Sermon: Mite-y Deeds

11.24.2013   Preaching Text: “He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.” (Luke 21:1)

Last week I talked about my two trips to the Dominican Republic. After the 8:30 service that Sunday I was talking to Doug and Judy Nichols. Doug reminded me that he himself had spent time in Haiti, among other “developing” nations. We talked about the extraordinary faith found among those peoples and contrasted that to what one sees here in the United States.

I shared with them two additional stories. One had to do with a group of women from the church in La Romana whom the local churches had brought up to Massachusetts.

During a meal held at one of our churches, I was seated with a group of these Dominican women. “Do you have any children?” they asked all the Americans at the table.

It was their next question, however, that really threw me. “Are your children Christians?” they asked. Needless to say, I hadn’t ever heard that question from any American.

In studied contrast, at least from my experience, the usual follow-up question is, “And what do they do?”

Another story that speaks even more eloquently of the importance of faith to many Christians around the world occurred during my first visit there. At the first service I attended in one of the sugar cane villages they passed around the offering plate.

This, in and of itself, was remarkable enough, given the abject poverty of the congregation. As I mentioned last week, nobody owned shoes, and they lived in huts with dirt floors and without clean water (much less electricity).

But then, to the sheer amazement of all the American visitors, they passed the offering plate around again!

“What are you doing?” we whispered to our hosts. “Oh, this offering is for the poor,” we were told. One could only wonder who these poor were!

In this we are reminded of the widow’s mite, the story we just heard from Luke’s gospel. There Jesus commends the poor widow for giving practically everything she has, while the others (whose giving is nonetheless laudable) likely won’t miss the larger sums they are giving.

As with the widow’s gift, this second offering reflects a religious zeal found often among the world’s least financially advantaged. Why should this be so? Doug, Judy and I wondered. The reason, I think, is that faith is the primary means by which they find security. It is the single most important thing in their lives; it means everything.

In this country, with its relative and historic wealth, where even the poor live better than most everybody in the world, faith tends to be less important.

For one thing, we possess the means to take care of ourselves. Not only that, we live in a culture that greatly advantages us, not only in terms of social and political benefits, but because we are the recipients of Western Civilization, with its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Absent these, religion picks up the slack. For instance, in the Dominican Republic, Christianity necessarily implies strong moral character, education, and clean living, in contradistinction to that which is found within the rest of Dominican society. To its church members, Christianity offers an escape from the worst ills of life. And it offers hope that the God of love and justice will save them.

Back in the U.S.A, this past Wednesday, I attended a meeting of the Harwich Clergy Association, which is comprised mostly of pastors from the “mainline” protestant churches in town.

In the course of our informal conversation, two of the pastors shared the troubling news that because of decreasing membership (for a variety of reasons), their churches are facing the very real prospect of having to move to part-time ministries, because they can no longer afford full-time pastors.

As many churches (especially here in New England) face difficult times ahead, it is instructive to consider the widow’s mite, as well as the Dominican experience.

For many years, our churches rode on the crest of societal respect and approval. I still remember the huge building projects of my youth in the post-WWII boom years.

As a case in point, at our Board of Finance meeting a couple of weeks ago, as we considered a projected $20,000 budget deficit for the first half of 2014, one longtime member mused about how it would have been unthinkable even a few years ago to dare go to the congregation with a budget deficit of even a dollar.

Yet as more and more churches face this situation, it is important to put things in perspective. One of the pastors in our clergy group, for example, shared a story about a discernment meeting recently held at his church.

After going over their own set of numbers, he threw out a couple of improbable questions: “Where is God in all this?” he asked, and, “Toward what future is God leading us?” The looks around the table were ones of incredulity.

It’s almost always the case that we tend to boil things down to cold hard numbers. And in the face of these compelling “facts,” we’re tempted to throw up our hands in futility. In such sobering moments, the kind of God-talk the pastor offered no doubt seems out-of-touch. Such talk is, after all, something we pastors routinely throw around without any seemingly appreciable grasp of reality.

Then again, maybe something was lost when the churches were riding high years ago. And maybe that something has to do with our willingness to risk everything on the promises of God alone. After all, when things are going well, we’re far more willing to trust in our own resources. In tough times we look to God.

I’m reminded of a comment by C.S. Lewis, the great 20th century British scholar and Christian thinker. He said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures…but shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

When life becomes a challenge, in other words, God is often easier to hear. And if we believe that God has a purpose for not only each individual but each church, listening will make all the difference in the world.

And that includes those times when finances are tight and numbers are trending downward. My colleague’s question to his congregation, in other words, gets it right. The real question has to do with what God would have us do.

Over the years I’ve served a number of churches. Some were prosperous, and some fairly big. But this church is, far and away, my favorite. Why? Because we do great things. Oh, maybe not the kinds of things our world pays a lot of attention to, or that elicit banner headlines or large parades. We simply worship and work together, and, not insignificantly, we love each other.

Not long ago, I was talking in Bible Study about what this church might become going forward, and the new things it might do. At which point someone observed wryly but perspicaciously, “But we’re all old!”

Yes, many of us are old, and yet there’s something at work here. And that something is God. As we face some of the same struggles other churches are currently facing, we need to remember this fact and to recommit ourselves to listen ever more closely to what God would have us do and be.

In the end, the widow had no great influence but her gift surpassed all others. Amen.