I imagine you, like I, have noticed that many charitable organizations now include, along with the acknowledgement of your recent contribution, a submission form and return envelope for your next contribution. What?! I know, based on conversations I’ve had, that I’m not the only one annoyed by this new fund-raising approach. Now, here’s why I find it annoying. When an organization includes an appeal along with my thank you, quite frankly, I don’t feel very appreciated. In fact, it feels as if my most recent gift has been devalued. Apparently, it just wasn’t good enough and so, before it’s even had time to appear on my Discover card statement, you’ve clearly communicated that I need to up my game. And frankly, that offends me.
Now, this morning’s gospel story reveals Jesus’ own, rather unique view of charitable giving and I suspect we would find it no less offensive.
It seems quite ridiculous when Jesus, in this morning's gospel lesson, makes much ado over a woman who is, very likely, the smallest contributor to the temple that day. The woman is a widow and she is among those passing through the outer court of the temple placing her donation into the treasury – trumpet shaped chests into which people deposited their coins in the same way we deposit our envelopes in the offering plate now in days. Jesus was apparently positioned so as to have a kind of wide-angle view of this parade of giving. Mark tells us that there were many rich people who deposited large sums. No doubt the temple priests appreciated their contributions; after all, they had expenses to cover. But, it is a poor widow who draws the attention and earns the praise of Jesus. She becomes the focus of a teachable moment as Jesus addresses his disciples. She, Jesus informs them, has made the largest contribution of all. Now, obviously, Jesus was not speaking in a strictly monetary sense. For the woman deposits only two small coins. For those of us who grew up hearing the King James version of the bible, we know these coins as mites. Technically, they were lepton. Lepton happened to be the smallest currency in circulation at the time. So, we might liken them to today’s pennies… although it’s impossible to determine their equivalent value to today’s American currency. But, Jesus' response was focused on more than strict economics and we know that by his next words. Jesus says that this woman's contribution has been the greatest of all because, while others contributed out of their surplus, she contributed out of her need. The amount that she gave was all that she had to live on. She has truly given it all. She has given the entirety of her resources.
That final statement that the widow gave "all that she had to live on" hearkens back to another teachable moment earlier in Luke’s gospel. In chapter 10, Jesus is approached by a lawyer who wants to know what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus' response is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.i That word "all" – which is the Greek word holos – is such a little word. But it expresses the concept of entirety, completeness, wholeness; a small word; but a big idea.
It was not the amount the woman gave that Jesus lauded and praised. It was, instead, the reality that Jesus knew to be true of her. Through her donation, she offered up all of herself, her very life; all that she had to give, she gave. And, in doing so, she demonstrated a love that encompassed all of her heart, all of her soul, all of her mind and all of her strength. What she gave demonstrated a love that was whole and complete.
Now, if you're a pragmatist, like me, you might wonder – if the woman gave everything she had to live on – what was going to happen when it came time for her next meal. Well, neither Jesus nor the gospel writer addresses that question. But, perhaps the very absence of the issue should cause us to reflect on how a love so complete and whole leads to a trust so deep, so all-consuming as to eradicate the need for such questions. It reminds me of Jesus’ teaching on the limitless character of sincere forgiveness. When we need to ask “how much,” if we need to ask about the limits, we have, it seems, missed the point. So, if we get bogged down in questions of this women’s next expense, we perhaps are missing the point. This is not a lesson in economics; it is a story about love and trust.
Let me say that again… because that's really the key to this story. A love such as this widow displayed – a love which is so encompassing leads to a trust that is so deep that questions about our future security no longer consume us or hold us captive.
Now, let me say one more thing about that. This story is certainly not an indicator that Jesus is unconcerned with the plight of the poor. In fact, he is quite direct in pointing out that the scribes who have exploited these poor widows will receive punishment for it. God is most certainly concerned about the poor.
But, this widow is not praised because she is poor and needy. Neither is she condemned for it. Her poverty is simply a fact. It is a part of her identity, but it does not define who she is or how she’ll choose to live because, in the midst of her poverty, she has chosen to live in a way that bears witness to her trust in God; and to demonstrate her love for God and her neighbor by offering up her entire life – represented by a couple of coins. It is a sorry, paltry sum; but it represents an enormous and marvelous gift.
