Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27, Year B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on November 9, 2003. 
Based on Mark 12:38-44 (Proper 27, Year B).

An usher passing a collection plate is a scary sight. The collection plate itself is harmless. Actually they’re often quite beautiful. But there’s something about the sight of an usher holding this plate that makes us nervous.

It puts us on the spot. The moment the plate passes in front of us we’re forced to confront our values and our generosity in a very tangible way. So, it’s worthwhile to reflect upon what specifically goes through our minds as the collection plate passes. Sometimes it’s the horrifying realization that you’ve, once again, left the envelope on the kitchen counter. Sometimes, especially when you visit another church, it’s the realization that you’ve forgotten to bring your wallet. All you can do is smile awkwardly and shake your head as the plate passes by. Which wouldn’t be so bad except for the other people in your pew. What will they think? That you’re cheap? Or ungrateful? Or poor? Sometimes when the plate appears you reach confidently into your pocket only to come out with a tissue and a bent paperclip. And for a split second you consider sliding the tissue underneath the other envelopes, hoping no one will notice. Finally there’s the occasion when you realize that all you have is a single dollar bill. Which is good because at least you have something to put in the plate. But you can’t just toss it in without embarrassing yourself at your own cheapness. So you quickly fold it over to make it look like a big wad of cash and fling it into the plate with great bravado. Unfortunately it invariably unfolds and your great secret is exposed.

I would bet that at least one of these experiences resonates with you. Because when it comes to money, we so often focus on our selves and our own emotions. We are self-conscious and self-centered givers. Which is why we don’t always greet the collection plate with a sense of gratitude and joy, but rather with fear and a sense of burden. Our self worth is intrinsically connected with our net worth. And so giving money away is a painful process. We seem to be losing a piece of our identity.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Jesus points us in another direction, a direction that doesn’t negate the importance of financial resources but keeps them in their proper place.

Money is important. But the reason it’s important is in the way we use it. How we spend our resources says a lot about the priorities of our lives. Our checkbooks can be windows into our life’s values. But money itself is not our identity. Money is a part of us but it doesn’t ultimately represent who we are. Our true identity is in our relationship with God.

As we reflect upon our own attitudes toward money this morning, I can’t help but wonder what was going through the poor widow’s mind as she approached the temple treasury. Maybe she had peace and joy in her heart. Maybe she took great pleasure in giving away everything she had to live on. But I’d bet she was absolutely terrified. Imagine cashing out all of your assets and simply giving them away. I don’t care how much of a cheerful giver you are, it would be frightening to walk away from all the security you have ever known. And it’s not as if she could go out and start a business the next day. There weren’t any bootstraps available to impoverished widows in ancient Palestine. Her class were among the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society. There was no prospect for work. Begging would be the only means of survival.

And make no mistake, by praising this woman’s faithfulness Jesus is not affirming poverty as an acceptable condition in which to live. Remember in the previous verses he’s condemning the religious elite who have put in place this system of financial tyranny. The temple treasury enforced taxes upon all Jews, not just the wealthy ones. This widow may have been freely offering her last two coins to God, but she also may not have had a choice. We don’t really know. But Jesus’ point for us is that sacrificial giving is the key to gaining entrance to God’s kingdom. That’s the ideal that he draws us to and that’s the ideal that he holds before us on this stewardship Sunday. We are challenged to give not merely out of our abundance but, like the poor widow, out of our poverty and fear as well.

Sacrificial giving isn’t about giving until it hurts. It’s about giving until the joy starts to come through. It’s about giving through the heart rather than the wallet. It’s about moving past our barriers of self-conscious giving towards a giving of true gratitude for mercies given.

I guess the church itself is partly to blame for our fear of money. Collection plates should really be more consistently called offering plates. Because that’s what they hold – our offerings to God and neighbor. The word ‘collection’ conjures up images of the tax collector. And while Jesus may have eaten with them, no one wants to come to church to pay taxes. It puts the usher in the role of the rector’s henchman. Rob them blind and then get on with the service. The word offering much better captures the essence of what’s going on here.

So as you give prayerful consideration to your pledge this year, reflect upon the message of Jesus. Remember that Christ himself is the one true offering.  His sacrifice upon the cross is the ultimate in sacrificial giving. Through it an abundance of grace has been poured out for us all. And our own offering of time, talent, and treasure to the ministry of the church is a tangible way that we too can pour out the abundance of grace for ourselves and for others.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003