Monday, November 17, 2003

Miracles in the Church:
The Miracle of Giving
Mark 12:38-44

[shared with the people of Friendship Church, November 16, 2003]

This past week, I got an e-mail from former members of this congregation. Bill and Kris moved to Rhode Island several years ago. While they were part of Friendship, they loved participating in our kindness outreaches in which we give away cold cans of Cola, cans of soup, dollar-off coupons at a local filling station, and so on, just to give away God's love in practical ways. Bill and Kris did and still do such "outreaches" in their everyday lives too.

So, it was fun to read what Kris said in her e-mail:

"[We were]...dining in a four star restaurant in New York City (we had been there to see a Flyers/Rangers game...) and sitting next to an elderly gentleman, [who was] reading something and taking notes...[He] was obviously a regular..., ‘cause the serving staff talked with him very comfortably. Bill and I both had the same idea and Bill quietly asked our server to put [the man's] tab on ours...Usually [when we do this], the server never says who it is doing this to the guest, which is ok with us; but this server did. It started a great, easy conversation between the gentleman and Bill and [me]. It turns out, he is a regular here and his wife had passed away 11 years ago, but [he] still comes to this place for dinner on Saturday nights. He so appreciated this act of kindness (outreach), but I think he enjoyed the conversation better..."

There are many miracles that the God we know through Jesus Christ unleashes in and through His people, the Church. But one of the most amazing miracles of all is the miracle of giving.

In our Bible lesson for this morning, Jesus is with His closest disciples–followers. They’re not far from the offering box at the temple. There, they observe some of the most important and influential people in first-century Judea, the scribes, as they plunk their bling bling into box. You have to understand that the scribes were well-respected in that society. They were educated, wealthy, and powerful. They were also considered to be among the most religiously respectable people around. But Jesus was unimpressed:

"...'Beware of the scribes [He says], who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!...'"

After Jesus says this, the passing parade of the wealthy scribes make their offerings. They do so far from quietly, making certain that everybody notices. I wonder if today, they wouldn’t have somebody with a bullhorn close-by saying something like, “Funding for these stones have been made possible by the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation.”

But then Jesus observes a poor widow. You all know that in those times, a widow had no standing and rarely a source of income. In some instances, a husband might have left a trust fund for his wife. But women were considered incapable of handling money and so, a trustee would be put in charge of the estate left to the widow by her dead husband. Those trustees, respected citizens of society, were usually—you guessed it—scribes. In our lesson for today, Jesus says that even while gaining reputations for being wonderfully religious people who said flowery prayers, the scribes found ways to gouge the widows out of all their money. It’s possible that the very scribes who took this widow's inheritance were pompously making their offerings just ahead of her as she came to make an offering. Listen to how the lesson describes what happens next:

"A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then [Jesus] 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. For 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.'”

The miracle of giving that the people of God's forever family, the Church, experience has nothing to do with the size of their offerings. The miracle of giving has to do with other things.

It first of all has to do with the object of our faith. The scribes had faith in their money and their status. The widow had faith in God. Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran movement of which Friendship is a part, used to say, “Either God or an idol.” That is the stark choice that you and I confront each day of our lives.

In spite of their flowing robes and their memorization of the Scriptures, the scribes had opted for idols and not God. The widow depended on God. That was how she was able to part with those copper coins.

When we give, we tell God and ourselves that nothing is as important to us as the God we know through Jesus!

The miracle of giving also has to do with the depths of our gratitude. How grateful are we to God? Are we grateful for the blessings that God has given to us–family, friends, homes, work, health, the opportunity to live in this great country? More importantly, are we grateful to God for the gift of everlasting life that belongs to those with faith in Jesus Christ?

Years ago, a man in one of our Lutheran churches wrote out a check for $10,000.00 to his local congregation. The treasurer told the pastor about the donation and the pastor took the check and went to visit the giver. I suppose the giver expected that the pastor was going to personally thank him for it. Instead, the pastor handed the check back to the man, telling him that a person of his considerable wealth was capable of a bigger offering than that and that given all the blessings God had given to him, his offering was an insult to God.

I don’t know what happened after that. Maybe the pastor was fired or put into an insane asylum or something. But that pastor had a point. When we realize that Jesus shed His blood on a cross for us and that all that we have comes from God, it should trigger the miracle of giving in us. We shouldn’t just give to our church. We should also be people who give of ourselves to spread God’s love around, the way Bill and Kris did that night in the New York restaurant.

The scribes that Jesus observed that day in the temple didn’t sacrifice a thing to make their offerings. They gave God what they could afford, their leftovers. That was because they suffered from the delusion that all of the success they enjoyed in life came from their own effort. The widow, barely holding on, knew better than that. She knew that her survival in this world and her hope for the one to come was gift from God. She was grateful and so she gave sacrificially.

The miracle of giving also has to do with our confidence in God’s power to work in our lives. Pastor Gordon Crosby and the leadership of the congregation he served, The Church of the Savior, in Washington, D.C. had reached a decision. A poor woman in their congregation had been tithing, offering 10% of her meager income to the church for some time. Meanwhile, her financial circumstances had become more and more dire. Unanimously, the church board and Crosby decided that the pastor needed to go to this woman and tell her that she was no longer obligated to make her offerings. They felt that she couldn’t afford it. On hearing the pastor, tears streamed down this woman’s face. “I want you to know,” she told Crosby, “that you are taking away the last thing that gives my life dignity.”

One of the miracles that happens when followers of Jesus give, is that it increases our confidence in God’s ability to use us to help others. So much of our lives can seem out of control and beyond help or hope. But we know that when all of us in the Church pool our resources and prayerfully put them under the control and guidance of the Holy Spirit, good things will happen...good things of which Jesus Christ lets us be a part.

Right after worship today, we’ll be wrapping our shoe boxes full of Christmas gifts for children in impoverished or war-ravaged nations. Each of those boxes by themselves, may not mean much. They’re not big gifts. But taken together, they represent a statement of great power. They tell these kids who live in awful conditions that Jesus Christ, once crucified and dead, is alive and living in the hearts of people who follow Him and out of gratitude to Jesus, have decided to give! Each shoe box represents a statement of our confidence in God’s ability to use even us to bring hope to the world!

The miracle of giving I’m talking about doesn’t just have to do with the church’s budget or what you put into the offering plate on Sunday mornings. I sincerely hope that the Church isn’t the only cause to which you give. I hope also that money isn’t the only thing you give. I hope that, like the widow Jesus observed at the temple, you give your whole self to God. He is worthy of our giving our whole selves to Him. The God we know through Jesus Christ is that wonderful! Besides, when we give our whole selves to Him, He can do fantastic things in our lives and through our lives and nothing is more exciting than having our lives wrapped up with Jesus Christ!

Today, I want to challenge you to be like that widow–surrender your whole self to the God we know through Jesus Christ–and let Him unleash the miracle of giving in your life. Let God be the object of your faith, the reason for your gratitude, and the One Who fills you with confidence that Almighty God can use you to accomplish great things in the world.

Because of all of those blessings and more, I promise that you will never regret surrendering your life–or your wallets–to Jesus.

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