Giving: Spare Change?
Morning Service led by our Minister.
This sermon is taken from Luke 20, verses 46-47 and 21, verses 1-4; 2 Corinthians 8, verses 1-12
Giving Spare Change?
So there you are, standing in the entrance hall of a magnificent temple.
People are coming in and out, some going further in to join the worship, others standing around and talking in this outer court. There are large offertory jars not far from where you are standing, and you have watched a stream of well-dressed, confident-looking people throwing large sums of money into them. You have also noticed that others, standing nearby, although pretending not to look are casting sidelong glances in the direction of the offertory jars and surreptitiously nudging each other when an exceptionally large donation is made. “Bit of all right, that…”
You are desperately poor. Your clothes are grubby and shabby. You can barely survive from day to day. You have only 50p in your pocket. It is all you can give. Do you think that you would have the guts to walk out towards those offertory jars, knowing that you were being watched and place your single 50p in that jar having seen others deposit hundreds of pounds? I do not think that I would. I can see myself slinking out of the temple, still clutching my 50 pence, feeling totally worthless.
That is why I admire the woman in the story. Partly because, yes, she was giving so generously; giving more or less everything she had. But also, because she was brave enough to do so. She had enough faith in the work of God and in her own ability to make some small contribution that she braved the hidden sneers, the scorn of others and her own self-doubt. Just like a lot of Bible stories that seem to be about giving money, this one is about much more than giving money. It is about giving with faith and with self-esteem.
When my grandmother was in her late eighties, she moved away from the house where she had lived for most of her married life into a small flat in a sheltered housing development. Given the nature of the place, none of the other residents had lived there for long and all of them were finding it difficult to settle and make new friends at their time of life. But one very nice lady along the corridor from my grandmother, fairly new to the place herself, would obviously have been glad to make friends. But having gone to visit this lady in her little flat, my grandmother said that she could not possibly invite her back. Why not? “She has such lovely things. I cannot ask her here, with all my shabby old furniture.”
I know I am biased because she was my Nan and I loved her dearly but, in my opinion, you would have had to search hard for anyone kinder, wiser, even funnier than my grandmother. The lonely lady along the corridor would probably not even have noticed the furniture if she had been allowed to enjoy Nan’s company. It was so unbearably sad.
But it happens all the time. How often has someone turned down a request to take on a responsibility in the church because the previous post-holder was so incredibly good at their job and “I cannot possibly do it as well as they did.” And sometimes the work just has to stop and that is sad. How many relationships fall apart because one partner, deep down, feels inferior to the other and cannot believe they really want to be with them? It is said that inferiority complexes are often at the root of domestic violence and that is very sad.
I have even heard people say that their prayers “are not as good as other people’s and that is deeply sad. So yes, the story speaks to us about much more than money.
In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul, who had originally founded the church and remained its mentor, is quite clearly, in this letter asking for money. (It is as clear and unequivocal as are the letters you should all have received from our Church Treasurer and to which he is hoping that you will respond….)
Paul had written to the church in Corinth before, asking for help for their fellow Christians in Jerusalem who were suffering religious persecution and being deprived of their homes and livelihoods. They would starve to death if fellow Christians in other areas did not help them. The church in Corinth had initially responded generously and had taken up a collection. But they had not yet got around to sending the money. The collection was still open for anyone to contribute; they had not closed it; but nor were people still giving with that same first flush of enthusiasm.
Again, first and foremost, it is clear that Paul wants the money. He wants them to get their act together and send it to him so that he can take it to the Christians in Jerusalem. But this letter is not just about money.
‘I am not commanding you,” he writes, “but I am testing the sincerity of your love… you know the grace of our Lord Jesus, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you, through his poverty, might become rich.”
OK: these people should be willing to give because Jesus Christ had given so much for them? This sounds at first, suspiciously like a guilt trip; look at everything I have done for you… But I am not sure that this is how it is meant.
Paul had always preached that Jesus Christ was one with God. He was not just some divinely inspired preacher and healer. He was God himself, in a human life. Therefore, if Jesus Christ gave everything-which he did, even his own life- then God must be a “Giving God.” This was quite a radical teaching in a world where most religions were about gods demanding more and more from their people. The Christian God was a Giving God- he gives himself to us- and so, in our giving, we enter into the very heart and nature of God. When Paul talks about giving, the way he speaks of this collection of money is not purely in practical terms- give money to buy food for hungry people, although that is a good thing. Paul calls this “dia kon i a”- a form of Christian ministry and the result will be “koinonia,” the creation of community through sharing with others.
