1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
Pledge Cards, Stewardship dinners, and church budgets, oh my. It is that time of the church year again, when churches start talking about pledges, giving, and stewardship. It is nothing new. When it comes to talking about money in church, there is a stigma about it. Maybe it is because televangelists, who beg folks to give to their TV ministries, have contaminated us. USA Today recently reported that a popular televangelists who told his virtual flock that God told him he needs a Dassault Falcon 7X a private jet, to whisk him to around to preach the gospel. This type of religious fundraising program sounds a lot less like, the life of gratitude that Jesus teaches us about and a lot more like spiritual shakedown.
A theologian Peter Gomes wrote about our aversion to money talk and church. He asserts that we need to “break the conspiracy of discreet silence sustained by both clergy and laity on money matters, if stewardship is to be more than a form of (sneaky) extortion.” (2) We avoid the topic of money and church, because it tends to be about a budget need, and not about the theological truth, that we all are called to live as faithful, generous stewards. Gomes writes, “Whatever the reason, November confronts us with the material necessity of the church, and hard as it may be to accept, the Bible makes clear that giving is sacrifice, not surplus generosity.” (2) Stewardship should not be a program to raise donations next year, in order to fund the operating budget. Jesus teaches us that stewardship is a matter of each of our own relationship to God, and God’s call for us to live a life of gratitude.
The Plight of Two Widows
In today’s Gospel, Jesus told his disciples about a widow’s, who sacrificed all she had, even in the midst of her poverty. In that first century Palestine culture, “There was no such thing as a rich widow. Women were totally dependent on their male relatives for their livelihood. Widows were forced to live off of the good graces of other male relatives and anyone in the community, who might provide a meal here, a little money there.” (1) We heard another story about a widow as well.
In the Old Testament, Elijah went to a region of Palestine and there found a widow who had only enough meal and oil to make a little food for her and her son. Elijah asked her for food, and reminded her that despite what little she had, God would provide for her. This widow was hungry but shared with someone else with gratitude, and from her poverty. God provided, and there was enough for her, her son, and the stranger with whom she shared. The truth in this story is this, “the widow recognized that at the center of her life was God, and she understood herself as dependent on the God who provides. From that place of gratitude and dependence, she responded with abundant thankfulness to God.
Fast forward back to the temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus was sitting across from the Treasury, watching and listening to all that was happening. He observed the “big shots” putting in their offering in the treasury, while they walked around town with flashy robes, receiving accolades from everyone, and sitting in the best seats in the temple. Jesus saw this spectacle unfolding and then, suddenly someone caught his eye. A poor widow walked up and put in two small copper coins in the treasury. In Jesus’ times in Judea, that small copper coin was called a lepton, which was of miniscule value. The denariuswas the coin for which, someone was paid a day’s wages, and with it, they could buy bread for themselves and family for the day. Relatively speaking, the widow’s two copper leptons were worth only 15 minutes of a day’s wages, but she gave all she had, which was not even enough to buy food for a quarter hour. Jesus taught his disciples about gratitude, sacrificial giving, and faithfulness, when he shared his observations of where God stood in the lives of two very different people; the scribes and the widow.
By the worlds standard the donations of the scribes and teachers made them feel like they were of great value to the temple system. Using the same standard, the poor widow who depended on charity for survival, gave a miniscule offering and thus she was considered unimportant in the temple system. Whom though, do you think was in right relationship with God? The gospel reading today is not about romanticizing poverty or was it a call to live a life of destitution. This story is about being in right relationship with God, by showing us who was fully, completely, and inarguably dependent on God. The widow was poor by culture standards, but she lived in an abundant, responsive gratitude to God, for all she had been given, and over which she was called to be a steward. The truth in this story is that our relationship with God, being in right relationship with God, depends on who is at the center of our lives and on whom do we depend; God or ourselves.
Righteousness vs. Right Relationships
The scribes in the temple were independent, “pull themselves up from their bootstraps,” folks where dependence on, and gratitude to God was an afterthought. They liked to “walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.” Where was God in the pecking order of their lives? Where is God in the mere pursuit of self-satisfaction, self-embellishment, and independence? The scribes put God way back in the back seat, and that showed where their true treasure resided.
