This is a audio recording of a 4 week preaching series to help us appreciate “stewardship,” a word which has been used in church for a long time but is often misunderstood. Rev. Molly and Rev. Glen will approach “stewardship” from the perspective of “living fruitful lives.”
November 2, 2014
Last Sunday I had the distinct pleasure of spending the morning with the youth classes of our congregation. They are an amazing group of teenagers who are seeking in their own right to figure out what it means to live faithful lives and to be part of a Christian community, and it is a joy to accompany them on this journey. Knowing that the congregation was beginning a month-long focus on stewardship and what it meant to live fruitful lives, I thought I would carry this theme into my time with the teens last week. I said to them was that if they really wanted to freak their parents out at the dinner table, instead of talking about sex or drugs, this time they should raise the topic of the church and money. I challenged them to ask questions – how much do they give to the church? How much do they think people should donate? What charities do they support and why? Talk about the church and money – that is how to make them squirm.
Indeed, many of us are squeamish to talk about money in specific and direct ways, especially when related to the church. As a minister, it’s always interesting to me to hear the great public misperception about the amount of “money talk” that happens in the church. Many people who are not part of a faith community, and even some who are part of a congregation, believe all the church does is ask for money. They feel it is unseemly, or inappropriate, or exhausting to be continually asked for money, to be told how to spend their money, to mix talk of money with talk of faith as if somehow those two topics are mutually exclusive. Too much money talk in the church, they cry – and cite that as a reason for staying away. On the other side of the coin, so to speak, there are those who bemoan that the preacher never talks about money and its importance. Often it’s those who are charged with the leadership of and financial oversight within a congregation, although not exclusively. These ones think we shy away from money talk too much and say the only way to get more money for the church is to have the minister speak from the pulpit. They beg for more sermons to be focused on addressing money head on and want specifics – numbers, dollars, percentages laid out clearly. And caught in the middle of all of this, we preachers realize that, like so many other things in church, there will always be a group of people who are displeased with what we do!
From my vantage point, there is definitely room to talk about money within the church. Why there are 2,350 passages in the bible dealing with money and material possessions – more passages than on any other subject – so it seems to me that our ancestors in the faith received some pretty good teaching about it, and so should we. However I believe that any discussion of money in the church needs to be placed within the context of a discussion of stewardship on a much wider scale. That is why at Orleans United we are continuing a conversation about stewardship that understands God’s fruitfulness in all its varied aspects – not simply about dollars and cents. Wise stewardship of all God’s resources is an important part of a healthy church and a fruitful life. And yet in this discussion, we do need to talk openly and specifically about finances. So today I have the challenge, I mean privilege, of spending time with you thinking about fruitful giving: the spirit of generosity.
The story of the widow’s mite that Flora just shared with you is the all-time great story of Christian giving, the story of a poor woman who gave everything she had to the church. It’s a story found in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels, so it must be one that captivated many and spoke to some truth experienced by the people of Jesus’ time.
Jesus and his friends are visiting Jerusalem for the Passover Feast during the final week of his life. On the previous day, they had taken part in a demonstration against the temple priesthood and its thievery from the poor – that famous “Jesus cleansing the temple” scene. This day we find Jesus back at the temple, this time sitting across from the treasury box where monetary offerings were made. The treasury was the place where the Jewish people paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood that Jesus was so upset with. It was a flat tax, applying the same to the rich and the poor. In his gospel, Mark points out that many rich people were making a great show of the large sums they were putting in the treasury, surely hoping that in an effort to boast of their wealth, others would take note of their offerings as the coins rattled and clanged as each was dropped in. It was the place to see and be seen by all those who were in the upper echelons of the social and economic circles of the community.
It is in the midst of this scene there enters a widow, the poorest of the poor, and she makes her way slowly to the treasury. In her hands she clutches two copper coins called leptons, the smallest and least valuable coin in circulation in Judea. One lepton was worth about six minutes of an average daily wage – a coin so small it was barley worth most people’s bother. Invisible to all but Jesus, she pauses before she lets the two copper coins fall into the box, still damp from her hands. They made such a small sound that only she could hear it. And, equally quietly she leaves the scene, forgotten and unnoticed as she was in all of life – by everyone. Well, everyone, that is, except Jesus.
