November 1st, 2015 “A Stewardship of Life” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Upon first glance, today’s reading seems like a wonderful lectionary gift for any pastor during Stewardship season. Jesus is at the temple treasury watching folks make their offerings and it seems like the perfect scene for a wonderful teaching on how modern day parishioners should increase their pledges to the local church. When we examine the passage more closely though, we find that the Jesus of the gospel of Mark is really not the guy you want on your Stewardship committee.
To set the stage, Mark places Jesus in the temple teaching the disciples and anyone else who would listen. Jesus begins by pointing out to the disciples those who hold the places of honor, the scribes. “Notice how they like to walk around acting so fancy,” he seems to say. “They love to be in positions of honor and to have everyone hanging on their every word. They ignore the needs of those less fortunate at the same time as they say long prayers about what is best for everyone.” Jesus was talking about the church in his day but it sure sounds like politics in ours! I’m telling you, if Donald Trump keeps calling himself a Presbyterian, I just might need to change denominations!
Jesus then sits down across from the treasury to watch people put in their offerings. No secret offering envelopes here, what everyone gives is out in the open for all to see. Many church pastors dream of this scene as rich people stream in, one after the other, and make large offerings to the work of the church. Then a poor woman comes in and offers two pennies. Jesus points out the widow’s offering to the disciples but what he is saying about her offering isn’t entirely clear.
The writer of the gospel of Mark quotes Jesus saying, “Truly I tell you, 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.” What is clear is that the offering, while less money, is of greater value because it is a greater portion of the woman’s total wealth. What is not clear is whether the widow’s offering is a good thing or a bad one.
The more traditional sermon on this text is that the widow makes an exemplary offering. The rich people give from out of their wealth, and although the numbers may be great, the actual cost to their lifestyle is very little. They have plenty of money to secure housing, to buy clothing, and to buy food. Their offering to the temple is simply a skimming off of the top of their great wealth and is really of little significance to them. Like many of us, they are giving 10% or less and that gift really will not hamper their lifestyle at all. They can continue to rely on their money to get them through the coming days.
The widow, by contrast, gives all that she has. She has no money for housing, clothing, or food. She has no money to secure her future. Even though she has only two pennies to her name, she gives those pennies to God. Hers is an example of great faith as she has no plans or security for tomorrow; rather she relies totally on God to get her through each day. The traditional sermon preached here is that we too, should give our offerings with such abandon. We too should give all that we have to live on and trust that God will get us through tomorrow.
The counter to that traditional interpretation is that Jesus is lifting the woman up as a negative example, not a positive one. While her offering is exemplary and made in great faith, it is also a deep criticism of the religious institution of the day. One paragraph earlier, Jesus is busy decrying the way the leaders of the church devour widow’s houses, and here Jesus is pointing out just such a case. The church shouldn’t be asking this woman for her money! The church should be giving this woman money! As far as Jesus is concerned the temple cult is a failing institution and people shouldn’t be giving their money to it anyway. So much for a stewardship sermon!
I’m not sure where that leaves us exactly this morning, other than in an awkward place. Like Jesus, I don’t want the church to be an institution that preys on the poor and the weak for its own survival. I don’t want to be guilty of devouring widow’s houses. And I don’t want to seem like one of the scribes that Jesus describes, strutting though the church in a fancy robe and telling everyone how it is. And yet, I need your offerings this year. I need your pledges to continue the good work of the church. Like I said, Jesus isn’t the first choice for the Stewardship committee.
Today, I am thinking that the best way to salvage this text for a Stewardship sermon is to preach it to the church, rather than to you as individuals. I think the church itself needs to hear the message of sacrificial giving. The church itself needs to strive to give away what it has, rather than to horde its riches. The church needs to offer the wealth of its treasury to the poor widows of our world, and not the other way around.
Here at First Presbyterian Church we are doing our best to do this. Once again in 2016 we plan to spend more money than we bring in. Like the widow, we are giving our last two coins to God and then some. This church overspends each year so that we can do the work of ministry here in our community. We spend more than we should for the upkeep and maintenance of this building, so that we have a safe and comfortable place to worship and fellowship together. We probably pay our employees more than we should for a church of our size and financial situation. And we certainly give away much more than we should for mission work in our community and in our world. This church is striving not to take care of ourselves for tomorrow, but to take care of our community and our world for today.
And, as you have guessed, here comes that stewardship pitch. If you think this is a worthy mission, if you think we are more than simply hot air filled scribes and politicians, than donate to this cause. Pledge to the work of this community. Increase your commitment as you are able. If you only have two pennies then you better keep those to yourself. But, if you are like me and have more than you need, then you better give some of it to the church. While I don’t want widows giving their last dime to our mission and ministry, I do want people to give fully of what they have to give. Like the rich folk who were offering to the temple treasury, many of us have been blessed in abundance and we can give of what we have and still have plenty to live on.
Now, while I may not want you following the widow’s example by giving your last two pennies to the church. I do want you to follow her example of giving the whole of who you are to your faith. I want to encourage us today into a stewardship of life, daily acts of self-giving for the sake of our faith.
In our brown bag bible study group on Tuesdays we have been talking a lot about the way that we live in the world. This past week we discussed the idea of vocation, and whether or not God has one calling for you in your life. As a group, we reflected, that our one true calling in life often isn’t our job or even our hobby. Rather, our deepest calling is to live the best lives that we can every day. God created us to be human, and if we can be the best humans that we can be, then we are living up to God’s calling. If we can follow through with a stewardship of our whole lives, than we can follow the positive example of the widow’s offering, without the negative overtones of the corrupt religious institution.
When we read the gospel of Mark today we know three things for certain. Number one, it’s probably not a good idea to invite Jesus to be part of the Stewardship committee since he never quite says what you want him to say. Number two, the church should work harder to give it away than to take it in. And number three, all of us should strive to give the whole of who we are to our life of faith. May God bless us as we continue to push ourselves to make greater commitments to the work of Christ in our world. Amen.