In 1908 in Wayne County, Mississippi, a woman named Osceola McCarty was born. During sixth grade, her aunt, who had no children of her own, became ill and needed homecare. McCarty dropped out of school to care for her and never was able to return. She became a washerwoman and continued at that humble task until arthritis forced her “retirement” at age 86. She never married or had children of her own and she grieved the loss of her education. She wanted another young person to have the chance she never had. She was a frugal spender and carefully managed her washerwoman assets placing money in savings accounts at local banks. With the assistance of a bank manager (for whom she did laundry) she established a trust to benefit the University of Southern Mississippi in the amount of $150,000. After her death, folks noticed that McCarty’s scotch-tape bound bible fell right open to 2 Corinthians 9:11: “You will be made rich in every way, so that you can be generous on every occasion.”
This morning marks the conclusion of our Stewardship Campaign Moving Forward With Faith. I want to invite you now, for the final time, to look at the questions I hope have shaped your prayers and your thoughts throughout this month. Will you read through them with me once more?
This morning we prepare to turn in our commitment cards. Those cards provide an opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to the ministry of Trinity United Methodist Church. Those cards provide the opportunity for us to put down on paper what our monetary contribution will be toward the church's ministry budget for 2016. Along with the commitment card, you have in your bulletin a Gift Wheel on which you can also pledge your commitment of how you’ll give of your time by employing a God-given talent, skill or spiritual gift. You’re invited to dream and vision and creatively consider how investing your time to share your gift, your skill can support, grow or perhaps even birth new ministries here at Trinity. For monetary giving, we often speak of the tithe – the giving right off the top of 10% of our monthly income or earnings. But what about tithing our time? Do you know how many hours there are in one month? There are, on average, about 720 hours in each month. That means that, if we tithed our time, we give 72 hours a month to serving the church; or, at the very least, the church and other individuals or organizations in need. Friends, I can guarantee you that if every person in this church gave even 20 hours to serve the church each month, there would be more ministry going on here than we could even keep track of. There would be more lives changed and transformed than we could begin to imagine.
But, I especially hope that you will view both of these cards and our Stewardship Celebration Time as an opportunity to offer up all of yourself to Christ so that, through your serving and through your giving – through your time, your talents and your treasure – our lives might truly demonstrate a love for God that encompasses all of our hearts, all of our souls, all of our minds and all of our strength… to the glory of God. Amen.
i Luke 10:25-27, NRSV
Grace That Offends our Good Sensibilities
A few years back, I was reading scripture with a life-long church member and I came to the passage in Luke about the widow’s mite. You know, the one where Jesus is hanging out at the temple, watching people put their contributions into the offering plate. And he sees a widow drop in two mites – which is next to nothing – and Jesus responds by saying that she’s put in more than anyone else because “all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” At that point, the person with whom I was reading remarked “Well, that’s a nice story, but it’d be awfully hard to run a church that way. Don’t you think?”
And that might give us all a moment’s pause. After all, it’s true. The church, just like any other organization, has bills to pay. Whether its mites or pennies, Duke Energy is gonna make sure you cough up every last one you owe them.
Because that’s just the way the world works. And that’s why we work. Now really, how many Americans do you think would go to work every day if they didn’t get paid? Even if you feel like your work is meaningful and appreciated, there are still lots of days when we’d just as soon be hanging out on a beach or a golf course, strolling through the woods, playing fantasy sports or scrap booking. As I once heard someone say, “I like work; but I like not-work better.”
Now, not everyone is able to work. Most of us acknowledge that some are physically or mentally unable to work. And they deserve to be cared for. But, most of us get incensed when we read stories of people who are perfectly healthy, perfectly capable of work, yet choose not to. They’re getting all kinds of help and assistance just to sit around and do nothing. And frankly, I find no less offensive (perhaps even more so) top CEO’s who drive their companies into decline, downsizing the work force and cutting wages while their personal salaries, bonuses and benefits continue to soar. Their workers slave away all day and stock prices plummet while the CEO is out golfing, sailing on his yacht or wining and dining his cronies.
Now, if what I’ve just said resonates with you, then you may have found this morning’s parable from Matthew offensive. The landowner of this parable is clearly ignorant of the fact that what is fair is equal pay for equal work. And that equal pay for unequal work offends our good sensibilities.
Well, first let me say that economics didn’t work the same in Jesus’ culture. In Jesus’ day, people didn’t view wealth in the same way we do and people didn’t strive to be upwardly mobile. They believed that people were born into their social position and so that’s where they ought to stay. Furthermore, material wealth was not the most valuable commodity. The most valuable asset was one’s reputation, or one’s honor. Nevertheless, some were quite wealthy, and if they were to be viewed as honorable, they would handle their wealth in a way that reflected concern for those beneath them. They would function as patrons. And so a wealthy landowner ought to provide for the needs of his laborers in a way that was not lavish, but adequate for the meeting of their daily needs. And a worker ought to be satisfied with that because, to seek anything more, displayed a dishonorable arrogance. What we, today, would call incentive and self-motivation; they would consider arrogance and haughtiness.
