I know that you’re all glad that the election season is over. Whether your candidates won or lost, if you’re like me, you’re enjoying watching TV a whole lot more than a week ago. None of those annoying political ads are blaring at you. Your email inbox has gotten a bit lighter as well. But, here’s a bit of warning – once you give to a candidate or a party, you’re marked for life, and you can expect to get many emails asking for money. All of this constant fund-raising can be a bit annoying, but it’s part of the game. And, while, politicians will tell you that they welcome contributions of every size, they would rather you give the maximum amount than the minimum. Not only that, but if you have a Super-PAC, there is no maximum, so give as much and as often as you can. Since we were inundated with TV ads from Super-PACS, you know that a lot of really big givers gave a lot of money to these efforts to influence our votes. So, to many people the question of “Who is the Biggest Giver?” has a lot of meaning.
Well, enough about politics! I just wanted to get that off my chest!
These kinds of conversations about money don’t just occur in political circles. They happen all the time in our churches. We know that the institution we call the church requires cash, lots of cash, to keep going. And just like the political arena, money can have its privileges in the church. I know this never happens here, but in some congregations the biggest giver expects to exert considerable influence over the church’s life. People sometimes give gifts to the church with strings attached. So does the church accept the gift, especially if the strings undermine the mission of the church?
We’ve heard Mark tell about Jesus’ visit to the Temple, where he watches the people bring their offerings into the Temple treasury. As I listen to this story, I imagine Jesus sitting on a bench, like the ones you and I sit on at the mall, which in many ways is the Temple of modern life, to do people watching. Don’t you enjoy watching shoppers struggle down the lane, burdened down by multiples of large sacks full of “bargains.” And since the Christmas rush starts earlier each year, I expect you’re already seeing this happen. But why? What’s the point?
In this case, Jesus appears to have found a seat directly across the street from the Temple. He watches as wealthy patrons throw large sums of money into the pot. Since Mark just finished describing the experts in religious law who liked to parade around in their long robes – sort of like my pulpit robe – and sit at the head table at the synagogue or in the market, and since Jesus suggests that these folks also cheated widows out of their homes, while saying long prayers, you get the sense that these wealthy patrons are throwing in their grand sums with great fanfare. Perhaps Don Pardo or Ed McMahon is there announcing the names and numbers as they go by.
Then Jesus notices someone else in the crowd. It’s a widow who is so poor that she has only two copper coins left to her name. Perhaps she’s one of the widows that the legal scholars had cheated out of her home. Although she was down to her last few coins, she throws everything she has into the collection box. While many people would frown on this act of generosity, Jesus commends her faithfulness. As he points her out to his disciples, he tells them that while the rich gave great sums, it really was not that much. It was just loose change. They’d never miss a dime of the money that they contributed. But as for this woman, she gave out of her poverty. Maybe she did this because she figured that one more meal would just prolong her misery. Or, maybe she offered this sacrificial gift as an act of worship.
What I’m about to say, I say with a bit of caution, since my own livelihood depends on your gifts. But, in what way do you see your gifts being an act of worship and not just a duty? Do you see your offering as a sign of your allegiance to God’s reign?
This is an important question, especially as churches begin looking into alternative methods of giving, such as instructing your bank to send a check to the church. I realize too that many churches have moved away from taking offerings during the service, because non-church goers think that all that churches want is people’s money. Since Cheryl is the one who puts in our family’s offering into the plate, I rarely have anything to add. To help solve this dilemma, we’re going to place cards in the pew racks that will allow you to participate in this act of worship, even if you’ve already given in another form.
There are practical reasons for taking up the offering, but perhaps William Stringfellow was correct when he wrote that our giving has "little to do with supporting the church.” Although this sounds rather odd, since we all know that our offerings help pay the church’s bills, here’s Stringfellow’s point: He says that the "the church's mission does not represent another charity to be subsidized as a necessity or convenient benevolence, or as a moral obligation." Therefore, the offering is "integral to the sacramental existence of the church, a way of representing the oblation of the totality of life to God."* Remember that man who sadly walked away when Jesus asked him to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor? Why did he do this? According to the biblical accounts, it was because his treasure owned him. Is this true of you and me? I think it’s a lot truer than I’m willing to acknowledge.
What Stringfellow is trying to say is that our monetary gifts are a confession of faith. In giving our money we confess the words that appear on that money: “In God we Trust.” Not the money, not the nation that prints the money, not even that gold sitting in Fort Knox – it’s God, that’s who we’re entrusting our lives to. Isn’t this why Jesus contrasts the gifts of those who simply gave out of their spare change with the widow who gave sacrificially? Remember that Jesus also said that where we put our treasure, there will we find our hearts.
Now, we don’t know what happens to this widow? Maybe she died the next day of starvation. Or maybe someone stepped in to provide her with a hand up. I don’t know – Mark doesn’t say.
What we do know is this, as James put it: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (Jms.1:27).
We know how easy it is for people to fall through the cracks. Unfortunately we rarely miss them, which is why they fall through the cracks. Now, back then the only available social safety net for a widow was a male head of the household. That’s why Naomi sent Ruth to find Boaz. If Ruth didn't find a husband, she and Naomi would starve. This widow, and the widow from Zarepath, whose story we find in 1 Kings 17, both faced this reality. Neither of them seem to have any family available to help them survive in this new world. While it seemed presumptuous of Elijah to ask this widow to give him her bread, she gave the bread as an act of faith in the God of a foreign people, and according to the biblical story, God provided for her needs even though she wasn’t a worshiper of Yahweh.
Next Sunday we’ll be bringing our estimate of giving cards to the church. We’ll be offering our pledges of support to the ministry of the church. As you do this ask yourself – how does this pledge reflect my faith in God?
Although I can't promise you that God will multiply your gifts a hundredfold – that would be presumptuous of me --surely gifts given with heartfelt gratitude and a bit of sacrifice will be blessed. Not because of the amount, but because of the heart of worship and trust.
*William Stringfellow, quoted in Pulpit Resource, 28 (October, November, December 2000): 30.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 11, 2012