*video is unavailable
A couple of weeks ago, a number of young people experienced one of the great ethical tests of their lives. The sky was dark, the sidewalks were full, the porch light was on, and variously costumed children walked up the steps of the Sherouse House to find a basket full of candy, and a sign that read, “Take one, please.”
I write the note differently every year. This year I added the “please” in parentheses with an exclamation point for emphasis. Some years I’m annoyingly sanctimonious, “Leave some for others.” I’ve thought about writing “God is watching you,” but so far it’s felt more healthy to spare them from that guilt. Nonetheless, shocking though it might be, whatever I write, we always come home to an empty basket. I’m holding out hope that we just have that many trick-or-treaters, all of them taking one and leaving for others and knowing God is watching. But more likely, many are grabbing a handful and then another, and there’s always the possibility that someone has looked around, seen that no one is watching, and dumped the whole basket in their pillowcase.
However it happens, the basket is empty when the road-weary Sherouse kids return, so we always refill with what’s left from our store-bought jumbo bag and pass out candy until the action stops. My daughter, Della, loves to help with this. In fact, last year when we were all out of candy, I started to shut it down when something surprising happened… no sooner had I turned out the porch light than Della turned it back on. She was carrying her full plastic pumpkin, which she dumped into the empty basket, saying, “Daddy, more kids might come!”
Today’s passage, and this entire season of Stewardship, is about taking and giving, and it finds me rethinking my candy strategy, yes, but even more my discipleship and the substance of my life.
A poor widow puts two small copper coins into the treasury, and God is watching, or at least God in Jesus is. Jesus has sat down opposite the treasury to get a good view, to observe the patterns and practices of those who approach. Some come forward with full buckets and put in large sums, which the temple needs no less than any institution. But Jesus’ eye is less impressed with them and instead catches the one described as “the poor widow” – the one the others seem to overlook in their grand displays of giving is seen clearly by Jesus. Jesus understands that there is something the widow knows, that others do not.
It’s something I think I observed in the life of this church a few years ago. It was in the midst of the Panthers Super Bowl run. Together with some of our friends and partners around the city, we decided to host a watch party for the first playoff game, with lunch and football on the big screen downstairs. It was especially intended for those who might need a place to watch the game, particularly those neighbors of ours who live outside or are homeless in our city. Many of these from our community joined us for worship prior to the game, and that Monday, as our offering counters went through their careful accounting, they noticed that in that particular collection there was an unusual number of coins. If you consider the percentage of those gifts relative to income, some of those might have been the most generous offerings we received that day.
“The widow put in two copper coins… from what she had to live on…” And it ought not to surprise us. The Chronicle of Philanthropy did a study a few years ago in 2012, when we still were coming out of the Recession, that compared giving trends from 6 years earlier before the downturn. They found that while most people gave less during the recession, as you might expect, lower-income Americans gave on average 5% more in 2012 than they had in 2006. Even more striking was that in that same time period during the Great Recession, the Chronicle found that the poorest Americans increased their giving by nearly 17%. In interpreting these findings, Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, said, “These people know people who lost their jobs or are homeless, and they worry that they themselves are a day away from losing their jobs. They’re very sensitive to the needs of other people and recognize that these years have been hard.” (1)
Dorothy Day once said of her Catholic Worker movement, “To live the gospel is to stay close to the poor.” (2) Or “To stay close to this widow,” we might say today. There is something she knows that helps us know more of who God is, and how we are to live in response to God’s grace.
It’s something like what Henri Nouwen learned from an experience of community in South America, when he left his academic post to live intentionally for a period among those who were poor. “I slowly learned what I must have forgotten somewhere in my busy, well-planned, and very useful life: I learned that everything that is, is freely given by the God of love. All is grace. Light and water, shelter and food, work and free time, children, parents and grandparents, birth and death — it is all give to us. Why? So that we can say thank you to God, thank you to each other, thank you to all and everyone.” (3)
Still, so many who pass through that treasury line take the posture not of the grateful recipient, but quite certain that what we have is earned, not received… taken, not given. And it’s hard to display joy and gratitude for something you feel you have only as a right.
That’s why our Christian giving practices and our call to steward our resources with gladness and joy begin with this foundational belief that “all is grace,” which in and of itself is a counter-cultural conviction.
Peter Gomes once said, if we study the New Testament for the uses of money, a lot of us won’t like what we find there, the practices run so counter to our culture. But they were equally countercultural in the ancient world. Giving generously and joyfully was one way the early Christians chose to demonstrate their belief that Christ had died and been raised again. Early Christians were known by their world for this practice. They were even viewed as peculiar or suspicious by some, as I guess a life lived in response to the grace of God will always appear confusing to the patterns of this world.
Consider the biblical concept of the tithe – giving 1/10 of what we’ve earned. It was originally an agrarian concept – giving ten percent of your harvest beyond yourselves for a greater good. Some would do this multiple times a year, increasing that percentage beyond 10%, and eventually it expanded into a standard of religious commitment.
In the New Testament, the call to generosity intensifies even further.
No practice is written about more in the letters of Paul than generosity and the giving of money in support of the church and of those in need. Similarly, roughly 20 percent of the gospels talks about resources, where we are investing ourselves, and how the ways we spend guide us and shape us.
