May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
When Jesus points out the widow who throws all that she has into the temple treasury, I have always understood him to be lifting her up as a model of sacrificial giving. It is true, he does commend her because unlike the rich people who put in large sums of money out of their abundance, she puts in all that she has out of her poverty. This is all that she had to live on and it demonstrates great faith in God to take care of her.
This year as I have read comments on this text, though, I am coming to understand that Jesus was not only raising her up but was also using her example to further make his point about the scribes. He has already pointed them out as walking around in long robes, demanding respect, the best seats and places of honor at banquets, all the while devouring widows' houses. Now it appears that he is pointing out one example of this terrible behavior. He is telling his disciples, “Look at this woman here – do you think that she can afford to put in all that she has to live on into that receptacle? No – she needs it all to live on! She is in extreme poverty, and yet the scribes have conned or guilted or otherwise convinced her that she needs to throw in her penny to the temple treasury in order for God to love her. We do not know her motivation for doing this, what she was told or how she was treated that made her do this, but the fact of the matter is, she doesn't have much to live on in the first place, and the religious leaders have convinced her to throw it into the coffers so that she literally has nothing.
It all reminds me of the stories of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker from the 1980s. The Bakkers rose to prominence from such shows as the 700 Club and PTL, which stands for, “Praise the Lord.” They made millions of dollars from people who sent loads and loads of money. They sold $1,000 lifetime memberships which entitled the buyer a yearly three-night stay at a luxury hotel at their, “Heritage USA” theme park. The only problem was, there was only one such suite that was ever finished, not nearly enough to handle the number of exclusive partnerships that were sold. The stories of their wealth and opulence are many, one of which I remember was that their dog's house in the back yard had air conditioning! Stories of the elderly (especially widows) who mailed the Bakkers thousands or millions of dollars were many, and Jim and Tammy Faye were disgraced for devouring widows' houses and doing much the same that the scribes of Jesus' day did. The took advantage of the vulnerable not for the purpose of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world, but for the purpose of their own lifestyle.
As we consider our own stewardship relationship with the church today, our theme is, “Walking Together.” That is literally what the term, “synod” means – to walk together. It is a privilege for me to say that our church in all three of its expressions - congregation of Clinton Heights Lutheran Church, the Southern Ohio Synod, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - all do a pretty good job of staying away from “scribe-like” activities when it comes to your offerings. Over against the incredibly low percentage of the Bakkers' financial intake which went to reach out to the needy in the world, we have goals which keep us faithful in this part of being the church together! Hannah and Iris just shared a little skit which paid out a lot of the places where our financial support goes: there are many evils and ills in the world that we as a church are trying to address in the name of Jesus Christ, and you heard of a lot of them. From natural disasters, drought and famine to educating people in poor areas of our country and world, providing clean water and guarding against malaria, we walk together with millions of other Lutherans who in turn walk with millions of other Christians in the world to help people in Jesus' name. These are much more faithful uses of offerings than dog-house air conditioners, theme parks or luxury hotels!
And because we are not just a social service agency but a church, we also provide spiritual care through chaplaincy services in hospitals, and we build churches in the US and abroad in order to grow as a worshiping family. Our mission is very diverse as we seek to be a faithful worshiping, learning and serving Christian community here in this community. For many years the mission statement of our congregation has been, “Calling Hearts to the Living Christ.” This is a encouraging statement for us, but I wonder if it isn't a little too vague or familiar to really be effective in directing our ministries. It might deserve revisiting next year as we continue to discern how God is calling us to be the church here. The Southern Ohio Synod has a mission statement as well: “Stronger and better together: Joining Jesus in the restoration of the world.” I like that. It combines the encouragement that we need to find fulfillment in walking together, and it professes a faith that Jesus is in the process of restoring creation to the state it was when God first made it. Walking together, then, we are part of Jesus' work in the world.
Last week we heard the good news upon which our faith is based – the resurrection promise given to all of us by grace, received by faith freely as a gift. Next week I am going to focus more on our own individual response to that good news in our personal lives and our lives as church members. Today I wanted you to see the importance of being part of a community to lives and works together to join Jesus in the restoration of the world. I hope you now know the extreme value of the money that we send on to our synod and to the ELCA, and how it combines with offerings of many other congregations to become blessings to so many people suffering in mind, body and spirit. We are better together, and remaining faithful to our calling, we pray that God will continue to bless our church – Clinton Heights, the Southern Ohio Synod, the ELCA and so many other expressions around the world. May our communal response make a difference in our lives as well as the lives of those around us, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord; Amen.