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November 11, 2018

            Who here remembers their first car? Did anyone have an old clunker? I don’t want to brag, but my first car was a teal 1993 Pontiac Grand Am. It was a hand-me-down from my older sister when she got a new car, so needless to say it was a pretty sweet ride. But it was also one of those cars that we just poured money into, and it never really got any better. And one day it all came to a head when I had just ran to McDonalds or something, with my then girlfriend, to pick up dinner for my family. And when we got back to the house, I parked the car, got out while holding the tray of drinks, and noticed as my car slowly started to roll backwards, with my girlfriend still inside. 

            So, there I was, chasing my runaway Grand Am with my girlfriend still inside, holding a tray of drinks, when I finally catch up with it and jump inside and put my foot on the brake. After I managed to get the car back in front of my house and to actually stay put, I told my parents about it and they gave me one of those looks that said “How did this happen?” It was the natural assumption to believe that I was, somehow, at fault. But when I explained to them that I didn’t do anything, we decided to take the car to a garage where we were told it would cost several times the amount we paid for it to get it fixed. And at that point, we knew we just couldn’t keep throwing money away on something that wasn’t worth it. 

            You all know that feeling, do you not, where it’s time to evaluate whether or not something is actually just a money pit. A house, a car, or maybe even a church. Now, this month we’re talking about stewardship. Last week, Jeff talked about stewardship of time, and this week we’re talking about stewardship of gifts, which is a gentler way of saying that we’re talking about money today. In a lot of churches, money isn’t talked about. It’s an issue that’s swept under the rug as if it’s something over which God doesn’t reign and have domain. But we should refuse to be one of those churches. Money is a spiritual issue and how we use it is a spiritual issue, and sometimes we have to reassess what we give and how we give and, especially, whywe give, and that’s what we’ll be doing today. 

            I’m sure you all have heard a sermon on this text before. We’ll get around to why I think this text is often misinterpreted and misused, but first, let’s take a look at some of the historical details. The first thing we see in the passage is Jesus throwing some serious shade toward the scribes. I mean, they’re in the temple, there are scribes everywhere. It would be like someone seeing Todd Fogel walk by and saying, in a loud voice, “You gotta beware of those drummers, man. Drummers are spazzes.” Jesus says, “beware of the scribes who wear long robes and sit in the places of honor…and devour widows houses.” 

            Now, our story this morning focuses on the widow who gives all she has, and we’ll get to her in a minute, but these couple verses provide some much-needed context for that story, because much of the prevailing culture was legalistic in that giving and tithing to the temple was, above-and-beyond, the most important thing you could do religiously speaking. One of my favorite passages where Jesus is throwing down against the scribes and Pharisees is in Matthew 23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” In other words, “you go through all the right motions, you even tithe and give a percentage of your spices, but you’ve missed the forest for the trees; you’ve neglected the large in favor of the small.” 

            And so, these same individuals encourage and propagate a culture of tithing at all cost, even to the point where it runs people, like poor widows, into the ground, leaving them with nothing. And then, at that moment, Jesus sits down in the temple courtyard, across from where the money is collected, and sees this widow walk by. Jesus watches her as she walks up to the treasury and drops in two small coins – the Greek her says she dropped in two “lepta” which is the smallest form of currency there was at the time. 

            Now, let me give you some perspective on what exactly these coins were and what they were worth. A “denarius” was equivalent to a day’s wage for an average worker at the time. One of these coins the widow has, a single “lepton” is equivalent to 1/128ths of a denarius. And I went through this process and, if my math is right, a single lepton coin is equivalent to the compensation one would receive for about 3 minutes of work, and she has two of them, so she has what one would have earned by working only 6 minutes. 

            And, according to our text, this is all she has to her name. Now, this passage and this character of the anonymous widow putting all she has into the temple treasury has been paraded for a long time, over thousands and thousands of sermons, as the epitome of faithfulness and good stewardship of one’s finances. However, I don’t think any of us today would look at someone who put every last cent they had into the offering plate and applaud them for doing so. Now, it is worth pointing out that according to the law, the people and temple are to support those who are socially on the margins, i.e. widows, orphans, etc. So, hypothetically, the widow could give all she had to the temple and not have to worry about food, shelter, etc. But the reality is that that was not happening, and yet she was still giving. 