Consider the woman who pours expensive perfume on Jesus, spending more than a year’s wages in the process. Jesus does not chastise her for choosing to be so generous. He praises her for her willingness to worship him in an extravagant way.
Zacchaeus is so impressed with Jesus that he pledges to give half of all his possessions to the poor and to reimburse anyone he has cheated by paying them back fourfold. This is a radical display of generosity for a wealthy tax collector who has probably become wealthy at the expense of others.
The rich young man is looked at and loved, then told to sell all, give it away, and follow Jesus. He walks away heartbroken, knowing it is not something he can do.
But then this widow in our passage today does what he can not do. She puts in two copper coins, “all she had to live on” our translation reads. But the Greek is even more direct than that: she puts in “her whole life.” Her whole life.
Sometimes I think we have seen it backwards, even in the practice of tithe. The biblical witness is not really about deciding what we will give to God, but more deciding what we will keep for ourselves from what God has given to us.
I have told you before, my life has not at all points and seasons been marked by such generosity or joyful giving. My faithful parents instilled a practice of giving a dime for every allowance dollar each week at church, but that faded for me as circumstances and needs changed, as my resources felt hard-earned, instead of freely received.
So as an adult, as I settled into church life and started to grow into Christian generosity, I remember at times receiving a statement from my church and being shocked at how little I had given of the resources that were mine. I’d give here and there, but not with intention. As my friend and fellow pastor, Dr. Darryl Aaron, once said when we discussed this, “Oh, you were tipping God.” I was giving here and there when convenient or notable.
So this has not been a lifelong practice for me. But as Jenny and I have grown and our covenant with one another and with God has strengthened, we have been more deliberate and intentional, and grown also in our practices of giving. And I tell you this not to be showy, or because I have this figured out, but because as your pastor, I want you to know honestly that we have had to grow in this. It has come through a process of spiritual growth, and following more closely in the way of Christ, and renewing covenant with God and with the Church, and eventually I came to a place of being deliberate in, as Paul says to the Corinthians, “deciding for yourself” what to give.
I want to ask you to do that this year: to be deliberate and prayerful about what you will give to the ministry of this church from the resources God has given you. The truth is, most people don’t tithe. And if you do, you shouldn’t do it under pressure or coercion. And you shouldn’t feel that God or the church is mad at you if you don’t, because no one is – no one except one staff member even knows. So set all of those external motivations aside, and ask yourself what it would mean to you to respond to God’s gifts in your life. Could you start somewhere, by giving deliberately? Maybe start with a smaller percentage, to give with intention. Or maybe increase, and give with greater intention and care this year to the ministry of our church. As many of you know, our church is experiencing a deficit in our giving, but with around 450 units giving, we’re about $200 a giving unit away from exceeding our budget needs. Some of us can give that, some can’t, some can give much more. But can each of us give deliberately and prayerfully, as we have decided for ourselves?
And when we give this way, something else happens that Paul talks about: we feel it, and not only in ways that cause us stress or anxiety; and not only in ways that change our spending or cause us to feel lean. We feel it because we are giving to something that affects our family and shapes our children. We feel it because it feels powerful to support a home and place of welcome for so many, including so many people that love us and care for us. It feels good to support the ways this church impacts our community, a place with growing vision and direction, a place that is counter to so many patterns of this world, and demonstrating how to grow together in love in a time when others report experiencing division or decline. It feels good to honor the legacy of those who have come before us – all those luminaries lit last week. It feels good to see growth, and especially to see generosity and commitment among our newer members. It feels good to know gifts are multiplied as they combine with others and are sent out to any number of causes, some of which I would not have had the vision to support myself, but through the ministry of this church and the leadership of this community, my gift is distributed widely to impact ministry around the world. We feel it. And it feels good. Or in Paul’s language to the Corinthians, it feels “cheerful.”
“God loves a cheerful giver,” Paul writes. The word for cheerful comes from the Greek word, “hilaron,” the root of our word hilarious. God loves a hilarious giver – because our giving might even provoke us to unconstrained joy, rolling in the aisles, and laughing and living with abandon, knowing that in giving we have received, and in releasing we ourselves become free. Maybe we even feel God’s pleasure as we do this cheerfully, joyfully, or we might say today, giving with gladness.
This is what allows a person to give two coins, when it would be so natural to keep one. And it’s not so different than what enabled my 6 yr old daughter to release her candy without hesitation: because she was giving something she had so clearly just received. All is grace.
She disappears from the story, this widow described as “poor.” But we will not forget her when she leaves the temple, to return to a life unnecessarily hard. And Jesus does not forget her, either.
He settles into his seat opposite the treasury and watches the crowd, and he sees her. He really sees. So we can be sure that he sees us, too. He watched.
He watches to see what we will take, and what we will pour out from what has been given to us.
He watches to see if we learned the secret that this widow knew, that to find your life you have to be prepared to give it away.
He watches to see how we will respond to the grace given to us by the one who gives, not piece by piece, but who finally gives for us his all. His “whole life.”
- “Wealthy Americans Are Giving Less of Their Incomes to Charity While Poor are Donating More,” Katia Savchuk, Forbes, October 6, 2014.
- As quoted by Fr. Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart
- Gracias, p. 187.