Sermon preached by Matthew Alexander for Consecration Sunday.
Giving Meaning to Our Giving
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.’ Mark 12:41-44
Consecration Sunday. What a day to come up here and speak to you all! I’ve got to admit it certainly makes sense to get me to speak about tithing. I am a Baptist after all and most Baptist do love money. We love our building projects, mission trips, and showing our success as both a minister and as a servant of God by seeing how much money we can raise. A few of us Baptist out there love to show just how successful they have done their job by showing off their wealth as a sign of God’s blessing on them. And I’m pretty sure, although there is no evidence for certain, that it was a Baptist that came up with the idea of a money tree.
I certainly fit the mold on paper. I‘ve heard the messages about faith and money and know the language. Therefore, I should be telling you how much God needs your money and that giving anything less than 10 % is a sin against God. I should encourage you to commend those who give as a result of their loving obedience to God. I should also make believe that money comes from an endless source and is easy to come by. The only problem is that while I am Baptist, I don’t fit, as some of you may know by now, into that familiar Baptist mold. In addition, it is not the message I get from the scriptures when I read them.
I come at the scriptures in a different light. I have a long history of reading and studying the Bible. Most of that history of reading the text comes in connection with the pain and struggles I have had throughout my life. As a result, I have discovered real and meaningful ways the text gives me courage, hope, and strength in this life. I hold many texts close to my heart and pull them out when I need them. One of my favorites includes Jesus sleeping on a boat during a storm only to be awakened by his frightened disciples to calm it. You all know the story. Somebody that can still find rest in the middle of a storm, and speak with enough confidence to calm it when others are frightened, is my kind of person. It’s somebody I’d follow anywhere.
Not all texts are created equal for me though. The scripture of the poor widow found in Mark is one of those texts for me. I have mostly disliked it to be honest with you. The image of the poor widow walking up to the treasury and dropping everything she had into the treasury seems impossible for anyone to actually do, this is especially true for me as I have grown older and have accumulated things and have a family to care for. How could I possibly give everything I have away? It would be foolish and even negligent on my part to do this. So over the years I have just ignored it and focused on those scriptures that I can make work more easily with my lifestyle like the story of Jesus calming the storm.
My strategy had worked for so long and so well until I got an email from Gabriela asking me to speak on this Sunday, Consecration Sunday. Granted the subject of giving is not my favorite one but I had confidence I could come up with something to say. My confidence was shaken though when I started reflecting on what I wanted to say and the only scripture I could come up with was the story of the poor widow giving everything she had.
My perspective of tithing, in case you didn’t pick up on my cynicism in the beginning, is not the most positive view. Even to this day, I find myself getting restless and anxious when the tithes and offerings portion of the service happens. I go from a quiet still presence to a squirming paranoid existence; and at times indifferent to the whole event. It is the one part of the service I have a hard time staying connected with what is going. It’s the part of the service I get disconnected from God. Most people I seek counsel from on this subject say its God stirring the pot within me and I would agree. God has definitely being the stirring the pot recently with me on this subject. Mostly, I have been reflecting on why I am indifferent and disconnected from tithing.
I grew up in the Methodist church and can remember just like it was yesterday one particular preacher we had who loved to talk about money and tithing. Every sermon he preached seemed to somehow tie into the need to give to the church. He seemed to master the art of doing this. Even as a young teenager, I was listening to him and was aware of how he connected God and money together. I remember being fascinated and waiting for the end of the sermon to come to see how he would make the connection. I may have been young, about 14, but I was paying attention to his words.
“If you are having problems in your life, it’s because you need more faith,” I remember him preaching on more than one occasion.
Another of his favorites was, “Have more faith that God will take care of you, and give your tithes to the church.”
As an adolescent who had his share of pain, suffering, confusion over the constant torment going on inside my head, I welcomed the possibility of an escape, of a deliverer. So, I trusted what the preacher was telling me, I trusted that God would become my deliverer and I started to give. At first, it was just a little, a portion of my weekly allowance, which was $20 a week (I know I was making some money but trust me I worked hard for that money). I would put in a couple of dollars here and there then I would wait. I would wait to see if my faith in God would pay off. To my disappointment, it didn’t pay off. I still had hurt, I still had pain, and my thoughts tormented me. So, I gave more of my allowance. And I waited. Nothing. I continued to give more until I was giving my entire allowance every week, all $20 of it. I went without the latest Nintendo game, without the latest brand name clothes and without any new baseball cards (which was a really big deal because I loved collecting baseball cards). I sacrificed it all; all those things that made the life of a teenager a little more bearable. I sacrificed it all to give to the church, to God, to show my faith so that the pain I was feeling inside could find relief. But it never came.