            I think when Jesus points out this poor widow who gives all she has, he’s not praising her for her sacrifice. He’s lamenting the fact that she’s been so shamed and so brainwashed into believing it was better for her to give everything she has to a corrupt religious system than to care for herself. And this is especially pertinent given what Jesus says in the first couple verses of chapter 13: “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘look teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

            Not only is this woman giving to a corrupt religious system which isn’t going to give anything back to her, but she’s giving to a corrupt religious system which is going to the dirt anyways, and for specifically this reason, that it’s completely lost its way and stopped caring about the things it should care about.

            My question to you all is, doesn’t this kind of sound like a lot of churches today? A lot of churches will have stewardship campaigns and try to convince people to give more money than before, and that’s all well and good, but it assumes a few things and begs a few questions we shouldn’t necessarily take for granted, chief among them being that it assumes everyone is in a position to give. Churches often don’t shy away from shaming people who struggle with tithing, and as a Christian leader who is a part of this big system, I want to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry to all those who have felt they can’t be faithful to Christ because they can’t give 10% to the church. I’m sorry to those who have been demonized because the church cared more about its bank account than it did the wellbeing of you and your family. I’m extremely sensitive to this because I’ve been there, too, and I want to share with you all my experience of this. 

             You all know my family and I moved here from Princeton. I was in grad school full time, we had both of our kids there, and I worked as a part-time pastor in a small church north of Princeton. And since child-care was so expensive, Amy stayed home with our kids while I worked at the church and went to school. And for 2 years, my family of 4 was living on less than $12,000 / year. We lived on food stamps and WIC; there were many nights Amy and I went to bed hungry so we could be sure the kids got enough to eat, we would often return birthday and Christmas gifts we received from our families to buy baby formula and diapers. And then one week at church, my treasurer sat me down and grilled me and shamed me because I didn’t always put something in the offering plate. Mind you, he never asked how we were doing or how we were making ends meet while living on so little. No no no…he didn’t care about that. He just wanted me to be like the scribes and Pharisees who legalistically went so far as to tithe their spices because, in his mind, it was wrong for a church-goer to not give consistently to the church, other aspects of life be damned.  

            Now, I don’t tell you this because I want to fish for sympathy or pity, but because we can never assume that someone is in a place or position to give financially to the church. I would love to see 100% participation from our members and regular attenders in the financial life of Beaver Memorial, but I want you all to rest assured that there is not, nor will there ever be as long as I’m at the helm here, any judgement about toward someone who is not able to give financially. And the bigger question that needs to be asked of those of us who arein a position to give, and to the church as a whole, is, “what can we be doing for those who are struggling financially so as to help them get to a place where they cangive to the church regularly?” 

            Remember, the temple had a responsibility to the least of these that they didn’t keep, and we have that same responsibility here and now. John Wesley, in talking about money and tithing, once said “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” The problem is when we focus too much on those first two things, earn all you can & save all you can, and don’t put any emphasis on the last one, giveall you can. As a church, we have a responsibility to support the ministry of this place, and that includes ministering to those who are not financially stable. 

            So, here’s the offer: If you haven’t already, a lot of you will receive a pledge card and stewardship letter and all that good stuff in the mail. Please fill that out prayerfully and mindfully of what you are planning to give next year. If you’re someone who isn’t in a position to give financially, but are actually in a position of need – whether it be financial, material, whatever – I need you to come forward after service. I’ll have a few folks up front who will be here to talk with you, gather your information, and give us a chance to help you in any way we can or point you in the direction of someone who can.

            Everyone exists on a spectrum when it comes to financial giving – I was just talking to the new members class about this a couple weeks ago. Everyone exists on a spectrum when it comes to financial giving. Some people are at Q, some people are at M, some people are at B or C, and some people are at negative B or negative C, right? As the church, we’ve often gotten ourselves in trouble when we shame people for not being able to go from A to Q, or B to M, or whatever. But all we should be striving for, and all I hope to do week in and week out, is not to get someone to make progress by leaps and bounds, but just to get to the next step. Not to go from A to Q, but just to get you from A to B. 

            As individuals we’re called to steward our gifts well, but we’re called to do the same thing communally as a church. And if we’re not stewarding our gifts so as to help others, then we’re completely lost sight of the gospel. We’re in this together. And that requires us to take care of each other and love each other through seasons of wealth and seasons of poverty and to be understanding and empathetic and willing to meet people wherever they’re at. That’s what God does for us, and that’s what we should be doing for one another. 

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