I’m working on getting kicked out of the lectionary club. This week I’m using the Gospel reading for the 11th and the Hebrews reading from the 18th. It will only get wackier from there, until the end of the month. Okay, that’s just two more Sundays, but let a guy feel radical for a while.

Contexts of these texts:

Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25: The book of Hebrews has made a long comparison between the ancient Hebrew temple, with its constant rituals, and the sacrifice Jesus made once and for all to make a way directly into heaven. The letter is now turning toward encouragement and applications.

Mark 12:38-44: During the week before his death, Jesus is in the temple, debating the religious leaders about money, the resurrection, and the greatest commandment. Having answered all their questions, he continues to teach the crowd.

What’s going on here?

In Hebrews, we finally make the transition from describing Jesus as the ultimate high priest and explaining why any of that matters. Sacrifice is completed and we have access to God without any need for further rituals, so we can come together confidently and live out our faith (which is the topic for three more chapters). Maybe the lectionary needs to trim off some of the first bits of Hebrews and spend more time in the exhortation section. Or maybe the exhortation doesn’t makse sense without the argument that we finally have access to God.

The only thing is, I think it has finally clicked with me that the priesthood/sacrifice business is so hard to celebrate because it has made its point so well. When Hebrews 10:19 tells us “We have … freedom to go into the Most Holy Place,” the response is, “Of course we do!” One can insist on the last phrase “by means of the death of Jesus” (which may or may not require a particular atonement theory), but even by then the ship  has sailed. God is intimately present in our lives, or God isn’t relevant. That’s the incarnational mysticism of the Spiritual But Not Religious trend, and it’s basically true – even Calvin pointed out that we should be less concerned about God-in-essence than we are about God-for-us. Now it seems that God-for-us is self-evident, as if it’s a waste of time even to how that might be so.

Jesus, who presumably hadn’t yet read Hebrews, leans into this brave new world where religious institutions can no longer curtail people’s access to the Holy. In the Mark reading, he delivers a scathing indictment of the temple system, dressed up as a stewardship sermon. Indeed, the “widow’s mite” has been trotted out every November since Ananias and Sapphira to encourage people to give something, even if they didn’t think it was very much. However, in the context of Jesus’ warning about religious leaders who “take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes” (Mark 12:40), the story reads much more as a critique of the temple and its supposedly exclusive access to God. What devotion on the widow’s part, but what a corruption of the Good News of a God who will go through hell to be in relationship with creation.

As I read this biting commentary on religious institutions, my heart breaks for the widow who told me, apologetically, that she had had to reduce her pledge to our church because expenses had gone up and her income never would. I lament for the church members I run into around town who confess, “I really need to get back to church.” I wonder about my friends and acquaintances who seem to just know that they’re not our kind of religious people, who don’t show up.

Hebrews, which has beat the topic of priestly supercession pretty well to death, yet implores us: “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing.” Ask someone who no longer attends church, get beneath the surface answer, and they don’t usually talk like they gave up the habit. There’s often something – an interpersonal conflict, a life crisis, a public embarrassment – that has created an obstacle to renewed participation.

So, what is it? What keeps us (or others) from worship today? I don’t want to ask that judgmentally, but honestly. Is there some kind of barrier around the church building, once you dig deeper than “it’s hard to find the time”? What would open the door again? What would make it worth walking through?

Some other reflections you might find interesting:

How do we sustain our life of faith even when we don’t “feel like it”? Debra Dean Murphy is Religious But Not Spiritual

Is it harder to give our money or our time? Time is money, says Micah Kiel

What does our giving (or the church’s use of your giving) indicate about our trust in God? “My Way” or a “Widow’s Way”? on the Listening Hermit

The life of each saint is the life of Jesus Christ; it is a new gospel. (Jean-Pierre de Caussade, 1675- 1751, At the Edge of Enclosure)

This Veterans’ Day Sunday, we give thanks for those who have put their very lives on the line. She gave her all

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