Strengthen Your Core: Gifts
I want to thank you all again for the thoughtful celebration/beautiful basket of gifts you gave me last week for my birthday. I shared some pictures on my facebook page, and I have to tell you, my clergy colleagues are occasionally a little jealous at how well you treat me, and the love that you consistently demonstrate and shower me with. There’s a book called The Five Languages of Love by Gary Chapman that many pastors use as part of pre-marital counseling with couples planning to be married, and in the book, Chapman suggests that we have five main ways of expressing and receiving love from one another: acts of service, quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation, and giving gifts. One of my pastor friends commented on the images I posted from last Sunday: “Their love language must be giving gifts.” I said this works out well for me, because my love language is receiving them! Truly, I am blessed by your generous nature, shown to me and to others all the time.
Today we’re talking about strengthening our core through giving. Giving isn’t just something we do at birthdays or holidays because we feel obligated or it is expected. Giving is a spiritual discipline, a practice we engage in to show our love, our commitment, our devotion, our gratitude. In the life of faith, we celebrate the gifts that God gives to us, including our very lives, and we seek to give back to God, and to give to neighbor, in thanksgiving for the God of abundance who blesses us so relentlessly. When we talk about how we give to God, we’re talking about how we give of our time, how we give of our money, and how we give of our talents – the gifts we have, the skills we have, the abilities that God gives us that we can use in God’s service. How do we strengthen our core through our giving? Is there more to it than just trying to give more of all these things.
We turn together to our text from Luke’s gospel. Sometimes we can’t get the full meaning of a passage of scripture without reading what comes before or comes after. It is always a good idea to see what takes places around the text we’re studying, because reading the scripture in content deepens our understanding. Take a couple weeks ago, when we read the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Yes, we can read the text on its own, and learn from it. But Jesus’ compassion for the crowds is all the more moving when you realize that Jesus was looking for some solitude because he was grieving the death, the execution of his cousin John. The context adds important information.
Part of today’s reading is probably very familiar to us. It’s a story known as “The Widow’s Mite.” Jesus is teaching in the Temple, when he looks up and sees people putting their gifts, their offerings in the treasury. He sees many rich people contributing, and then he sees a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. He remarks to those around them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” His words seem to be a commendation, an affirmation of the generosity of this widow, who gives so much of herself to her faith through her offering in the Temple. And indeed, his words match up with what we know about giving. Although individual exceptions abound of course, on the whole, those in the bottom 20% of income earners in the US give more than double, in terms of percent of income, than do those in the top 20% of income earners. There are many theories about why this is including isolation: we tend to live near people who share our level of wealth, thus the richest are somewhat isolated from the poorest – and empathy – those who are poor know what it is like, and so give more readily to others when they can. In Jesus’ brief commentary about the widow offering her two copper coins, many have read just such reflections into his words. The text makes for a great stewardship message, urging all of us to give all that we can, like the widow.
There’s nothing wrong with that message per se. It’s just that it is a bit out of context, ignoring what comes before and after this text. Our passage from Luke comes during what we know as the events of Holy Week. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on a donkey, greeted by crowds who laud him like a king. He’s been teaching in the temple, and his teachings during these few days before his arrest and crucifixion are some of his most blunt and critical of the practices of the religious leadership today. And the buildup to the “Widow’s Mite” part of our text is a perfect example. Jesus, “in the hearing of all the people” Luke tells us, tells his disciples to beware of the scribes, that is the scholarly interpreters of the law who hung out around the temple, telling people how to apply the scriptures to their lives. Jesus says that they are interested most in the respect and status they have. They say long prayers just to look religious, he says. And, they “devour widows’ houses,” he says. For this, they will receive condemnation. The text doesn’t tell us exactly what he means by this phrase – “They devour widows’ houses” – but the gist is clear enough. The property and possessions and money that belongs to widows – one of the most vulnerable classes of people in Jesus’ world, one of the groups of people most frequently listed as needing and deserving special protections in the scriptures – the livelihood of the widows is somehow being eaten up, used up, by the religious leaders. Immediately after this, Jesus watches a widow put “all she [has] to live on” in the temple treasury. Suddenly, Jesus’ words take on a different tone. Perhaps rather than offering simple praise for her actions, Jesus is expressing a lament – she’s just given everything she’s got to a place that is sucking up the resources of poor widows! And then just after his words about the widow, Luke tells us that people are speaking about the temple, how beautiful the stones are, and how it is adorned with gifts dedicated to God, and Jesus responds by telling them that the stones of the temple will all be thrown down someday. Oof. In context, this sweet story is something more, a warning, it seems.
So, ok, great! We’re off the hook, right? Jesus doesn’t actually want us to give so much of our time, talent, and treasure to God – is that it? Well, that doesn’t sound quite right either, does it? What I think Jesus is calling us to do is to figure out if what we’re giving our all to is giving us life, or devouring our house, devouring our spirit. What are you giving to – time, money, talents, energy – that is really just devouring what you give? Devouring you? What are you giving heart and soul to which results not in you being strengthened in the core of your spirit, but in you being depleted, so that all that you had to live with is used up? When I hear Jesus’ words, I think of so many contemporary predatory practices that suck up the limited resources of the poor. I think of the way hours and hours of our time gets used up staring at screens of one kind or another. I think of the money we spend on disposable things, piling up mountains of trash, or the money we spend on things that hurt us, feeding one kind of addiction or another. The image of devouring widows houses is so vivid, and I think we can all think about ways that we’ve been giving our all to something that is just eating us up, body, mind, spirit.
God wants something different for us. Make no mistake – I believe that God does want our all. God wants our everything. God absolutely wants our two copper coins. I believe God wants for everything that we do to be a way that we are offering a gift to God. But when we give our all to God, when we give our lives to God, instead of being devoured, our giving gives to us. Our giving to God gives life, and life in abundance to us. In our Bible Study, we’ve been reading excerpts from the book of Genesis, and focusing on God’s covenants with us. And we’ve seen that again and again, God keeps promises to us. God is faithful, even when we are not. God is trustworthy. When we give our all to God: our time, our talent, our treasure, our lives, heart and soul, we’re give knowing that God creates with what we give rather than destroys. God builds. God grows. Think of the metaphors Jesus shares with us in the gospels of what happens with what is given to God: It’s like fives loaves and two fish that feed a crowd of thousands. It’s like a mustard seed that grows into a tree that can hold all the birds of the air. It’s like a small measure of yeast that makes enough bread for a crowd. We can give our all to God in confidence, because God gives God’s all to us. We are worth God’s all, and God is worth our all.
And so, in this community of faith, we make this vow: “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our gifts.” I promise that we are striving as a church to serve Jesus, to live up to God’s promises, and to be a place that can help you offer your whole heart, your all, to God. Let’s take our two copper coins, our all, and confidently, put it into the hands of God. Amen.