Sermon preached by the Reverend Richard Tombaugh
May the words spoken and heard here this morning be spoken and heard in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s Gospel Mark sets the scene for us sparingly. Jesus has been teaching in the temple courts. Now, on his way out, he pauses at the treasury to watch as offerings are made. Each person walks up to one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles which are lined up along the Court of the Women. As they toss in their offering, the person is expected to say aloud the amount and purpose of the gift in order to be heard by the priest overseeing the collections. As I reflected on this picture I thought of the wire baskets that used to be at the toll booths on the parkways here in Connecticut and I imagined that when people dropped coins into one of the metal tubes the coins made a clanging noise. The larger coins, of course, made a greater noise.
It must have been an impressive sight to see people in fine clothes tossing in large sums, calling out to all how much they are giving. While it has occurred to me this might offer us here at St. Paul’s a really different type of Every Member Canvass, I think I should let Father Lang and the vestry decide.
Into this scene comes a nameless widow with two tiny coins each worth about 1/8th of a penny. These coins were the grubbiest coins in the empire of Rome, too small even to bear a legible imprint. In such an impressive group of people we might wonder who would notice the widow tossing the two smallest coins of the realm into the offering, and what an insignificant noise the coins must have made in the offering trumpet. Yet in a move that is so like him, Jesus notices her and uses her action for a bit of serious teaching about giving.
Jesus’ point is simple and clear: the gift that counts is the gift that costs. Jesus does not commend the widow for her giving; nor does He denounce the larger gifts made by the more affluent members. He simply remarks that only the widow seems to have gotten anything out of the act of giving. In this story the size of the gift is irrelevant. The distinguishing mark of the widow’s gift is not merely its proportion to her means: “everything she had, her whole living;” there is clearly something in her heart that lifted the gift out of the routine into the realm of significant meaning.
In a more contemporary example some business men from a tractor plant in Illinois were in Japan looking over building sights for a new Asian manufacturing plant and distribution outlet. They were photographing a site on the edge of a northern Japanese city and saw something unusual in an adjoining rice field. A father was pulling a single-furrow plow, while the son guided it. The Americans were amused and took pictures “to show the guys back home how much they need our tractors over here.”
A few days later, one of the businessmen was showing the pictures to a missionary in a nearby village, still joking about how they farm in Japan. The missionary looked at the photos and said: “I know that father and son; they are members of our village church. They didn’t always farm that way. You see, when we build our new mission church they wanted to give something, but were so poor they couldn’t. So they sold their oxen and gave the money to the church. Until they can afford another team of oxen, they will have to plow themselves.
I can imagine that the father and the son had a profound sense of accomplishment and joy in knowing that they had been part of the building a new mission church. I can imagine also that their joy somehow made the burden of their physical toil lighter. As in the story of the widow, generosity is to be measured by the quality rather than the quantity of the gift.
Many years ago when I was serving in Trinity Parish in St Louis I had a single parishioner on welfare named Aurelia who provided a safe and warm home for so many of her grandchildren that I could never know for sure how many. Each Sunday she and her many grandchildren appeared in church and each Sunday she put her envelop into the collection tray. In time I became aware that she was tithing her meager income and I decided to visit her. As I reflect now I am not quite sure I knew why I was making that pastoral visit. Perhaps I thought I could suggest that she give a bit less. Fortunately for me we never got to that point because when I brought up the point about her generous gifts to the church tears came to her eyes and said: “making these gifts is the one thing I do that gives meaning and dignity to my life.” There was nothing more for me to say.
At this time of year the Episcopal Churches usually ask their members to make annual pledges to support the worship and other ministries of the church. This asking presents each of us an opportunity to be a part of something that we value and care about. Like the widow and the Japanese father and son, and Aurelia each of us now has an opportunity to make a serious gift that will give meaning and dignity to our lives.
Please remember that Jesus did not suggest that the widow give everything that she owned, leaving her no resources to continue her life. In like manner the Japanese father and son kept their land and tools necessary to harvest their rice and continue their lives. Parishioners are not being asked to turnover their life’s savings to the church. We are only being asked to give a gift and to remind ourselves that one key measure of the importance of the gift is what the giving does for us. If the amount is trivial and/or the giving is casual or perfunctory, chances are the inner reward will be slight at best. If the gift is thoughtfully and prayerfully made, especially if there is some small sacrifice involved, out hearts will surely be touched and we will appreciate that the gift has brought meaning and dignity to our lives.