November 9, 2009

Sermon for Proper 27B

This is a tough Sunday to be a preacher. There is a big elephant in the room as we hear the lesson of the Widow's Mite. It is stewardship time and by now you should have received your pledge cards in the mail. It seems almost criminal to not preach on stewardship when the Widow's Mite story is at our feet. But the question then comes, how do I preach it?
There are two popular interpretations of the gospel text for today; both of which put me in an awkward position. The first and perhaps most well known sermon on this passage revolves around the idea that the widow who offers her two copper coins should be the model of our giving to the Church. If I were to choose this interpretation I would stand in this pulpit as one whose lifestyle is dependent upon your generosity and say, “give more; give until you've got nothing left.” And that, is, a) not a fun thing to do and b) not at all what Jesus is saying in this passage.
The second possible interpretation is that Jesus is so angry at the Temple, its treasury and leadership that he is condemning the whole thing for taking the last of this widow's money – literally taking her whole life from her. If I chose this tack, I would stand in the pulpit as one whose lifestyle is dependent upon your generosity and say that all religious institutions are bad, they take your money to perpetuate themselves and make no real impact. This way of thinking is a) detrimental to my career and b) while it may be what Jesus has in mind, it is not quite so easily generalized.
So either I tell you to give all you've got or I tell you not to give at all – and both options, quite frankly, make me very uncomfortable. There has got to be another way; a middle road. For me, the middle way comes when I get out of the churchy-ness of the gospel and spend some time with Elijah in the coastal town of Zarephath (ZEREFATH).
King Ahab has just recently married Jezebel and with her arrival on the scene her nation's practice of worshiping the god Ba'al gets introduced into God's own land. Needless to say, God is not happy about these developments and begins to use his mouthpiece, Elijah, to call the people of Israel back to worship of him alone. After announcing a drought of three years, Elijah is led, by God, around the land living off the bounty given directly to him by God. Ultimately, he finds himself in the coastal community of Zarephath (ZEREFATH) where God has promised that widow would feed him.
The widow, it seems, didn't get that Email. She is glad to get Elijah a drink, but a morsel of food? Well that is impossible. She is collecting sticks in order to build a fire and bake some bread from the last of her meal and oil so that “she and her son might eat it and die.” It doesn't sound like this Phoenician woman has heard the message of Israel's God. And yet she is somehow swayed by the prophet. His words of assurance, “thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
Now here's the amazing thing. She goes and does just as Elijah said. This woman of Phoenician origin. A woman who has no reason to believe this Hebrew nomad. A woman whose beliefs have nothing to do with the LORD the God of Israel. A woman who had no reason to trust anyone. She and her son were on their last leg, having been forgotten by family, government, and religion alike. Her generosity was not out of guilt. It didn't come from the pressure of an institution. Her willingness to give came only by way of a word from a stranger on behalf of a God that she didn't believe in. And yet she gave. Sacrificially, she gave. And her reward wasn't 1000x or 100x or even 10x. Her reward was this: the oil and the meal lasted as long as she needed it to. She had what she needed for as long as she needed it.
You may be thinking, OK, here's where the stewardship sermons starts. But you are wrong. This text has nothing to do with stewardship. It has to do with faith. God doesn't want your stuff. He doesn't need it. What he wants is your heart. He wants you to trust him enough to give up everything – even down to your last drop of oil and handful of meal – so that he can replace it with fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. The problem for most of us is, we don't know desperation – we don't know what it is like to have nothing to hold on to. Most of us have never been where the widow of Zarephath (ZEREFATH) is. Most of us don't know what it is to not know where our next meal would come from. Most of us don't know what it is like to not be able to provide for our children. Most of us just aren't there. And therefore, most of us don't know how to trust like the widow in our story. To steal a turn of phrase from Jesus, We trust out of our abundance – holding comfortably onto all we have. She trusted out of her poverty – hands wide open ready to accept anything that came her way.
Now, I understand, the recession's only been over for like a week. I know that the market is still working its way back to the overinflated numbers of the late 90s and mid-2000s. I know talking about our abundance is still kind of awkward, but honestly, most of us are so ridiculously well off we don't know what to do with ourselves. Take the Pankey family for example. With Cassie staying home to be with Eliza we are essentially a one income household. I make $54,220.08 a year. That makes me one of the richest people in the world. I am in the top 1%. Cassie and I have made the decision to give 10% away. We give two-thirds of our tithe to St. Paul's and one-third to a school and development organization our friend has started in the slums of Kenya. Our tithe is about $5400, if we were to pay it to a person, would put that person in the richest 14.3%. Our tithe is richer than 85.7% of the world's population; our tithe is richer than 5.99 billion people. If we were to measure only by money, we certainly could claim to have an abundance.
But what we have even more of are the things that are important. Relationships, laughter, joy, faith, love. In these things we are far richer than we can even imagine. And it is these things that God desires from us. God wants everything from us. He want our whole life: from Monday to Sunday and back again. He wants our relationships, he wants our work, he wants our minds, he wants our hearts. He wants us to hand everything over to him, trusting in HIS abundance, knowing that even when we give him everything, we will have all that we need.
But in addition to all the good stuff, he'd like you to hand over the ugly stuff as well. We prayed this morning for the ability to purify ourselves as Jesus himself is pure. God would like nothing more than for us to remove all the impurity in our lives, so that he's got all that's left – all that's good - for himself. But just like the Pur filter in my refrigerator, I can only muster at best a 99.9% purification rate. (Probably more like 75% on a good day or maybe, on my bad days, 50%). And so, God wants us to hand over the ugly stuff too. He'll take it so that you can be made clean, made whole, made his.
It has nothing to do with money or oil or corn meal. God doesn't need any of it. What we learn from the widow of Zarephath (ZEREFATH) is that God wants our trust. And trust is only really available in relationship. We gain trust only be getting to know the other better. Sure, we can offer blind faith like the widow, but the good stuff comes over a lifetime of trusting and being trusted; giving and receiving. It this were a stewardship sermon, which it is not, this would be the key. It is about trusting the Lord's abundance. It is about removing the direct line between your giving and the church budget. It is about your trusting God enough to give him everything AND the church trusting God enough to give him everything too. Those pledge cards you got in the mail are helpful. They do help keep the lights on and pay salaries. But what they really do is free up the 500 block of North Pine Street and the lives of Steve Pankey, Keith Talbert and Karla Harmon for full-time service on your behalf. Your tithe might keep the wheels turning, but the other 90% brings the kingdom of God to earth each and every day.
So this morning I beg of you. Don't be like the widow Jesus saw in the Temple and give the church everything you've got out of guilt or fear. And, on the same token, don't let the church die just because it is an institution in need of funds. But give to God your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength. Trust your whole life to him and spend your money and your time and your talents where He thinks they are best suited because as the Lord provided for the Widow of Zarephath (ZEREFATH) he will provide for you and for me and for this Church. All he asks for in return is everything. Amen.

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