Friday, March 15, 2013

From what little she had

“Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)
This text scandalizes the soul. I’m not sure how anyone reads it without questioning the propriety of the woman. She seems to have no regard for money whatsoever, and that is something the rest of us will probably never understand. But here is a woman free.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” a great Lutheran theologian once wrote. At least it was written by a man raised Lutheran…
I suppose it’s hard to think two copper coins are worth holding onto when it is all you have. The woman trusts that God will provide what she needs. The rich man is always an accountant, and they tithe their dill and cumin, measure it all out on a scale and give as close to 10 percent as they can. The woman says, “whatever, and throws the last two cents to her name in the coffer.” She sends it away with a prayer. Puts all her money where her heart and faith is. Jesus praises her for it.
Gone now is the tithe. No more are we demanded to give ten percent so we can follow the letter of the law. Here a new rule is put into place, give what you can with a cheerful heart. We are free. This woman sets that bar high. She gave all she had. And I do not very much recommend that sort of foolishness, unless perhaps all you have left is two cents anyway. (Two copper coins doesn’t actually translate penny, but it illustrates the point.)
I don’t recommend that sort of foolishness. The Early Church, about the third and fourth century used to praise this sort of thing all the way through the middle ages anyway, rich people abandoning their wealth and giving it to the church. Anthony is said to have sold all his property, to throw it at the steps of the church, at which point he went out to the desert to live in solitude and pray. I suppose we all want to check out of the rat race at times. Today we all want our own private Idaho or something like that. And more or less that was what Anthony was doing. Checking out. Problem is God doesn’t ask us to do that. No, God actually wants us to be in the world caring for others. He wants us in the world but not of the world. And this means, being in the rat race, but not caught up in the rat race. That is a much harder thing to do, actually. But much of what it means is we attend to our jobs, and we manage our money, and we do it well. We give to the church what is needed, and what we can with a cheerful heart. And perhaps we work at expanding what we can give with a cheerful heart. And don’t expect your pastor to live in poverty.
I have been hearing of some stupid things happening lately. I have a friend in the ministry who just took a $500 a month pay cut. I wonder what member on the board of that church would stand for that in their place of work? I could almost understand that happening in a place where there is no work left, and the whole community is suffering. But in his case? Not in the affluent community he lives in. That is poor stewardship all the way around. I heard of another church actually trying to get it so that when the pastor does pulpit supply, fills in during a vacancy by preaching on a Sunday afternoon at another congregation, that the money he is paid there would go to support operating costs at their church, oh, and cut the salary by $250 for that pastor. Makes me want to rent a bulldozer for the weekend and raze their building. That sort of thing is insanity.
I know of other congregations that seem to have in mind that clergy somehow should be independently wealthy. (Ambrose thought that best, that clergy should be made up of landed gentry, able to build their own chapels as he did. I suppose it is nice when that happens, but on that point I must disagree with him.) You sort of wonder where they think the operating costs of the church come from? 30 years into their existence, and they still want to be considered a mission, and think it asking too that they pay a guy four hundred a month for doing pulpit supply. Insanity. It isn’t the district’s fault when such a church closes its doors. No, your pastor doesn’t need to be the richest man in your congregation. But he probably ought to be paid something comparable to the median income of your congregations members, and he shouldn’t be expected to go broke for the gospel anymore than you would want to go broke for it. The laborer is worth his wages.
Finally, you have to ask yourself this, what is the gospel worth to you. Forgiveness of sins, it is given freely. But what is it worth to you? What is it worth to you to know you have a place to go and hear the word of God on Sunday morning? What is it worth to you to know you have a place where your children can be brought up in the faith? What is it worth to you to have a pastor to baptize your grandchildren? What is that worth to you? Missions? You want to talk about missions?
This is an odd thing. If you want to raise $500,000 for orphans in Africa you can do it overnight. But your congregation at home often struggles to pay the bills. Is your home congregation not as important a mission as orphans in Africa? I think this is one thing that is shameful about the modern ideas of mission, as it thinks of mission as something that happens somewhere else and not at home. Mission like charity has to begin at home. Seriously, if we don’t support our home congregations and the proclamation of the gospel here, there will come a day when no one will be able to raise a dime for some mission in Sri Lanka, because there won’t be any Christians left here from which to raise the funds. There won’t be any pastors left to even ask for the funds, because if there is a pastor he will be too busy working a nine to five all week to pay his own bills. He won’t be there to call at four in the morning or two in the afternoon for your emergency.
People say Luther understood nothing of missions. No, Luther knew nothing of a gospel bound by geographical borders. Luther understood that the gospel must be proclaimed, and he didn’t care to call it something different at home than he did abroad. There is no dichotomy here, a baptism in your home congregation is just as much a miraculous gift of God and a working of the gospel as a baptism in Tajikistan, and when we don’t appreciate that here, well then there is no real appreciation for it there either. But when there is appreciation for the gospel at home, then the news of it working elsewhere is welcome news indeed.
I suppose I have gotten a little off track. But all this is to say is, think of what the gospel must have been worth to that woman who gave all she had in trust that God takes care of those he loves. There Christ abandoned the tithe, something else has to motivate giving today and it isn’t the law, but trust in God. And this isn’t to promote bad money management. On the contrary, manage what you have well, but think of what the gospel is worth to you, and give accordingly to the church.

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