A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on November 8, 2015.
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The last mail about the election on Monday came on Monday: “Vote for Proposition Q; Vote against proposition Q;” and the first Christmas catalogs showed up on Tuesday. It’s that time of year, isn’t it? Who knew there were that many companies selling through catalogs? And you don’t see some of the catalogs I see because I get more Bible-themed, church-oriented catalogs than most people. One catalog I received advertised a “widow’s mite” bracelet – which brings us to today’s gospel and the story of the widow’s mite. To make the widow’s mite bracelet the catalog people take genuine coins and set them in silver and sell them for $99.95. The widow in today’s gospel wouldn’t have been able to afford a “widow’s mite bracelet.” I went online also and found a widow’s mite pendant for $660. Earrings are priced at $485.
But let’s limit ourselves to the bracelet. What occurred to me was this: if every member of this congregation would put just one – not even two – just one of those widow’s mite bracelets in the offering each week, we could almost double our budget and do wonderful things. Is that impossible? Well, $99.95 (call it $100) is a tithe of an income of $1000 a week or $50,000 a year which is slightly less than the average household income in the United States and maybe not everyone here earns that much, and some of those here are couples with only one income between them or maybe married to someone who contributes to another church but some surely earn more. The average household income in San Francisco is $83,000 and I know that includes some very wealthy people – but also some who are homeless and unemployed. We can’t be that much below the average, and the tithe is the officially adopted standard of giving in the Episcopal Church.
These are things to think about. Last week was Stewardship Sunday and today we have the appropriate reading! But you can always revise your pledge if you feel a need! The theme of stewardship comes up again and again as we come toward the end of the year and it’s about much more than money.
In the Gospel today Jesus is teaching his disciples as he often did about wealth and poverty. It’s not out of date; you can read about it in the Bible and you can read about it in today’s paper. Some things don’t seem to change. But all the studies I’ve seen show the rich getting richer and everyone else being left behind and I’m not sure how that works out for the church. It seems to be good for the banks and insurance companies, but I’m not sure about the church. There have been numerous studies that show that those with the most give the least. But if more and more have less and less that might just work out well as more people become poorer and therefore more generous.
There was a day, of course, when a lot of the 1% were Episcopalians. And if that were still true, I guess we would see church income go down as Episcopalians got richer and richer and gave less and less. But I don’t think Episcopalians are mostly of the 1% – if they ever were. The Koch brothers are said to be evangelicals. So they may be giving less these days to evangelical churches. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both claim to be agnostics although Gates does more good with his money than many Christians. But what do people with all that money do with it if they don’t give it away? What else could Gates do with it anyway except give it away? He can’t eat it. He can’t plan to take it with him. But can anyone really be so smart, so skilled, so valuable and so irreplaceable as to earn that kind of money in the first place?
The Bible has only one message about wealth; we read it again and again from the prophets, from Jesus, from the apostles: it condemns the rich for their avarice and calls for justice for the poor.
The story of the widow’s mite is part two of a longer section and the previous three verses warn us to beware of people with money and power. 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.” That’s the background for the story of the widow’s mite.
That story – today’s gospel – tells us how Jesus sat down and watched people putting their money in the temple offering. Most clergy, at least in the Episcopal Church, make it a point not to know what members of the congregation pledge. There should be no excuse for thinking they favor the better givers. But Jesus apparently wasn’t worried; he watched what each individual put in. Imagine that: Jesus watching as the plate is passed! So Jesus was watching as the scribes who had probably just made a deal to defraud a widow of her inheritance were putting in their tithe: ten per cent of what they had stolen. But Jesus was watching – and is. Jesus is well aware of what happens when the plate is passed.
Now, this is politics and this is economics. Preachers are supposed to avoid politics and economics and stick to what they know about. Well, I majored in politics and economics in college so I do know something about it, but I’ve spent much more time studying the Bible and you can’t do that without encountering politics and economics on every side. But you read the papers and watch television so I’ll let you make the connections. You know the standard question: What would Jesus do? I think what he would do is what he did do: he would teach, he would point out to his disciples what they could see right in front of them. He would ask them what they thought of it.
There was also the day when Jesus acted, when he drove the money changers out of the temple. It was probably the most aggressive action of his whole ministry: driving out the people who would cheat and steal in the temple courtyard. Who would he drive out today? I’ll let you think about that because we might answer it in various ways. What would Jesus do today about wealth and poverty? I’m not sure what he might do, but I’m very sure what he would say because we know what he did say. He said, “Wealth is a snare. Money is a snare.” He didn’t say, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” But it’s in one of the New Testament epistles and a kind of summary of Jesus’ teaching. The only good thing Jesus ever said about money was about the widow and her mite.
