October 16, 2016

“FaithBuilding Through Our Gifts”

 

Mark 12: 41-44

41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44  All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

In the movie Ironman, military tech genius and billionaire Tony Stark is kidnapped by an unknown Middle Eastern military operation to help them build weaponry to destroy their foes. In the process, Stark builds the Ironman suit – a red-and-yellow metallic masterpiece – and takes down the operation. Total hero moment. In later movie appearances, he realizes that his genius and abundant capital could be used for a greater good in clean, renewable energy. Since I’m just enough of a nerd to have seen the movies and read some of the comics, I can’t remember where he quips about his decision “what good is saving the world if there is no world to save?”

Not as cool as a comic book legend, but our own American tech billionaire Bill Gates, who has a net worth of $81 billion, has pledged 90+% of his assets to his foundation that has given huge sums of money to energy, medicine, technology, and everything else. Gates led 69 other rich folk to promise to give away large amounts of their income in recent years. Yet another great hero story.

The problem with this kind of press is that it seems so great and admirable, but it doesn’t speak to people like you and me. In 2013, Bill Gates made my yearly income in two minutes. Seriously. Two minutes. He made so much money it would be impossible to actually spend it normally. It makes his contributions no less admirable, but it proves why Jesus chooses to speak the way he does about money and God’s views of it.

We are on our third week of surveying the five promises we make when we join the church. This week is the one that no one wants to talk about – gifts. As you have noticed over the past few weeks, I’ve tried to break the icy barrier between our most sensitive topics in church and Jesus’ teachings on them in ways that aren’t so hard to swallow. The problem with Jesus is, well, he doesn’t pull his punches when he reaches into our greatest fears. And that’s our issue – fear. We fear the teachings. We like the Savior Jesus, because we prefer heaven over hell. He just had to mess the whole thing up by talking about stuff we don’t like: giving away our money, loving our enemies, leaving the comfort of our families and friends to follow him.

A colleague of mine recently told a group of young clergy at a meeting that he was threatened by his previous SPRC that if he talked about money and stewardship, they would have him fired. He laughed – that’s why the bishop sent him there. Their new building was very in debt and they hadn’t paid more than 25% of their apportionments in five years. That shows the kind of icy-veined resolve so many people have against giving, because they don’t know or don’t want to know that Jesus doesn’t really care about the money at all. God can and will do what God wants whether or not you give any money. That being said – God wants you to give because it is the perfect litmus test of how much you trust God and how willing you are to be a disciple.

The point of this series and basically every sermon I preach from this pulpit is simply this – we are called to be disciples of Jesus. Disciples are people of faith. They believe in their leader, their lord, to the point of giving up literally everything they have. The vast majority of Christians have no idea how to do that. We can’t even keep a moderate diet, much less fast and pray for days. That is why Jesus teaches through experience almost as often as he teaches through parables and sermons. People are affected by real life examples of what is considered good and what isn’t.

As Jesus and his disciples are sitting near the temple, after a particularly scathing indictment of the temple legal experts who liked to enforce the law without grace, a widow came to offer her collection. Widows had a weird place in society. They were to be cared for as required by law, but so few people ever gave them any attention. Jesus likes pointing out widows, especially those that stand firm and let their presence be known. This one does not speak to anyone. Her actions do all the speaking. She had very little money, but what she did have, she gave to the temple as her tithe. Her two copper coins had about as much worth then as our spare change does now.

When we count the tithes at the end of service, two small coins will not be noticed. It won’t hit the ledger meaningfully; however, Jesus says out of all you give and all these people give, her giving matters most. The merchants and tradesmen who offered their money probably didn’t feel like they had a tithe to give, yet they went home and likely didn’t feel the pain of giving for the rest of the week. She went home with nothing. I could go for hours on the meaning of that, or on the fact that nothing more is said about the widow, but the next thing Jesus says in Mark 13 is that no stone in that temple will be where it was when the judgment comes. Quite the indictment about where we put our hope – in buildings and banks and our homes. After a recession and multiple natural disasters, I feel his point is all too real to us today.

If we take seriously what Jesus said about the widow and the temple, we recognize it is the nature of the gift that matters – not the gift itself.  I mentioned a couple of weeks ago what I give – a little over $4000 a year/$335 a month – to the church and various charities. I do so not because I think every cent of it will be spent perfectly. [We are working on making information available to help you if you need that.] I would do it anyway because I have hope it will be.  I should give in a way that I believe in because I want to honor God in my gifting. Sure, I could argue keeping it is just as good as giving it away because I’m a smart person, but that doesn’t honor God at all. Honestly, I should consider giving more to further put my trust in God that God can still work miracles with my copper coins. My two cents, as it were.

It wasn’t always in my life that I had the comfort level of giving 10%. When I couldn’t, I volunteered more at church. I did my best to offer my time and skills as a gift. When I was a worship leader, I played a number of services without pay as a tithe. I ran sound for a second service instead of going out with friends. I started volunteering with the youth by serving as a small group leader and event planner so the youth director could focus on other things. I found ways to give of my time, witness, and whatever else I had. When I did have money, I tried to make up what I didn’t give earlier. Was I perfect? Obviously not! I’m not up here to brag but to offer a new way of thinking about how we can offer gifts. Have you considered what ways you can give to God, either through the church or other organizations, that can be gifts of service?

How about our church’s giver extraordinaire, Ms. Terry? Terry has played for the residents of Olive Branch on a number of occasions, she offers her time as pianist, worship director, and is leading the children’s musical for Christmas. Terry could give none of her income and still be giving like the widow, because she believes in God’s ability to work through her. But she also gives her tithe, because she believes in that too.

When I have brought up these issues before, people often say, “well I don’t know where to serve or how to serve.” Luckily, next week Renee Boehm from The Help Center will speak to their needs, both financial and otherwise. Crissy Gray is a great connection in finding places to help. If that’s too scary, the church and parsonage could both use a little work. If you like kids, I bet our local school administrators would be happy to figure out a mentoring program or having you come and tutor kids. Many of you are receiving phone calls about serving on committees in the church. You can very, very easily give by simply showing up and being active with your committee. Take on projects that need leadership in making our body stronger.

I firmly believe that the church could bring in no income, but if every member was out in the community doing God’s work, we would never have issue making ends meet. God does not let the faithful fall. It may look different. We may have to modify how we do things, but I have faith that we can make church happen regardless of circumstances. In the end, though, Jesus taught us about a widow giving her money because so many people feel like they owe God something. And that’s fine too.  It’s all about how you understand what Christ says.

Don’t be fooled by silly theology that says if you believe in Jesus you are done. We are all on the journey of faith. We are all trying to bring God’s kingdom here. I think the giving of Bill Gates and his billionaire buddies are doing wonders for the betterment of people on a grand scale; however, I think churches offer the greatest ability to impact people on the ground where we live and work every day. Are you going to give of yourself to God? If not, are you willing to try? Pick one thing to get better at each week or month: 5 extra dollars; a couple of extra hours; maybe doing one solid service to someone else.  Promising to be more present in how the church operates.

Willingness to give a little more to God makes it easier and easier to follow each day. That is what discipleship and faith are all about. I challenge you to look for places where you can be a better disciple with your gifts.

 

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