a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “What Shall We Bring?”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
November 18, 2018
38As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!
40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.
42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.
43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
I am having a bit of an internal argument with myself over the title of this message, so let me share that with you and you are welcome to join in and have your own internal argument with yourself and with me if you disagree with either or both sides of my own argument. What could be more fun?
We have been asking the question of ourselves for our stewardship growth theme, “What Shall We Bring?” So part of me gets that it sounds like Jesus is commending this woman for giving everything, and that same part of me wants to recommend the same thing for all of us. That part of me wants to say God wants everything from us. The theological argument of course is that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God anyway and truly really belongs to God. We are just stewards of this stuff, and of life itself. It is on loan to us and our job is to manage it. And our job as managers – as any manager’s job is – is to manage it the way the Owner wants it managed, not to use it any old way we feel like using it, lest the Owner fire us. And there are certainly corollary parables in the Christian Scriptures that would seem to plainly warn us about this.
However, the other side of my mind points out two things to argue against that argument. The first point is that, “phhht! Right! Who is going to give everything they have? Maybe one of those saints back in the day, but show me somebody today who would do that?” I mean, who would do that, right? The reality is that nationwide all giving to charity amounts to about 2% of total household income in America. I mean even including those churches that “demand” that their members tithe, that they give 10% of their income, don’t really reach that goal, so who is going to give “everything?”
The second point of my argument against this “everything” mentality is that some scholars argue that Jesus is not pointing out the woman’s gift to make that an example for everyone. In fact he has been criticizing the religious leaders who profit off of such sacrifices. Rev. Edward Markquart, in a sermon [ “Hannah and the 2%,” sermonsfromseattle.com ] once said that according to his research, “on one wall of the temple, there were thirteen offering boxes. These offering boxes were like suitcases, except they were made out of metal. They were big metal boxes and there was a slit in the top of those boxes so people would come and place their offerings through the slit on the top. There were little signs on each of the offering boxes: one said building maintenance; another said utilities; another said rabbis’ salary; another said widows and orphans. There were thirteen different line items that you could designate your offerings to.” His point is that Jesus saw this as taking advantage of people so that the religious leaders could enjoy their “long robes,” and being “greeted with respect,” and having “places of honor at banquets,” while widows like that woman went hungry and wore rags and yet in faithfulness gave everything they had. Sort of like the televangelist today who loves to tell you how you need to send in all your money so he can buy another – ANOTHER – jet, while you eat Ramen and drive a 30 year old car. Right?
So that leaves me in a quandary about how to do my job and urge you to give so that we can do the ministries and missions that we have chosen to support. We do a lot, I talked about that a bit last week. Your giving touches thousands of lives for justice through our work with ICARE. We have made sure that youth get a second chance instead of an arrest record for committing offenses that are but, nonviolent offenses. You have made sure children don’t go hungry on the weekends with Micah’s Backpack. You have helped our neighbors in this area have enough food through your contributions to Arlington Community Services. You have provided safe space to families who are living without their own housing by hosting Family Promise families. You have touched people throughout Florida and the world by our giving to Our Church’s Wider Mission.
We haven’t been able to raise our Mission budget in several years, but this year the Mission Core Ministry is challenging us to give just a little more. They have added $500 for more assistance to Micah’s Backpack so that more children will have food security on weekends when they don’t have school breakfasts or lunches to count on. They have also asked us to give more so that we can fund Jacksonville Campus Ministry again. For years we supported this ministry, one of the only ones that welcomes everyone, as we do as a church, and allows college age students to experience a place where they can question, learn from one another in a safe environment about faith, and move to a more adult faith. They have challenged us to provide $500 in our mission budget this year. But we will have to do more as individuals to reach that. Those of us that can, this is our challenge. If you are already giving sacrificially then we don’t ask you to be like this widow in Jesus’ story.
