Invitation and Abundance

Lectionary 32 (23rd Sunday after Pentecost)
1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:23-44
November 8, 2009 Pledge Sunday

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I don’t watch television much,
    except perhaps for a late night comedy show
    or the occasional World Series featuring my hometown Philadelphia Phillies.
But as I was watching baseball over the past few weeks,
    I was surprised to see – already – advertisements pushing the gift-giving season of Christmas.
Driving back from a conference in western Pennsylvania this week,
    I was shocked to see a large Christmas wreath on a Wal-Mart sign.
What’s the message?  That it’s time to buy, buy, buy, so you can give, give, give.

Giving.  Today’s readings offer us many insights into the task of giving –
    not of the gift-wrapped, tied with a ribbon, set under a tree variety –
        sorry, you’ll have to figure that out on your own.
Rather, today’s readings offer us some counter-intuitive insight
    into the faith discipline of financial giving to further the mission of the church.

In today’s readings from the Old Testament book of 1 Kings,
    and from the Gospel of St Mark,
    we meet two widows who give everything they have.
In 1 Kings, we meet a widow in a place called Zarephath.
She makes a cake out of her last bits of grain and final drops of oil,
    and gives this cake to the prophet of the Lord, Elijah.
If you look closely at our first reading,
    you’ll notice that the gift of the widow is not a free will offering.
She didn’t wake up that morning saying,
    “I think I’ll give away the last bit of food I have.”
It wasn’t her intention to give the prophet all that she had.
Elijah arrives in town and asks her to get him some water.
As she is getting the water, he says, “Oh, by the way, would you please make me a cake, too?
    I’m famished and could really use a bite to eat.”
I can’t tell if her response is deadly serious, or a bit overly dramatic, or simply overstated,
    but either way it captures your attention:
    “Honest to God, I have nothing cooked to give you,” she says.
    “All I have is a little bit of meal and oil. 
    And now I’m going to prepare this food for myself and my son,
        so that we might eat it, and die.”
Well, of course we don’t usually eat and then die.  These things take a while.
But either way, Elijah seems to not have really listened to her,
    or not to really be terribly concerned with her dramatics.
“Very well,” he says.  “You go ahead and do that … but first, make me a cake.  God will provide.”
Perhaps she thought that she’d die no matter what,
    so what difference does it really make who eats the cakes?
Or, perhaps she truly trusted in the promise Elijah spoke,
    and was confident that indeed her nearly empty jar and her jug would be filled.
Perhaps.  We’re just not sure.  The text doesn’t say.
But we do know that her gift was something that was asked for.
She didn’t just decide that morning to give up her last little bit of food.
Somebody asked for it.  And – for whatever reason – she gave, and was blessed.

In our Gospel story today we meet a widow who gives her only two coins to the treasury of
    the Temple of the Lord. 
In fact, a rather clunky, literal translation of the original Greek language of this text
    would read that she put all of herself into the treasury.
We remember that the widow from the first reading is rewarded for her faithfulness:
    her jar of meal and jug of oil, though nearly empty,
    do not go empty, even after feeding Elijah,
    but instead provide her and her son with food during a long famine.
Mark’s Gospel is silent as to whether the widow who gave her last two coins at the Temple
    later received any blessing.  We just don’t know.
But what we do know is that in today’s Gospel text,
    the way that the widow gives – giving all, giving 100% –
    is set in contrast to the ways that the rich give – large sums, for sure, but hardly 100%.
Jesus, in observing the ways that people give at the Temple treasury,
    tells us that the rich give out of their abundance,
    but that this widow, out of her poverty, puts in everything she has.
Jesus’ observations of this Temple offering are simply that – observations.
Note that Jesus is not evaluative, but simply descriptive, in his language.
    Jesus neither praises the widow, nor does he condemn the rich.
Surely elsewhere in Scripture we do find such sentiments,
    so it makes sense that we want to read such thoughts into this text.
But it ain’t there.  Jesus simply describes what’s happening,
    noting that the rich gave out of their abundance, but didn’t give all they had,
    and that the widow, who had next to nothing, gave everything away …
    the poor give more than the rich.
And by saying the obvious, by describing what’s in plain view –
    that the poor give more than the rich –
    Jesus exposes the Temple offering, and indeed, the social structure of ancient Israel,
    as broken, failed, even ungodly.
There were laws that were supposed to guard the widow,
    yet at the beginning of the reading Jesus accuses scribes, keepers of the law,
    of prancing around in elaborate garb with no regard for the suffering of vulnerable widows.
There were laws that were supposed to guard the widow,
    yet here she is giving her last coins to the treasury,
    leaving herself with absolutely no money to her name,
    all but condemning herself to death … and there’s no sign that anyone is there to help her.
What kind of system would allow her – or worse, expect her – to do such a thing?
There were laws that were supposed to guard the widow … but the people failed to live up to such laws.
Indeed, to the earliest of hearers, Jesus’ words highlight that something is wrong with the Temple …
    that at this place of Holy Encounter with the Holy God,
        the poor are stripped of every last penny,
        while the scribes earn accolades for their holiness.
    You can almost hear the prophets of old crying out against such injustice.
Sure enough, in the next verses – the beginning of chapter 13 –
    Jesus foretells the physical destruction of the Temple,
    as if the physical destruction of the Temple follows as matter of course
    from the spiritual destruction that has already taken place.

