Tuesday, November 21, 2006

everything belongs to God (mark 12. 38-44)

It’s Stewardship season, and the gospel is a teaching of Jesus about money. I realize it’s a subject that is greeted with resistance, that produces anxiety, that raises our stress levels at times. “Oh no”, I hear someone saying. “Another sermon about money”. Another stewardship campaign. Another appeal. I knew I should have slept in this morning, but it was Daylight Saving’s Time and I woke up anyway! And if you’re not saying something like this, maybe the thought lies just beneath the surface.

I’ll get to the teaching of Jesus in a moment. It’s a short teaching, and we have some time to look at it. But first I want to do something else. Recently I was with a group of people and we were asked to recall our earliest memories about money. It was fascinating. What is the earliest learning you can recall about money, what was it? We thought for a moment, and then the hands shot up. What is the earliest teaching about money that you can remember?

“Don’t eat it, it’s dirty”, someone said.

Money doesn’t grow on trees”.

“A penny saved is a…penny earned”.

“We’re not made….of money”.

“Money won’t buy happiness”.

“Never a borrower or a lender be”.

As I listened to these sayings, many of them ingrained in my own experience, all of a sudden I was a little boy, listening to my parents, or grandparents, or great grandmother. I was struck with how similar these teachings are: they all speak of money and scarcity, money and fear, money and danger. They are all warnings!

Now our own kids have grown up in a different age. Ask them what they’ve learned about money, and they are likely to say, “you press a few buttons and it comes out of a machine…you just tell the machine how much you need!”

But for most of us, we have these early childhood memories about money, and most people will tell you that one of the most difficult changes we make, as adults, is unlearning lessons from early childhood.

All of which is to say that we don’t come to the teaching of Jesus as blank slates, we don’t read the scripture in a vacuum. It is a little story, only four verses, this brief teaching of Jesus. They are receiving an offering at the temple. The rich make their contributions. Then a poor widow comes along. As one commentator reminds us, the two words are redundant: poor and widow. Widows were the most vulnerable people of the time, along with orphans, there was no safety net. She puts in two copper coins. Sixty-four of these coins would equal one day’s wage.

Jesus sees the woman, and what she has done. He reflects on it, the contrast between rich and poor, large donations and small ones. The poor widow has put in more, Jesus says. They gave out of their abundance. She gives out of her poverty. She gives everything she has.

In the kingdom of God, everything is reversed:

the last become first, the poor are blessed,

the greatest are servants, those who mourn are comforted,

the dead are raised.

Everything is reversed, turned upside down. God comes into the world, not as a child of Herod, but as the son of Mary and Joseph. God overcomes death not by military expansion, but through a cross. She has put more into the treasury, Jesus says. And maybe the disciples are standing there, wondering, "more…two coins…more?" They don’t get it!

Jesus is teaching a lesson that differs from our early childhood education about money, but it also differs from the worldview of the disciples. He is teaching them and us that everything belongs to God, and that every gift is important, no matter how large or how small.

In the Kingdom of God Jesus is always reversing things. We see scarcity. He sees abundance. We think it’s our money. He imagines that it is actually God’s money. We value the large gifts. Jesus pays attention to the smallest gift. Jesus is always reversing things, always turning things upside down.

And so the church approaches life, possessions, relationships, priorities, money in a way that is sometimes, maybe often, maybe always in contrast to the world. This is our witness. This is our gift.

Anne Lamott is a gifted writer who has experienced one of the most unusual conversion experiences of our time. In an essay entitled “Why I Make Sam Go To Church”, she acknowledges that her son Sam is the only child that they know who goes to church. None of his friends attend church, and he is usually not that crazy about going himself. But they go. “How can I make him go?”, she asks. Her response: “Because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds”.

After a life of addiction, and abused freedom and intense personal pain, Anne Lamott met Jesus, and she wandered into a little church. “I was at the end of my rope”, she said later, “and they tied a knot for me, and helped me hold on”. Isn’t that a wonderful definition of salvation? When Anne announced, during worship that she was pregnant, the congregation cheered. And then they began to bring her casseroles for her freezer, and clothing, and then they began to slip her money.

