Isaiah 65: 17-25, Luke 20: 45-21:4
Well, today is Pledge Sunday. I hope that it was helpful for you to find a blank pledge card when you opened your bulletin this morning. On the other hand, there went your opportunity to say that you’d left it at home!
I’ve often wondered why there is one time of year when all of the appeals for contributions come through the mail. Yes, I understand annual budgeting and how fiscal years often follow calendar years. But have you ever thought that non-profits should somehow stagger mailings so that some would arrive in May and others in September? I’ve thought aloud here at Western that if we’d begin our Stewardship Campaigns in early January or even in March, our pledging would soar. You see, the church today is under great competition for your charitable giving.
This morning’s lectionary is intended to jar us from feeling like we’re all tapped out, so that we do pledge generously to support the good work of the church and the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ. But do you suppose that when Jesus began to talk about the widow and her offering to the treasury he expected she’d become the church’s poster child for Stewardship? I suppose that if our purpose in sharing the story of the widow’s mite simply serves to feature the widow as the moral exemplar for sacrificial giving, we’re little more than exploiting her further – – this time for our own need, rather than planning how to take care of her for her own sake. Stewardship experts warn that the good news requires us to come to the widow’s aid not to strip-mine her life for our fundraising purposes and send her back to her empty little apartment until we need her again. Through her story, we are encouraged to come out from behind the mere appearance of godliness – a shallow Christianity that offers no more than respectful greetings, overflowing congregational dinners, predictably scheduled community service, and actionless prayers. Through her story, we are motivated to love and care for others as a paramount concern. Through her story, we are given witness to the power of the otherwise perceived to be powerless to hold captive the prophets, the scribes, generations of disciples right up to all of us here today – as we plan our acts of sharing and caring and how to pay for them all.
You see, the widow is a foundational metaphor who carries a surplus of meaning, representing all of those who are distressed, or oppressed, or in the position of least. She represents the people of the Philippines and Syria and Palestine and the Congo and other challenged pockets around the world who have grabbed our attention with their muffled desperation of the basic stuff of life. She walks into the great halls of Congress as members continue to debate legislation this week that could free vast reserves of money and food in order to more effectively and efficiently meet the wanton needs of the world. Yes, when we read about Jesus’ observation of the widow’s generosity in the temple that day, we aren’t expected to use her an object lesson. Anytime we objectify the world’s oppressed into the character of one – one person, one class, one fear – we effectively relieve ourselves from keeping our eyes peeled for whole populations of the oppressed who might be passing us by – or even sitting among us on any ordinary day like today, hoping for systematic changes that will ultimately insure them of the care they so desperately need most.
Because somewhere in the space between weekday budget briefings and Sunday morning worship, we need to remember that while hunger might be a political concern, it is more foundationally a religious concern, just like homelessness and health care. And while education might, too, be a political concern, it is more importantly a religious concern, just like the environment and employment. And since Jesus requires that these matters are within the conversation of the church as well as the conversations in Congress, then we also need to continue to claim them as not only the collective responsibility of this congregation but of each member here, not believing for a minute that our work is ever done. All this takes time, talent and treasures – all of which we are God’s faithful stewards. All this takes time, and talent and treasure – all of which we are God’s faithful stewards.
You know, somewhere I heard that the treatment of the oppressed is a sort of thermometer that measures the spiritual health of a nation. When the treatment of the community’s oppressed sinks low, we recognize that the spiritual health in the nation is low. Extrapolating this idea to our work of this church, when we see an increased number of shopping carts and bags of possessions outside our sanctuary or 24th street entrances, we need to reclaim the biblical truth that there is much left to do. That there are oppressed or destitute people in this world is scandalous enough. But to have circumstances of oppression in the context of our own front doors is far more difficult to accept. The decision is not where to move our friends’ belongings so that they don’t offend our neighbors. The decision is how can we create systems of justice and programs of action from right here at Western that obviate the need for the homeless to carry their closets on their backs in the first place. And this is why Jesus could just as easily be condemning any of us today enmeshed in religious hypocrisies that lead us to essentially, by what we have done and by what we have left undone, rob from all of those who are in such positions of vulnerability or dependency and leave them sleeping in church entryways or crowded shelters. Yes, there is a great deal of work left to be done.