How much we give is truly an individual’s faith decision in relationship to God. What does your giving say about your faith in God? Do you believe in a gracious, generous God? Do you hear and follow a Savior who calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves? Then that has to guide your giving. I guess what it comes down to is that each of us has to decide what really matters to us. If something really matters to us, then we become fully invested in it. If a relationship with someone really matters we are fully invested in it. If football really matters to us we certainly become fully invested in it as a community and as a nation. The NFL is a multi-billion dollar business because it really matters to a lot of people. If our job really matters we invest everything in doing it well, right?
I was struck by a story from long ago that illustrated this to me. It is the story of a little girl for whom something mattered so much she was willing to give everything to it. I was struck because the story goes that one Sunday morning, the pastor of a church went outside to find a group of children who were unable to get in to go to Sunday school because the building was too crowded. Now that, in and of itself, I find incredible. In this day and age where we have falling attendance in churches all over the nation, when churches right here in Arlington are closing because they have lost so much attendance, the idea of a Sunday school so crowded children lined up to get in because it mattered so much to them they wanted to be there. Perhaps you have heard the story before, but I believe it helps me understand what it means to say “everything,” to the question, “What Shall We Bring?”
On December 1, 1912 the pastor of that crowded church, Rev. Russell Conwell, preached a sermon that told the story of that little girl who wanted very badly to go to Sunday school. He told the people gathered there about a little girl named Hattie. “Little Hattie May Wiatt lived in a house near the church in which [they] then worshipped. It was a small church and was crowded, tickets of admission were obtained sometimes weeks in advance for every service. The Sunday school was as crowded as the rest of the congregation, and one day when I came down to the church, to attend Sabbath school, I found a number of children outside. They were greatly disturbed because they could not get in, on account of the crowd of children already in the Sunday school rooms, and little Hattie May Wiatt, who lived nearby, was standing by the gate, hesitating whether to go back home or wait and try to get in later. I took her up in my arms, lifted her to my shoulder, and then as she held on to my head – an embrace I never can forget – I carried her through the crowd in the hall, into the Sunday school room, and seated her in a chair away back in a dark corner.”
Rev. Conwell says, “The next morning as I came down to the church from my home I came by their house and she was going up the street to school. As we met, I said: ‘Hattie, we are going to have a larger Sunday school room soon’, and she said: ‘I hope you will. It is so crowded that I am afraid to go there alone’”
Rev. Conwell said, “When we get the money with which to erect a school building we are going to construct one large enough to get all the little children in, and we are going to begin very soon to raise the money for it.” He told his congregation that this “only in my mind as a kind of imaginary vision, but I wished to make conversation with the child. The next that I heard about it was that Hattie was very sick, and they asked me to come in and see the child, which I did, and prayed with her. I walked up the street, praying for the little girl’s recovery, and yet all the time with the conviction that it was not to be.
“Hattie May Wiatt died. She had gathered 57 cents … which was left as her contribution towards securing another building for the children. After the funeral the mother handed me the little bag with the 57 cents. I took it to the church and stated that we had the first gift toward the new Sunday school building; that little Hattie May Wiatt, who had gone on into the Shining World, had left behind her this gift towards it.” She had given everything she had because it mattered so much to her. Rev. Conwell used some creative fundraising, changing that 57 cents into pennies and then auctioning them off to other donors who heard the story and wanted to be sure the next generation would have the opportunity to learn and grow in faith and he turned that 57 cents into $250. He repeated this process, turning the $250 into pennies and the “sale of the $250 changed into pennies money [was] enough to buy the next house north of the church.” They built that bigger Sunday school. The people were so inspired that that church kept growing and expanding its mission until it became more than a church, and they valued Christian education so much they started a college. Perhaps you have heard of it – today it is called Temple University. All of it began, not with 57 cents, I would argue, but with a little girl to whom it mattered so much to learn and grow in faith that she gave everything to make it happen [ library.temple.edu/collections/scrc/hattie ].
We have been talking about our growth in faith as stewards. We have asked, “What shall we bring?” I have debated what it means to say, “Everything.” I don’t know what matters that much to you. I hope your faith does. I hope your relationship with Christ and your love of God means everything to you. I hope that this church and its mission and ministries matter enough that you want to give everything you can to continue and to expand its work in the name of Jesus Christ. I believe if you give everything you can, that will be enough! AMEN.