Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 8, 2009

2009.11.08 “The View From the Offering Plate”

Central United Methodist Church

“The View From the Offering Plate”
Mark 12: 28 – 34
Pastor David L. Haley

November 8th, 2009

“Jesus continued teaching. “Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function. And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless. The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they’ll pay for it in the end.”

Sitting across from the offering box, Jesus was observing how the crowd tossed money in for the collection. Many of the rich were making large contributions. One poor widow came up and put in two small coins — a measly two cents. Jesus called his disciples over and said, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford — she gave her all.” – Mark 12: 28 – 34, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson


Many years ago when I was a student at the University of Chicago, one of the professors told a story from the days of the building of the university. As they were raising funds, they received a huge gift from the oil baron, John D. Rockefeller. Though generous with his money, Rockefeller was also an oil-baron, with a notorious reputation for union-busting. “Aren’t you concerned about taking Mr. Rockefeller’s money?” someone asked. To which – whoever was in charge of receiving gifts – replied, “I’m not as concerned about money’s progeny (where it came from); as I am concerned about it’s destiny (where it’s going).”


        To which many in the church, as we attempt to underwrite next year’s budget and raise money for the renovation of the Log Cabin, might say, “Amen.”  In which case we could break out the barrels of whiskey and the bingo tables and video gambling, and raise some serious cash, that is, if we’re only concerned about where the money’s going, not where it’s coming from.


But of course we can’t do that, because green glorious cash or dirty filthy money, is not in the church a neutral object, but one laden with both moral and spiritual implications.  And it is so, not only for those of us who give, but also for those to whom the gift is given; in this case, our church.


It’s my turn today, as part of our fall stewardship campaign, to address this topic of not only of what we give, but what we’re giving for. I have thoroughly enjoyed the stewardship witnesses we have heard over the last few weeks, by Carla and Marjorie and Patty and Claire; really, we should do this more often.


Frankly, we who are so hopeful about our congregation would love to just say, “Please, please, please, give generously, it’s so important and relieve us of such anxiety if you do!”  Or, as the old saying goes, “The good news is that we have all the money we need to do what we want to do; the bad news is “It’s still in your pockets!”


But of course, we can’t only say that, because there is this deeper moral and spiritual dimension to our giving, that transcends dollars and cents.


Perhaps in no Gospel story are these issues raised more clearly than our story today from the Gospel of Mark, the story of the poor widow who gave two cents, traditionally known as “The Widow’s Mite.”


In truth, the poor widow is only part of the story, to see the whole picture we have to back up and stand with Jesus across from the temple treasury, and do a little “people-watching” as people put their gifts in.


In our case, it would be kind of like taking this offering plate, and using it as a lens to look in two directions:  one direction would be toward you (us) the givers; the other direction would be to turn it around and look at the institution to which we give.  And that’s exactly what Jesus did.


First, Jesus had a few choice comments about the people who were giving.  I’m not sure he would have been the best leader of a stewardship campaign. 


The pretentious practices of the scribes, (which Peterson calls, “religion scholars) comes in for severe criticism. Here they are strolling about in long robes, seeking public acclaim, taking the best seats in the house and at banquets, praying their lengthy prayers, (yikes!) which mask their ruthless exploitation of the poor, in particular widows, who in a male-dominated society were left without defense.  I guess, if we put in terms we could understand, these would be the Wall Street bankers of today.


Immediately following the condemnation of the scribes, comes the contrast between the rich putting their large sums of money (which, relative to their wealth, was still only a tip rather than a tithe) and the destitute widow putting in her two cents. 


This story shows up frequently as a text for sermons during this time in the church’s calendar known as “stewardship season.” And the destitute widow becomes an ideal image for Christian giving, since the two copper coins she gave represented all she had.  Of course, on such occasions the sermon tends to overlook the rich people mentioned in the text and downplay the behavior of the scribes, since stewardship season is not a time to offend the wealthier members whose quantitatively larger gifts are need to raised the church budget and rebuild the log cabin.  

And, let’s face it, the scribes would have been the ones on the “significant” donor list, the ones invited to the private dinners; the poor widow would not. After all, what significant temple renovations were they going to accomplish with the widows’ two cents, however generous of her it may have been?


But a traditional reading lifts up the poor widow as an ideal figure, whose small gift is set over against the contributions of the rich, honored because it comes out of her poverty – “she gave all she had,” making her a woman to be commended, remembered and emulated for her extraordinary commitment.


By the way, it’s still true, that the poor give a greater percentage of their income, than do the rich. These are the findings of McClatchy Newspaper reporter Frank Greve, after sifting through data from the 2007 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  What he found was that the poorest fifth of America’s households contributed an average of 4.3 percent of their incomes to charitable organizations in 2007. The richest fifth gave at less than half that rate, 2.1 percent.


“The lowest-income fifth (of the population) always give at more than their capacity,” said Virginia Hodgkinson, former vice president for research at Independent Sector, a Washington-based association of major nonprofit agencies. “The next two-fifths give at capacity, and those above are capable of giving two or three times more than they give.”


