Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 11, 2012

2012.11.11 “The Poor Widow’s Story: Commendable Example or Cautionary Tale” – Mark 12: 38 – 44

Central United Methodist Church

“The Poor Widow’s Story:

Commendable Example or Cautionary Tale”

Pastor David L. Haley

Mark 12: 38 – 44

November 11th, 2012

 

“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: 38 – 44, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

What season is it? If you say, “Autumn,” you’d be right. But for those of us who’ve been around churches for awhile, we know that with autumn comes Stewardship season, that time of year when churches invite members to make financial pledges for the year to come.

Because the church depends upon those pledges, we’ll be doing that too, next Sunday, Commitment Sunday. We decided on a low-key event this year, without a lot of hoopla, where we’ll invite you to make a commitment, and you can do when and as you choose.

We decided to do it this way, because first, year by year you have consistently demonstrated that you are faithful and generous people. And secondly, because it seems no matter what we say, the results are fairly consistent: some give less, some give more, and most give about the same. In fact, according to those who keep track of such things, despite annual pleas for Christians to follow the Biblical standard of tithing, the tenth, it’s been consistently shown that conservative Christians give an average of 3%, mainline Protestants give 2%, and Catholics give 1.5%.

As we approach the subject of finances and giving, one thing I think often overlooked is that for many of us, financial matters in general are confusing and difficult. Apart from those trained in finance and business, few of us get much education in this important area of life. I recently heard a certified financial planner pose the question, “Who modeled finances for you?” Was it a grandparent or a parent?  Did they teach us how not to get in debt more than we can pay, how to save, how to give to others? Did we see them writing checks, clipping coupons, using envelopes, putting their church offering into the offering plate?  If this was how we learned finances, there may be a big problem ahead when almost all payments becomes electronic, as most already are. Let me just say, that until the day comes when we begin taking credit cards in church, I encourage more of you to start using the EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer) option for your church gifts, which, yes, will make the offering plate obsolete.

For some of us, the answer to the question of who modeled finances for us, is, “No one.” I consider myself, for example, to be a near financial incompetent. I never saw anything financial growing up, finances were invisible in our household, other than when my father complained to my mother we were spending too much. (We were, after all, Scots-Irish.) In school, I never took a course in finance, accounting, or economics. Being a United Methodist pastor I never had much money to invest anyway; there were times where we weren’t sure if we could afford pizza on Friday night. I paid off a lot of bills – including medical bills – on payment plans. I always tried to give a first offering to the church, usually through a salary reduction. Of the five churches I’ve had, except for my two urban Chicago churches, who struggled financially, I’ve been fortunate to have a good financial history in my churches, thanks to good finance teams and faithful and generous congregations. We always balanced the budget AND paid 100% of our apportionments. For this, I am ever so thankful.

In 2001, in an effort to address my financial incompetence, I married an accountant (and no, that wasn’t the primary reason). Now, between Michele and I, we have a decent income, make ends meet, and are able to give generously to the church and other charities (last year we gave away about 18% of our income).

Still, I personally don’t have a lot of financial expertise. A week ago Friday, even though retirement is still years away, we went to a clergy retirement workshop run annually by Bob Burkhart, and I sat there listening to the mind-boggling financial complexities of retirement, such as savings, investing, health insurance, Social Security, and Medicare, I wished I had learned more about financial matters at an earlier age, especially saving and practicing generosity. One piece of advice Bob gave me I’m going to follow: “Listen to your wife.” (Well, at least most of the time.)

Believe it or not, one of the best places we can learn such important life lessons – including financial stewardship – is in church.  This morning, for example, in a well-timed Gospel reading, Jesus himself points out a model of generous extravagant generosity, a poor widow who put in the temple treasury her two cents worth (yes, that’s where we get that phrase), known as “the widow’s mite.” At first glance, it seems like a great text for a perfect stewardship sermon; (Way to go, lectionary, nice tip of the ball!) But the problem is, the closer you look, the more complicated this story becomes, not only providing a model of extravagant generosity, but also asking challenging questions.  Let’s take a look.

Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem, and was hanging out at the Temple, teaching. Part of his teaching included that nasty little incident (Mark 11) where he had overturned the tables of the merchants and moneychangers operating in the temple. Now, taking a break, Jesus sat on a bench across from the temple treasury, watching as people brought their tithes and offerings. How comfortable would we be, as we give our offering, to know that Jesus is watching?

Some wealthy people were putting in large contributions, but   Jesus wasn’t impressed. Doesn’t Jesus know it’s the big donors that keep the place going, that in any financial campaign or capital drive, you start with the big givers? After all, two cents worth: we can’t even buy a stamp for that! Was Jesus financially incompetent too? Had he never been to a stewardship seminar? He did, after all, have to borrow a coin went they asked him whose face was on it.

But then came this poor widow, dressed in black. Right there, at the mention of a poor widow, many of us may have glimmers of recognition, because most churches have widows, some of my best friends are widows. Some of them are poor, though not all. Sometimes we don’t find out until afterwards, when they find the money hidden in the mattress, after all those years of putting two cents in the offering each week. I have known widows whose estate was in the millions; I have also known some who outlived their money and had nothing left.  I won’t ask for a show of hands.