It is not just about giving money but about identifying themselves with God and with Jesus Christ; believing in themselves as children of a Giving God; believing in the ministry of creating community; trusting that even if they can only give 50 pence and a commitment of time and skill that, in their opinion is highly inferior to that of the person before them; they can still make a significant contribution to God’s kingdom.
“I am testing the sincerity of your love…” Paul writes. Remember the ancient Jewish law- “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” When people do not love themselves; they find it very hard to love others and impossible to believe that they, themselves, have anything worth giving. So, do you love God and have faith enough in yourselves to love your neighbour and to give what you alone can give? That is how I see something of what Paul is asking and no, it is not a guilt trip.
John Proctor, in his commentary on the letters to the Corinthians, said that this chapter about money had two strands of teaching: management and motivation.
Management is all about how we use our money and our time and our gifts and our skills. What we use it for; with whom we share it; to whom we give it; how it is used. Giving as a Holy Habit is about creating habits of good stewardship. Prayer and Planning; responding to those letters from the Church Treasurer .…. listening carefully for opportunities to serve the church and the wider community in some way which you might be able to fulfil. It is good stuff. It is necessary stuff if we are not to squander our time and money and talents on things that are worthless.
But motivation, says John Proctor, is rooted in deeper issues of faith and fellowship.
Going back to those people standing near the offertory jars in the temple, seeing the woman drop her small coin in, they might well have sneered at what they thought of as mere “small change” being given to the work of God, when compared with the lavish gifts deposited by others. But Jesus pointed out “small change” should not be defined purely in terms of financial value. “Small change” is money you hardly notice you are giving; money you can easily do without, money you can toss into a charity tin without a second thought. So, in the temple would you not say that it was the person who gives a thousand pounds when they have millions at home who is giving small change, not the person who spares 50 pence out of a mere two pounds?
I hope that woman heard what Jesus said. She needed to hear it. The story says that she was a widow and in the culture of her time, women had no means of earning money for themselves. Girls were married as young as thirteen so that they would have a man to provide for them. Should the man die, they would be totally dependent on the charity of his family in order to live. And there were many, many poor families who found it almost impossible to support a widow as well as their own wives and children. So this widow, as well as struggling to survive, would also feel herself to be nothing but a heavy burden to religion and society. She needed Jesus to affirm her faith, her belief in herself as a child of God; to point out that she was not a worthless drain on church and society and that even her tiny contribution was valued and precious.
And Jesus, just before this scene in the temple, had pointed out that some of the rich and highly religious leaders had actually made their money by seizing the homes of poor widows who were unable to pay their rent. Legally, they were within their rights. Morally, you could say that the lavish gifts they were giving to the temple had, in effect, been taken from their destitute fellow human beings.
I remember a little story told by the Revd Kathleen Hendry of the time when she was minister of a church during the nineteen thirties. The church needed a new carpet and one lady made a most generous donation for which Kathleen sincerely thanked her. But Kathleen’s husband was the local Doctor and, in the days before the NHS, patients were expected to pay the Doctor for his treatment. He had no other income. Dr Hendry, by all accounts, was a kind man and did not like to put too much pressure on poor people to pay his bills but when Kathleen told of him of this lady’s wonderful donation for the new church carpet, he waved a sheaf of that woman’s unpaid Doctor’s bills in her face. It was not she who gave you that carpet, he said, it was me!
Many religious leaders before Jesus had said that giving large sums of money which had in fact been gained by cheating or extortion were not gifts valued in the eyes of God. For what is given to God should be used to create true fellowship- not nice little holy huddles- but diverse societies in which every person has a fair chance of living and working and loving and believing. Money which had been acquired through destroying such fellowship was simply defeating God’s object.
Paul wrote that Jesus Christ, through his poverty, was able to make us rich. (And no, I do not take that as a text for the ”prosperity Gospel.”) Jesus Christ, through his self-giving was able to make us rich in faith and in fellowship. By introducing us to a Giving God, he restored our faith in ourselves- God believes that we are worth it. God does not demand; he gives.
Therefore, whether we think we have little or much to contribute, the actual amount of time or money we give of little significance. What matters is our faith in the work of God in church and in community and our belief that we can make a contribution. Even that woman who put one small coin in the Offertory dish felt rich for that moment because she had faith in what she was giving.
And Jesus Christ is able to make us rich in fellowship. Because there is no need to compete; to compare ourselves with what others are doing and giving, we can enjoy the richness of community. Others are no longer rivals or critics but potential friends. And that feels rich.
And so, at the end of the day, the question is not “how much can you give?” But “do you believe that what you give is precious and useful to God?” Jesus says “Yes.”