So, let me draw your attention once more to this morning’s parable. In it, we’re introduced to a landowner who owns a vineyard. Now, we can’t say how wealthy he is. But, as our parable progresses, the fact that he continues to secure more and more employees, would leave us with the impression that he must be pretty well off. At least he owns land and most people in those days didn’t. He heads out to the marketplace one morning to hire day-laborers for his vineyard. Now, we don’t know how big the vineyard is or what season we’re in – is it harvest, pruning season? We don’t know. But they enter into an agreement – a contractual arrangement, so to speak – that they will receive one denarius for the day’s work. Now we don’t have strict or exact exchange values for ancient currency. But, roughly speaking, a denarius would have been a pretty typical paycheck in Jesus’ time. It wouldn’t have been extravagant. But, it would have been enough to get by. So, they head to work.
Later, the land owner heads back out again to secure more workers. Now, if you’re a curious person, you might wonder why. I do. Was the landowner a poor planner? Didn’t he know how many workers he’d need at the start of the day? What’s up with this? But here’s something important to notice. He doesn’t enter into a compensation agreement with these workers. To them he basically says, “Go to work and at the end of the day, I’ll give you what’s right.” Now, that word “right” is the root of our New Testament word for “righteousness.” And, “righteousness,” according to scripture, has to do with being in proper relationship with God and with people. So, what happens with these subsequent workers has a very different feel to it than what happened with the workers at the start of the day. “Right” may or may not have anything to do with the legal minimum wage requirement.
As the story progresses, about every three hours, this land owner goes out and hires more workers. And it is not until the last group that we get a little clearer sense of why this might be occurring. For to the last group, the land owner poses this question: “Why do you stand here idle all day?’’ They reply, “Because no one has hired us.” And he responds “Go into the vineyard.” With this group he doesn’t even mention payment. But, it gives us some insight that, perhaps, this on-going expansion of the work force has more to do with the need of the laborers for work than it does with the need of the land owner for extra workers. His motivation seems to be their idleness, not his need.
And so, this land owner is being portrayed in a very positive light. But things are about to change. When it comes time to hand out the paychecks, the landowner instructs his manager to begin by handing out payment to those hired last – those who have only worked for one hour. And they wind up receiving an entire denarius. Hmm. What’s up with this? Perhaps this land owner is a very generous man. For, if he has paid a whole denarius for an hour of work… well, imagine. Calculate the new hourly wage. A denarius an hour is hardly the minimum; it’s extravagant. But, those workers are in for a shock because as each one inches forward in the line, each one receives the same pay – one denarius. Well, that can’t be right. Those people who punched in at 9 o’clock are hot and sweaty and sun burned and just plain beat. And this is what they get for a hard day’s work – no more than somebody who showed up one hour before quitting time, when the sun was going down and the breeze was starting to blow? This isn’t fair and they’re not afraid to say so.
They challenge the land owner. They confront him in a way that questions his honorable character.
And so the landowner defends his honor. And here is his response: We had a deal, didn’t we? And didn’t I keep our deal? My money is my money and I can spend it as I please? “Is your eye evil because I am good?” In other words, do you envy me my graciousness toward others? Now, let me explain that, in Jesus’ culture, the eye and the heart were connected. So those with evil, envious hearts had that evil pass out of them into another person through their eyes. Now, that might sound silly to us. But, it wasn’t silly to them. Today, if there is a virus going around, I might be alarmed if you sneeze on me lest your infection enter my body. Something “evil,” so to speak, might come out of you and enter me. And so, evil envy might come from someone’s inner being and inflict harm upon another. Furthermore, let me clarify what envy is. Envy goes beyond wanting something for ourselves. Envy involves wanting someone else not to have it. And, that’s why envy is evil. It is not necessarily evil for me to want a nice, decent house or a decent, reliable car. But, it is evil if, along with wanting it for myself, I want you NOT to have it.
So, the bottom line of our parable is this: The land owner is, in fact, good and he has behaved in a way that is “right.” It simply did not match his employees’ definition of fair and equitable. Remember “right” isn’t about economics; it’s about relationships. For those who worked all day, this is grace that offends their good sensibilities. They do not want what is right. They want what is fair.
Now, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a parable about capitalism; it’s a parable about the kingdom of God. This parable is not a plan to reform Social Security or Welfare. This is not a “how-to” manual for state or federal government. This parable is for the Church which shouldn’t, after all, work in the same way. Because the one in charge around here isn’t nearly as big on “fair” as he is on grace.
