St Barnabas’, Havana—Mark 12:38-44, I Kings 17:8-16
I have a radio on my nightstand and a radio in my car. In both of these locations, the default setting, for more than 40 years now, has been to whatever the local public radio station is. I listen to National Public Radio news and, while they were still on the air, Prairie Home Companion and Car Talk, as well, classical music and jazz, though those things aren’t aired as much as they used to be. If it weren’t for satellite radio now, I really wouldn’t have much to listen to if public radio were not around. And it helps that there are no commercials, as such. But, twice a year, as you may know, there’s a fund-raising drive. I wake up to it, hit the ‘Snooze’ button, and when it comes back on nine minutes later, they’re still talking about money, so I hit the ‘Snooze’ button again, and when it comes back on, they’re still at it. I assume that they sneak some regular programming in there occasionally, but sometimes I wonder. So, by the time I get in my car, I don’t even bother to turn the radio on during those two weeks each year.
But, at least I turn my radio off with a clear conscience, because I know I’ve made a financial contribution to my local station. I’m not one of those loathsome freeloaders who listen without paying. I do my share. I pull my weight. It’s only fair, after all. If I want public radio to stay on the air, I’ve got to band together with others to help make it happen. If it goes down the tubes, and I haven’t been supporting it with my dollars, then I’ve got no one to blame except myself.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? We’re entirely used to the notion of “paying dues.” When you’re a member of some association or community or other organized aggregation of human beings, and you derive some benefit from that affiliation, you expect to make a financial contribution to it. When that organized aggregation of people is a political entity, then the financial contribution becomes mandatory, and we call it taxation. But the principle is the same. And it isn’t just financial. I can remember when I first wanted to play Little League baseball, and my parents were entirely supportive … entirely supportive, that is, until they found out they were expected to do more than pay a fee and get me to my games and practices on time. I still got to play, but it was an awakening for my parents.
Yet, even when we pay dues, and even when those dues are called “taxes,” the amount we are asked to contribute is still a relatively small percentage of our total resources. Even billionaires in the highest tax brackets, who pay more in taxes each year than some of us might earn in a lifetime, have more money than they know what to do with after paying their “dues” to the government. This is in stark contrast to two unnamed women whom we encounter in today’s liturgy—one in the Old Testament, one in the New; one a Jew and the other a Gentile; one living in the time of Christ and one living several hundred years earlier in the time of Elijah. What unites them is that they were both widows, and were both desperately poor.
We read first today about the Gentile widow in the Phoenician village of Zarephath. The Hebrew prophet Elijah paid her a visit during a period of drought and asked her for some food. If she’d had the energy, she would have laughed in his face, because her total resources amounted to a cup or so of flour and one or two tablespoons of oil and a few dried sticks. With that, she was preparing to fix a last meal for herself and her son, for they would surely then die of hunger. Now, Elijah had a plan to help this lady, but—perhaps because he wasn’t himself 100% sure of it—he neglected to inform her of that fact. Instead, he asked of this Gentile widow something quite extraordinary. He asked her to take her meager resources, and fix him a meal first, and only then prepare a pancake for herself and her son. Elijah may as well have asked this woman to slit her wrists and let him drink her very life’s blood. He was asking her to give him, a stranger, everything she had, to hold nothing back.
Years later, as Jesus and his disciples are standing outside the temple in Jerusalem; they are watching various people place their monetary offerings in the collection box. People who were materially well off made a great show of placing heavy bags, obviously full of very valuable coins, into the box. Those bags of money would go a long way toward helping the temple meet its annual operating budget and maintain the fabric of the physical plant. Then, a widow arrives, and places two small coins in the box. They are of virtually no value, each coin worth less than one cent in today’s terms. Jesus observes that those two coins represented all she had, “her whole living.” The fact that there were two coins is of tremendous significance, because she could have kept one back for herself. She still would have been giving a full 50% of her resources to the Lord, certainly a commendable act. But she gave it all, she held back nothing.
