If you were here last Sunday, you might be experiencing deja vu. Today Sue just read the story of the widow’s mite from the Gospel of Luke. Last week you heard this story from Mark. Two different Gospels. Two different preachers. Two different sermons. Same story. Indeed, in our Protestant tradition, the miracle of the widow’s mite has become the iconic stewardship story.
Even though Bible scholars write with exasperation and zeal: “Hey preachers, Jesus was not telling this story so you could use it to ask people to give more money to the church!” And even though they’re right, you can understand why we keep coming back to it, stewardship season after stewardship season, or in our case, Sunday after Sunday.
What happened was this: In the days leading up to Jesus’ death, he was sitting outside the temple teaching his disciples. He issued a warning against the scribes, and he spoke loudly enough so the scribes could hear him. Jesus called them out for their hypocrisy. They loved to wear long robes, and say long prayers, and cultivate the image of faithfulness; their optics were on point! But don’t you see, they are exploiting the most vulnerable, devouring the houses of the widows! Jesus goes on to talk about the coming destruction of the temple, so here are the scribes paying their temple offering, and for what…
The scribes will receive the greater condemnation; the temple will be torn down. In between these two prophesies, Jesus looks up and notices something strange. I like to think that she took him by surprise. That here he was, calling out injustice, when he sees her, and she makes an impression on him. I like to think that she caught his eye, for just a minute, just long enough that he would remember her.
While the scribes were making their usual temple offering, the widow went up and gave two copper coins. Our Bibles say she gave “all she had to live on.” The Greek says she gave “her whole life.” And Jesus saw her do it. And I’m pretty sure, that changed him. He calls the disciples: Do you see what she just did? Behold: She gave more than everyone. She just gave everything.
How could she do that… As a widow, she’s already in a position where she has to rely on other people to support her. Now the little she has, she gives away? That is flagrantly irresponsible. This kind of behavior is what makes people grumble, “Come on, she doesn’t need a hand-out. She needs a class in money management!”
But if the first problem is the widow’s action is irresponsible and dangerous, the second problem is that what she did is pretty much impossible for the rest of us, right? She’s setting an unreachable bar which maybe inspires us, or maybe shames us, but either way, we can’t really do this. She gave one hundred percent, so we hear that and think, okay, I guess I can give ten percent. Look at her— she just gave everything. Okay, maybe I can increase my pledge. And there’s something about this that is too bad.
And please understand, the problem is not that we choose to give ten percent of our income or that we choose to increase our pledge. The problem is when we look at the widow’s generosity and decide, yeah I could never do something like that. I could never be that generous. The kind of generosity she displays is irresponsible and impossible, so why even try…
The problem with this conclusion is that it is bitterly dismal. And worse, it’s not even true.
Hang around the church a while, and something you’ll notice is incredible generosity. A lot of it happens behind the scenes. Something breaks; somebody donates the money for the repair. Something is needed; somebody notices and provides it. This is how we’ve gotten furniture, and machinery, and diapers.
Something else you see around here is that people who have very little give substantially. I could never ask for this! Can you imagine how unethical it would be if I looked at someone who was struggling financially and told them they needed to give and give more?! That would be awful.
All I can tell you is that sometimes people make this choice, and it knocks me down every time.
Last Sunday, Pastor Katherine told the story of the person who came to our Food Pantry and wanted to make a gift to support this mission, so she gave everything in her purse—thirty-seven cents. You can’t hear Katherine tell that story and not tear up. There is no missing how this is a miracle. At the same time, this is the kind of thing that happens around here. It is miraculous. And entirely possible.
A few months ago, I was contacted by Courtney, one of our neighbors who’s a single mom who lost her job unexpectedly. She was asking for help with rent. Earlier this summer, out of nowhere, Courtney sent our church a tithe. Now she needs help.
A few weeks ago, Courtney called me again. I know she needs actual help, but this time she was calling me because she had gotten some money, and she wanted to give her tithe to our church. She asked me to come over and pick it up.
Now in case you’re thinking, I should be going there to give her money, not take her money, yeah. You’re not wrong. In case you’re thinking, a significant percentage of our general fund goes to pay the pastor, so for me to accept an undesignated gift to our church is a lot like me taking someone’s money, yeah. You’re not wrong. If you are troubled by this, I was too, and here’s what happened.
When I got to her place, I told her, God is not requiring this of her. God does not want us to give what we cannot give. Courtney insisted that I take her envelope. She told me, “I need to do this. I need to show God that I trust him during the storm.”
Courtney gave me permission to share this with you. The first I learned from her is that what she’s doing is amazing. She is choosing to step out in faith when it would have been so much easier for her to keep the money. I could never ask someone to make that choice. All I can tell you is that sometimes people do, and it knocks me down every time.
The second thing about Courtney’s gift is it reminded me of something I already knew. Whenever a person chooses to give, that choice is an act of power. You know we live in a world that values taking money and keeping money, so when a person chooses to give money, he is choosing to challenge the prevailing power dynamic. Now every act of generosity is an act toward liberation.
Giving clarifies who owns us and precisely who does not own us. This makes giving different from other expenses. I know if you look at your bank statement, all the outflow is often in the same column, so whether you’re paying off debt, or paying your pledge to Church of Peace, or paying MidAmerican, it all looks the same —it’s money going out of your account, but it’s not all the same. The money I give is my choice.
Now every time I get the notice from Vanco that my church pledge was paid, this reminds me that I am not powerless. Of course I’m in debt; who’s not in debt! What matters is that I am not owned by Chase, or Navient, or Ditech. Giving money is what proves this to myself. We can still choose to be generous. In choosing generosity, we are choosing to be a little more free.
Today we’ll be dedicating our pledges for the two thousand nineteen church budget, and what I’m asking you is to please embrace the choice that is before you. The number you write down on the pledge form is an act of power. It is your choice.
Giving our money is an outward and visible sign of how we are giving our lives. Because you know there are a thousand forces that try to take your life every day. Your job will try to take your life. Your stuff will try to take your life. So will cancer. Or addiction. Or grief. A thousand forces will try to take your life every day, but only one can give your life. And that’s you.
So who or what are you giving your life to…
Every day we have this choice. Every day we can choose to give our lives to God, to give our lives to the work of turning the world toward love and greater love. But if you try it, even once, you will start to be free. And as Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber keeps reminding us “Free people are dangerous people.” Free people won’t be owned by their debt or convinced that there’s some inevitability to oppression. Free people threaten society’s prevailing power dynamics. Just by existing. Just by heeding the impulse to give and give more.
When Jesus was sitting at the temple calling out the scribes on their hypocrisy, something about the widow caught his attention. He watched her give those two copper coins, and he noticed that she just gave her whole life. And how did he know that if he didn’t see the light in her eyes, if he didn’t see how this was a woman who just set herself free. I have to wonder if Jesus thought, “Well all right. This is what it looks like to give your whole life.” As though what she did was both miraculous and entirely possible.
As though we could give our whole lives. As though the prevailing power dynamic —that oppresses the poor and rewards the wealthy —this is not what God envisions for us, we don’t have to choose it.
The flow of the universe keeps moving toward generosity. The world keeps trying to turn toward love and greater love. Life is ours for the giving. Thank God, right? Thank God.