So, people of God, if we are to labor in our Father’s vineyard, putting to use our talents and skills, then we’d better be prepared to throw our usual notions of how economics work right out the window. Because if we’re striving for the reward of a fair, hourly wage, then, long hours and hard work will elicit nothing but grumbling; nothing but hours of comparison with co-workers who, at least in our judgment, haven’t done their fair share. But, if we head out to labor for the owner of the vineyard, simply trusting that – in the end – he’ll give to us what is right – what we need – then, who knows, we might even end the day with a wonderful surprise.
Religion and Politics
Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22
For a nation proclaiming separation of church and state, politics and religion make strange, but frequent, bedfellows here in the US. With our next presidential election thirteen months away, religious issues are, once again, exercising considerable influence over the political arena. It seems Christianity has come a long way. After all, under the Roman Empire, particularly in the 200’s, publically professing your Christian faith could get you thrown to the lions. But today, a public profession of Christian faith can help get you into the White House. Yet, it seems that politicians find themselves between a rock and a hard place with conflicting moral and ethical demands from fundamentalists, evangelicals and liberals.
This morning’s gospel reading records Jesus’ own experience at the dangerous intersection of religion and politics. Here’s how it happens…
A little background to get us started. It is, according to Matthew’s gospel, the last week of Jesus’ earthly life – what we refer to as Holy Week. Jesus entered Jerusalem amid much fanfare, a large crowd waving branches and shouting “Hosanna.” And he went to teach each day in the Temple courtyard. As his popularity skyrockets, both the religious establishment (represented by the Pharisees) and the Roman political establishment perceive a potential threat to their power and security. There was a very delicate balance between the two, you see. As the Roman Empire expanded, they wanted to avoid rebellion. After all, troops needed to squash a rebellion were a waste of resources better-spent conquering new territory. So, Rome didn’t want to antagonize the Jewish religious leaders. Furthermore, Rome received a portion of the Temple taxes – meaning they got a nice cut of the action. The Jewish religious leaders, for their part, knew that, so long as everything was running smoothly, Rome wouldn’t bother them. As a matter of fact, Pilate (the governor of Judea) and Caiaphas (the Jewish high priest), while they may not have liked one another, had a pretty good working relationship. Together, they maintained that delicate balance of state and religion for a decade, which included the years of Jesus’ public ministry. But there was plenty of trouble brewing below the surface. Some Jews would not rest until those heathen Romans were expelled from the land and the Jews were, once again, governing themselves. Their discontent would eventually lead to the Jewish Roman War and the destruction of the Temple. But, I get ahead of myself.
For this morning’s purposes, it is only necessary to know that, those who ask Jesus this question about taxes, are not motivated by a desire for truth or wisdom. They are motivated by a desire to place Jesus in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” position with the crowd. Their question, they feel confident, puts Jesus between that proverbial rock and a hard place. If Jesus rejects Roman taxation, he will identify himself as a rebel, a potential terrorist, whose subversive teachings (ironically) could lead to crucifixion. But, if Jesus endorses Roman taxation and occupation, he will lose favor with the common people who bore the weight of those taxes that kept the great Roman machine grinding along. Last of all, if Jesus chooses not to answer the question he is asked, it will mean that he has chosen to ignore a challenge to his honor and credibility. And, as we know, even today, in the arena of public opinion, those kinds of challenges can’t go unanswered. And so, this is just the perfect question, Jesus’ critics assume. There cannot possibly be any way for Jesus to get out from under it. He is trapped, they believe. But, they are wrong because Jesus, very cleverly, avoids entrapment and reframes the question.
In a powerful object lesson, Jesus requests a coin from them and, as we might imagine him turning that denarius over in his hand, he poses a question: “Whose image is this; and whose title?” They respond, “Caesar.” And Jesus delivers the zinger: Well then, “give back Caesar’s things to Caesar and God’s things to God.” And that is where the dialogue ends and Jesus’ opponents must, once more, retreat with egg on their face. But, if the dialogue had continued, I suspect it would have followed the course of a religious cartoon I saw a few years back. One character says to another, “So Caesar gets the money because his image is on it? Then what does God get?” The other character responds, “Well, you were made in the image of God.” Hmm…
That word “image” is crucial for understanding this morning’s scripture. It takes us all the way back to the beginning of our bible in which we read in the story of creation that we have been made in the image of God. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, it is the exact same word. An “image” is that which has been shaped or formed to resemble someone or something else. And Genesis 1:26 tells us that human beings were shaped or formed by God to resemble their maker. And our maker, our God, is generosity personified. God gave in creation – meticulously and lavishly bringing an amazing, diverse, beautiful world to life. God gave through his Word in the Old Testament, designed to teach us fully who God is and how we could be in right relationship with God and one another. And when we failed to follow God’s Word, God gave his Son that his love and his generosity might be poured out into human flesh and even poured out unto death on a cross, all as an offering of his love. Our God is a God of grace, of generosity, of extravagant, sacrificial giving and it is his image we were created to reveal. We belong to God. We bear his image, an image of grace and generosity.