In their faithfulness, demonstrated in concrete action, these two widows show us what it means to be a steward of resources that have been entrusted to us by God. Stewardship is not about giving a certain percentage of our time to God. Stewardship is not about giving a certain percentage of our money to God. Stewardship is not about reverencing God, devoting a certain percentage of our affection to God. Stewardship is about making a gift of our selves to God, holding back nothing, offering God all we have, our “whole living.” Now, this is such a central concept in coming to spiritual maturity that there’s no way I could stress it too highly or articulate it with sufficient eloquence. It can be a hard place to get to. So, any talk of “percentage giving” is really quite meaningless until one comes to this stage of development, this place of complete and unrestricted self-giving to God.
Now, I realize, of course, that we are in the heart of “stewardship season” throughout most of the Episcopal Church, though I don’t know precisely where you are with it at St Barnabas’. Maybe you already have your 2019 pledge card available to fill out. Maybe Fr Newago has encouraged you to tithe—to give 10% of your after-tax income to the Lord through the work of the parish at whose altar you are regularly fed. But now I want to put a condition on that encouragement to tithe—to give that 10%. If you have not reached the point in your own spiritual development where you have told God, “I’m completely yours. Make of me what you will; I am an empty vessel; fill me”—if you have not reached that point, then listen to me: Do not tithe! You can still make a pledge, and I hope you do. St Barnabas’ needs your financial gifts. But it is spiritually dangerous to tithe if you think you’re doing so out of your own magnanimity, out of your own abundance, from a place of being blessed, full of resources. Jesus wants us to give, not out of our abundance, but out of our poverty. Until we come to the place where we can say, “I am poor,” no matter how much money we have in our wallets or in the bank, tithing can become a source of pride, and can take us to hell just as quickly as being stingy and giving nothing. Now, please understand me: I’m not trying to discourage tithing. I’m trying to encourage stewardship. I’m trying to hold up the example of the two widows who are the stars of today’s episode of The Holy Eucharist—the holy Thanksgiving.
And here’s how our relationship with the Church differs from our relationship with public radio or youth athletic organizations or service clubs or any other association we may belong to. When we put money into a church offering envelope, we’re not paying dues. We’re not contributing our “fair share” in response to the benefits we receive from belonging. This is critical to remember, because “dues paying” makes us think we have a “controlling interest”—in every sense of that expression—paying dues makes us think we have a controlling interest in whatever it is we give. Ironically, we sometimes even use the word “stewardship” to justify our “controlling interest,” as in “I just want to be sure that my money that I give is being used wisely.” That’s good common sense, from a human standpoint, but it falls short of Christian stewardship. A Christian steward gives, and then lets go. Somehow I doubt that the widow outside the Jerusalem temple wrote a letter to the High Priest asking for an accounting of the two half-pennies she dropped into the collection box. She gave everything she had, and then let go.
When we reach the point in our faith development where we can begin to act like stewards, however, all sorts of wonderful things happen. We loosen our grip on the concrete signs of what we think we are “giving,” and, in the process, acquire a capacity to enjoy all that God is doing in a fresh way. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories—they are truly abundant, and my own is one of them—the stories of how a person or a family, with some fear and trembling, comes to the point where they realize that to not tithe is really to be robbing God, and so they say their prayers and swallow hard and do it, and then find that miracle after miracle happens, that the Lord provides for all their needs and then some, and that they are more richly blessed than they could ever have imagined. What such people are experiencing is nothing other than what the widow of Zarephath experienced when she summoned the faith to do precisely as Elijah had instructed her. She poured some flour from her flour container and some oil from her oil container and made Elijah a pancake. Then, with a trembling hand, no doubt, she lifted her flour container once more, and there was just enough to make another couple of cakes. Same with the oil. And there kept on being just enough until the drought broke and there was an ample supply of food once again. If she had not obeyed Elijah, she may indeed have made a last meal for herself and her son, and then died. Because of her faith, because of her willingness to give all she had, she was enabled to see the sustaining power of God.
NPR and PBS want our dues. God wants our selves. Let’s remember the difference. Amen.