What does all this mean?
What do we make of the fatalistic widow who gives her last bit of food to the prophet,
    but then is blessed with a bottomless jar of meal and a bottomless jug of oil?
What do we make of the widow who gives her last penny,
    or of the rich who give great amounts but hold on to plenty for their own use,
    or of the religious leaders who abuse the poor and flaunt their position?
If for nothing else,
    I hope that these readings dispel the notion that giving is always a cheerful endeavor,
    a pure and altruistic effort,
    that giving is easy and si
mply flows naturally from our faith and commitment to the church.
No.  Giving is not always an act of pure and unbridled generosity,
    not always an act of unquestioned love or compassion or heart-felt desire to give.
Giving is not something we always want to do.
Rather, giving is often something we do in spite of our circumstances,
    in spite of what might make better financial sense.
How does it make sense for the widow of Zarephath to give her last bits of food to a stranger?
It doesn’t.
But someone asked, and – for whatever reason, perhaps faithfulness, but we’re not sure –
    she gave.

Like the widow in our first reading, we have to be asked to give.
Like in the the Gospel text, where the treasury’s containers sit as a reminder of our need to give,
    offering plates will soon be passed around, prompting us to give.
Giving is a serious affair.  It takes intentionality, planning, and preparation.

I remember the first time I was asked for a gift,
    from my boss, no less, at the Philadelphia Seminary,
    where I was at the time the Director of Alumni Relations.
Larry asked me to make a gift to the seminary,
    but also told me about his own giving,
    how his faith and his commitment to the church led him to give.
He reminded me that all that we have comes from God,n
    that nothing is ours.  Mon ney.  Clothes.  House.  Cars.  It’s all a gift.
Larry taught me about  faithful giving, and the importance of supporting
    the Word and Sacrament, Service and Witness ministry of the church,
    so that people might hear the Gospel and receive the promise of new life.
Since then, I wanted  to be a tither.  I wanted to give away 10% of my income,
    recognizing, thanks to Larry, that all that I have is God’s, not mine.

And so for the past seven years, my wife and I have worked hard to arrive at the tithing level –
    it wasn’t easy, but as we learned how to shift some priorities and change some lifestyles
    we finally arrived there last spring.
Going mostly to this congregation, but also to our seminary and a few other organizations,
    we give away 10% of our gross income.
Like the widow of Zarephath, I was asked for a gift and, over time, my wife and I have responded.

Yet, unlike the widows and much more like the rich people at the Temple, I give out of my abundance.
The rich in the Gospel reading today had an abundance of resources.
When they gave to the Temple treasury,
    they gave a portion of what they had, but also kept much of what they had for themselves.
Me too.  God has blessed me with an abundance of resources.
    I have returned a portion of it for the work of the church and the benefit of the poor,
    but like the rich and unlike the widows, I keep most of what I got for myself.

And yet, like the scribes in today’s reading, I wear fancy robes and say nice prayers.
    I have a nice seat here in church.
    I am usually greeted with respect thanks to the funny shirt I get to wear.
Though I hope that I don’t devour widow’s homes or leave the poor destitute,
    in my neglect of the poor I must confess my own guilt in this matter.

Like the widow, I was asked to give, and did.
Like the rich people at the Temple, I give out of my abundance.
Like the scribes, I benefit from my position,
    and probably allow the accolades of honor to interfere with my service to the poor.

I can’t help but see myself all over in these stories.  Perhaps you can, too.
I hope that in these texts you see options and opportunities, too.

For those who struggle in these difficult economic times,
    I hope that the injustice of the widow and the Temple
    frees you from any expectation to give your last coin.
For those who might not be inclined to give automatically,
    I hope the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath
    invites you to give, sacrificially even,
        as a gateway to recognizing and receiving God’s abundance.
For those who have sufficient or even abundant resources,
    I hope that the example of the rich at the Temple
    would encourage you to give from your abundance.

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
    we give only because we have first received –
    the gift of life and of all creation,
    the gift of salvation and the forgiveness of sins,
    the gift of Christ’s holy presence, freely given to us in his holy meal.
Dear friends, our Lord’s precious gift of his life,
    the gift of new life given to each and every one of us,
    the gift of a promised new kingdom to come,
    these gifts free us, allow us, lead us to make gifts of our own.
For we have the greatest gift of all – the gift of God’s son,
    the gift of his body, visible here in his Holy Church,
    and working justice in the world:
    clothing the poor and naked from this very church building,
    feeding the hungry with the gifts of this community,
    sheltering and healing the addicted in our neighborhoods ….
    sharing the Gospel in word and deed,
        the gift of new life surrounds us,
        inspires us, feeds us, carries us.
This gift is given … for you, and for the whole world.
“For God so loved the world that he gave …”
Amen.  Thanks be to God.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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