All of these folks, for the most part, were living pretty close to the bone, many on Social Security, and they would stuff bills in her pocket: tens and twenties. Among them was a woman named Mary, who would bring plastic baggies filled with dimes.

Her response, with a lump in her throat: “Thank you”. When Sam was five days old she took him to church. After that, she said, she became known as Sam’s driver. The people adored Sam and claimed him as their own. Isn’t that what we do whenever a child is baptized among us? Sam grew up to be a little boy, and he would always see Mrs. Mary at church, and she would always hug him and she would usually give him a bag of dimes.

In the essay, Anne next tells of an experience where Sam is invited, and then uninvited to spend the night at a friend’s house. It is one of those cruel things that children sometimes do to other children. What can a parent do? Anne told Sam that she would pray. Sam said that would be ok. “Just pray to yourself”, he said to his mother. Anne knew how to pray, and she also knew that the next morning they would be going to church.

She didn’t know that Mary would be there, with a bag of dimes, but there she was. Anne writes, as the essay concludes:

“It had been a long while since her last dime drop, but just when I think we’ve all grown out of the ritual, she brings us another stash. Mostly I give them to street people….Mary doesn’t know that professionally I’m doing much better now; she doesn’t know that I no longer really need people to slip me money. But what’s so dazzling to me, what’s so painful and poignant, is that she doesn’t bother with what I think she knows or doesn’t know about my financial life. She just knows we need another bag of dimes, and that is why I make Sam go to church”. (104-105)

A small gift, as Mother Teresa would say, but given with great love. Who notices? Well, Jesus notices, and he asks his disciples to notice. Everything belongs to God. Every gift is important, no matter how large or how small.

Many scholars believe that the story of the widow’s offering is counterbalanced by another teaching of Jesus, two chapters earlier, his encounter with the rich young ruler (Mark 10. 28-31)

The rich young man is hesitant.

The widow is extravagant.

The rich young man is measured.

The widow is generous.

The rich young man cannot fully give his life to Jesus.

The widow gives everything she has.

Maybe many of us find ourselves on a continuum, between these two stories of the rich young man, who cannot bring himself to give, and who goes away sad, and the widow, who gives everything that she has.

Money can be a curse, or a blessing.

Money can heal people or destroy them.

Money can bring people together, or divide them.

You see, those early childhood teachings about money were partly true, but not the whole truth. Here’s the simple point. As we discover a faithful way of living, we begin with the affirmation that everything belongs to God. Every message that you hear, every commercial that you watch, every magazine ad that you read, every radio pitch that you hear, will make a claim for the opposite: it’s your money, you earned it.

But a different truth emerges as we discover a faithful way of living: everything belongs to God. And once we are on that journey, we begin to pay attention to the gifts that are all around us.

I received a letter from a beloved member of our church last week. She would not be able to make a pledge. The path of her life has been affected by the end of a marriage that she did not choose, and this has had a ripple effect in lots of areas. She was grateful to the church for the fellowship, for the worship, for her Sunday School class. But she would not be making a pledge. She hoped I would understand.

I read this letter, more than once. And I responded to it personally. Of course I understand. But as I re-read that letter I began to ask myself: “What is God saying to me in this letter?”, I came to the sense that I needed to say something else to her: you still have a gift, it may seem small or inconsequential by the world’s standards, it may not be what it once was, but, in the Kingdom of God, it may be the gift that Jesus sees, and honors and blesses.

It is not the amount that is important. It is that we give everything. It is really not what other people think about our giving---it is our response to the call of Jesus: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me. And of course the good news is that he does for us what he calls us to do: he gives his whole life for us, everything he has, on a cross, for you and me, and that is something many of us also learned early in childhood too, his gift, his life, for us, for you and me, a sign of God’s faithfulness, an expression of God’s amazing grace.

Everything belongs to God.

Every gift is important.

Sources: Thanks to David Bell, Director of the United Methodist Church’s Center For Christian Stewardship (www.gbod.org), for the exercise on early childhood memories about money. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies.


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