When we talk about stewardship in church, it should not be about giving enough to keep the lights on, although (thanks be to God) through the abundant responsive generosity of God’s people, the church is able to keep the lights on, to pay staff, to seed ministries of local mission, and to provide for the ongoing formation of all of God’s people as disciples. Our stewardship should not be an exercise in church budget planning, but it should be how we every day focus, pray, discern, and practice living in abundant, responsive gratitude, for God’s abundant grace in our lives.
Stewardship – Responsive Abundant Gratitude
“Psychology today” describes gratitude as, “an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to, for instance, a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants or thinks they need. Tossing off the half-hearted “thanks” won’t cut it; deep gratitude has to come from within and in a meaningful way.” (3)
The article goes on to say, “practicing gratitude means paying attention to what we are thankful for to the degree of feeling more kind and compassionate toward the world at large.” (3) “Stewardship, rightly understood, proceeds not from what we give to God but from what God has given to us.” (2) If we are honest, none of us are really independent, self-made, “I can do it all myself” persons, because everything over which we are mere curators; we only have for a time, and all that we have comes from God.
“We are embarrassed and a little nervous at the thought that what we “have” is not ours to “keep” but only to give.” (2) The old saying, “you cannot take it with you,” seems to apply here. We all are walking through this life with an expiration date, and one day we will leave behind all that we have held so dear, unless that is God whom we hold dear, and if so, we will never be without abundant grace, because we recognized we are dependent on God.
What or who is your God?
Theologian Mary Anderson once wrote, “As good Americans we’ve been taught to celebrate our independence, but Jesus teaches us to celebrate our great dependence on God alone.” (1) We think we know what we need and thus, we strive through our own feeble human efforts, never once thinking that we are utterly dependent on the God who provides. So, we must ask, “Who or what is my God, what takes center stage in the great play of my life, and on what or who do I depend for security, fulfillment, peace, joy, and the feeling of being “okay?” Maybe we depend on our investments, our secure employment, our pensions, or maybe, it is something else taking center stage.
Anderson asserts what many of us feel, “My money gives me independence and freedom from living like a poor widow, (but is it not like a widow how) … we are to be like before God—dependent on nothing but the grace of God. We are to be people without any resources except the riches of God’s mercy.” (1) So, if God does takes center stage, and if we acknowledge that God is the source of all of which, we have been given to curate (and only for a time), then we should live a life of abundant responsive gratitude, and thus we return to the topic of our stewardship.
Why is money talk in church off limits? It is often as taboo as talking about political parties and government policies in church, but Jesus never shied away from that debate either; nor should we. This whole stewardship dance we do this time of year should never be an exercise in “funding an operating budget” through which, we all will figure out how much will need to give in order to support it. Clergy are guilty of this practice too by the way, but that is how businesses, non-profit charities, and other secular organizations work. You know that everything we need to accomplish God’s mission through St. Monica’s and to do it well is available in abundance.
This Jesus version of stewardship starts not with budget, but with a focused, prayerful, discerning practice of living in abundant responsive gratitude for God’s abundant grace in our lives. Stewardship is a “heart and hands” matter, and it is a relationship to God matter. When we talk about church and money, we are really talking about what Jesus taught his disciples, when by a widow’s sacrificial giving he showed us how to love God and love our neighbors. Jesus teaches us that we are utterly dependent on him and not ourselves, our jobs, or our assets (all of which are not ours to keep).
When God takes center stage in our lives, then this whole stewardship matter will stop being merely an October/ November church program, and it will become a year round way of life. As I was looking on Google for pictures of the widow’s pennies, I ran across a site that showed pictures of every U.S. currency denomination and minted coin. I find it ironic that on each monetary legal tender are these words, “In God We Trust.” For some reason, I had forgotten that little fact. I wonder if in the wisdom of the designers of our currency, that those words were put there to remind us, that not this bill in our hand, but God is the one with whom we should put our trust. Maybe the designer was a good Episcopalian who during one Stewardship Sunday reflected back on what that young, radical Jewish rabbi preached in one of his best stewardship sermons, “where your treasure is that is where your heart will be also.”
(1) Anderson, Mary W. “Widow’s Walk.” The Christian Century, vol. 120, no. 22, Nov. 2003, p. 18.
(2) Gomes, Peter J.(Peter John). “Veterans and Stewards.” The Christian Century, vol. 114, no. 30, Oct. 1997, p. 971.