And yet, sin mars that image. At the heart of sin is a fearful, self-preservation; a selfishness that seeks our own gain over that of others. Nonetheless, when we open our hearts, our lives, to Christ, that image in which we were created is restored and renewed from the inside out, transforming our lives and our world.
Jesus, you see, moves the question beyond a question about money and taxes. There is a question far greater than the politics of religion, or the religion of politics. Jesus reframes the question to be one of proprietorship. A proprietor is one who has the legal title to something and thus the rights to manage that something. The question for is this morning is, “Is God our proprietor?” Are you willing to acknowledge God as the one to whom you belong? Are you willing to acknowledge that God, the one to whom you belong, the one in whose image you were made, has the right to manage your life and all of your affairs… including your money?
Now, just in case this morning’s sermon is too much rhetoric and not enough “rubber meets the road,” let me give you some specifics. If you are returning to God less than 10% of your income, then you have denied God his rightful proprietorship. God deserves at least 10%. In fact, God deserves far more. I can tell you that, over my lifetime, I have known people who have tithed from social security; people who have tithed from unemployment; and people who have tithed from public assistance and none of them have ever regretted the decision. And the witness of all of them is that – while they didn’t get all the things they wanted – they weren’t in need because the most amazing and peculiar things would happen to meet their needs. Now, I’m suggesting that we tithe to extort God into performing some parlor trick on our behalf. That’s not how it works. But I do firmly believe that when we’re faithful and trusting, God honors that trust.
Throughout this stewardship month, I am frequently reading and sharing the Christ hymn of Philippians in studies and meetings. The apostle Paul uses the example of Jesus’ willingness to empty himself on the cross, to generously pour out all that he had and all that he was out of love for us… Paul uses that example of generous love to challenge the Philippians. Paul tells them:
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.
Incidentally, that word “likeness” is also found in the Genesis 1:26. You see, God designed these human vessels to reveal his generous image; and, when we failed to live that out, Jesus took on human likeness; he became like us, so that we could become like him. Because of Jesus, we can become the people God originally created us to be. Jesus reversed the disfigurement of sin and selfishness so that God’s image in us could be restored: an image of radical grace and extravagant generosity.
And that’s really the goal of Stewardship. Sure; we want you to turn in a pledge card so the church can better plan its budget for 2016. And certainly, we hope your giving will go up so that our ministry can grow. But even more basic than that, it is about what it means to allow the Holy Spirit to restore God’s image in us; the image of a God who pours out and sacrifices everything out of his love for us.
Throughout this Stewardship campaign, Moving Forward with Faith, I want to keep four questions before you that are printed in the center of your program this morning. I want to invite you to read those questions aloud with me now:
Last fall you challenged us to put a lot of thought into our giving pledges before turning them in. Until that point I had always just stuck with $20 because it was easy and it is what I recall my mom doing when I was a kid. When I got home last fall I started calculating and was unsure if I could manage if I started giving a full 10%. I’m a single gal with lots of student loans and many more excuses that make it easy to skimp on giving. I kept reminding myself that my wants are many, but my needs are few and was determined that I would at least give more, even if I had to titrate up to the full 10%.
It just so happened that I was going with a small group down to Henryville to work on rebuilding [from the tornado] the week before we were to turn in our pledge cards. I had started to fill mine out several times but was hesitant to write anything less than 10% but still felt unsure I could do it. So I decided I would fill it out after the trip. While in Henryville I had a lot of time to reflect and pray. I met amazing people and was quickly reminded how lucky I am. I made the decision that, even though it might hurt a little at first, I wanted to tithe.
The next day we worked hard to make a home for people who needed it. We spent time talking with the family and returned to camp smelly and dirty. I’d missed several calls and texts from my boss so I quickly showered and returned his calls. He’d been trying to reach me all day to tell me that someone had decided to transfer to another location and vacate her supervisor position. He was calling to offer me a promotion! The hours were about the same and the commute was slightly shorter. I would be taking on more responsibility and even advancing my career. When I asked him about the salary, he said it would be about a 10% raise!
I had committed to God that I was ready to step out in faith and he quickly put a plan into place. I am proud to say that each week I attend church I am able to pass that 10% forward to do bigger and better things than I could ever imagine.
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