A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 7 November 2021 [Proper 27; Year B]:
1 Kings 17:8-10; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
As we all know, this autumnal season is the time when most churches engage in raising funds for the following year’s operational budget. Years ago, I was in another diocese where the bishop always insisted on referring to the “budget” as a “Statement of Mission and Ministry”. And so they are. These “budgets” are in fact statements of what really matters to a place like St. Philip’s. Most priests in my experience get quite anxious about raising money for what matters about our church. So it is that the part of today’s gospel lesson that retells the story of “the Widow’s Mite” appears to us “spiritual types” as if it were a teed-up baseball, waiting to be smacked. I say this because Jesus observes that she gave all that she had. Hmmm…
Sitting opposite the Temple Treasury and observing the faithful as they contributed their financial offerings, St. Mark depicts Jesus watching this faithful parade. That Mark implies that Jesus knew what each person was giving raises an interesting question –one that money always seems to surface. In the words of former New York City mayor Ed Koch, the question of “how m’I doin’?”, the answer to which almost always requires a a monied response. one that we’d rather keep to ourselves, lest we reveal too much of ourselves to everyone else.
Interestingly, this very same issue emerged in last month’s Vestry meeting, where the question was asked: “Who in the parish knows what individuals give?” Just below this question’s surface was a desire to keep individual contributions confidential. Secrecy mattered, again lest we fall into the unseemly trap of competing with one another or being held accountable.
For everyone’s information, here is the process when it comes to keeping track of members’ pledges. The fact is (and this fact has been a matter of parish transparency for at least as long as I have been Priest-in-Charge) – the fact is that only the Treasurer, the head counter, and I know who contributes what amount of money. Moreover, the entire counting process consists of envelop numbers being correlated with check amounts. No member names are ever identified or associated with what is given.
Now the reason the Treasurer needs to know who gives what should be obvious. Beyond being able to know what resources are available to our church for the programs that assist people, a very worldly reason also stands out clearly: How is the Treasurer to keep track of individual giving so that at the end of the year members will know how to adjust their tax returns? Yet, beyond this legal element, there is indeed a very personal component to having the Priest be aware of who gives what.
As I have taught regularly among you, in our culture money is how we keep track of how each of us uses his or her power. If this is so (and it is undeniably so), then why wouldn’t someone like me, whose calling and responsibility is to know about fundamental aspects of my flock’s lives – how things are going with them, then why would I ignore a financial pledge’s indication into what is really going on in each member’s life? But most frequently, keeping how we use our money is a secret, which bespeaks of a deep sense of fear driving and defining our lives. And fear is the direct opposite of faith. Our life together is all about faithful and healthy living the god-life in Christ Jesus.
So, to return to my original observation about the story of the “Widow’s Mite”, let me make three points.
The first one is that no one should view the “Widow’s Mite” story as a teed-up baseball, waiting for some cleric to smack it as a way of wringing money out of his people – even for such a worthy cause as funding a “Statement of Mission and Ministry”. I say this because to keep the focus of the story of the “Widow’s Mite” is to view it out of context and, thereby, to distort this morning’s gospel reading.
So, fear not little flock, you don’t need to cringe in anticipation of me attempting to “guilt” you into imitating the actions of the widow; and I assure you that I spend next to no time at all, checking on the amount of your pledges. But neither will I keep secrets about what we say matters to us in terms of the life of our church and what we do about our life. Rather, together, we will continue to do our best to “walk” what we “talk” when it comes to our common life, mission, and ministry. That’s the first point.
The second point has to do with the reason I am not going to ask you to imitate the widow’s actions. As I said, I fervently view making a financial pledge as a concrete sign that a person is a member of St. Philip’s and that that promise is a commitment to invest in the partnership of our mission and ministry. Nonetheless, with reference to the figure of the widow and her “mite’s” offering, the fact is that only Jesus gives all he has.
That today’s gospel story is the final scene that occurs in the Temple before that fatal Passover, the overarching point of all these Temple encounters is Jesus’ insistence that his life embodies and completes what the Temple was always meant to be about. Of course, what Jesus gives as his pledged offering is manifest on the cross and in the resurrection.
The truth is that while all of us will give all we have when we die, we are nonetheless still enjoined to follow Jesus now -- day by day in order that we may finally be “like him”. But the other truth is that most of us are not there yet, which is why I don’t believe that it is helpful – or honest – to speak about giving all we have, at least at this point in our lives. Rather, to pave the steady way ahead into Jesus’ example (what the widow represents), what I want to note is a spiritual discipline that involves the use of our money. It is referred to as “enoughness”. “Enoughness” is my third point.
In terms of the concept and practice of “enoughness”, I am indebted to the teaching of Joan Chittister, a Roman Catholic, Benedictine nun. Among Sister Joan’s many helpful published works, the one I keep handy is her commentary on the “Rule of Benedict”: that sixth century compilation of wisdom and faithfulness that seeks to find, keep, and share the God-life – something that must never only be relegated to monks and nuns.
In Chittister’s reflection on Benedict’s guidance concerning the receiving of gifts/money (“and guidance” being what the word “rule” means, as in a “ruler” that measures where we are), she offers these words.
The purpose of the monastic life was to discover that the possession of God was far more satisfying than anything we could receive from anyone else, that [God and the God-life] were freeing, that in [this gift we are enriched] far beyond what we could collect for ourselves.
We live in a culture that sees having things as the measure of our success. [Serious followers of Jesus] strive for a life that sees eliminating things as a measure of internal wealth. Enoughness is a value long dead in Western society. Dependence on God is a value long lost. Yet, [and here is the big point] enoughness and dependence on God may be what is lacking in a society where consumerism and accumulation have become the root diseases of a world in which everything is not enough and nothing satisfies.
“Enoughness”. I think dealing with what it truly takes to be content in and with our lives is a pathway that all Jesus’ followers need to walk. We need to ask ourselves, how much is enough? How might we become more aware of what is enough and what being content with our lives looks like? As the monastic tradition illustrates and as our aching souls reveal, we require some guidance and discipline to keep our eyes on the prize: discipline such as do we have a personal budget by which needs are met, wants are owned, and values listed? Is our storage space cluttered with what we just might need some distant day to be alright? Are we prone to “shop ‘til we drop” in an expensive attempt to fill up the emptiness inside? More positively, how can we practice thanksgiving in our lives?
If you are interested in knowing what matters to you, look at your calendars and your checkbooks. I continue to find it a humbling thing to do because how I use my time and how I use my money reveals unequivocally how I use my life’s power and to what extent fear or faith rule my life and my heart.
Eventually, we will have to give away all we have and all we are. Yet, as I say, most of us seem not to be ready for this reality, which is the reason we put into play the spiritual discipline of confronting the issue of “enoughness” and what “enoughness” has to do with our faith in God and our willingness to living out the God-life.
Understandably, our financial pledges to St. Philip’s most likely are not all we give away; but your financial promise to our church is a regular exercise in moving toward being like Jesus and therefore not hesitating to be truly free of the fear of not enough. Amen.