I have always been stubborn, so I didn’t give up. With the pastor’s words playing in my head on repeat, “have faith, give of your money and God will take care of you,” I decided I must be doing it wrong. In a final attempt to show just how strong my faith was, I saved up my weekly allowance, $20 a week for 5 weeks. On the fifth week, I put $100 in the offering plate. Then, I waited. I waited for God to show up and tell me well done, be free now of your pain. But nothing happened. I waited a little longer. I waited for God to wake up and pay attention to my great act of faith and deliver me, but nothing happened. I still did not find relief. So I prayed again, desperate for God to show up and take notice. I begged to God because I had no more money to give. Everything I had was put into the offering plate my money, my trust in the church, my faith, and my trust in God. With patience, I waited for God to show up, to recognize what I had done, show his pleasure for me, and grant me peace. But nothing happened.
Well, I take that back, something did eventually happen. I received a giving statement from the church that showed the over $500 I had given to the church that year along with envelopes with my name on them so that I could continue to give in the coming year.
I was so mad. I raged against God and the church. All the time and energy I had put into a promise from a preacher that I would be delivered from my problems if I had faith and honored God with my tithes was really more than I could take. I didn’t want a piece of paper that told me how much I gave or silly envelopes, I wanted relief. I wanted peace. I wanted the hurt to stop. My money and my faith didn’t get me any of that. It caused me to break, sending my life spiraling into a crisis of faith that I am still recovering from.
When I received those envelopes and my giving statement, I hoped I would receive that peace I was looking for based on what I thought the preacher was telling me to do. I hoped someone would notice what I had done and make note of it. I became jealous of the poor widow woman. I became disconnected from God, from the church, and, ultimately, an important part of myself. I must confess I have held onto this story and belief for much too long.
So when I hear my fellow Baptist preach on the subject of money and say that how much we give directly correlates with our faith, I don’t get excited. I am indifferent to their words and any of their attempts to get me to give money to them. My sense is that not trusting every preacher I hear talk about money is a good attribute to have, but I know that because of my story I have become suspicious of any one or any church that ask for my money.
I know the problem I face with trust with whatever type of giving we want to offer, whether it is with our time or money, is a problem that many face. I know for a fact there are many people sitting at home this morning because they feel like they have nothing to offer. And the sad part about it all is that many churches feel the same way. I had a woman tell me once, “I was a member of the church my whole life, gave my tithes every week, and now that I am sick and can’t give they don’t come see me or talk to me anymore.” It’s sad that for most of us our self-worth is based on what we give or don’t give. It’s sad that most churches teach that your faith is measured on how much you are able to give. It’s tragedy when our giving determines how much love we get from one another.
Consecration Sunday should be a day of celebration and excitement for us, but the reality for most is the hope that it will come and go quickly. We just don’t want to be bothered by it. Not because we don’t want to give but because we just don’t want to be reminded of what we don’t have to give. My story is full of disappointment, anger, and distrust. I have leaned on it as crutch, giving me an excuse to not give when it is not convenient for me. I understand why I have disliked this story of the poor widow for so long. I have focused on how she put everything she had into the plate and how Jesus took notice of her. It caused me to carry feelings of jealousy around for a long time.
What then are we, what am I, to do with a story that plays such a major role in how I feel and approach church each and every week? How are we to get beyond our beliefs that who we are is not enough? For too long, my experience of coming and giving to the church has been jaded by what I thought a preacher was telling me to do and my jealousy over a woman I never met. It has led to so much distrust. How do I reconcile and restore my relationship with God and with the church so that I can trust again?
A good place to start is by learning what meaning we give to stories and events in our life. Giving meaning to something gives it a special purpose. Whether that be with our stories or with how we approach church each week or whether that it is with our tithes. Most of us already do this whether we know it or not. Of course, if we are to remain life giving creatures, then there comes a time in our life when we need to reevaluate our stories and the meaning we give to them. If I am ever going to come to church and sit through the tithes portion of the service without squirming and getting disconnected from God, then I am going to have to reshape the meaning I give to that portion of the service.
I believe we all can learn to do this by learning to retell our stories in a way that sheds new light on things we have never seen before. Instead of telling the story the same way over and over again, we have the capacity to look at them again and maybe find something new. During seminary, I first became familiar with this idea. I had a New Testament professor that constantly encouraged us to revisit the text and try to notice things we had never seen before. Because of what I learned, I started to imagine all the texts in the Bible like a piece of artwork. You can look at the same piece for a long time and see the same thing but one day you walk by it, see it from a different angle, and it changes. You notice something you never seen before.
