Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sermon for 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Gratitude Sunday (non-lectionary)

Sermon 10/24/10
Mark 12:38-44
Putting In Your Two Cents

           
Last Sunday, I mentioned to you that even in Paul’s day, a lively debate about ministry and financial giving was already taking place. Today, we opened our worship service with a deeper look at some of those issues. Connie read for us 2 Corinthians 9, a chapter where we read Paul talking about a financial gift for the Christians in Jerusalem that has been promised by the Christians in Corinth. Paul writes here to encourage them, essentially, to have the gift ready when his missionaries come to pick it up, and to have the gift ready with a good attitude. Paul wants them to stay firm to their commitment to give, and wants them to give it cheerfully. Paul is smooth in his persuasive style. He says, “So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.”
Paul goes on to say, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 10[God] who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us.” 
Essentially, Paul encourages the Corinthians to give by telling them that God blesses you abundantly always, but that you reap what you sow, and so if you sow abundantly, freely, you’ll also reap an increased harvest. At first read, I get a little nervous about this. I’m not a big fan of what is called the “prosperity gospel” – this theology basically says that if you are faithful, God will bless you financially, provide for you materially. And not only do I think that there’s not a lot in Jesus’ teachings to support that theology, I also think it is incredibly presumptuous in the face of so many faithful and generous people I know who have struggled for years just to keep their homes, pay their bills, make ends meet. But what Paul actually says is something different: he says that when you give generously and freely, with an open heart, you are blessed because you will have enough to share in good works, and you will find you have an increased harvest of righteousness. You do get more when you give more, he says. You get more blessings, more abundance, more riches in your life, of the kind that last eternally.
As I prepared for our stewardship focus the past month, I went to my ready audience of thoughtful contributors to my sermon-writing efforts: in other words, I posted some questions for readers of my facebook page. I asked people, was there ever a time in their life when they heard something that really inspired them to change the way they give? Let me share with you some responses.
One wrote: I was feeling guilty about not giving to the church. Later I promised God that no matter what if there was $100 in my account on Sunday I would give it to the church. Well Saturday night there was like 17.00 in my account so I figured oh well. That night [my husband] did some computer work for someone and made $60 so I decided I'd give $20. I had the $60 in my purse and then during church [a member] gave me $40 he owed me for doing a cake for [his son’s] wedding. When the offertory started I had exactly $100 in cash. I never have $100, especially not in cash. I went back and forth not knowing what to do. There is so much we could use the money for. I put the whole $100 in the plate and that week I got a small, but unexpected raise at work. I know it sounds silly, but it validated everything everyone had preached about giving coming back around.”
Another wrote: “My pastor told us of God's challenge in Malachi 3:10:"Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing." I was unemployed and facing unpaid bills, but I started giving. The following week I got a full-time job - an overflowing blessing indeed! Tithing seemed easy after that.”
A pastor friend wrote: “It might sound silly but a woman in my last church shared her personal struggles with being able to give what she thought was enough to the church. She actually gave up cable in order to give to the church. That might not be much of a sacrifice to some people but for others it is. I thought about how many people just say they can't give without really giving much thought to what they put before God. I think that the way we spend our money and where we put our money says a lot about our beliefs and what we value.”
I don’t believe that if we give more money to God, we magically get more money somewhere else. If that were the case, everyone would be clamoring to give in order to get, and that certainly isn’t the spirit of giving I think God wants to stir up in us! But I believe that God loves it when we love to give, and that we’ll find ourselves counting blessings we couldn’t see before when we free up our hearts. I can’t say that I’ve ever met anyone who regretted their generosity. I’m sure there’s always an exception. But God says that giving blesses us in ways we’d be hard-pressed to regret.
But let me push us all a little farther. Our reading from Mark is the story of the Widow’s Mite. A simple story – a poor widow puts pennies equivalent into the temple treasury collection box, and Jesus remarks on her gift, saying that what she has given amounted to more than what many rich people had given, since for her she gave all that she had to live on. We can quickly draw conclusions from this: it’s not the size of the gift that matters so much as what it costs you to give it. We should be like the widow, give like the widow, and know even our small gifts are important, like the widow’s. Okay, but is there more to this story?
Our reading actually starts a few verses earlier, with the context, the why-Jesus-told-the-story part that we usually forget about. We begin with Jesus talking about the practices of the scribes. The scribes were professional interpreters of the religious laws. They were educated men who could read and write. And having these rare skills and this knowledge gave them power and status over others. It is this status, this position that Jesus is talking about. He warns the crowds against the scribes, who would have been respected and esteemed by most, criticizing them for making their faith for show. He calls them insincere, calls their intentions into question, and accuses them outright of unethical practices. All this they do while still saying long-winded prayers to God, Jesus says. This hypocrisy is what most troubles Jesus – he’s upset because the scribes act like they are faithful Jews, but in reality, what they do is just for show.
Then we hear the part of the story we know well: Jesus sits opposite the treasury at the temple, and he sees many rich people putting in large sums of money, and then sees a poor widow putting in two small copper coins – like a penny or two in our terms. He calls his disciples to him and says “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.” Unlike the scribes, it is apparent that her faith is what compels her to live justly and sincerely.
Are we like the scribes? I fear it is still easy to only look like a faithful disciple instead of actually being one. What does the good Christian look like? I once read a quote that said something like, “character is what you do when no one else is watching.” It is so rare in today’s world that someone isn’t watching what we’re doing. And so it is easy to end up doing everything because we think we have to, because we want to look good, because we want to fit in. But when it comes to discipleship, what God sees in our hearts is what matters.
Why do you give? And why do you give what you give? What moves you to give your money to this church, or to anything? Our readings today ask us seriously about the whys of our giving, the whys of our discipleship, beyond what’s apparent on the outside, to what’s going on in our hearts. Jesus wants us to be genuine and be giving of our whole selves, not for the sake of what others think of us, but because our loving and generous God also wants us to be loving and generous. And I think Jesus wants us to make sure that what we give our all to, what we give our whole lives to, is worth our giving. The issue today isn’t giving what you think you are supposed to be giving, what we think must be giving to qualify as a good Christian. You don’t have to find out what the person next to you in the pew gives and make sure you’re giving more than them. There really are no bonus prizes for the highest pledge or biggest increase. God wants what is real, what is in you, and what is all of you – that is what you are called to give.
            And, so most importantly, I want you to ask why you give to this church. Like Paul says, I want us to move beyond giving because we feel an obligation that weighs us down. I think we’re called to give because we have this abundance from God that we want to share, and I want us to give to this church because we have this passion, this commitment, this hope and vision for the message, the gospel we have to share with the world, that makes us excited about supporting the mission and ministry of the church. Why would we give our all to something if what we’re giving to is not worth the sacrifice, not worth the generosity? I want this community of faith to be the very place that captures your heart and soul. But I also want you to know that if you want to be a part of the mission and ministry of the gospel, if you want to be a disciple, God is going to ask you to give everything you have.    
Wherever you find yourself answering God’s call, God will require your deep generosity, your giving your last two cents for God’s purposes. But please, know that God wants your generosity for all the right reasons. Whether you think you’re a modern-day scribe, or you relate to the widow with her coins, God wants your generosity for all the right reasons. Whether you’re a pillar of the church, or a Sunday School student, or up front for Children’s time, or trying to go unnoticed, God wants you, wants your heart and soul, and wants you for all the right reasons. Amen.

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