a sermon on 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Mark 12:38-44 for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
preached on November 11, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There are lots of ways to look at stewardship season. We can talk about things from a purely financial perspective, noting that we need a certain number of dollars to meet our budget and other financial commitments. We can take a biblical perspective and look at texts from the Old Testament that instruct us to give ten percent of everything we have to God. Or we can look wonder how to implement the New Testament’s description of the early Christian community where “those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” We can focus on our humanity and encourage everyone to give according to their ability—“not equal gifts, but equal sacrifice,” as one church I know once described it. Or we can talk about how all things that we have come from God, and so our giving to the church is an expression of our gratitude for all that we have received. All of these approaches have their merits from practical and biblical standpoints, but our texts today suggest something different.
These two texts from 1 Kings and Mark tell us of two widows who are commended for their faithful stewardship of what God has given them. In biblical times, widows were among the most vulnerable people in society. Women of any sort had few rights, and they generally depended on their husbands and male relatives to care of them. Most widows, then, were left without anyone to stand up for their best interests, and in those days before a governmental safety net in Social Security or Medicare, they were often left to fend for themselves. Yet these two stories show us a dramatic portrait of generosity and hospitality—first of a widow who finds that her small supply of meal and oil is not depleted even when she adds a hungry prophet to her household, then of a woman who offers a gift to God even when it puts her own survival at risk.
These two women are certainly wonderful models for our own lives of generosity. We would be deeply blessed as individuals and as a community if we all took their example seriously and gave so deeply out of what we have. However, I don’t think that these texts are telling us that we are simply supposed to be like them. More importantly, I think they are offering an antidote to a more dangerous and all too common perspective on our world.
These two generous widows stand in stark contrast to seemingly righteous people around them who claim to be faithful but who are unable or unwilling to put their money where their mouth is. The religious leaders of Elijah’s time refused to provide any support to the prophet who was questioning their way of life that had little concern for the poor and powerless. The scribes of Jesus’ time liked to put on a show of their holiness and righteousness, but they could clearly care less about others along the way—instead they themselves bore the full benefit of their good deeds and obedience to the law.
While the specific actions of these religious leaders and scribes aren’t quite as common around us, I have to wonder how often we fall into similar traps. How often do we become so focused on taking care of ourselves that we miss the care and concern that we need to be showing to others? How often do we quiet those voices we don’t like by taking away their support network and dismissing or destroying their humanity? How often do we do the right thing not because we really want to but because we want to be seen and noticed by someone along the way? How often do we convince ourselves that our priorities are in order when the only possible result is one that places our own needs and desires above the good of the community? The kind of good stewardship we consider today, then, is not simply endless generosity but also attention to the needs of the whole of the community and especially the least of these among us.
So then, as we think about our stewardship commitment for the coming year today, we who have so much must think about more than imitating these widows who gave out of their limited resources—we must remember that we are responsible for the well-being of the communities entrusted to us. Good stewardship is not just about meeting the budget of the church or giving some percentage of our income—it is about offering ourselves to meet the needs of the community and caring for those around us
This year, as our stewardship task force looked at the needs of our community of faith and out beyond into the community around us, we saw that money wasn’t so much our problem. With the sale of the manse, our cash flow issues have eased substantially, and we are on target to meet our budgeted income and expense for this year and next as we plan to spend down a reasonable and measured amount from the proceeds of the manse sale. However, even though our finances look pretty good, the broader stewardship of our community is much more troubling. When we look at the various tasks that must be done for us to be church together, we see the same faces doing the same things they have done year after year. We look around on a Sunday morning and see fewer people in the pews, even as we know that we haven’t really lost all that many members lately. People who are asked to help out with projects or to serve in leadership roles often come back with reasonable excuses that nonetheless leave us with great needs for our life together. And even our best moments and most effective programs and projects are in jeopardy because we don’t have anyone to be a backup for the very effective but nonetheless limited leaders that we have. We can’t look beyond our doors to meet these needs. While we always must be living out the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that we hope that others will consider joining our community, we cannot depend on people who are not currently connected to us to meet these very practical needs. If we can’t do it ourselves, how can we ask people we don’t know to do it for us?
The stewardship we need in these days is not so much bottomless pockets or new people but a deeper commitment to our life together and to God’s work in the world like that demonstrated by these two widows. They show us both financial generosity and deep commitment, recognizing that they have something however small to offer that others deeply need. They show us that we can give amazing gifts even when our first assessment of our situation might suggest that we have nothing to share. And they help us to see that even the least of these among us can contribute something very meaningful and important to our life together.
So in this stewardship season, as you know, we are looking both for a financial commitment and something more, for a faithful and joyous response to the amazing grace that God has shared with us, showing both financial support and a commitment of time and talent to our life together. We desperately need this renewed and deepened commitment to the life we share in this place, a new recognition that we all must step up to offer something more if our community is going to thrive as it can, a more complete embodiment of our joyous and heartfelt response to the deep grace of God that we see at work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So as we bring our expressions of stewardship commitment today, in the coming weeks, and over the next year, may God’s grace be abundant among us, and may our response be filled with joy and hope for the life of this community and the remaking of our world until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Thanks be to God. Amen.