Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Invitation to Generous Poverty

Mark 12:38-44
November 11, 2012
William G. Carter

As Jesus taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

            This weekend marks the 27th anniversary of my first major failure as a minister. I preached a sermon on this Bible passage and it didn’t go well.

            It was my first-ever stewardship sermon and I did the best I could. Four weeks after my ordination, I pointed to the widow who gave her last two copper coins to the Jerusalem temple. I praised her sacrificial contribution and declared it was a generous example. I quoted a famous preacher who once declared, “The Lord can do a lot with a little when he has it all.”

            The church members sat with their arms crossed. Nothing that I said seemed to register any emotion. The offering plates were as thinly covered as usual. It was completely flat experience. When I walked into coffee hour a few minutes later, the people looked up, smiled benignly, and went quickly back to their conversations.

            I turned around and standing in front of me with the church treasurer. He was a retired Air Force colonel and he was not happy. He proceeded to unload in me in front of the coffee hour crowd. “That was the worst excuse for a stewardship sermon that I have ever heard,” he said in a voice far too loud. “What do you think you were trying to do?”

People began to shuffle away awkwardly. I stammered out, “I was talking about the generous widow as a good example for Christian giving,” I said. He bellowed back, “I thought that’s what you were trying to do. What a stupid sermon!”

I stood shell-shocked. I didn’t know what to say. So he filled in the gap. “What you should have done is lay on some guilt, and make these people feel guilty for the pitifully small contributions that they make to this church’s budget. We will never make it on two pennies per person.” Then he spun around and stomped away. That was 27 years ago today. My first ever stewardship sermon.

            I realize that whenever scripture gets read, people often hear whatever they are prepared to hear. That guy wanted his pastor to shake down the congregation by laying a big guilt trip. As he heard the story, the widow wasn’t giving enough. Two small copper coins, equivalent to one of our pennies. He wanted me to yell at them, and when I didn’t do so, he yelled at me.

            And the fact of the matter is, Jesus is watching the whole line of donors as they make their offering to the Temple. The rich people put in large sums (you see, back then, they didn’t have offering envelopes!). Even so, they were contributing their leftovers, said Jesus. But the widow put in everything that she had. Everything! She had no public assistance, no welfare or survivor’s pension, no official means for making an income – and she put in her last two cents. That is sacrificial giving. Jesus points her out, and she has been immortalized in countless stewardship sermons over the centuries. That’s how most of us have heard the story.

            But did you hear what comes immediately before that brief vignette? Jesus is hammering away at the religious leaders of his time. He’s going after the scribes of the Temple. They preen around like they are important. They call attention to how they look and where they sit. When they pray, he says, they go on far too long – and God gets bored by their heaped up words. And what else do they do? “They devour the homes of widows.”

            Now, that puts a new frame around the picture. Step back a few paces, and get a bigger view. Jesus denounces the scribes for pillaging the livelihoods of widows, demanding the money of those women who lost their husbands and had no other legal means of support. He criticizes the whole religious establishment. And then he points out this one woman, a widow, who gives generously to the very institution that plunders her life.

            It’s disturbing. Why does that temple exist? To maintain the relationship between God and God’s people. How does the temple function? By teaching the scriptures and following what they teach. And what do the scriptures say? “Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploit defenseless widows, and take advantage of homeless children!”[1] Isaiah, chapter 10. “Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” Zechariah, chapter 7. [2]

            Over and over in the Jewish scriptures, the word “widow” is more than a description of a woman who lost her husband. It is a code word for those who have no voice in society, no means of income, no protection or care. Take care of them, God says. Do not plunder them. That’s the very thing Jesus warns about the religious scribes of his day. And then he points to one of the very people who is being drained dry.

            Institutions can lose their souls. An institution gets bigger. More levels of management are inserted. It will do whatever it can to maintain its authority, and sometimes it merely perpetuates its shell. In the process, the heart decays. All of us have stories about this, whether it’s a business, a school, or a government agency. Procedures become fixed. The rules take over. The bottom line becomes more important than people.