I decided to try and “walk a mile” in the poor widow’s shoes to see if I could find something different. I closed my eyes and wondered what her day must have been like. Since she probably didn’t have a home, she probably carried everything she had with her. In her pocket, her last two coins clinked around. Maybe they were for food for later or maybe she was saving them for a desperate moment. She was drawn to the treasury to give because everything she had tried to be delivered from her current condition had not worked.
Alone, lost, and desperate she made her way. She was an outcast living in a society that rejected woman, that rejected the poor, and that rejected the widow. Her hands must have been shaking, palms sweaty, her heart racing, and her breathing shallow. Maybe even a tear as she made her way. Then, she arrives. Maybe she hesitates but then in one great act of faith, she held out her hand, let go and dropped everything she had and made it an offering to God. She must have begged, “Please let this be enough to end my suffering.”
When I recall the poor widow’s story in this way, I find new meaning in the story, which helps to change my story. Instead of being disconnected from the poor widow, I am more connected. I imagine that she and I could have related on some level. I believe that we were both desperate for relief from our current condition. Out of this desperation, we were willing to give all that we had for a chance at that peace. Instead of being jealous, which has caused me to be disconnected from her story and from God I can resolve myself to the fact that the poor widow and I are a lot more alike than different. Learning to trust this story and find new meaning in it goes a long way in my restoration. In fact, I can even feel the smile growing in the part of my being where the disappointment and jealous have lingered for so long.
Each of us has a story to tell that causes us to give or not give. I wonder what your story is. Is there a chance that your story can be reconciled in a way that will allow you to give your gift in a meaningful way? Are there places that need to be reconciled? Now is a great time to start. Is it possible that when you make your offering pledge or discern how you want to share yourself with this community that it can become a symbol of your reconciliation with God, with the church, with others, or with yourself? Is it possible that when you do make your offering that you can do it with the mindset of hope, reconciliation, and healing in my mind? What will it take for you to hold out everything you have been holding on to so tightly and let go?
Today is consecration Sunday. It is exciting day. It’s the day when we have the opportunity to review our gifts and how we can offer them freely back to the church. It’s the one Sunday set aside from all the rest where we can decide to something different with our offerings. To take a risk, make what we give meaningful, and allow it to change our experience with God.
I know Wikipedia says that consecration means to set aside something for a special purpose, but I don’t always trust Wikipedia (o.k., maybe I need to learn to retell that story as well) but I prefer the definition of consecration to mean to turn something ordinary into something holy. When we are able to reflect on our stories of disappointment and distrust and find the courage to give them new meaning, we free ourselves to trust again. We stop worrying whether who we are or what we have is enough. We turn what was once an ordinary act into something holy. We bring ourselves to the altar, all our struggles and joys, and trust that it will be enough. There is something remarkable to be said about the willingness to look at our lives, where we have been hurt and be willing to retell the story in a way that brings us hope and reconciliation.
I would be remised if I did not tell you of one more possibility. I thought about the story of the poor widow again. I wanted to see if there was something I was missing, something I still needed to see and sure enough I did miss something. I thought what if the poor widow had already reconciled her hurt and disappointment before ever coming to the treasury. Maybe she already had seen Jesus, and knew what Jesus was about. Maybe she had been in one of the crowds and already knew that Jesus’ message was about God’s love for all. Perhaps upon hearing the message, her world changed and she found a new hope. Maybe she was given a different story to tell, one of reconciliation instead of disappointment and distrust. Then the outcome, when she stood over that treasury to drop her last two coins in, would have been for a different purpose. Instead of hoping for what may happen she was able to open her hand, drop everything she had in, and say, “we’re good now, here I am,” restoring her faith and trust in God. Now this version brings a smile to my face. I know now, there is still hope if I can continue to learn to trust God with everything I have. I want this story of the poor widow to be my story. What about you?
If only we could find some way to let go of what holds us back. I know that when I make my pledge and my offering I will do it with my story and my hope for restoration of complete trust in God in mind. I pray that I will recover the spirit of that teenage boy that was willing to give everything he had. I hope I will continue to find myself drawing closer to the spirit of the poor widow whose story was reconciled completely. Each time I give, I will give with the intention of drawing closer to God.
My prayer is that you will find something that will give meaning to your gift, and allow it to change you each and every time you bring it into this place of worship. For I believe that when we do this the ordinary will become holy. Our tithes will change us each and every time we give. Our pieces of paper will become true offerings to God. When we offer our time and energy, we will use our time and energy into creating this church. We will be changed by it, making us vessels of our Creator. It will make this room not just a room but a sanctuary for God to dwell in.
May God bless and keep each one of you on this journey.