We have many gifts to offer God; certainly, we’re giving gifts back to God and our neighbors when we use our time and talents to spread the love of Jesus Christ. Those gifts tie more directly to the idea of service, however, and we’ll talk about service next week.
Today, I want us to return to a topic we discussed in January, our financial gifts. By the way, I should once again say thanks. We’ve started off the year on a positive financial note, with your tithes and offerings exceeding your expenditures by about $5,000 so far. If the trend continues through the rest of the year, it’s going to be much easier to expand our outreach to people who need to know Christ.
I don’t want us having an extended conversation about numbers today, however. During this Lenten season, as we talk about prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, we’re talking about matters of the heart, or perhaps “habits of the heart” would be a better phrase, if I can borrow a title from an important book published in 1985.
In our Scripture reading today, Mark 12:41-44, Jesus pointed out the very heart of giving by showing us a poor widow making her offering at Jerusalem’s temple. Specifically, she was in the part of the temple known as the treasury, located in the Women’s Court, as deep into the temple as women were allowed to go.
Here, rich and poor men and women mingled, making their offerings by pouring them into what looked like 13 brass trumpets, their bells upturned like funnels. The handfuls of valuable Jewish silver shekels from the rich would have rattled mightily going in, drawing attention to the wealthy givers.
In contrast, the copper clink of the widow’s two almost worthless coins would have been either lost in the din or perhaps even laughable to some, if she were unfortunate enough to drop them in during a moment of quiet.
And yet Jesus told his disciples, “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, all she had to live on.”
Clearly, when we talk about gifts, it’s not just about the number of digits following a dollar sign. The widow’s gift is a financial expression of deep love for God regardless of her particular situation. (I wonder what her mansion in heaven must look like; surely it is one of the biggest ones on the highest hill.)
In an ideal world, the widow who gave her all would have had nothing to worry about. At the foundations of Jewish society was the principle that the least in society—the orphans, the widows, the landless wanderers, the poor—were to receive care from those more blessed. In particular, the people in charge of the temple system, making proper use of the resources flowing through it, should have guaranteed this woman had nothing to fear.
We do not live in an ideal world, however. Back up a few verses in Mark, and you can see the problem in Jesus’ day. In Mark 12:38-40, Jesus denounces the scribes, lawyer-like bureaucrats who worked the religious system to their advantage. In particular, Jesus noted, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
For a modern analogy, think of silk-suited televangelists who pick and choose Bible verses to build a convincing argument that the elderly poor and others should write checks to them.¹ Scribes used Jewish law in a similar way, selectively choosing and interpreting rules to tell widows the additional burdens they needed to bear. Those brass funnels in the treasury turned into black holes, with bureaucrats on the receiving end sucking up the money so it never emerged to help those in need.
The system could have worked if those with plenty had maintained hearts for those without. Instead, the rich used religion to show off.
The system could have worked if those running it had stayed true to their calling, remembering that the core of Jewish law was to love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and to love your neighbors as yourself.
These principles for giving and using gifts wisely remain the same today. I asked you in January to make percentage pledges based on how you felt God was leading you, using pledge cards that you took home. If you’re still considering that pledge or want to reconsider it, I’ll give you another piece of guidance.
Make your giving decisions when your heart is full of love for God. That may be during a particularly fulfilling moment in worship or in prayer, or simply at a time when you feel blessed. It even could be during a low moment—I know that might sound strange, but it often is in our lowest moments when we’re most sensitive to how much God loves us.
Remember what Christ has done to relieve us of the burden of sin. Like the widow he watched in the treasury, Jesus gave his all. Don’t give because I say so; I’m just Chuck. Give because you truly understand who God is and what God is doing in the world.
I’ll also tell you when not to give. If you ever think this church has stopped doing Christ’s work, don’t give it another penny. I don’t think anyone can legitimately make that complaint right now, though; there’s just too much good being done here in Christ’s name. We may disagree on strategies and priorities from time to time, but the leadership of this church, and most of its membership, I dare say, understand why we exist.
If you give with loving hearts, and if the church continues to use those gifts to reach out with loving hearts, the Kingdom of God will expand because of the people at Cassidy UMC.
¹I had a fascinating experience while writing this sermon. I needed to get away somewhere quiet, so I went down the street to Warriors Path State Park and wound up sitting in the grill at the marina. While there, two middle-aged women and a much younger woman began talking rather loudly about their opinion of preachers. (I was not dressed like the stereotype of a preacher, instead wearing hiking pants and a baseball jersey.)
“I just don’t trust them,” one of the older ladies said. “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.”
A big part of her complaint was that she thought preachers were too well-off, citing one she knew “living in the big house with the rich people.” (Even as grateful as I am for the house this church provides its pastor, I don’t think she was describing the Cassidy UMC parsonage.)
Apparently, we all need to spend more time at the grill, and I look forward to getting to know these ladies better.