Jesus saw her walk to the temple treasury to give up her two coins, and something about the way she did it – the length of time she stood there, maybe, or the way she cradled them in her hand like her last two eggs – something about the way she did it that let him know that it was the end for her, that it was everything she had, so that when she surrendered them and turned to go, he knew she had nothing left that was not God’s. Her sacrifice was complete, so complete that he called his disciples over to witness it. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “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.”
That is why we know about her today, that nameless woman – because she gave all the little she had, holding nothing back, which made her last penny a fortune in God’s eyes.
Now before you think that this is a story about us having to sacrifice our every last penny to the church in order to be pleasing in God’s sight, you’ll note that nowhere in this passage does Jesus praise the widow for what she is doing. He simply calls his disciples over to notice her, and to compare what she does with what everyone else is doing. He invites his friends to sit down beside him and contemplate the disparity between abundance and poverty, between large sums and two copper coins, between apparent sacrifice and the real thing. He does not put anyone in the wrong. He does not dismiss the gifts of the rich. He simply points out that the major characters are minor givers, while the minor character – the poor widow – turns out to be the major donor of them all.
It was a great tribute Jesus paid to her, pointing her out to his disciples as the clearest example of what he had been teaching his whole ministry – a moment in which the enormity of her gift was acknowledged, even honoured, only she never knew it. She walked into the temple with her last two coins in her hand and she walked out again without them, totally unaware that she was being watched. As far as she knew, no one even saw her. She came in with no name and she went out with no name, but where she went and what she did once she had given her life away remains a mystery.
There are many lessons that we might draw from this story of the widow’s generosity, but today, it speaks to me of the kind of relationship we are called by God to have with the money we earn. In a world where the message of materialism seems to scream loudest of all, in a time when success and happiness are all too often measured by the newest gadgets, the biggest houses, the most exotic trips and the largest investment portfolios, it’s also a story that is hard to swallow.
It was obvious to the woman that all she had belonged to God, and that sharing that offering was the right thing to do. It exemplified the trust she had that God would provide, that sharing results in unimagined abundance, that when we give away what we have we are blessed with the unexpected riches that come back to us. But it is also a story of sacrifice. Of doing without. Of making a conscious decision about how to spend what we have in ways that are not all about us. And so it is a story that is easily chalked up as an unattainable ideal that us “regular” Christians could never actually live out, or dismissed because the model of Christian living it provides is simply too costly – literally and figuratively.
One of the great revelations from our youth class last week was that every penny that it costs for Orleans United to be the thriving, meaningful, active Christian community it is today comes directly from the pockets of its supporters. The youth had assumed the church was like any other organization where government funding or public sponsorship made up a good portion of our budget. Not so, I told them. The money that it costs to provide salaries and heat the building and buy paper towels for the washroom, every bit of it comes from the donations we receive through offerings and fundraising. And then I asked them “how much do you think that it costs us to keep OUC running for a year?”. It was a hard question for them to answer. Numbers like $10 000 or $20 000 started being shouted out. Higher I told them. $50 000? Not $100 000?! Keep going. When finally someone as a joke shouted out “half a million dollars”, I said that was about as close as they had come. They were shocked. Indeed, the operating budget of Orleans United is a large sum. Perhaps even larger than we feel comfortable admitting, because to think of having to generate between $400 and $500 000 can feel pretty overwhelming.
And that is why I think the story of the widow’s mite is one which can and should speak to our hearts today. You see, knowing the sums of money that others were putting in the treasury, knowing the kind of revenue that was created on an on-going basis, it would have been easy for the widow to discount her two coins, thinking that with such little money to offer her money didn’t matter. And yet, this woman, having a heart filled with generosity and a spirit that knew fruitful life only comes when one shares from a place of trust and faith, believed that her offering was worthy and valuable, and so she offered what she had, to the glory of God.
We are not a church who dictates how much each of you should give financially to support the ministry of our faith community. We shy away from percentages and dollar amounts, asking instead for you to make meaningful contributions as you are able. We believe that your financial contributions to the church should be made with the same careful consideration that you place into all your household budgeting. But make no mistake – we believe that prayerful consideration should be placed into what it is you are able to contribute financially. The story of the widow’s offering challenges each of us to consider what the spirit of generosity truly looks like in our lives. As Christians we are called to share not only out of our abundance, but to give from a place of true meaning and value. And when we do, when we truly share what we have with sincerity and with hope, we are assured that our contributions, no matter how great, or how small, will be pleasing in God’s sight.
“The One to Watch“ From Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “The Preaching Life”.