Sermon: The Economy of Giving

11.8.2015     Preaching Text: “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 12:44)

According to my U.C.C. calendar, today is Stewardship Sunday. Except that it isn’t. The reason is that we changed our fiscal year to begin on July 1st instead of January 1st. As such, our stewardship drive is now held in the spring.

For most pastors preaching about stewardship is marginally preferable to an especially nasty bout with jaundice. Who likes asking people for money, after all?

And yet “giving,” which is what stewardship is all about, is basic to Christian life. Giving, whether it be money, time, talent, or love, is in fact the only natural response of Christian faith. You can’t really be a Christian, in other words, without it.

Which is to say that Christians give because they have already received – God’s unconditional love, that is. The image of the overflowing cup is therefore the perfect symbol for Christian “works.” We give and do, not because we hope to fill the cup. It’s already full. No, “works” is simply that which pours forth from the overflowing cup.

In today’s reading from Mark, we encounter the familiar story of the “Widow’s Mite.” What’s significant about it, for me, is how Jesus always peers directly into the human heart, discerning motives hidden beneath the outward deed.

As a case in point, in the “Rich Young Ruler” story, Jesus sees behind the young man’s outward declarations of impassioned loyalty, rightly pegging him as someone who deep down is far more interested in monetary wealth. It has become his god, which, Jesus knows, will effectively prevent him from fully giving himself to God.

Today’s “Widow” story shows a number of people giving large sums of money to the Temple treasury “out of their abundance.” Yet Jesus commends the poor widow who gives but two copper coins, worth about a penny. Why? Because, he explains, she gave “out of her poverty…everything she had, all that she had to live on.”

Does this mean then God disdains the gifts of those who give out of abundance? Or that giving everything one has is the only gift acceptable to God? Absolutely not. It’s about motives instead.

In Bible Study we’ve been talking about the apostle Paul’s effort, chronicled in 2 Corinthians, to raise money for the struggling “mother” church in Jerusalem. As he travels around Greece and Asia Minor, he urges all the churches there to give generously.

At one point, after testifying to the remarkable generosity of several churches in Macedonia, he appeals to the faithful in Corinth to do the same. “I do not say this as a command,” he writes, “but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.”

Christian charity, in other words, is never a “command” but a freely offered expression of one’s richness in Christ. Because the Christian is blessed, he or she cannot but give. Generosity merely proves the sincerity of one’s faith. To claim a strong faith but withhold charity, in other words, is an oxymoron.

We give not to get. We give because we already have. To fail the “test,” then, is to deny what we already have.

What Jesus sees in the widow is this same genuineness of faith. Perhaps what he saw in the others was an outward display of faith intended for show.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on these givers. After all, the “world” teaches us before we can even walk that we must earn what we have, be it money, status, respect, and/or security. We’re driven from the start to seek all these things.

Worst of all, we apply this same logic to our faith lives. We feel we must earn God’s love, affection, acceptance. We refuse to believe that God’s love for us is real and altogether sufficient, that it’s a free gift we can never earn.

So we rush around trying to prove our worth, hoping to fill that empty place within that only God’s love can fill. We look for love “in all the wrong places,” as the popular song goes. We feel insecure and needy, vulnerable and anxious, yet reject God’s generous offer to unburden us of all those things. At base, we lack faith that God can do this.

Were we to believe we’re already loved, fully, just as we are, how different our lives would be. Rather than scrambling around seeking acceptance and approval, worrying what others think of us, we’d develop an inner calm that seeks, out of abundance, to share this same love with others, those who are, not surprisingly, scrambling around seeking acceptance and approval, worrying what others think about them!

Part of what prevents us from doing this is that we live in an especially restless age known for its debilitating pessimism and skepticism.

In general, as a culture, we’ve forgotten what’s most basic to our biblical faith, something first discovered by the ancient Jews: the personal nature of God’s love.

Prior to this Jewish revelation, pagan gods functioned as thoroughly impersonal beings, mere actors in an ongoing contest of powers. The effects of their actions were indeed felt by humans, but there was nothing “personal” about it. Life under the pagan gods was thus necessarily chaotic, capricious, and unpredictable.

Later, the god of the philosophers was believed to sustain a now orderly creation but did so in a wholly impersonal manner. It is only with the emergence of the Judeo-Christian God that we see a God who freely chooses to engage with humanity in a radical loving way. Here human beings, for the first time, are seen as created “in the image of God” – good that is.

What is here established is a personal God who communes intimately with creation. For the first time, we encounter a God to be worshiped not out of fear but out of love. The Judeo-Christian God is an “object” of pure adoration.

This adoration is directed toward both God’s goodness and the goodness of God’s creation. There is now a sacred “given-ness” to life, something real, imbued with meaning and purpose, something to be enjoyed and praised.

The modern project, however, rejects this given-ness, this goodness, of God’s design and purpose, favoring instead a stance of skepticism and discontent. Its dissatisfaction with ‘what is’ rejects God’s sovereignty as it seeks to “fix” the world based on human prowess alone. Rather than praise and adoration of God as the basis for our relationship with the world, the world instead must be dominated, rearranged, subdued, mastered. Lost in the shuffle is any meaningful sense of God’s providential care.

In terms of giving, this presents a problem. Now, rather than grateful recipients of God’s self-giving beneficence, we have become restless competitors. Having been shorn the ability to prayerfully adore the essential goodness and given-ness of God and creation, there is little left to be grateful for.

Only in prayerful praise and adoration for the goodness and given-ness of this God-given life does charity even make sense.

Logically then, only renewed praise and adoration, flowing from a soulful faith in the One who animates it, will offer our world the peace it so craves. Amen.