a biblical reflection, based on Mark 12.38-40, for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2015
Scribes. The learned scriptural scholars and teachers, editors and copyists of ancient Israel. Jesus warns against them.
From the beginning of his ministry Jesus struggled with the scribes. (Perhaps they were envious of the crowd’s acclamation that Jesus “taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” who instructed via memorization and repetition.) The tension deepens as Jesus calls out those scribes who hunger for public honor, pray at length for appearances’ sake, and worse, burden widows by demanding lodging and food, if not also depriving them of their homes.
“Beware.” A worthy caution in Jesus’ time and now. For the confrontation between Jesus and the scribes, I think, was not primarily, if at all personal (Jesus had at least one wholesome, gracious encounter with a scribe), but rather a conflict between a movement and an institution.
Movements and institutions are fundamentally different. Movements move. Movements, rooted in a cause, a commitment, in response to the way things are, seek to share and spread a message of transformation, even redemption. Institutions, though spawned by movements, over time, stand still. As such, institutions invariably undermine the cause, the commitment by altering the raison d’être from sharing and spreading a message to preserving organizational structures and systems, traditions and conventions, practices and privileges.
On Sunday, November 1, 2015, in Washington, DC, the Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry was installed as the 27th Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church; the first African American to be so honored and laden with so great a calling and challenge. At the heart of his sermon, Michael spoke of the Jesus movement. He said, in part:
“…Jesus did not come into this world to found a religion, though religious faith is critical. Nor did he come to establish an institution or an organization…(but) to inaugurate, to begin, to catalyze a movement…that would change and transform this world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends for all of us…”
I don’t believe it was lost on Michael or anyone else that he preached in the presence of a packed house in the Washington National Cathedral, the world’s 6th largest Gothic cathedral; a magnificent and undeniably material manifestation of an institution.
Michael also said, “…organizations and institutions can serve (Jesus’) cause.” Hearing and heeding these words personally, I pray that the church, particularly my Episcopal Church, and I, though in retirement, in the service I continue to offer through the church, will remain true to Jesus’ cause. For ne’er would I want to hear Jesus, in reference to my church or to me, ever say, “Beware.”
Illustration: Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens (Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees), James Tissot, 1886-1894
Photograph: The Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry preaching – REUTERS/Mike Theiler – RTX1UA7D
 Mark 1.22
 See Mark 12.28-34
 This is the nature of movements at their best, which, at their worst, can do harm, bringing suffering, even death to those who do not agree.
 This, of course, is unavoidable (as a movement shares and spreads its message and gains adherents, inevitably the order of organization needs to be established to fulfill the cause, the commitment). For this reason, all institutions, to remain true to (to remember) their causes and commitments also need to engage regularly in periods of revival and renewal.
 Having known our Presiding Bishop for years, I refer to him by his first name.