Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Widow's Might

A homily delivered by the Rev Dr Tim W Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday March 29th, 2009 (Stewardship Sunday)

It’s a familiar enough story, one I’m certain almost all of us have heard at some point or another in our lives (although far fewer of us, I suspect, have really given it the thought it deserves). It’s the Tuesday before Passover, and Jesus is teaching openly in the Courtyard of the Gentiles outside the Temple in Jerusalem, protected from arrest by the large crowd of people who have thronged around him to listen to him debate with the Scribes and the Pharisees, the Lawyers and the Scholars who represent the interests of the wealthy temple elites. And he’s just said one of the single most-memorable things attributed to him in the Gospels, responding to a question about whether or not it is lawful for a faithful Jew to pay taxes to Rome by asking to see a Roman coin and then asking whose image was on it. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.” And then while his adversaries looked on in speechless amazement,

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people put in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. For they all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything, all she had to live on.” [Mark 12: 41-44; cf Luke 21: 1-4]

I’ve never been quite certain how best to interpret this passage. The fact that Jesus is talking only with his disciples makes me think that this is primarily a private object lesson in the virtues of generosity, sacrifice, and commitment: a foreshadowing, perhaps, of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus is about to make himself. But I also can’t help but think that it is also an implicit criticism of the wealthy givers, who may contribute much more in absolute terms, but are still contributing out of their abundance, as well as a condemnation of the entire temple system itself, which demanded such donations even from the most vulnerable members of society. The wealthy still have plenty left over after they have made their contribution. But the widow holds back nothing. Two copper lepta, two “mites” in the King James Version, and she throws them both in, not even holding back one for herself. Her faith, her trust, her confidence that somehow this day she will be given her daily bread (and perhaps even forgiven her debts), is without reservation. Her own love of God and love of neighbor inspire that confidence, and that trust, and guides her away from the kinds of temptation that ultimately lead to evil.

In the letter I wrote to be sent out with the other Stewardship materials, I mentioned that in times of financial uncertainty such as these, none of us can really feel secure in our position, but that the need people have for the church itself is at the same time greater than ever. And those of us who are still fortunate enough to be able to give out of our abundance have a special responsibility to our neighbors, because even though none of us are unaffected by the downturn, we still have the ability to make a difference in meeting this greater need. And in doing so, not only do we make it possible for our less-fortunate neighbors to benefit from our generosity, we also find fulfillment personally. We are empowered to act as agents of compassion and generosity and creativity and gratitude; we become messengers (angeloi = angels) -- of God’s Good News.

But what about those of us on the other side of the coin? Those of us who have lost our jobs, or are living on fixed (or even declining) incomes, and who are personally feeling the effects of the downturn as a week-to-week struggle just to keep body and soul together? How are we supposed to respond? And I’d like to suggest that our response is no different than anyone else’s; and that with trust and compassion and generosity and creativity and gratitude, we too can become empowered and fulfilled, despite our precarious financial situations.

Throughout this Stewardship campaign, and really over the entire course of my brief tenure here, I’ve spoken about the “three T’s” of Time, Talent, and Treasure as the foundation upon which a healthy church community must be built. Time is perhaps the easiest, and the most important of the three. For better or worse, when you become unemployed Time is suddenly something you have a lot more of in your life. And you need to use it wisely; but one very excellent use of Time is to spend it in church on Sunday mornings. Just showing up makes a huge difference in the quality of EVERYONE’S experience here -- it increases the energy, it increases the intensity, it increases the vitality of the entire Act and activity of Worship. And it costs you next to nothing; a couple of hours out of your day, and a little gasoline for your car, unless you live close enough to walk, or can arrange (like I do) to catch a ride with a neighbor. So even when times are tough economically, the gift of YOUR time can have a huge impact, and makes a big difference in the quality of our collective lives.

And the same is true of your Talent. You may not be working full time for a paycheck, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still be productive, or contribute to the prosperity of our community in other ways. And I’m not just talking now about the church community either. The larger Portland community can also no doubt benefit from your talents, while getting out of the house and out among the people begins that all-important process of networking and connection-building that generally leads both to finding another job, and also to making new friends who perhaps share many of your same interests and values, and might even make fine additions to THIS community.

And then finally there is the Treasure. This year in particular it is important that EVERYONE make some sort of pledge to the church, simply so we can use that information in the budgeting process, rather than simply relying on historical guesstimates based on past performance and future expectations, as we have in years past.

But the most important pledge you make is the one you make to yourself. When you sit down and think about your priorities, and what you honestly feel you can afford to do, what does that add up to, and are you willing to PROMISE YOURSELF that you will make that contribution happen?

Suppose, for example, you were to commit to yourself to attending EVERY Sunday Service next year, and that every Sunday morning you will drop a twenty dollar bill in the collection plate. Your annual contribution would add up to over a thousand dollars, which is approximately the same amount as our current average pledge.

But suppose twenty dollars is too much. Suppose you can only commit to ten, or to five. These are still pretty significant
contributions, when you start to add them up over dozens and dozens of contributors.

Even in the best of times, approximately two-thirds of the money contributed to First Parish comes from fewer than one-third of the contributors. And when times become tough that ratio becomes even more pronounced. But whether you are a major donor or simply a small contributor, it requires everyone’s participation in order for us to fulfill our mission as Portland’s Original Faith Community, providing a Warm & Welcoming Place here in the Heart of the City.

Again, as I said in my letter, for over three centuries now, through Wars and Fires and Panics and Recessions and a Great Depression, the People of First Parish have come together to sustain that vision, and to fulfill that mission. Rich or poor, working or looking for work, retired or just setting out on a career, we ALL need to set a good example for one another, and for the larger Portland community, by generously contributing what we can. The responsibility is now in OUR hands. And frankly, I can’t think of anyone I would trust with it more.