Stewardship and the Widow’s Mite

November 11th, 2012

Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn

Lectionary Gospel Text: Mark 12:38-44 (NRSV)

Teaching in the temple, Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 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. 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.”

As some of you know the Conn family had a raccoon problem after we put sod in our backyard.  They showed up every night and rolled up the corners looking for slugs.

I tried everything.

I scattered the yard with mothballs; to no avail.  I spread cougar urine all over the place, which fortunately I didn’t have to collect.  Still, the sod was turned up every morning. So I woke up really, really early to catch them in the act.  And I did, dashing out the back door, grabbing the garden hose, and spraying them as I charged screaming words I thought they would understand. They ran up a tree and mocked me, only to come back the next day.  Finally, in desperation, I littered the yard with pledge cards.  I haven’t seen them since.

Today I am going to talk about pledging and money. If it is a topic you don’t want to hear about, you might want to try my 13 year old daughter’s favorite spiritual discipline…tuning me out.

But to tune out the topic of money is equivalent to tuning out 2000 plus verses in the bible.  After all, money is the thing Jesus talks about most after the kingdom of God.  11 of the 39 parables are about money, and 1 in 7 verses in the Gospel of Luke refers to money.  There is a reason for this.

Money is a real, practical part of the human condition.  We buy food with it.  We fight illnesses with it.  We show our love with it.  We compare ourselves by it.  It can give us power, attention, fame and freedom.  Money is a huge part of life today, as it was in Jesus’ day; which is why he talked about it so much.

The Gospel we hear this morning has two powerful images: one warns about priests in long robes seated in the best seats in the synagogue; the other is a widow giving away her last two copper coins.

The first image makes me squirm, as you can imagine.  It is a cautionary note that I take seriously, though not by avoiding it, but by carefully considering what Jesus is saying, and what this means for the church.

I clearly have an enormous self-interest in the topic of pledging.  While my wife and I pledge a significant amount to this church, I am also paid by it.  Much of what I can do as a leader is impacted by pledges.  75% of our cash flow, after all, comes from yearly pledges.

It pays my salary, and the salaries of Tom Foster and Kate and Ben and Emily and Kathea and Chinn and Gieth and Diane and others.  Money maintains these buildings and grounds.  It sustains our music program and Sunday school, and it helps fuel outreach, and pastoral care, and parish events and adult education.

But all of these people and property and programs, which cost money, are only worth it when they succeed in pointing to our greater purpose which is reflecting life in the kingdom of God.

The church, or should I say each church, is meant to be a kingdom of God outpost, a colony, if you will, of God’s kingdom…where what God wants to happen always happens the way God wants it to happen.  That is life in the colonies.  We don’t hit it perfectly all the time, but it frames our purpose and sets our trajectory; it is our hope.

Here is a colony analogy from Jesus’ day…

Corinth was a colony of Rome.  It sought to be beautiful and majestic like Rome.  It had the same type of schools, and gymnasiums, and government.  The buildings were similar, as were the street patterns and street names.  There were even statues of real people who occupied the seats of power in Rome.  People who lived in Corinth knew something of Rome, because they were a colony of Rome.

And for those lucky enough to travel to Rome, they knew the city because of what they knew of Corinth.  Epiphany is something like that.

This is the place where the flag of Christ is planted in the ground.  It is a real place, an incarnational space, a holy sanctuary set apart where we come to consider our life with God.  We are a colony on the corner of Denny and 38thoccupying this land for the last 100 years.  And it requires care and upkeep; it requires money to remain this vibrant colony which is our purpose.

How we reflect the kingdom is organized around three things: worship, formation and community.  These have been and will continue to be the three moorings upon which the church is secured to the kingdom of God.

Worship rejuvenates us.  It is the activity in which we join souls with those sitting next to us to praise God.

In the Senior Minyan the other day, as we were finishing up Thomas Merton’s book No Man Is An Island,  I asked, “why this title?”  To which one wise woman replied, “I don’t know if no man is an island, but I do know no island is an island.”

It was an image that captured my imagination.  We are all islands, and just below the surface we are all connected.  Our liturgy moves us below the waters that surround us.  As we sink into our souls, they fan out and dance together in a manner pleasing to God.

Formation is the process that helps us understanding this.  It is a funny word, formation. It simply means doing things, exercises or practices, that return us to our best selves.

Formation is academic and experiential.  We study, but we also pray and meditate; and go on pilgrimage, and live into the rhythms of the season; and fast and tithe.  And when we are really on a roll we even honor the Sabbath.

But for formation to have impact, it needs to have expression, and this happens in community.  In community we study together and practice together; we serve together; we know one another and hold each other accountable, and we link our souls together to praise God.

All of these things happen at Epiphany- worship, formation and community, gathered within these walls.  And so some may say: isn’t this self-congratulatory, isn’t this self-centered, isn’t this self-indulgent navel gazing?

And with these questions the image of the widow comes back into focus.  Wouldn’t our money be better spent supporting her, a woman so foolish as to give her last two copper coins to the church?

It is a good question.  And I’d add another one:  If not here, where?  If the church wasn’t here, where would the widow give her last two copper coins, which is not even enough to live off of for even a day, for even a meal, even 2000 years ago?

You have to remember that the widow was the lowest of the low, the most outcast of all, living beyond the walls of the city destitute, a walking victim at all times. No question.  The longer she held onto those coins the less likely she was to hold onto those coins.  They would be stolen from her. She would be ripped off trying to buy something to eat or drink.  Most likely someone would have just taken them from her and walked away.  That was the plight of the widow.

The one place she could employ those coins, with power, by her own intentionality, as an act faith, was the church.  She walked up to the Treasury, by her own power, without duress, and gave them in faith.

We rich people may call that foolish, but I ask where else could she go to express that power?  Where else could she go to flex her faith and hope?  Where else would people not scorn her as foolish and poor? Where? If not here, where?

Churches are disappearing.  Maybe because we would rather fix the widow than honor her and include her and love her because she is beloved by God.  Won’t there always be poor foolish people? Jesus seems to think so, which doesn’t mean it is not important to care for them.  But here is our mandate: The point is whether you are foolish or wise, strong or weak, old or young, whether you are organized or disorganized, funny or dull, rich or poor, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you have a place in the kingdom of God.  You have a place because you are beloved.

This is your place to come, whoever you are, to sink into your soul and dance with the divine.  Where else does that happen?

Worship and formation and community don’t change the world, they change you, I hope, and you change the world.

Epiphany is a colony of the kingdom of God where we are rejuvenated.  It is the place we come to thank God for what we do, and ask God what to do next.  Epiphany is where we learn the language of the kingdom and practice speaking it, so we can speak it fluently in the world. Epiphany is where we hone habits of patience and kindness and charity to be applied beyond these walls.  It is the place we return to, to consider what we have done, to examine our failures and celebrate our accomplishments with a community who loves us simply because we are beloved.

Our colony exists to honor that which it replicates for the benefit of the whole world.

We are an outpost.

That is what we are.  Consider this, consider the value of this, when you consider your pledge this year.