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Message for 11-10-13 FAITHFUL INVESTMENT

“FAITHFUL INVESTMENT”

Mark 12:41-44

 

            A cartoon shows a picture of two characters standing in the back of a church service in their underwear.  The one says to the other, “That was the best sermon on giving I ever heard!”  What could motivate someone to give away every stitch of what they have?

Like a water purity inspector taking a random sample from a well, Jesus watches people casting gifts into the Temple treasury.  These gifts were not dues or legal requirements.  These were not 10% tithes.  They were voluntary gifts.  These gifts were a pretty good sample or indicator of the spiritual condition of the average visitor to the Temple. 

Jesus sees quite a few sizeable gifts of gold and silver from donors who could evidently afford to give that much.  But then he sees the poor widow.  How do we know she’s poor?  How do we know she’s a widow?  Only because Jesus says so.  Somehow, Jesus knows.

Jesus sees her put in 2 of the smallest copper coins made in Israel.  What she gave was 1/200 of a day’s wage.  It was enough to buy 3 figs or 1/8 of a loaf of bread.  It would have taken 5 of those coins to buy 1 sparrow, 1 Chicken McNugget.  Her gift was so small, it could have been rejected by the Temple, which may explain why she gives 2 coins when she could have tried to give just one.  What was the value of 2 almost-worthless coins?

Jesus has an answer.  Jesus calls his followers together and says, “You see what this poor widow just did?  It may not look like much, but she put in more than everyone else today combined.  Everybody else gave out of what they had left over (and yes, they had plenty left over), but she out of her poverty (out of her lack!) put in everything she had, all she had to live on!”

Jesus blasts the idea that bigger gifts are more important.  What’s more important is how much she had to start with.  Jesus praises the gift of this poor widow, not because of its size, but because he knew what little she had.  He knows she had no idea where next week’s income was coming from.  (Again, how does Jesus know?)  What Jesus brings to the picture throws a whole new perspective on what she gave.

What was she thinking???  (Not that we can psychoanalyze her…)  What was her motivation?  Here we have a lady to whom life has evidently not been kind.  She knows the pain of bereavement, compounded by apparent lack of a sustainable income.  And yet, she gives like someone who is filled with joy and gratitude to God.  Such willingness to give away the proverbial kitchen sink cannot be inspired by guilt or by the intent to bribe God.  Here we have a case like Mary in John 12, who blows a family fortune on Jesus (worth an entire year’s salary) by pouring on him a pound of pure nard, the expensive stuff used to anoint Roman emperors.  Like Mary blowing the family fortune on Jesus, the poor widow’s 2 copper coins are a demonstration of where her heart is at with God.  As far as she’s concerned, it all belongs to God, and next week’s income is entirely in God’s hands.  How often do we see her kind of ability to trust God, in a day like today?

It’s not a matter of how much we have.  The real issue is what we do with what we have.  Research constantly shows that the most generous givers are folks with the lowest incomes.  Paul says that the poverty-stricken Macedonians gave so much money to help their needy fellow-believers in Jerusalem, that he was afraid he was going to be embarrassed by the giving of the richer believers down in Corinth, if they didn’t match what the poor believers up north gave.  

Talking about how much the church needs to survive is a lousy way to inspire people to give.  Don’t use need as the basis of your church’s stewardship campaign.  When people base their giving on “how much does the church need?”, giving takes a hit if there is a large amount in reserve.  The only way to change that is by giving people a different reason to give.

The poor widow in this story could have easily said, “The Temple doesn’t need my money!”  Or she could have objected to where the money was going to go.  In less than one week, this lady’s two pennies went toward Judas’ 30 pieces of silver.  (In Matthew 17, Jesus commands Peter to pay the Temple tax, to pay his per-capita, even though Jesus knows that money will go toward Judas’ 30 pieces of silver.)  This lady could have withheld her giving.  This lady gave, not because God needed it, but as part of an ongoing act of worship.

