Sermon for Pentecost 22, Year B
Based on Mk. 12:38-44
Martin Luther once said that there are three conversions of the Christian Faith. There is the conversion of the heart, the conversion of the mind and the conversion of the pocketbook! And Luther sadly acknowledged that for many, many Christians, that third conversion, the conversion of the pocketbook, never takes place.
In this sermon I want to—put myself out on a limb, and—speak about the conversion of the pocketbook. And I want to speak frankly and personally and directly. If some of you feel that pastors shouldn’t talk about money in sermons, if you feel that preaching about money is out-of-bounds, then I would simply like to refer you to the pages of the New Testament and especially the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. For do you know that in four Gospels, Jesus talks to the people more about money than he does about prayer? Do you know that of Jesus’ thirty-eight parables, twelve of them are about money and material possessions? That’s thirty-two percent of his parables that deal with money! And do you know that throughout the Gospels, approximately one out of every eight verses of Scripture refers to the topics of money and possessions? If anything, I feel I have not preached enough about money and possessions. I feel that in some way I’ve let Jesus down, because I have not considered money as important a topic in my preaching as he did.
My purpose in this sermon is NOT to make you feel guilty. Guilt is neither an effective way to encourage giving to the church, nor I might add, is it a Christian way. The New Testament is crystal clear about that. We Christians give to God and to the church, not because of what is required of us. We do not give because it is demanded of us. Rather, we give in grateful and cheerful response to what God has (already first) given to us. And so if you feel guilty because of anything I say, please know that that is not my intent.
Rather, my purpose is to get you to see yourself as a part of that story from the Gospel of Mark.1
The story of a poor widow and her offering to the Lord.
This is a wonderful and challenging story of God’s grace, because it deals with an issue of the heart. It’s a story that focuses on the motivation of giving. It’s a story of sheer generosity and extravagance. It’s a story of giving our all to serve God and his causes. Whenever I read this passage, I always think of a story which happened several years ago, when we were serving the parish of St. John’s, New Sarepta.
The story goes like this: There was a family living in the community who were very poor. They lived on social welfare, and were the subject of gossip in the community. Consequently, they lived in isolation, ostracized by most people, with only a few friends.
One day, they came to visit me with tears of grief in their eyes. Their handicapped infant of 14 months had just died, and they requested that I conduct the funeral service. I agreed. After the funeral was over, the family expressed their deep gratitude and thanks to me for ministering to them during their period of grief.
They had also give me an envelope, which I opened later that evening. Inside the envelope was a card of thanks and $60.00, a generous gift for such a dirt-poor family. In fact, their gift was double that of what I had received from affluent people for the same purpose. Of course, I refused to cash their check. Nonetheless, I was once again made aware of the generosity and extravagance of the poor.
The poor, with their limited resources, are often more generous in their giving than the wealthy with their abundant resources. It seems to be a fact of life that often those who give, can least afford to do so, while those who can indeed afford to, give the least. That extremely poor family had a tremendous impact on me personally and on my attitudes about giving. They gave out of their poverty, at great sacrificial cost to themselves. But, it was a gift offered in sheer gratitude from the heart. I shall never forget them and their gift.
The widow in our gospel is dirt poor in comparison to many rich people who were giving large sums to the temple treasury. Yet, Jesus says that: “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.” In saying this, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter; the widow’s motives for giving. Unlike the rich and famous, who want, who demand to be at the centre of attention; who make a show of everything they do in public; who give out of their ostentatiousness; the extremely poor widow gives without any fanfare; right from the heart.
If Jesus hadn’t noticed the widow, most likely no one else would have paid much attention to her. She gave not out of her surplus—for she had no surplus, she had no leftovers!—she gave out of her poverty, the only money she had was given away to God. All, everything! Now that’s generous giving! That’s extravagant giving! That’s sacrificial giving! That’s risky, costly giving! That has to be the best, most faithful, loving motive of all for giving. The gift that really counts is the gift that costs. The gift that’s given out of risk, sacrifice, extravagance, generosity, and unconditional love.
The moral of the Greeks was, “In all things—moderation.” Nothing in excess. The wise person is the person who achieves a kind of balance in life. The person who is able to be committed to certain causes, but never overly committed. The fires of passion, even passion in a righteous cause, particularly passion which believes that it is in the service of a righteous cause, are dangerous. The golden mean, that’s the key to life, in the eyes of the Greek philosophers.
But Jesus was no philosopher. He did not teach the Greek way, but rather the Hebrew way. It was a way characterized more by the effects of love, rather than the demands of moderation. Excess, extravagance, (generosity) are not bad words in the Gospels.2
What it really comes down to is this—what value do we place on our faith? What is it worth to us? That’s what worship really is. Worship simply means to ascribe worth to something. And since the offering is as much a part of weekly worship as are the prayers or the hymns or the Scripture or the sermon, what is it worth? What value do we give it?3
Are we willing—if we haven’t already—to undergo what Luther called the third conversion, the conversion of our pocketbooks? Are we willing to grow in our stewardship of money? Such are the kinds of very challenging questions that this story of the poor widow and her offering raise for us today.
On one occasion, Mother Teresa said: “I ask you one thing: do not tire of giving, but do not give your leftovers. Give until it hurts, until you feel the pain.” That is precisely what the poor widow in our gospel today did—she gave until it hurts, until she felt the pain, not her leftovers, but all she had, everything. Widows in that society, unless they had a man in their family to look after them or unless they had some kind of means of making a living; were, in most cases, destined for a life of poverty. What faith this widow shows in her generous, extravagant giving. She gives all her money to the temple. This was a most dangerous act, inviting disaster—yet, she does it out of faith.
This generous, extravagant, risky giving; this giving of everything is a foreshadowing of the greatest giver and gift of them all—namely, Christ and his sacrificial death on the cross. Christ gave his all; his everything when he suffered and died on the cross. Through his suffering and death, our sin is forgiven and we have the promise of eternal life. In response to Christ’s giving his all; his everything; how much do we give to Christ and for him? What is our motivation for giving what we give? Because Christ’s giving is so extravagant; so full of unconditional love towards us; he frees us to respond to him NOT out of guilt; NOT by demanding us to give; RATHER, he frees us to respond to him by giving out of loving sacrifice; out of generosity; out of extravagance; not because we have to, but because we will want to—like the widow in our gospel; like Jesus himself.