.” He writes of his character, “She regards herself as a Christian because God has granted her success.” The scribes Jesus criticizes suffer from egotheism.

Our gifts, talents and money have a purpose, to serve the God of love, peace and justice. At the same time, keeping God in focus gives us the assurance that our labor is not ours alone. We can be less anxious.

1Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.

2It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for God gives sleep to his beloved.

Hard work is good. But the world doesn’t revolve around us. We are not Atlas, no matter how blessed and powerful we may seem. Many pastors as many others have a problem of working too hard. The job never ends. If you do one part really well it is probable something else will suffer. And there is frequently no shortage of critics. One pastor I knew was being paid for ¾ time and couldn’t find time to take a day off. She was eating the bread of anxious toil. It was as if her congregation’s salvation depended on the daily sacrifice of her own boundaries and care of self. Not surprisingly, she burnt out. She failed to realize that God gives sleep to his beloved, perhaps parents of newborns excepted.

On the one hand we want our entire lives, our family, work and church to glorify God. On the other hand the sacrifice for our salvation has already been paid. We glorify God even in our sleep and care of ourselves. That is how we maintain energy, strength and peace for the long haul of helping to build God’s kingdom.

Whether we are rich, poor or medium we can be rich in God’s grace. We don’t have to hide or compartmentalize pieces of ourselves. God sees it all anyway. And even though we may be blind to some of our sins, we ourselves are aware enough to know that if the peace of heaven is dependent on our works, we don’t have a chance. Yet Christ is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. And our faith in the grace of Christ enables us to let go of the superficial and empowers us to embrace the deep commitment of a life dedicated to God. There is joy and riches beyond measure here.

I can’t help but tell the story again. As we planned a large event here at St. John’s to publicize the Sanctuary movement a year ago September, we asked one of the members of Primera Iglesia in Oakland to prepare food to sell for dinner. It was our full expectation that Maria would take the money she made for herself. Perhaps she would make a tithe to her congregation with what she made. But she sent us a letter with the couple of hundred dollars. She said, “I want to give St. John’s all the money I made from the dinner. I am so grateful you are doing God’s work protecting refugees and helping our church. God bless you.

Here is a woman who makes tamales for a living, who like the widow in the story, just lays it all on the line because of her love for Jesus. What are we here for? What are we living for? Who is our God?

In his observation of the scribes and the widow, Jesus emphasizes that what we offer to God, from God’s point of view, is not judged on the apparent worldly or monetary value, but by the givers heart. It is the level of dedication, care and love that we carry internally which matters to God.