When my family and I found ourselves without a church home several years ago, we had to figure out where we were going to give our offering.  It never occurred to us to keep that money in our pocket.  For us, giving is an ongoing act of worship.  It is NOT based on who needs the money, but on finding and participating in God’s mission for us in the world.

You know, I have a huge hangup about asking people to give money to me.  Don’t ask me to go find sponsors for me to walk in some fund-raiser.  But I have no problem asking you to give a systematic percentage of your income to God, which means thousands of dollars for most of you, because if I really mean what I say about God, if I truly believe that all that I have belongs to God, then how can I not give back to God a substantial slice of what God has given me, based not on who needs it, but as an act of worship, regardless of whether anyone needs it or not?  And how can I not urge you to do the same?

That’s where it starts – by stepping into the shoes of that poor widow who gave away all that she had.  God recommends 10% of our income.  For some of you, 5% would be a great leap forward.  Giving a percentage of your income, spread out over 52 weeks on a weekly basis, works far better than trying to give it all in 1 lump sum.  It’s hard to write a check for $2000.  It’s a lot easier to write a check for $40 every week.  It all adds up.

As a pastor, I don’t believe in nickel-and-diming my people to give to this need and give to that need, like the church I visited in Iowa that passed the plate 3 times in the same service.  Methodists tend to believe that people give more money if you give them more special needs to give to.  Some people do, but if you’re already giving at the 10% level, you may resent being manipulated to give more.  I believe that the church should put all its begs in one ask-it.

You may have heard my philosophy on the funny math of fund-raising.  One person gives $10 worth of food to a church dinner.  Another person pays $10 for a ticket.  The two think they’ve given a total of $20 to the church.  How much did the church get?  $10.  Why not do a bake-less bake sale: just give generously?

We remember folks who used to give $1 a week in the offering plate.  In the 1930’s, that was not small change.  But $1 a week back then was the equivalent of $13 a week today.

What if your financial situation is as bad as the poor widow in today’s scripture?  When collecting that offering for the saints in Jerusalem, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 8:12 that God wants them to give what they have, not what they don’t have.  He writes, “For if the eagerness (to give) is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have.”  Medical catastrophes are one example where this is true.

But for many of us, the real issue is lifestyle.  We don’t have money to give to the Lord because we’re already strapped by debt trying to pay for more car or more electronics or more house than we need or can afford.  Here’s an area where only God knows how much we really can give or afford to live on.  If the poor widow was strapped with a mortgage she couldn’t afford, what would she have done?  She probably would have sold the house and given it to God!  That’s what a whole bunch of people actually did in the early church.

But more important than the lifestyle issue is the heart issue.  If we have a heart for God like this poor widow in Mark, God can fix our lifestyle problem by giving us the wisdom and courage to chisel it down to size.  But without a heart for God like the kind she had, it ain’t gonna happen, and there is no logical reason why it should happen.  Here’s the math: Giving equals resources times heart.  It’s like volts and amps.  Where your heart is at with God is the voltage.  Your resources may be microscopic, like the poor widow’s, but her heart for God was at the million-volt level.  Yet someone can be loaded with resources, but if their heart is at zero with God, a million dollars times zero equals zero.

Unless we’ve been floored by the love of God shown to us in the cross of Jesus Christ, we are never going to give the way this poor widow did in today’s scripture.  Systematic, generous giving can only come as an ongoing act of worship, an act that says to God, “I am yours!  You are supreme!  I am so thankful for what You have done for me in Christ!  I believe with all my heart, and I want to participate in what You are doing to change the world.”

Stewardship is a fancy Old English word for “management.”  God has given his money to us to invest, and I want to manage what God has given me, faithfully.  I want to invest what God has given me in places where I believe that God wants to use me to make a difference.  See how different that is from “The church needs my money to pay its bills”?  What I give to God is all a strategic investment, an act of faith.  I invest in local churches (in the offering plate) because they are God’s front line in reaching local neighborhoods.  I also invest in missions outside the local church.  I have a heart for Muslims; I give to groups that are reaching Muslims.  I have a heart for gays and lesbians; I give to groups that help those who want to leave the gay lifestyle.

