Bob Hope once joked about a minister who was on a plane. The plane had an issue, and it started to go down. The people panicked and pleaded with the minister to do something religious. So he did: he took up a collection.
Every Thanksliving we get some Sundays in the year to talk about tithing and giving. We talk about money, which—other than the occasional church conference meeting—we rarely discuss. I remember my first year as pastor, I didn’t want to discuss money because we had done it so much the year before. The logic was that if we were faithful to God and to our mission, God—and the people—would provide. That has been the case ever since.
This Thanksliving, we don’t want to shy away from stewardship, but I think it is important to see giving from other perspectives. This month, we’ve been looking at giving from God’s perspective. What giving does God “model” for us to show us how we can give to others in different ways.
Several weeks ago, we talked about God’s grace. God gives us grace and forgives our sins no matter how undeserving, and we are to be agents of grace for God in the world. We are to be agents of grace in our forgiveness, our compassion and sensitivity, and yes our finances and resources.
Last week, Karen and I talked about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. Sure, we all know that the Holy Spirit convicts and comforts, but we need reminding every now and then because we forget that the Holy Spirit empowers us for righteous living every day, not just when we’re at church. The Holy Spirit can change us when we are at work at the building site or whether we spend one too many hours at the local bar.
Today, I want to explore God’s gift of abundance. God’s gift echoes that oft-quoted verse in 2 Corinthians 12:9 in which God told Paul that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
We begin with the story of Millard Fuller. Millard was an entrepreneur from Alabama who seemed to have great luck with money and business. By the time he was 30 years old, he was a millionaire who accumulated great wealth, status, and possessions.
But then his wealth and prestige got the better of him. His life began to collapse, meaning and fulfillment became illusive, and his marriage teetered on the brink of divorce. He realized that something needed to change, and so he started to sell his businesses and assets and give all of their money away. He joined Clarence Jordan at Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia—a commune of sorts of Christians who were actively engaged to help the poor.
It wasn’t long before his wealth turned into want, not for money, but for the need to help his neighbors and friends and people in his community who were not as lucky as he. He and the Koinonia community, with a little help from a peanut farmer-turned president in South Georgia, started Habitat for Humanity, a partnership of community, church and business leaders that provides affordable housing for families in need.
Millard Fuller learned a secret about the Gospel and Christian life and God: When we are wealthy, things come easily, they come naturally. It is easy to give out of the excess; but when we are put into positions of weakness, when the funds run low, that’s when giving turns miraculous because God is found in the midst of scarcity rather than abundance. “My power is made perfect in your weakness.”
In our Scripture lesson, today, Jesus is people-watching at the temple. Ever go to the mall to people watch? Kristina and I used to do that a lot when we were first married; Every Friday we’d go to the Palm Beach mall, get Chik-Fil-A for dinner, and people watch.
When you people watch, your perspective changes about the people around you, but about community, and even about yourself. I am always surprised when I see someone doing something strange only to realize that I do the same thing!
So Jesus had this broad view of the temple, and the first thing Jesus notices is that he is surrounded by beauty. The Pharisees are grouped together with their long, beautiful robes making merry with long beautiful prayers. The wealthy are entering various offering chambers to drop in their tithes with their beautiful adornments, a beautiful site to anyone who believed in the work of the Temple and its upkeep.
And there’s the beauty of the temple with all of it’s “noble stones and insets.”
Jesus is surrounded by beauty, but he also has a different perspective because the beauty is an illusion. Those with the long robes trust too much in their lofty prayers of self-righteousness; the wealthy seem to trust too much in their wealth; and those who worship at Temple trust too much in the engineering of the edifice.
And in the midst of all of this wealth, this beauty, this misplaced trust, Jesus spots a widow. In a field of color—the colorful robes of clergy and the colorful stones and marble of Temple—there is the black shawl and cloak of a little lady who stands vulnerable, poor, and broken. Hers aren’t long prayers of praise, but the silent witness of grief and loss.
And she carries with her only two small bronze coins that are worth about as much as a penny—it is all she has in her life; and with utter abandon, she throws her lot in with the rest.
Jesus is people watching, but the widow’s action causes him to lean forward. His eyebrows raise, and his weight shifts under his elbows upon his knees. He taps a disciple on the arm and points—
“Look at that, look at that!” Enthusiasm is showing on his face, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of the wealthy with their wealth and the Pharisees with their robes, for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in her whole life.”
Jesus recognizes in all of this beauty the real beauty of the truth that giving is not about how much so much as it is about in what proportion, the truth that giving must come from a different source that speaks to dependence on God rather than our dependence on things.
Jesus sees in her a prophetic act that suddenly strips down the sham and pretense that surround him. Its a movement that goes from long robes to poor widows, abundance to poverty, strength to weakness, and in his foretelling of what’s to come to Israel—a nation that trusted too much in the Law rather than in God—from stability to destruction. “In three days, this temple shall topple!” The sham is destroyed; the jig is up; the pretense is being stripped of its pomp. All toppled by a single act of throwing pennies in a bucket!
Upon hearing Jesus’ praise of this widow, the disciples may have remembered something he said earlier in their ministry: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”
Perhaps the disciples may have remembered some lessons from the Bible, especially the part from Deuteronomy that said that tithes in the offering plates were for the poor and widows.
Step back with Jesus and the disciples and see what’s going on here: If you saw a widow at Temple, your first guess would be that she was there to receive something, to receive the alm that was due her; but she gives, and she gives out of her scarcity. She doesn’t take, coming with open hands of want, but open hands, rather, of sacrifice—a beautiful gesture if there ever was one.
Step back with them and see that we are called to sacrifice and serve God and depend on God instead of trust in our resources and abundance, and that we can share in the gift that God gives us in our want: strength, and purpose and even a little praise.
Sure, we all have trouble trusting in God’s abundance in the midst of weakness. The wealthy are afraid of being broke. Statistics show that the wealthy give a lot of money to charity, but actually give a small percentage of their wealth than do the middle-class, those engines of our society not only in the work place but in the ministry place as well.
And, sure young adults have trouble giving too because they are just getting their feet on the ground: clothes are needed for the children, a dependable car is important to get back and forth to work. But the widow speaks to us too: There is some lesson there somewhere about trust in God’s abundance when we’re wondering if we’ll have enough money for gas next week.
The senior saints among us give the most statistically, but still have trouble diversifying those gifts because they have grown too callous with charity in the first place. There is always a call for the fine print: How much of what I give goes to administrative costs rather than missions? How will this money be used? What do I get in return?
And, yet, you take all of these diverse people—step back and do some people watching with Jesus—and you come to find that there is not one person—either in the crowd or I dare say in this room today—that would not give testimony that when we’ve reached our weakest point, when we given something even when it meant forgoing a meal at the end of the month, when we’ve reached our whit’s end and gave even when we’ve given all that we have to give, that God has not miraculously stepped in and provided some sort of abundant blessing for us! “My power is made perfect in your weakness.”