            I can’t speak about how this looks in the business world. But I know how it looks in the religious world. When I worked with alumni from my Presbyterian seminary, we regularly heard how students are beneath the bottom rung of the ladder. The school administration refused to hire a full-time counselor at the same time that the trustees were cheering on the endowment to climb over a billion dollars.

            Or just this week: my Presbyterian minister health insurance company sent out a memo. Rates for clergy health care are going up in January 2014. Sure, that happens everywhere. But here’s the thing: if the minister has kids young enough to be dependents, the company wants the church to kick in even more. This will push small churches to hire an old minister who has no kids. And here’s the thing: that memo was sent out from a corporate business meeting being held at a resort on Hilton Head Island.

            Or I remember an Op-Ed column in the Washington Post years ago. Somebody wrote that the average age of Roman Catholic nuns is over sixty-six, and most nuns have no pensions. As the writer said, “Unlike the male hierarchy who controlled the collection plate, the sisters put neither their trust in money or their money in trust. . . they worked for less than the widow’s mite. The church never offered to care for its own nuns.” The vow of poverty has become a vow of destitution with few new takers.” (Colman McCarthy)

            Peter Drucker, the management guru, did a study of non-profit institutions. He warned that every human organization can decay from within, unless it keeps revisiting its mission statement. The critical questions are these: Why are you here? Why do you exist? What is your real business?

            Maybe the best answer to such questions came from Jacob Marley to Ebenezer Scrooge: “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”[3]

            My friend Carlos Wilton is pastor of the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. He’s the one who had the Weather Channel guy broadcasting live two weeks ago today. As many as a quarter of the five hundred Point Pleasant church members have lost their homes or left the area since Hurricane Sandy. Today was scheduled to be that church’s Stewardship Sunday, when they were to dedicate their financial pledges to God and God’s church. It's hard to even imagine doing that, he said.

            When we talked earlier this week, Carl said, “For the last two weeks, we have been remembering about why we have a church. We exist to pray together. We exist to worship God together. We exist to care about human needs.” Today he tells people to come as they are, ragged or intact, and to come forward after worship if anybody needs individual prayers of healing. Tomorrow night and Friday night, his people will prepare a free community meal for anybody who is hungry or needs a friend.

            “There is a circle of service,” he says in his sermon today. “There are times in life when we are able to serve, and other times when – as uncomfortable as that may feel – there is nothing else to do but graciously allow others to serve us.” Hurricanes do not discriminate. Neither should our hearts.

            Now, there’s a church with its soul intact.

            “Do you see her?” asks Jesus. “Do you see that woman over there?” She was a widow, which meant she was poor. She didn’t have hardly anything, but she gave freely of herself. We can speculate about her motives. Did she give out of obligation? Perhaps. Was giving her habit? Certainly. Was giving a spiritual practice? Probably so. She did not give her money because the institutional temple was corrupt, selfish, or heartless. She certainly did not give money out of guilt, or because the retired military colonel serving as the institutional treasurer cajoled her into doing so.

            No. She gave because she believed God was in the middle of the whole thing. She gave because God is bigger than the institutions that claim to do God’s work. She gave because she wanted to be part of God’s great salvage operation to the world.

            I believe she gave because she knew the bedrock purposes of any temple are still essential: to lead people in praising God, to gather around the sacred texts, and to listen when the scriptures say, “The Lord upholds the homeless child and the widow, but the way of the wicked God brings to ruin.” (Psalm 146:9)

            “Look at her,” says Jesus. “Look at her!” She believes God is bigger than the church. She believes God wants to work through the church. That’s why she gives her all. That’s why Jesus gives everything, too.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Isaiah 7:1-4
[2] Zechariah 7:10
[3] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, stave 1.

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