Where you feel God leading you to make a difference in God’s world, is entirely between you and God.  But first you’ve gotta talk to God about it, and then you need to listen.  Has God given you a heart for the poor?  Has God given you a heart for unreached peoples who have never heard the Gospel?  Has God given you a heart for your local church?  If you give to your local church here (and I hope you do), don’t do it because the church will go broke if you don’t.  Give because you believe God’s got a mission for this church, and you want to be a part of that mission. 

Most people don’t give to keep the doors open.  They will give if they believe that God is at work in a given situation, and they want to be a part of the action.  When the famous Willow Creek church was being built, some of the people took out second mortgages on their homes, so that they could give money that they didn’t have (like the poor widow) because they believed in the mission of that local church with all of their hearts.

I encourage you to live your whole life with a philosophy that it’s God’s money, not ours.  My daily prayer list will give you a window into how I handle the concept of faithfully managing God’s resources.  Every day, I give thanks to God for all that God has placed in my family’s hands for this short time on earth.  Next, I pray that God will help me be grateful and faithful as we use or manage what God has placed in our hands. 

I pray that God will guide us as to what to buy and not buy, particularly when tough decisions come along like which phone contract to sign, along with major purchases and home repairs.  I pray that God will guide us on what to sell, give away, or throw away, and when to do which, and if the time ever comes when we need to sell our house and move, I pray for triple the wisdom to know exactly what to do then.

I pray that God will guide us as to where and how much to give.  Currently, we are giving to 3 local churches ($125 a month here, $100 a month to Hillsboro, $60 a month to St Matthew, where our kids go), plus at least $3000 per year to missions outside the local church, including 2 missions to Arab and Turkish Muslims, our local homeless shelter, and numerous other ministries.   We try to give 15% of our income, and it is always a challenge to figure out how God wants us to divide up what we give.

I also pray that God will guide us on where and how much to invest.  I pray that God will help us make those decisions wisely and justly, with patience, and without greed.  With interest rates so low, it can be a struggle to find the best return on our money.  We need to remember, it’s God’s money, not ours.  It can be tempting to get greedy and chase high returns that are too risky, or investments in companies that profit from sin or injustice.  We may not be able to avoid that entirely, but with God’s help, we try to avoid such investments.  Finally, I pray that God will help me use my time effectively, and that God will open the door wherever he wants me to serve (right now, that means here).

That’s my daily heart-to-heart talk with God.  In this season when churches are3 planning ministry for the upcoming year, I encourage you to have a similar heart-to-heart talk with God.

Where else can we find anyone with a heart more on fire for God, anyone who was a more faithful investor of God’s resources, than the poor widow who put 2 copper coins into the Temple treasury?  Hey, the Temple didn’t need her money.  The Temple could have turned it down as an insult to God.  In fact, we know the Temple was about to horribly misuse her money.  But God honored her faith.  God honored her 100% commitment.  God knew she had no idea where next week’s income was coming from.  2 tiny copper coins times a million volts worth of love for God equals one unforgettable poverty-stricken widow.  God wants us to give with the same kind of sold-out-for-God attitude of this poor widow.  Talk to God about exactly how to do the math.  Like the poor widow, let’s make our giving an ongoing act of worship.

But remember: giving is no substitute for a relationship with God.  There is no way we can earn our way to God, no matter how many good deeds we try to pile up.  None of us can save ourselves by our own goodness.  Only Christ can save us.  Only Christ can take away our sins and put us right with God.  All we can do is receive what he has done for us.  Gratitude for the fact that Jesus paid a debt that we could never pay becomes the one and only inspiration for  us to give the way this poor widow did.

Let us pray.  God, this lady gives us an amazingly hard act to follow.  And she doesn’t even come close to what You have done for us in Christ.  We say we believe that it all belongs to You.  Help us to live like we believe it.  Show us where You want us to give.  Show us how much.  And show us how we can make that possible.  And give us the will and the courage to do it.  We love You too much to settle for less.  We ask all this for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

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