Sermon: A Bad Sermon About Giving

November 7, 2021


1 Kings 17:8-16
Mark 12:38-44

by Eric Anderson

The gecko was puzzled.

The house in which it lived had a family of five in it. There was a mother and a father. There was a son and a daughter. There was a grandmother, which also meant there was a second mother, in this case she was the mother of the father. Five people. They were mostly happy. They liked to be in each other’s company. Yes, the brother picked on the sister. Yes, the sister tried to manipulate her grandmother to get her way with her parents. Yes, the night that both children came home with unfortunate report cards there was… a lot of sullen silence.

None of that puzzled the gecko very much. Game night, though. Game night was a mystery.

Game nights tended to be Saturday evenings. They weren’t regular about it, but they shared games with one another more Saturdays than not as the month went on. The gecko understood the concept of play quite well, so getting the family together to play made a lot of sense to him. But some of the games… didn’t.

One that made sense involved people handing around cards and reading words on them and telling stories about how they matched. Now, the stories rarely made sense. What made sense was that the family would burst out laughing on nearly every round. Even the ones who fell behind would hug themselves tightly as they giggled.

Then there was another game that seemed more like a competition. It had a board and dice and little colored pieces, and the little colored pieces went around and sometimes they went toward the center and sometimes they got sent back to the beginning. The looks on the family’s faces got more intent in this game, but they also laughed. A lot. They’d laugh when they got a good roll, and they’d laugh when they got a bad one. They’d laugh when they sent somebody else’s pieces to the start, and they’d laugh when their own pieces had to go back.

All this made sense to the gecko. Because they laughed.

The one that didn’t make sense was another one with a board and dice and little figurines that went around and around – there didn’t seem to be an end. Then there were bits of cardboard and small sheets of colored paper that got handed about, and little colored buildings that started to crowd the board toward the end of the game.

The problem with this game was that hardly anyone laughed. They started out cheerful enough, but as time went on the ones with fewer pieces of colored paper started to look strained. The ones with more paper and more cardboard and more little buildings wore smiles, but neither the gecko nor the other family members thought they were very nice smiles. These games went long, and the smiles faded the longer they went. There were hugs and kisses when bedtime came, but they didn’t have spark you’d find on other game nights.

Why, wondered the gecko, would anyone play a game that only the winner could enjoy – and that cost the winner the joy they would find in other games?

If you’re still working on what these games were, they’re Apples to Apples, Parcheesi, and, of course, Monopoly.

A Bad Sermon About Giving. Well, here goes. Loyalty Sunday is, after all, next week – although I hasten to point out that you can send your pledge amounts to us at any time, but we’ll dedicate them next week.

Right. A Bad Sermon About Giving. Here we go.

The widow gave all she had to the temple. Jesus said so. You should give all you have to the church. Amen.

That is, indeed, a bad sermon about giving.

For one thing, it entirely ignores the first part of today’s reading, and neither Jesus nor the gospel writer Mark would thank us for ignoring that. As Emerson Powery observes at Working Preacher, Mark used the term “widow” precisely twice in his gospel – and here they both are. We’re not supposed to forget that scribes – religious authorities, religious leaders, or for lack of a better word, religious ministers – have been devouring widows’ houses when we see a widow actually contribute to the devouring of her own house.

Debie Thomas writes at JourneyWithJesus.net, “I wish I knew her name. I wish I knew for sure that her real-life fierceness exceeded the piety we’ve imposed on her. I hope — I hope — she died in peace.

“Died? Yes. Died. She died, probably mere days after she dropped those two coins into the Temple treasury. In case that’s a surprise, consider again what Jesus said about her as she left the Temple that day: ‘She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ The Greek word behind ‘all she had to live on’ is bios (from which we derive ‘biology.’) It means ‘life.’ In other words, the widow sacrificed her whole life.”

For a set of buildings that Jesus said would not remain standing – two sentences after this.

Did she have to give all she had left? She appears to have thought so. As D. Mark Davis writes at LeftBehindAndLovingIt, “She is giving heroically and, at the same time, is participating in a system that routinely oppresses her under the guise of piety (v.40). In a profound way, she is acting with nobility and self-sacrifice and is contributing toward an unjust system. She is giving all that she has and she is abetting a system that will take away all that she has. It is truly a tragic situation facing the widow, because her means of practicing true piety is at the same time a system that is devoid of justice and will, in turn, exploit her.”

So maybe another Bad Sermon About Giving would be… Don’t give to the church. Amen.

It’s not much of an improvement.

This is where this sermon maybe gets better, but it does get more complicated. The problem is that religious authorities today continue to dress stylishly, to covet deference, to fund their sense of importance with the homes of the poor, and “for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” I can’t resist quoting D. Mark Davis here, who writes, “Long prayers are miserable enough. Pretentious long prayers leave everyone whispering ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’”

It is up to church leaders to take Jesus’ words to heart, to value ministry over material, to follow that awkward directive Jesus had been giving his followers for three chapters now, and be servants, caring for the needs of others rather than themselves. In this particular branch of the church, that includes ordained leadership like myself, and also the leadership called from among the members to make our ministries happen. Truthfully, we all have responsibility to see that this church’s ministry is one of blessing and service, not self-aggrandizement and pretention.

I have to ask everyone to consider seriously the ways in which you contribute. What can you do that engages your spirit but doesn’t endanger your health? Generous giving has a real positive effect on soul. It lightens it. It enlivens it. But the widow’s example shows us that there can be too much generosity. Your body is important, too. Keep your body healthy, and keep your healthy soul in your healthy body.

Likewise there is a hazard in under-giving. For one thing, it tends to invite abuses like telling the poor to give everything. For another, when your generosity is impoverished, your soul is also impoverished. Now you’ve got a healthy body – but a damaged spirit.

I don’t know if that makes this a good sermon about giving, but it’s better. First, it’s up to the church itself to be worth giving to – to be the servant body of the servant Christ, maintaining its mission and pursuing its calling. Second, it’s up to you, the givers, to recognize that your life is precious, as precious as any gift you might make to the church. Do not, with your giving, put your life at hazard.

And third, consult your spirit. Does your gift give you life? Does your soul confirm that you have contributed as you can and as you are called to the ministries of the Church? Can you dedicate your gift to the service of God with a heart and soul Amen?

If so, we still might not have a good sermon on giving – but we will have joyful, healthy givers. We will have leaders following their calling. And we will not have the houses of widows devoured for the sake of good clothes and long prayers.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

Why does Pastor Eric feel the need to improvise from a text that he has, in fact, written? Because editing is never done.

The image (artist unknown) is found in World Missions and your Dollar (1920) by Elmer Talmage Clark,1886-1966 – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14579008568/ Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/34857937.emory.edu/34857937#page/n264/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44053906.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on November 7, 2021

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