21 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
It’s that time of year again! No, not Fall, although it certainly is that. The trees in my yard are beginning to change color, the nights are chilly, and the air is filled with the smell of smoke. And not allergy season, although it is definitely allergy season in the Central Valley. No, neither of those. It is Stewardship Season! Most of us will have received a letter from the church, signed by Janice, letting you know that it is time to consider your giving in the coming year. Along with that letter, each of us received little slips of paper with a sentence to complete. Because our overall theme this year is Practice Generosity, all of those sentences are about generosity. Today’s sentence begins “I see generosity in . . .” I decided that I would use those sentences as my message titles this month.
I also decided to go off- lectionary so that I could select scriptures that might best suit the topic. The story of the widow’s mite has been used to point up the difference between giving what is expected and giving generously for ever. The widow is lifted up as the epitome of the generous giver, a person to whom helping others is even more important than feeding herself. She has been used to make us feel a bit guilty about how much we give in comparison to how much we have. Poor widow. I bet if she knew how she would be used in sermons all these centuries later, she’d have waited till Jesus and the disciples wandered away before putting her money in the box.
Last week I mentioned the Privilege Walk April and I participated in at the women’s retreat the other week. Some of the instructions we were given really made me think about my life experiences, not just at the time of the exercise, but later on as well. One of them was, “If you have ever been too broke to buy food, take one step backwards.” I took a step back. I remembered a time when I was working full time making minimum wage and by the time I paid rent there wasn’t enough for food. I remembered other times when I had to decide whether to get groceries or gasoline. I remembered praying for enough money to pay the rent, because I was just a little short since I had been sick and had to buy prescription medications. I even remembered times when there just wasn’t enough for anything, so I figured it was no worse to be completely broke than almost broke, and spent what little I had.
Maybe the widow was at a similar point in her life. “This isn’t enough for me to do anything with, not even enough for a night’s shelter or dinner, but maybe it can help someone else. It’s too late for me.” We don’t know, of course. So we usually read it with the understanding that her gift to the Temple was an act of generosity, not one of desperation. But it could have been . . . we don’t know.
Of course, because we have heard it so many times, we know that the thing about this story of the widow’s mite is that it isn’t directed at the poor, or even those who are getting by ok. It’s directed at the wealthy people who have everything they need and more, and were giving the bare minimum required by the Temple. It was a lot of money, don’t get me wrong. But they were giving only just what they had to give. There was no generosity in their hearts. Oh they might donate more to purchase a new gold candlestick, as long as their name is on it. But to give as much as they can, without fanfare, rather than just what they can get away with? Perish the thought.
That’s not to say that we are to think of all wealthy people as greedy. Many give much more than they are required to give and do it covertly, not asking for recognition, even giving on condition of anonymity.
At our elders’ meeting last week we talked about Jubilee and giving and churches that spend a fortune on new carpet but nothing on mission, and personal tithing, and wondered if we all gave away everything we had to follow Jesus, who would be there to help the poor? The context of our conversation was the story of the rich young man whom Jesus told to give away all his possessions. Who would help if we give everything away is an important question.
The story of the wealthy young man notwithstanding, Jesus certainly didn’t ask all wealthy folks to give away everything. Joseph of Arimathea wasn’t asked to give everything away. Good thing, too, since he was the one whose tomb Jesus was put into after the crucifixion. Jesus really just wanted everyone to give as much as they could, and to do it with love and joy and generosity in their hearts. Even our most celebratedly generous billionaires, like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, who give away a lot of money, don’t give away everything. They still live very well indeed. In 2012, JK Rowling, who, incidentally became the first woman billionaire in the world from the sale of Harry Potter books, fell off the Forbes list of billionaires in part because of her charitable giving, which that year alone exceeded $160 million. (The other part of the reason was the extremely high taxes she pays in England.) The thing about these wealthy folks, though, is that they believe that giving back is a requirement. They live by Albert Schweitzer’s motto: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”
Anjeanette Perkins, responding to a discussion on the widow’s mite on Facebook, said, “And what if that story of the widow is a judgement on the institution that would leave a widow in the situation that she only has two coins left? And then take her last coins? Mark 12:40-44. Just before her story in Mark (12:39-40) is this "Beware of the [institutional leaders]... They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." Mark 12:44 -- she put in "all that she had to live on" -- that isn't something to celebrate, now she has nothing. Homeless, hungry, and where are her neighbors that are supposed to be caring for her?”
We’re the neighbors. If we give away everything, how will we care for her? Who will care for her? Well, we won’t. And we’ll be in the very same boat. You might think of it as the oxygen mask principle, that Jesse Kearns pointed out in yesterday’s Healthy Boundaries for Clergy class. At the beginning of any flight, a flight attendant does that required safety drill that most of us pay very little attention to. At some point we are told that if the cabin loses pressure an oxygen mask will drop down in front of us. Always put the mask on yourself before trying to help anyone else. If you run out of air before you can finish getting the mask on the child or elder person next to you, you will both die, and that would be a very bad thing. Now, Jesse was talking about this in relation to clergy self-care, but the same can be said about generosity. It makes no sense to give away everything you have to help others, if you are then put in the position of needing similar help yourself. Rather, live generously. Take care of your own needs, then help others. If you have very little in the way of money, be generous with your time, your talents, even your smiles.
I am in a position to see people practicing generosity all the time.
I see generosity in the anonymous gifts of food that show up in the donation box at the bottom of the office stairs.
I see generosity every time someone does anything for others with a smile on their face.
I see generosity in the young man who opened a door for me the other day, and smiled at me.
I see generosity in Vonnie and Marsha giving up their entire Saturday to purchase, prepare and serve food to the clergy who were here yesterday for Healthy Boundaries training.
I see generosity in this congregation opening the building to local help agencies free of charge.
I see generosity in Janice Baker’s trips to Oregon with dogs from Second Chance.
And in Liz’s work with Christian Cafe.
And in the time Leah spends with the High School Youth.
And in Alan’s sharing his talent at fixing things with pretty much everybody.
And in April teaching me about the history of First Christian Church.
And in Hugh and the Raisin Tooters sharing their music.
And in Pat working at Twice is Nice.
And in Jennifer helping out at the SMART Center.
And in Jordan setting up the sanctuary every Thursday morning.
And in Bonnie making sure we have communion bread.
And in Elmo bringing smiles to faces (even though we pretend to hate his jokes).
And in Alesia bringing in the light to start worship.
And in everyone who shares their voices in the choir or in congregational singing.
And in all the Esther Circle women making sure Selma’s school teachers have Kleenex in their classrooms.
And in . . . help me out here. Where do you see generosity?
The thing about living generously is that it benefits everyone. It benefits the recipient, of course. But it also benefits the giver. “Tis better to give than to receive” is absolutely true! Giving makes our hearts bigger - remember what happened to the Grinch? Whose heart grew bigger and bigger the more he gave away? Living generously is an act of love. It is one of the ways we share God’s love with all of our brothers and sisters. It is one of the ways we show God just how much we love Him, as well.
Go out from this place and give generously.
Go out from this place and live generously. In so doing, we will change the world.