Why?  “Faith probably matters most,” says Arthur Brooks, the author of the book “Who Really Cares,” an analysis of U.S. generosity. That’s partly because above-average numbers of poor people go to church, and church attenders give more money than non-attenders to secular and religious charities, Brooks found. (“America’s Poor are its Most Generous Givers,” by Frank Greve, McClatchy Newspapers, May 22, 2009.


Whichever category we find ourselves in, whether we are like the scribes who tip rather than tithe, or poor widow who gave beyond her capacity, I pray your faith will be the most significant factor to you as you make your decision about how much you will be able to give to our church. 


I’m not telling you it will be easy, as we sit down in the context of this economy, and look at all the commitments we have, and prayerfully determine not necessarily what we can do, but what we want to do, in the larger context of our faith and Christian discipleship, and importance of our church in our lives.


I believe the Pastor ought to set the example, so I want you to know that though neither Michele nor I expect to get a raise anytime soon, our circumstances are such that, right now, we are the church’s biggest donors.  (But here’s the thing: we don’t want to be! I challenge you to put us in second, third, even last place!)


A right reading of this story, however, also requires that we turn the offering plate the other way, and look at the institution to whom we’re giving.


Because while the traditional interpretation of this story, commending the poor widow, has been the most popular, especially in stewardship season, scholars argue that the traditional interpretation ignores too many of the social and political dimensions of the story. 


In the Gospel, what this poor woman does is brings us to the beginning of the end, to the very edge of the “apocalyptic” sayings of Jesus about the end of the world as we know it, a world centered around temple and the powerful institutions that support it.  What Jesus is about to say, “It’s all coming down.” 


What then becomes most significant here? The way she’s been cheated and barely supported by her caregivers? The fact that she remains committed, participating in worship in a ritual system that’s deeply broken, indeed, doomed? That she will do what she can to support other widows, even though the system to support widows is corrupt?  Or that her sacrificial act of giving is a sign of the end of things as they now are, because it is the way of love of God and neighbor, not the powers that be, that establish a new reality?


Because of such questions as these, honestly, as we ask you to give to the church, these are questions we who are the church must ask ourselves. 


Truth is, all earthly institutions, including the church and temple, are not perfect, but impure.  I wish we didn’t have to worry about the gas bill and liability insurance and snow removal, but we do.


In fact, let’s be clear that the reason we are doing this Log Cabin project, and looking at the fate of the Educational Building, is because we don’t want to spend the next ten years struggling with these issues as we have for the last ten or twenty years, we want to get past them, once and for all, and get out from under some of these institutional costs so we can focus on the things that matter, the things that transform lives and grow the church, such as worship and mission and ministry.


As church consultant Gil Rendle says about the new economic realities of the church: “We don’t have enough to do what we’ve always done; we do have enough to do what we need to do.”


You of the older generations – the people who fill the pews in most mainline churches, have heard the church’s appeal and responded faithfully, unquestioningly. (“Thank God for you.”) But in the one or two decades, due to mortality or mobility, many of those who comprise the church’s older generations – the church’s best givers – will be gone, and where then will the church be? 


Younger generations, on the other hand, look at the church and say, “Why should I give my money to you?”  Why can’t I just bypass you, with your high institutional maintenance, and just give my money directly to those who protect the environment or feed the poor or house the homeless, to missions I believe in?” 


We in the church reply: “Because we’re $10,000 behind in our budget and because the roof is leaking and the gas bill is due and because if you don’t there may soon be a 7/11 on this corner rather than the church . . . ”


While someone like the Salvation Army says to its donors, in response to the question, “Why should I give to you?”  Because of all the good things we did with your money last year, and all the more good things we intend to do with your money this year, and here are stories and statistics to proof it!”  Which would you want to give to?


Brothers and sisters, you know, we’ve got to get beyond these institutional things, so that – in a changing world, among countless other charitable institutions – we can focus on the particular and unique mission of the church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”


Later this morning, we will recognize those members who have, for the past year, been a part of the “Companions in Christ” group who have met for the last year.  As a part of their journey, they attempted a mission statement for our church.  Here’s what they came up with:


“We propose that every aspect of congregational life be designed and approached with the intention of helping people grow toward maturity in the Christian life, through increasing participation in the heart, mind, and work of Christ. Activities and settings that do not support and further this mission will be eliminated or transformed.”


How would our congregation be changed, if we made this our mission statement?


Yes, the view from the offering plate, as demonstrated in the story about Jesus and the poor widow, looks in two directions:  Toward ourselves as the donors, asking us not only what we give, but why we give it.  It commends to us the example of this poor widow, who demonstrates a self-giving that transcends dollars and cents.


But it also asks us to turn the plate around, and take a prayerful and critical look at our church, to whom we give, that together we may make it worthy, not only of the gifts we give, but of the glorious good news of Jesus the Christ.  Amen.




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