In Biblical times this was not the case. More often than not, depending on circumstances, a widow was destitute. Family was the social net; if there was no family there was no social net, and a widow had to get by as best she could, including by begging.  Time and again, we hear in both the Old Testament and New Testament, there is a special place in God’s heart for widows and orphans, because of the hardship and injustice they often suffered.  Any who would mistreat widows – including by taking away their Social Security away – better beware!

So it was, when Jesus saw a poor widow put in two small coins, the smallest they had, he was impressed. That – not the big givers – brought him out of his seat, and he whistled to his disciples and said, like this (tone of awe): “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.”

She gave her all?  What does that mean? For all these years, during most stewardship campaigns we have promoted proportional giving: 2%, 5%, 10%. According to Jesus, this woman was not a proportional giver, she didn’t have much, but what she had she gave, which comes out to 100%. Come to think of it, Jesus did too, maybe that’s why he was so impressed with this poor woman. Jesus didn’t give proportionally, he wasn’t a proportionate Savior, he gave it all, left it all on the road, laid everything he had on the cross, ultimately trusting in God alone. God honored that, raising him from the dead, exalting him to the highest place.

But what does that mean for us? After all, who could live like that? When we make our commitment, should that include our investment portfolio, the kid’s college fund, our retirement savings, the deed to our house and our car keys? Please don’t! Because while that would help the church, that would leave you worse off, and we’d have to use it (some of it) to help you! How smart would that be, to emulate this poor widow and “give all?” Or is Jesus saying, “If we give 100% of ourselves to God, our money – the amount we need to give – will be clear and surely follow.”

But here’s the catch: when we read this text, we don’t hear Jesus’ tone of voice. Remember, he had just condemned this very temple, for not being a house of prayer for all peoples, but a den of thieves.  He had just excoriated the religious scholars, wearing their fancy robes (uh-oh) for exploiting the weak and helpless. So was it really outrage that brought Jesus out of his seat, at institutions that do not really care for people, but suck the life out of them, as the temple just had this poor woman (tone of outrage): “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.”

One further complication: in the very next chapter, Jesus predicts it will all be coming down, not one stone of the Temple remaining, (Mark 13:2) as indeed would be the case in 70 AD at the hands of the Romans. In other words, this poor woman just gave everything she had, to an institution that would soon be gone, just as she might likely be gone, perhaps due to her extravagant contribution.  No wonder Jesus was outraged.

OK, so now we’re convinced Jesus might not be the best speaker on Stewardship Sunday. But whether he holds the poor widow up as an example of extravagant generosity, or as an unjust victim of the exploitation of a corrupt and fleeting institution, both are valuable lessons to us during stewardship season. Because stewardship works both ways: on your side of the offering plate, through the giving of our lives and gifts; but also on this side of the offering plate: that we, the church, should use the money we give with accountability, with efficiency, and with relevancy for the people we serve. Most people don’t – and won’t – give to dying institutions. Most people don’t want to give only to pay the gas bill, or just keep the lights on, or even to build better and bigger buildings, which as we ought to know by now, are fleeting. People want to see their hard-earned money used to see God honored, to see lives impacted and people served. If we can’t do that, then let’s give our money to someone who can.

That’s why church budgets become theological documents, maybe more so than creeds.  A church budget tells us how – in the name of God – we are spending our money. Yes, it supports this building, to do God’s work here, but if it only supports the building, we’re in big trouble.  It supports me, to serve you and to help you do God’s work, but if I’m the only one doing God’s work, again, we’re in big trouble. Through our church budget we do the same we ask of you, which is to give beyond Central, through our benevolences and the Promise of the Rainbow, to support God’s work through the United Methodist Church, locally, nationally, and around the world. And there is always more that we would like to do. Next year we want to add another $10,000 – $12,000 in the budget for a part-time Christian Education Director, because want to have a stronger ministry to children, youth, and adults, through Intentional Faith Development. Will you give to help make that happen?

Back to my question at the beginning: who modeled finances and giving for us? In lieu of someone we know, might this poor widow serve as an example, and at the same time, as a cautionary tale.

Have you seen the movie Bernie?  It’s a black comedy based upon a real incident which happened in Carthage, Texas in 1996. A widow – not a poor widow but a very wealthy widow – 81 year old millionaire Marjorie Nugent (as played by Shirley MacLaine), is befriended by one of the nicest men in town, local mortician and pillar of the church Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). Tiede – in his late 30’s – and the elderly Nugent become inseparable, frequently traveling and lunching together.

There’s only one problem: Mrs. Nugent is downright mean and nasty, hated by the people of the town. One day, tired of her possessiveness, persistent nagging, and non-stop putdowns, in a moment of opportunity, Tiede murders Mrs. Nugent, and hides her body in a freezer.

For nine months, Tiede, while making excuses for her absence, Tiede uses Mrs. Nugent’s money philanthropically, to help local business and neighbors, including building a new wing on the church (which by the way, in the movie, is a Methodist Church.)

Until the day comes, when through the suspicions of the local District Attorney, (Matthew McConaughey), Tiede gets caught and charged with murder.  Except that – in order to get a conviction, they had to seek a change of venue for the trial to another town, because despite the evidence, Tiede was such a nice guy no jury in Carthage would convict him. The real Bernie Tiede is now serving life in prison, and guess what: the church had to pay the money back.

The moral?  Same as the poor widow’s story. Will our lives serve as an example, or a cautionary tale? Because here’s the thing: someone is watching.  Amen.

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