The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
Annual Appeal Sermon
I hope you’ve noticed by now that we are in the midst of our Annual Appeal. Next month your vestry will sit down and decide on the budget for 2019, as the canons of the church require they do, and that budget will be based on the number of pledges that we receive this week and next. So it’s democracy at work here!
What better passage could there be for a sermon about giving than our Gospel reading for today? This story is so well known it has its own name: the Widow’s Mite. A Mite is an Old English coin that was in use at the time the King James version of the Bible was written, and this name has stuck around even while the currency has not.
Jesus is sitting with his disciples in the Temple complex, and they watch as people bring their offerings. There were several large boxes around the courtyard of the temple for people to place their money in, money that would support the temple – its clergy, its worship, its buildings, everything sacred and mundane that goes into running a religious institution.
Jesus had an eye for ostentation. He notices several people making a display of their appearance and their giving. And then an old poor widow walks up with two tiny coins in her hand, nickles or dimes maybe. She places them both in the offering, and walks away with nothing. Then he says to the disciples: “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.”
We’re used to hearing these as words of praise for the woman, right? An example to be followed. She “gives out of her poverty.” That’s an expression we clergy like to use to describe a higher form of giving, one where we don’t wait until it feels safe, until we can give from our excess and not feel the pinch of our giving. Whether times are flush or lean, we just give, like this woman. Giving out of our abundance is fine (I won’t complain if you do that!), but giving out of your poverty, that is the moral high ground Jesus calls us to.
In our parish discussion about Christians and wealth last month, we talked about how we define “enough.” It’s always–not just for our group but in studies, too–it’s always just a little bit more than we have. And when we reach what was once our “little bit more” it becomes still a little bit more. And more again. And so it goes, this ever receding horizon of contentment.
And when we think like this, then always ahead of us, too, is that generous Us we want to be. If we get There, we’ll be able to be more generous. Then we get “there.” And “there” moves farther out. No, to be more generous, I really need to be … there. First, it’s when we’ve paid off our student loans, maybe. Then, it’s when have a well paying job. Then it’s a downpayment on a house. Then it’s when our kids get through college. Then it’s when our kids have a well paying job. Then it’s when we’ve retired and we’re sure we’ll be okay. Then it’s when we know our grandkids will be provided for. Then it’s when we’re sure we can leave our kids enough for them and their kids to be okay. Then it’s when … and then it’s when … and on it goes.
So you can see why “giving out of our poverty” is a compelling idea. If you can learn to give even when it doesn’t seem like there’s enough, even when you feel like all you have are just two little coins, then you won’t one day be looking back on your life and asking yourself, Why wasn’t I more generous? Why didn’t I just trust I always had enough? Giving out of your poverty.
I like that message, a lot, and I think it’s an important one for us to hear. This woman is an example of how to give. The only problem is, set within its broader context, that’s not what this story is about.
All around this section of Mark’s Gospel Jesus is condemning the corruption of the Jerusalem Temple. Its priests buy and wear fancy robes. They take the best cuts of meat and the best offerings for themselves. They’re so shameless in their quest for power and riches that they “devour widows’ houses.” They take from rather than give to the class of people they’re supposed to serve. When this poor woman walked up with her two coins, someone should have come to her to help her. Someone should have stopped her from giving the last little bit she had. Instead, they let her do it, taking from the poor. And what (the passage tells us) did they do with that money? Not use it to serve those in need, like her, but to amass more for themselves.
These aren’t words of praise, Jesus for this woman as she drops her two coins into the treasury box. They’re words of lament and disgust for a system that took advantage of her in this way. You can almost see Jesus shaking his head and saying the words. “[S]he out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Last Sunday, Patrick Wynne stood up here and talked to us about why he and his wife Deidre pledge to the church. He told us he was brought up in another Christian tradition, and that he had no idea until he came to the Episcopal Church what it meant to be part, truly a part, of running a church. He pledged, and so had a say in the governance of St. James. He was elected to the vestry, to make decisions on behalf of his fellow parishioners. He was asked to be on the search committee to select a new priest. The more he got involved, the more he realized the Laity, the people in the pews, really do run this church. The priest has say over some things, but when it’s all said and done, it’s not very much. The real ministers and supporters of this church are you, our members.
When power concentrates toward the top, you get corruption and exploitation and all of the things Jesus despised about the temple. But when it comes from below, you get institutions that serve the common good.
Last week many of us went to the polls to vote. Now, Episcopalians have an urban legend that the constitution of the Episcopal Church was written right across the street from and by many of the same people who wrote the Constitution of the United States, 250 years ago in Philadelphia. Actually there was some overlap, but the way we’ve been known to imagine it, of our founders writing the country’s constitution and then crossing the street to write our church’s constitution … that didn’t happen.
Yet we share in common certain beliefs: the importance of participation; faith in people to make choices for the collective good; authority granted not to those at the top, but dispersed broadly, from the top all the way down to the bottom. We Episcopalians don’t always get it right; no institution does. But inscribed in who we are as a denomination are these ideals.
When we invite you, each and every person who walks through these doors on a Sunday, to pledge, it’s because we need your financial support. Our major source of income comes from our parishioners, and all that supports what you see around you. But it’s also because we want (and need) everyone’s voice and vote here. The more of us who are involved in running our church, the stronger, the better, we’ll be. 100% participation. You’ve been hearing that a lot the past couple weeks. 100% participation. From the largest pledge to the smallest, the input of every one of us matters. With God’s help, We Will Do It. Amen