I read a piece in the New Yorker a while back about the young people of the Ivory Coast in West Africa whose only dream is to get to America. Why? Because they watch television and they see a society of incredible wealth and people who indulge themselves in ways a young west African can only dream about. It’s ironic that there are Americans who leave all that behind and go to West Africa to try to bring modern medicine and education to people who lack everything. But the tragedy is that they make far less impact on African minds than the ones who stay behind and pile up their wealth and create the picture the world sees on television of a society concerned only for itself and using its strength and wealth only to increase its own wealth and security. From their point of view, that’s all of us. What would Jesus say? He’d say what he did say: “those who devour widow’s houses will receive the greater condemnation.” Those in Washington, those on Wall Street, those anywhere, who work to acquire the resources of the poor to increase their own comfort are condemned. They will stand before the King on his judgment seat and have nothing to say when they are asked why they didn’t respond to Jesus’ presence in the poor, the hungry, the homeless. They are condemned, and the poor widow is praised.
The gospel reverses the values of society – its own society and ours as well – and we need to ask ourselves how it can be that this so-called Christian nation, a Bible-reading society, doesn’t understand the gospel, doesn’t know the judgment it faces. It all comes back eventually to some very basic stuff. It’s a matter of who God is, of what we believe about God, and what that means for the way we live. It’s the ABCs of Biblical faith: God is first of all a Creator: Genesis, Chapter 1. God created a universe and created human life and placed us here with responsibility for it, to care for it. It’s a matter of stewardship. Why, after all, does God create? To enrich God? Don’t be silly. What does God need? No, God creates out of love. Creation is always an act of love, of giving, of self-expression. God is first of all a giver and God made us in the image of God and calls on us to grow into that likeness, to be increasingly like God: to give, to love, to share this good earth.
I have sometimes suggested that we should think of stewardship from the top down instead of the bottom up. Take today’s widow as an example. She didn’t stop to figure out a tithe or to plan a budget for the week. She just gave all she had. I think that’s the model the Bible gives us for stewardship. You take it off the top not the bottom. God first; self second. Now probably you do need some for yourself: groceries, clothes, the mortgage, the stuff you need to survive. And since in this society you can’t count on the government or church to pay all your medical bills or support your golden years, you probably need to salt some away. But start with 100%. That’s where the widow started. That’s where God starts. Start with 100% and decide whether you can afford to return it all to God right now.
Eventually there’s no choice; you can’t take it with you – though a bishop I used to know liked to say, “You can’t take it with you, but you can send it ahead.” It all comes back to God sooner or later. You never see a Brink’s truck following the hearse. Sooner or later, you have to give it away or leave it behind. But now, when you have a choice how much do you need to keep? Sooner or later, we all will give back 100%. So if not 100% now, then what? Maybe you can’t even give back 90%, maybe not even 50%, but 10% from that point of view isn’t asking much at all.
I heard a story once about a man who decided when he was very young that he would tithe. He would always give God 10% of whatever he had. And he told his clergyman that this was his solemn commitment. And this young man did very well for himself. He started at ten dollars a week – this was long ago – and he put a dollar in the plate every Sunday. And he prospered, and before long he was making a hundred dollars a week and every week he put ten dollars in the plate. And still he prospered. Five hundred dollars a week; fifty dollars in the plate. A thousand dollars a week; a hundred dollars in the plate. Ten thousand a week; a thousand in the plate. But finally he began to feel that maybe he’d made a mistake. And he went back to his pastor and said, “You know I made that commitment when I didn’t have very much, but now that I have so much, it seems like a terrible amount to give and I want to ask you to relieve me of my commitment.” The pastor thought for a minute or two and said, “Well, I don’t think I can relieve you of your commitment, but I could ask God to set you back to a level where you felt more comfortable keeping it.”
I wonder whether we as a society are in somewhat that position, where we feel as if God has given us so much we can’t afford to respond fully. They’ve done studies, as I said, that show that the higher your income level the less proportionately people give away. The rich are less generous than the poor. Those with the most ability to give, give least. It makes no sense, but that’s what human beings are like. It’s why God needed to give us a specific example of the way we are meant to live. Jesus is more an example than a teacher, and more an example in his death than his life. The cross is the symbol of our faith because it sums up the full meaning of God’s giving: giving all; holding nothing back. The cross is not a tithe and certainly not a tip or a minor gesture.
By the time we come to the end of the Christian year we are supposed to understand this. We have heard of Jesus’ birth, we have read about his fasting and temptation, we have taken part in the events of Holy Week and Easter, we have spent the time since then hearing week by week of how Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry; we’ve heard again the parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of the Prodigal Son. And it’s all about giving, it’s all about stewardship, it’s all about the right use of the gifts we are given. And what better way to come to the end of the Christian year now only two weeks away than with the story of this widow who gets it, who knew the gospel and lived it to the full. She understood it. Do we?
© 2015 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.