The gospel lesson, the text for today, is a very familiar one. I just shared parts of it with the children. Half of it is on the top of your bulletin, but let’s read from Mark, Chapter 12:41-44.
“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts, but a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth, but she, out of her poverty, put in everything-all she had to live on.'” Amen.
Four words I will try not to use during this sermon: Recount, Vote, Concede and Florida (haha). I am going to say something about our election problems tonight at our E.P.I.C. preview at 6:00 this evening. I am going to talk a little bit about it. Maybe you don’t want to know what I think, but I am going to talk about it anyway. But one thing I can say before I move into the text for today is I think the Lord is showing us that in spite of our great power as a nation, our great technology as a nation, and our great sophistication as a nation, that “we ain’t so hot.” I think that Florida is humbling us and showing us where the real power lies. Enough of that. If you want more, you can come tonight at 6:00.
On the Presbyterian planning calendar for today, November 12, two small words appear at the bottom of the box for Sunday and they are “stewardship dedication.” Every year, second Sunday in November, I see that on the bottom of the Presbyterian planning calendar – “stewardship dedication.” And it gives the appearance that this is the time to be talking about stewardship, especially financial stewardship. Why November? Why the second Sunday of November? Why isn’t it some other Sunday in the year? And I thought, well, probably there are a few reasons for it. Maybe we are trying to avoid the Christmas rush so we are trying to get to you before everybody else does. Maybe because churches set up their budgets for the new year, so now the fiscal year is going to end and we are thinking about the new year ahead. Maybe to encourage a year-end push. Whatever the reason, it can give the wrong impression that we shouldn’t say a whole lot about money at other times, but once a year is okay. And woe to the preacher who makes a habit of it.
At a recent Session meeting, we were talking about Vision 2000 goals. And one of those goals had to do with stewardship. An objective that was under one of those goals said regular preaching about stewardship. Now being the current preacher of Central’s history, I asked, now just what does the word “regular” mean? You see even pastors are jumpy about this subject. I mean, how much of this regular preaching do people want to tolerate on stewardship, especially financial stewardship? But if we are students of the biblical record, we will discover that the greatest preacher of all times, our Lord Jesus Christ, taught more about money than any other subject. Twenty-seven of Jesus’ 43 parables, that’s 62%, have to do with money and possessions. One of every ten verses in the gospels deals with money. The Bible includes 500 verses on prayer, fewer than 500 on faith, but more than 2000 on money; its blessings and its curses. And yet, we have this psychological barrier — okay, we’ve got to endure the one money sermon on Stewardship Dedication Sunday. Even though this balance of Jesus’ attention is the way it is, we have an uncanny ability to miss the relationship between money and our spiritual life. Think of the enormous influences that money has on all of us. It influences the way that we live, it influences the way that we relate to other people, it influences our lifetime goals that we give ourselves to and it influences the way that other people describe us. Interestingly, the way that money exerts this influence is determined not about how much we have, but on our philosophy of money, our theology of money. And that personal philosophy among most people, how most people think and behave about money, breaks down into four general patterns.
Some people’s philosophy is this: Money is not important. Money doesn’t bring happiness they say. A second thought pattern or philosophy about money is others insist that money is the most important thing in life. They say money isn’t the key to happiness, but if you have enough, you can have a key made. That’s what they say. Still others say life is like two lanes of traffic; money is important in the material lane, but not the spiritual lane. To connect with God, you have to get into the spiritual lane and that means you have to pray and read your Bible. But to get into the material lane, you have to run the rat race, you have to try to make a buck, you have to get in touch with the real world, two lanes. And the fourth philosophy or theology, Jesus emphasizes. He said, money is everything. Not in the usual sense, but in the spiritual sense, because he didn’t divide the spiritual and the material into two lanes. He said the way we think and behave with regard to money impacts us physically and spiritually. Its use and its misuse affect our relationship with God and the quality of our life. This is why he said, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also”. He didn’t say where you heart is, there will your treasure be. He said, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also”. Some folks inside the church and most folks outside the church widely misunderstand why leaders and pastors talk about money.
Now here is a stretch for your imagination. Imagine every pastor has the wealth of Steve Forbes. That’s a stretch, isn’t it? But imagine that for a minute, just for second, that every pastor had the wealth of Steve Forbes. And, therefore, (no matter which church we are probably talking about) could fully fund the budget of every congregation. That pastor, before God, would still need to talk about the importance of money and giving. Why? Because the primary purpose of giving is not to fund the institutional church. The primary purpose of giving it to help the giver grow spiritually. Getting our treasure invested right gets our heart invested right. You see, churches are not in the business of making money. Churches are in the business of making people — spiritually mature people whose hearts are in the right place. And where is that right place? Converted fully to God as the giver of all things. This is why the poor widow caught Jesus’ attention and why he used her to illustrate a profound truth to the disciples. And that profound truth is this: Stewardship at its very core is less about giving money and more about giving one’s self to God. Jesus said, “Look, look at her”. There is an imperative sentence to his looking. He says, “Look, come here you guys, look at this. She has given more than anyone because she has given herself wholeheartedly to God”.
