The Gift of Giving – Sermon for November 11, 2012

Mark 12:38-44
12:38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,

12:39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!

12:40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

12:41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.

12:42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

12:43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.

12:44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

A couple of weeks ago I went to my PO box and pulled out two letters. One was from my college, and one was from my seminary. They arrive in my mailbox every year right about this time. And before I even open the envelope, I know that they only want one thing: money.

This is the time of year that colleges and charities and, yes, even your church, send you letters asking you to give. For some, like us, who have to plan their budgets at the end of the year, the timing makes sense. But a lot of other groups have caught on to the fact that people are just in more of a giving mood around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Which is why, each year, I’m always standing in the post office with these two letters in my hand asking me to consider giving.

Now, my seminary…we’re all pastors…none of us is going to make a million dollar donation. But my college is harder for me. I loved my college, and I am genuinely grateful for my time there and all the ways I was supported and formed. And I loved my classmates. And this time of year, I always want to give more than I ever could.

That’s especially hard because many of my classmates are doctors or lawyers or businesspeople, and they can afford to give generously to our alma mater. Meanwhile, I can only give a minimal gift. Certainly not one that will get me into one of the named giving societies the school has. I always think about what my gift would go to provide for the school, and it’s not much, especially compared to what my friends might give. It feels so insignificant, and some years I feel like it’s not worth giving at all.

Maybe you’ve felt that way. Maybe at some time in your life you’ve been asked to give, either financially or otherwise, and you’ve felt like you have nothing of worth to give, or like your gift doesn’t matter.

The woman in today’s Scripture passage knew what that felt like. Jesus was sitting opposite the treasury for the temple with his disciples. And people were coming and putting in their money. And the scribes, who were respected and who were praised wherever they went, came and made a show of putting in large sums of money. But really, given their greater wealth, even though it was a lot of money, it wasn’t a lot of money for the people giving it.

But then a widow came. You gave in front of everyone else, and she came up to the treasury, and she put in two, small copper coins. Coins that put together only equaled a penny. And she placed them in the box. And I’m sure, there were people watching who were scoffing, or laughing at her, and saying “look…she only put in a penny.” Maybe even some of the scribes were saying that. It must have been humiliating for her.

But Jesus changes the story. Instead of judging the woman for only giving a penny, he tells his disciples this: This widow has put in more than anyone else. They have given out of their abundance, but she has given from her poverty and she has given all she had to live on. We call this the widow’s mite and we remember the story because what Jesus was saying was that when it came to giving, when it came to generosity, the woman who gave the least actually gave more than all the rest.

And proportionally, she did. Let’s put it in today’s terms. If you have millions, a gift  of $10,000 will get your recognized. If you give it to a charity that does this sort of thing, it will get your name in the annual report and maybe it will even get you an invite to some black tie event. But if you don’t make much at all, and you give $10, no one is going to do much to thank you. You might get a thank you letter. Maybe. But no one is inviting you to the gala dinner. Even though, by percentage, you probably just gave far more of your salary than the millionaires ever did.

A ministry colleague of mine brought home that point to me recently. In Boston there is a small, Roman Catholic parish composed of Haitian immigrants. They are not big enough to have their own priest, so they have to attend Masses in either English or, if they are lucky, French. They speak Creole, so both are difficult to understand.

But occasionally, about once a month, they are able to scrape together the money to pay a priest to come and say the Mass in Creole. It’s $100. That may not sound like much, but remember they are a very small congregation. And most of them make minimum wage doing things like working in housekeeping at hotels. Giving up even an hour’s wages can mean the difference for them between making the rent, or buying enough groceries, or paying the co-pay on a medication.

They give from their poverty. And their gift, their $100, is worth far more than the $100 given easily by their wealthy neighbors at the surrounding parishes. They give their widow’s mite, and they understand, and feel, what they are giving in a way that those who have much do not.

Today is our last sermon in a series on what it means to give. We’ve journeyed through five Sundays now talking about this topic. We’ve talked about giving away what separates us from God. We’ve talked about giving as loving, giving as serving, and giving as gratitude. And today, we are talking about what it means to give when you think you have nothing to give.

Now, here we are in the middle of a deep recession. And, I think we all know what it is for money to be tighter than we would like. None of us is probably feeling particularly flush right now with cash. There are places we might want to give to right now, but giving might feel like a luxury we can’t afford.

That’s not atypical. When times are tight, we grow insular. We start to worry we are not going to have enough. We stockpile for the worst case scenario. We set our own house in order before we help others with theirs. Even if we love them very much.

I saw this in myself a few weeks ago. When we heard that Hurricane Sandy was coming, I started to prepare for the storm. Much to Heidi’s amusement, I showed up at the house with a trunk full of water, flashlights, and D batteries. Last year with Irene was so unexpected, that I didn’t want to be caught unaware. So, I really went out and got more than I needed.

After the storm, which was thankfully not much up here, we stood looking at the kitchen table and the stacks of water and batteries, and I conceded what Heidi had known all along: I might have gone a little bit overboard.

Sometimes I think in our financial lives we do the same thing. We want to prepare for the storms of life. And that’s smart. But sometimes we hoard more than we need out of fear. We lock our doors, and keep everything under the mattress, and wait for the day when we are really going to need it. And when someone comes to us asking if we can share some of what we have, we say no.

But what we sometimes don’t do is really assess what we have and realize that we have more than enough. I’ve talked in this series about how blessed we are, whether we realize it or not. I’ve talked about becoming aware of all the gifts we have been giving, and giving thanks for them. And I’ve talked about how, when you truly understand all that you have, you are often most able to give freely. Giving doesn’t become a luxury. It becomes a gift to yourself as much as those you are giving to.

But beyond that, there is a freedom in giving. The widow gave, and I’m sure the financial advisors of her time would have told her that she was crazy. They would have said, “you can barely cover your own costs of living…why are you giving to others?” But instead, she took what she could, and she gave. It wasn’t much. It probably got her made fun of, but she gave anyway.

I wonder what the giving did for her. I wonder if she was transformed by the giving of that gift. I wonder if there was something about giving that made her feel connected to her community, and something greater than herself.

I wonder if the widow, the poorest person there that day, was actually the most spiritually rich person there. I think she was. And I think she was also the freest. Because in the end, she was able to give away what she didn’t need, and she was able to have faith that God would bless that gift, no matter how small it was.

Giving becomes a spiritual choice. Billy Graham once said that if you want to find out what you really worship, all you have to do is look at your check book. He was right. Where we choose to give says a lot about who we are, and what we believe. It also says a lot about the fear we still hold onto, and what’s keeping us from being happy.

This is a challenge for me, as much as it is for anyone else. Last night Heidi and I sat in the kitchen, and thought about our pledge for the next year, and wrestled with our fear and what felt doable. But when we wrote down our commitment, I felt a joy in that giving. I don’t tell you this story to highlight our own giving. Not by any means. I tell it to you to say that I get it. I get the fear. I get the tendency to want to keep whatever I can get. I get the struggle. But I also get the positive feelings that can come when we make a decision to let go of what we do not need, and give to others who need it more than we do.

I’ll close with this. I often receive the offering using lines taken from Heidi’s home church in Boston: don’t give until it hurts. Give until it feels good. That’s great advice. It applies to more than just church offerings too. Today we are receiving our pledge cards for the next year. I want to give until it feels good. But, more importantly, I want to do that in every part of my life. I want everything I do to be an act of giving. And I want to feel good about the gifts I give. That is the gift of giving. And it’s a gift freely given to us. Amen.




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