Among the reasons so many of us contribute to Western is that in addition to our appreciation for the choir, our education programs for adults and children and our neighborhood groups from long ago, we value our justice and social action ministry. We value our relationships in the pews as those who are penniless and better off, those who are homeless and those who have a comfortable place to call home, those who are hungry and those who are able to help feed others, those who are oppressed and those of us who realize our place of privilege in this world.
But I’ve found another reason why we contribute to Western, and why stewardship campaigns and pledging are becoming an increasingly active part of our ministry. This reason extends beyond the practical ends of mission, justice work and social action that our financial resources meet. I’ve come to learn that many of us pledge as a spiritual act that strengthens our relationship with Jesus Christ, resting with faith that the practical concerns of the church will eventually solve themselves. In this way, our pledge cards become less an instrument for the church to make budget decisions and more an instrument for gauging how deeply we’re committed to this difficult work of the church.
Our pledge cards are less a mechanism for knowing how much we can spend on certain programs as a body and more a mechanism for how we maintain our spiritual eye on Christ. Our pledges become a tangible expression of our decisions about how important the work of this church is in our lives.
In the past, you may have experienced that your financial pledge card has been a burden. When you have pledged too sacrificially, you may’ve lacked the faith to follow-through on the giving end when your life situation has changed. When you’ve failed to pledge, you may’ve dodged the conversation artfully or made nervous jokes for how your giving knows no ending. What we may all come to learn is that our deliberate pledging and contributions to Western’s mission can change our lives as we are held more accountable to God and ourselves, and as we come to experience even more the truth of God’s never ending abundance in our own lives as well as in the world.
Whether we’re pledging our time or our financial resources, our pledges when carefully made become the benchmark for how we will stretch ourselves for the mission of Christ’s church. Such generosity of practice – such meaningful stewardship – such justice in the great church celebrates where Frederick Buechner calls “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” So, while this might seem odd, I ask you to see your pledge card as a gift from the Stewardship Committee. More than just a way to balance Western’s budget, your pledge card is a way to keep your eye on Christ and focus your spiritual gifts. Then, as Paul told the Corinthians, “Give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
There’s a story about a guy in West Virginia who offered a jar of pickled bear meat to a pastor who came to help him fix his house. The preacher pushed back – not because it was bear meat (although I wonder) but because he knew this was the protein the man had stored away for his family to eat through the winter. The guy could read the preacher’s reservations in his eyes and insisted, saying, “You just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don’t have much, that’s a fact. But we ain’t poor!” The preacher is said to’ve asked, “What’s the difference?” The guy’s response is worth remembering, “When you can give something away, even when you don’t have much, then you ain’t poor. When you don’t feel easy giving something away even if you got more than you need, then you’re poor, whether you know it or not.”
The widow woman gave two coins of such little buying power that our earliest reformer’s reference to them – mite – created a whole new category of word for small. I believe that the true might of the widow woman whose small little offering lifted her to worldwide fame tells us how a small gift can be multiplied through the millennia by the mystery of God. What would’ve happened had the widow withheld her mite? Would the world have lost its moral exemplar for sacrificial giving? Who could Jesus be pointing toward today as he watches the treasures becoming the treasury and seeks a new poster child for Pledge Sunday?
As we prepare to carry forward on the pledges we’ve made or are about to make for this coming fiscal year, let each one of us remember the financial cost associated with Western’s corporate responsibility to extend care to each other and to those around the Foggy Bottom community and to those the world. Let us remember the spiritual cost of abdicating our opportunity to participate in the ministry of Christ. Let us embrace our responsibility as stewards of the bounty of God wherever we are. And let us give sacrificially to the Glory of God, to the strengthening of Christ’s church universal and for the strengthening of this exceptional body of Christ working from our corner of Foggy Bottom now and for at least another 158 years.
Thanks be to God. Amen.