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Returning The Gift

Next Sunday is Response Sunday at CTS – a time for us to present, at the altar, our statements of intended giving for the year to come. It has been my custom to use this Sunday, the Sunday before, to bring to you a stewardship sermon. This is that one Sunday out of fifty-two. I have chosen a pulpit text from the gospel of Mark, the 12th chapter:

“(Jesus) 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.”

Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Mom said the pastor preached too long. Dad said the choir sang off key. Sis said she couldn’t hear the lector. But it was junior who piped up and said, “Well, all in all, it was a pretty good show for five bucks.”

I don’t want to think that this is what church has come to in the twenty-first century – we give pocket change and expect, in return, a good “show.” In the passage I just read to you from Mark a poor widow gives pocket change to the church – and there’s a wonderful lesson there about what we give and what we get – or why we give and why we get. In Jesus’ day they went about collecting money differently than we do today. They didn’t sit in one place and lest the collection plate pass them by. Rather, they stood and passed by the collection plate themselves, putting offerings in. On this particular day there were many rich people who passed by the plate putting in large sums of money. But then one lonely widow came by and put in two copper coins – equal to one penny. But the significant thing about her offering ws that the two coins were all the money she had. She gave everything.

Now, I would like for you to ask yourselves along with me: Why did she do that? Do you think that some of the stones in the temple were in need of repair and she wished to help with the cost? Do you think that they had appointed a beautification committee to replace the old, threadbare, out-of-date curtain of the temple and she wished to contribute? Do you think they had broken ground for an addition along the eastern wall and had a building campaign? Do you think she really, really liked the chief priest of the temple and wished to add her two cents worth to his salary? Maybe you do.

I’ll tell you what I think. I think this woman had such a profound sense of faith, such an inwardly-felt discernment of the greatness of God, such a love for the law of God, such an awareness of her own finiteness, such a love for the almighty that she couldn’t help – couldn’t help – giving everything she had. Every last little thing. That’s what I think. I think this woman was totally awestruck by the awesomeness of God. I think she was humble. I think she is the one person in all of scripture who comes the closest to giving completely selflessly.

But, no, I don’t think that she gave completely selflessly, because no one person can completely climb outside of self. A little bitty corner of each of us gives because it makes us feel good. Or we suspect maybe we will get something in return, like even greater riches. Or we want to hedge against what the pastor tells us bout being saved by grace and not by works. “OK, the Lutheran side of me believes that it is only by faith that we are put right with God, but a few large checks in the offering plate certainly aren’t going to hurt anything.” Just in case, Lord. Just in case.

But, you know, it really goes back to those days in Sunday School when we sat in those short chairs, ate graham crackers and milk, and listened to Mrs. Steinholz tell us that if we have two graham crackers and the person next to us doesn’t have any, then it is up to us to share. As a matter of fact, there’s not too much I remember about my Sunday School days than “Jesus Loves Me,” the Golden Rule, and sharing.

The problem is that we have a double standard about sharing. When it comes to milk and cookies in Sunday School, sharing is ok – it is that warm sort of cutesy Christian thing we expect kids to do. But when the graham crackers become dollar bills and the milk becomes certificates of deposit or appreciated securities, then “sharing” becomes something different. Now sharing becomes giving some of who we are.

Should it really be anything else? Shouldn’t we be asked to give of our very selves? Why is it ok for your pastor to ask for your time in worship and the work of the church … ok for the pastor to ask for your talents in singing in the choir … why is it ok for the pastor to ask for time and talents, but not for treasures?

Next Sunday, Response Sunday, you will be asked very specifically to share. Statements of intended giving were mailed out Saturday. You may have already received yours. They are not pledges. They are your estimates of your 2020 giving. If you should suddenly lose your income, for whatever reason, you may have to give less than intended. On the other hand, if you have a windfall of unexpected income you may want to give more than you had intended. During the service we will all bring our statements of intended giving and present them at the altar.

The one thing I would like for all of us to consider this morning is the deep and profound faith of the widow in our gospel reading. Look first to her deep faith. Her profound and abiding faith. Then look at the way she gave. Look to your faith. Consider what the Lord has givn to you -- oh, not so much your house, car, and savings account. Rather – your salvation… your deliverance from sin, death, and the forces of evil … your forgiveness … your eternal life. Take a good look at what God has given you.

Then, as you prepare to complete your statement of intended giving for next Sunday, I would like for you to consider two practical things: First, consider what we call proportionate giving. Proportionate giving is knowing, in real dollars, your actual income – and then deciding what proportion is right for you to give back to God through charitable giving. Look at the adjusted gross income on your tax return. Or your monthly check. Or your bank account. Decide what proportion is right for you. For some of our members it is 10% -- a tithe. Others, 5% Determine what is right for you.

Secondly, consider automated giving. Automated giving is when you make sure your gifts make it to church when you need to stay home because of a snow day. The simplest way is to ask your bank to do send a periodic check. Some of you could probably take out your phones right now and get that done before the choir sings the offertory! Fifteen of our giving units already do this. Our bishop tells me that, in many congregations, over half the offerings come through the mailbox. If the offering plate is still important to you, you can still toss in a George Washington or an Abraham Lincoln when it comes around.

We have healthy stewardship at CTS. Because of our statements of intended giving we are able to plan accurate budgets and meet them. Two years ago we set a New Connections goal of 15 new people active in the life of our congregation. We are three members away from meeting that goal – or at least we were until Binta was baptized last Sunday and Roger and Gheeta were received this Sunday. We are growing and serving through the goodness of your annual faithful stewardship.

Thank you for being patient with my annual money sermon. I’ll see you at the altar next Sunday, Response Sunday.

Text: Mark 12:41-43

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