Now it is significant that she had two coins. The Scripture said that she had two very small copper coins worth only a fraction of a penny. Worth about an hour’s wage. And she could have kept one and still been a 50% giver which is pretty amazing. But she didn’t. She gave both and Jesus said “Verily I tell you the truth”. When Jesus says that, you better listen. Because when the God of heaven says I tell you the truth, something really important is coming. She gave more than anyone because she gave everything that she had.
So, I hope that today, besides your wallet or purse, you have brought your checkbook, your savings passbook, your mutual funds, your stock certificates and don’t forget any loose change when the offering plate comes around. Now, are we supposed to look at this text and feel perpetually guilty for not dumping everything into the plate, or are we supposed to listen to the truth of what Jesus is saying to us? The giving of money to God’s work is a reflection of my heart and attitude towards God. No pastor would ever start the offering with these words, but each Sunday it’s true. You will never hear this at the beginning of the offering. Usually you hear a Scripture verse. Wouldn’t it be funny though to hear this sometime? “Okay, we are about to give our offering. No matter what we say or do, here Lord is what we think of you.” Our monetary gift is a symbol of our total self-giving. Money itself can never be classified as our ultimate stewardship because that is always a matter of the heart. And that is the heart of the matter. Obviously, God wants more than our money. God wants justice, God wants mercy, God wants faith, love, humility, unselfishness. But if we were to give our money without giving our heart, we missed the mark. And there are people who give scads of money, philanthropists, but have no sense of what it means to give their heart to God. But others mistakenly believe that we can express our love for God apart from how we use our money. So how much is enough? The Scriptural teaching on giving to God begins at a 10% minimum. Now since the average Presbyterian doesn’t give 10%, anxiety goes up when people say that. Now, Central Church is to be commended because the giving records here are fantastic compared with most congregations. But when we start thinking just about numbers, we get ourselves off the mark. But Jesus did say that the minimum, the 10%, was a starting point because he said to the disciples and the Pharisees one time, “You tithe, you tithe, mint and dill and cumin, you tithe everything, you tithe part of everything you do, everything that grows in your garden, but you have forgotten the weightier matters of justice.” Now listen to what he says. He says, “This you should have done without ignoring or neglecting the other.” So Jesus is not arguing against the Old Testament law of a 10% minimum. I have heard people say, “Yeah, but we are not under the law anymore”. But since when should a Christian under grace be expected to give less than a Jew under the law?
So, Jesus is saying that’s where the starting point is. And again, some of you here might be saying I don’t do that. Well then, what should we do to align ourselves with God’s word? We should say, well, I am going to give something on a proportionate level and with God’s grace, I am going to get myself to at least what God calls me to give.
A young woman was struggling with the question of how much she should give and she asked her pastor, “Will God love me less if I don’t tithe?” The pastor looked at her and said, “You know, that’s really not the question. The question is, ‘Will I love God less if I don’t tithe?'”. That’s close to what Jesus taught about giving. For Jesus, giving experiences our side of the spiritual relationship with God. Generous giving does not come from God’s demand, it comes from our desire. Now for some folks, a tithe of 10% if you make $500,000 a year is commendable, but not consistent with what Jesus’ emphasis is on giving. How much is enough. That is not the question because it gets our focus on a number rather than on our heart. The widow put God before all other priorities. That is the heart of the matter.
A certain man and his wife were going along the street one day shopping when she stopped in front of a jewelry store and admired a ring, a beautiful ring in the window. And she said, kind of talking out loud, thinking out loud, “I wish I could have a ring like that one day.” The couple lived on a very low income so there was very little likelihood that would ever happen. They had no money to spend on those kinds of items, but the man loved his wife very much and he had always felt badly that he hadn’t been able to do more or buy more things for her. And so, that day when he heard her say that, he said to himself, “I am going to really try. I am going to save everything I have for next Christmas and really surprise her.” Sometimes he would skip lunch and stick a few dollars in his pocket. He was doing everything he could to cut corners. December came, early December the next year. And so he started to shop around. He spent most of his time on lunch hour looking at various jewelry stores. He was comparing prices trying to get the best deal. And when he got the best possible ring for the amount of money that he had saved, he bought it. He had it wrapped and he was waiting eagerly in anticipation for Christmas Day. Another man, a very wealthy man with an enormous annual income, realized that Christmas was only a week away. During the past year, he had been so preoccupied with business and golf and, oh, an extramarital affair with a person who worked in his office, that he hardly realized that his wife existed. But it was Christmas and he needed to do the right thing. He went down to the jewelry store to pick out something really nice. It was very expensive, several thousand dollars. And he was proud when he gave it to her on Christmas morning. Even though he had not seen the diamond studded bracelet until his wife unwrapped it that morning. He felt good because he had done the right thing. Which of these two men gave the greater gift? If you can answer that question, then you understand how Jesus answered the question: How much is enough?
Let us pray. “Gracious Lord, we thank you that you did not measure salvation toward us by asking how much is enough. You gave everything. You poured out your life for us that we might understand what it means to live a full and rich life according to the kingdom of heaven. Help us Lord not to be slaves, but to be masters of the things that you give us. And help us to demonstrate in our love and in our giving how much we love you. For we ask it in the name of Jesus. Amen.”