“How Do We Give?”
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
November 7, 2021
In our reading through the gospel of Mark, we have gotten to the point in the story where Jesus and the disciples have entered Jerusalem. Jesus has ridden in on a colt. “Hosanna!” has been shouted. Jesus has overturned tables at the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders have tried to question his authority, and have tried to trick him with questions about taxes, resurrection, and the greatest commandment. Jesus is able to verbally spar with them, and even gets the upper hand. The Bible tells us, “the large crowd was listening to him with delight.”
This is where we start this morning—with Jesus making pronouncements about how we are to live, and then will move on to how we are to give. The crowd has already heard that the greatest commandment is to Love the Lord—with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength (called the Shema in Jewish tradition)—but that love cannot be disconnected from what Jesus calls the second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But what does that look like? Jesus points to some of the religious leaders of his day, leaders that supposedly followed the law to the nth degree, leaders that lifted themselves way above the ordinary worshiper, and he says, “there is what you should NOT do.” To love God and love neighbor and love self does not mean walking around in long robes, looking to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, or to have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets! You are not to misuse the funds meant for taking care of vulnerable people (like widows) and for appearance sake say long prayers. In other words, those leaders do it all for show, and for their own privilege. That’s not how to live.
Which brings us to Jesus sitting down opposite the treasury, opposite the offering plate, where people would drop their monetary gifts to the temple and to God. Remember that money in those days was coinage. A gold coin was bigger and heavier than a silver coin, and the coins that were worth almost nothing were made out of inferior metals. If you put a gold or silver coin in the plate, it would make a resounding ping. If you put in something like a penny, it might make a tiny plunk.
So, this wasn’t just a visual experience—it was an auditory one. Many rich people put in large sums. You could probably see the amount of glitter going into the pot—you would also be able to hear it, the dinging of solid against solid, even above the hustle and bustle of prayers being said and wares being sold and people greeting one another.
But amidst the rich putting in a lot, and the not so rich putting in their portion as well, there comes a poor widow. Dressed in garments that aren’t this year’s fashion, maybe even threadbare, I imagine she slinks up to the treasury, trying not to garner any attention. Her offering is meager. Two small copper coins. Unless you listened very carefully, you might not even have heard the tiny, plink, plink, as they found their way among all the rest of the offerings. And Jesus points her out, points out her offering—saying “She has put in more than all the rest… For they contributed out of their abundance, but she has put in everything she had.” What has come to be called, “the widow’s mite.”
November is stewardship time in the church—a time when we begin to look at the budgets for the next year, a time when we try to excite people to consider the rest of their yearly offering, a time when pastors get agita because they are supposed to preach that perfect sermon that will get people to give more. Part of the problem is that we have allowed stewardship to be shrunk into something we talk about once a year, if at all. Instead of insisting that stewardship is basically how we live and how we give—every single moment of our existence.
I notice that the widow didn’t know she was being observed by Jesus. In other words, how we live and how we give isn’t judged by those times when all eyes are on us. It is in those quiet moments, those inconvenient times, that we show who we truly are, to God. Of course, it is nice to be acknowledged, by the right people, and for the right things. But if that is why we are giving, if that is how we are living, Jesus is not impressed.
I also notice that Jesus wants to paint a bigger picture. In Jewish law, you were supposed to give a tithe, one-tenth of what you made, as an offering to God. Of course, if you made more, than meant you should give more. It was a sliding scale. So, Jesus is lifting up that we shouldn’t be looking at the amount given, but at the percentage of the whole. Those rich people, who had lots of coins, and made lots of noise, gave a percentage—let’s just say, ten percent, of their wealth. But our widow, with her seemingly meager offering, if it was all she had, it was enormous—100%!
This widow had essentially done what Jesus had told the rich young man who had come wanting to know what more he could do to become part of the kingdom of God. Do you remember what Jesus said to him? “Go, and sell all you have, and give your money to the poor, and come and follow me.” This widow, even though she was already poor, she had given all she had to God. Now, I’m not saying any of us can do that. But it certainly means that we should not be trying to rate anyone else’s giving.
But…I do think that Jesus is pointing out to his disciples, and to us, that how we live, how we give, makes a difference. Not because of what it says to others. But because it is noticed by God. And it is a reflection of who we are.
I want to share a musing by Adele Halliday (the team leader of discipleship and witness for the United Church of Canada) that gives us another way of looking at our gospel lesson. Ms. Halliday grew up in Canada but spent a year living in a small village in Kenya, East Africa where she worked with challenged children. She attended church there, though she wasn’t fluent in Kikuyu, the local language.
“One day, something out of the ordinary happened in church. After the offering plates were brought to the front of the church, a very old woman stood up and slowly started shuffling forward. I wondered what was happening… We [all] watched quietly…until she was standing in front of the table where the offering plates sat… there was a hushed silence in the sanctuary. She gently laid something on the table, and slowly began to shuffle her way back to her seat. I … wonder[ed] what she had brought to the front…
That morning, as she prepared to go to church, the woman had considered what her offering would be to God. She was very poor and had no money to give. Still, she wanted to offer something to her Creator. She looked around her small home, and to her delight, her hen had laid two perfect eggs that very morning. She gathered up those eggs and brought them to church with her. It was these eggs, all that she had, that were offered on that Sunday morning.
Now, if that were all that had happened that day, [Ms. Halliday continues] it would be a nice story about giving all that you have to God. But, the story doesn’t end there. After church that day, the community had what is called a Harambee. It was a fundraiser, where people bring things that are sold and the money raised goes to support the work of the church.
Those two eggs that the woman had offered during worship were eventually sold at that Harambee. They were only two eggs. I could buy those eggs at the market for just a few cents. But the community knew this woman and knew what a great gift she was offering. And that day, her two eggs were sold for over ten dollars – more than some people would earn in an entire week!
The woman’s simple gift was offered with love. It was received with great mercy from her loving neighbors and given its true worth during the Harambee. It was never really about the eggs. It was about giving and receiving, of mercy and love, of grace and offering what you can to your friends and strangers, and trusting that your community will support you when you give of yourself to others.
The word harambee is a Kiswahili word…[which] means “let’s all pull together.” And that day, the whole community pulled together in an amazing way. I never did know the name of this Kikuyu woman. But I have carried her story with me for many years. And this woman, this stranger, taught me a lesson that I will never forget. (Seasons of the Spirit, Nov. 7, 2021, p. 135)
To me, the idea of Harambee, the idea of “let’s pull together,” is how we are to live, how we are to give. Yes, the church needs our financial gifts to pay the bills, and to do ministry in this community. And I thank you for your generosity in this time of disruption and anxiety and change. But God asks for more than that. God wants our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. God wants us connected to neighbor and self.
So I say, as UPC, let’s have Harambee, “let’s pull together.” The world has shifted. We are trying to figure out what church looks like in this new space. I need your help—to imagine what we might become, and to figure out the steps to get there. I know we are all overwhelmed with the frustrations and shifts of life during a pandemic. Very little seems solid. But I hold onto the good news.
We can be sure God is still present in our world.
We can be sure God loves us as fiercely as ever.
We can be sure God still invites us to be church,
for one another and for those all around us.
We can be sure that no matter how stony the road we trod,
No matter how weary or unsettled we feel,
God is there. “Shadowed beneath God’s hand
May we forever stand”
Knowing how we live
how we give
is our way to contribute
to the coming kingdom of God.