November 9, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
This third Sunday of our Stewardship Season, we continue to explore the Generations of Generosity in our faith history. Last week, we were in the Old Testament, as the widow of Zarephath shared the last of her meal and oil with the prophet Elijah, and through God’s provision, she did not run out. We saw how what we bring, though it be only a little, can be made into plenty by God’s mighty power.
This week, we hear about yet another widow who gives her all. But this is a different widow, in a different context and a different generation. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the last time, riding into town on the back of a donkey to shouts of “hosanna!” And before long he will be arrested and executed. He has been challenging the leaders with his actions and his words. Just before this widow comes to give her offering, Jesus says:
"Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
And then comes this widow, a faithful Jew, who brings her offering to the temple as Jesus watches. Let’s listen for God’s word to us today in the gospel of Mark, chapter 12:40-44:
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When I preach a familiar story like this one, I go back to my old sermons, to make sure I don’t repeat myself, and to find anything that bears repeating. Turns out you’ve heard this story before -- in 2009, and 2012.
In both sermons, I shared stories of generous widows in our day and age. One was about Doris, who was sent to Kenya by her tiny Presbyterian church, a trip made on donations and fund-raisers, money raised at church bake sales and car-washes. On her last day in Kenya, Doris gave her last $10 to the church offering, the $10 she had been saving in her billfold – her “mad money” stashed away for an emergency reserve. (1)
The other story was of Oseola McCarty, an elderly widow who lived in poverty, who made her living as a washer woman. She had saved every penny she could from the time she left 6th grade and began working. When she made out her will, her banker gave her ten dimes, representing 100 percent of her estate, and asked her to use the dimes to show him what percentages she wanted to give, and to whom. She slid the dimes around the banker’s desk, putting aside one dime – a tithe- for her church, one dime for each of her three living relatives, and six dimes for scholarships to Southern Mississippi University. That sixty percent of the widow woman’s estate amounted to $150,000. Seeing her generosity, others gave more, and even Ted Turner chipped in a billion dollars.(2)
I wanted to remind you of those widows, because this story so easily becomes a distant fable, so far removed from us that even placing it in its larger context doesn’t help us relate to it. You thought last week’s widow of Zarephath story was far-fetched? This widow has two coins. All the money she has to her name. And she has just dropped them in the church treasury. Donated them to the general fund, undesignated, unrestricted.
Jesus has been warning those who will hear him about the fancy proud folk who dress nice and pray loud, who make a big show of their giving, those who donate a large, beautiful object to be on display, and put a plaque on it to remind everyone of their generosity. I’m not talking about memorial gifts, I’m talking about show-off giving. We don’t see much of that around here, but I’ve been in churches where everything in the building bears a brass plaque – the furniture, the pictures, the computer, the desk, even the vacuum cleaner! You halfway expect that if the preacher turns around you’ll see a plaque stuck to her backside.
“This preacher paid in memory of Great-Aunt Ethel.”
Jesus doesn’t have anything to say about plaques, or designated gifts. But he has a lot to say about people’s intentions in giving. Because as usual, Jesus is worried more about the inward than the outward. And as we look at this story of the widow and her two small coins, it will help us to know what was happening before and after this vignette. As I mentioned, in Mark’s gospel, in this 12th chapter, Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the last time. He entered to shouts of “hosanna!” and before long, he will hear shouts of “crucify him!”
So we are seeing here his final actions. We are hearing him say the things that pushed the authorities to arrest him. He has thrown the money changers from the temple. He has argued about the resurrection and the life to come. He has skillfully avoided entrapment in the question about paying taxes, taking a coin with Caesar’s image and saying, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” And he has answered a very sincere question about the greatest commandment. A scribe who had been listening to him teach approached and asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Obviously, there are scribes, and then there are scribes, because just a few verses later, Jesus is warning the disciples to beware of the scribes, the highly religious and righteous men, with their very long robes and their very long prayers, and their public displays of benevolence.
Then comes this widow with her offering. And she raises some questions for us.
Had they devoured her house, cheated her out of her meager wealth?
Why was one so poor not being cared for by the religious community?
Was she at the same point of despair as the widow we read about last week,
who planned to use up the last of her resource and then wait for death?
Was she looked down upon because of her poverty?
It has ever been true, apparently, that some people equate wealth with God’s approval, and assume that those who are rich are deserving of their wealth. In fact, surveys of wealthy people show that they believe they are rich because they deserve to be. They can’t say why, but obviously they have a lot of money because they are better than all the rest of us. The corollary assumption then, is that those who are in poverty are morally inferior, don’t work hard enough, or are simply wasteful. They are poor because they deserve to be poor.
That’s a mite harsh position to take, but it has its advantages. It frees you from any responsibility to those who are less fortunate. You don’t need to care for them, or be generous toward them. Because if they are poor, it’s their own fault. Too bad for them. That attitude, prevalent as it is, runs contrary to God’s will and to every teaching in the entire Bible. If we are indeed the Christian nation that so many people say we are, we would do well to show the kind of generosity to the poor that the scriptures command. Not out of duty, nor out of superiority, but out of love. If we can’t whomp up enough love for the actual people in poverty, maybe we can care for them because we love God. And because Jesus told us to.
I think that’s why this widow with her two coins, and those other widows, Doris and Osceola, capture our imaginations so powerfully. Not the quantity of their gifts– two coins, ten bucks, $150,000— but the intention of their generosity. Their gifts were motivated by a powerful love of God, and given with gratitude and joy. Two copper coins is small change nowadays even as it was then. For most of us, $10 is not all that much to give. And for a rich guy like Ted Turner, $150,000 probably doesn’t seem like much. It’s all about our perspective, isn’t it?
And when it comes to giving to our church, most of us could use a small change to our perspective. Most of us – I certainly do – have at least a little struggle as we consider our pledges. We think that a small change in what we give couldn’t possibly make that much difference. We might pray that God will make a small change in our hearts, so that we can be more generous, more easily. Maybe we hope for a small change in our personal finances so that we feel more comfortable as we make our pledge.
But God isn’t keeping score with money, nor is God rewarding some people with wealth and punishing others with poverty. God keeps pouring out blessings and lavishing love on us, rejoicing with us in every small change we can make in the world through our faithfulness.
So I hope you’ll join me in praying for small change this year – and for big changes, too:
a small increase in our generosity, and a big increase in our joy in giving;
a small increase in our budget, and a big increase in what we do for others;
a small increase in pledges, and a big increase in our love –
for God, for neighbor,
for this world so much in need of change.
Thanks be to God for small change.
(1) Laurie McKnight, personal correspondence, 2009.