Joe Neville

Mark 12:38-44



God's Surprising Abundance


I vividly recall a children's sermon I attempted to deliver many years ago. The text for the day was the story of the widow's mite. I thought it would be a great idea to hide some coins around the sanctuary for the children to find as part of the children's time.  I should have been prepared for the pandemonium that ensued, because I had attempted to give a children’s talk previously about saying hurtful words and how hard it is to get them back.  So, I had a bubble-making device, which spewed out hundreds of bubbles in all directions, and the kids gleefully attempted to retrieve each one!  Oh well, that’s another story!  Back to my point regarding the widow’s mite: there were about thirty children in worship that morning and they took me up on the idea that the church could be a fun place for them to explore.  There were children looking for money everywhere: In the choir loft and under the pews; Up in the pulpit and squirming around the communion table.  I suppose the last straw was when a child lifted the lid of the baptismal font and tried to look inside and the top almost came crashing to the ground.  In spite of it all, they still had not found the 2 pennies that I had set out carefully in plain sight on the steps of the chancel.

Finally, I had to tell them that the pennies were right there on the steps.  Of course, being smart kids, they were extremely disappointed that there were only two pennies and thirty of them.  And of course, I did get some critical feedback from the kids that quarters or dollars would have been much better than two cents, that’s when I made my point that the widow in the story was very, very poor, even in terms of today.

We might say that the widow was not a poor widow; she was poor because she was a widow.  In those days there was probably no such thing as a rich widow.  Women of that time and culture were completely dependent on men for their status and their livelihood.  In those days, if a woman's husband died, it was a double tragedy because it meant almost certain poverty, unless the male relatives of the husband were willing to take you in or the community took pity upon your plight.  The death of a mate almost instantly changed a woman's status, and the size of her pocketbook.

The two little coins in the widow's hand were most likely all she had.  They could have been pennies, they could even have been nickels or dimes, but they were not enough to remove her from the welfare rolls and place her in the middle class.  It might have been easy for her to give them up; she knew she could beg for more and that they most likely would never make a big difference to her life or to the temple treasury.  When we have so little, it is easier to give it away. We know that it won't change our status or our economic condition all that much.

It's a different story for those of us who have more than less.  Money gives us independence and freedom; it provides us so much more than shelter and food.  For those of us in the congregation today who have been out of work for awhile or have to struggle to make ends meet, you know from another vantage point, how money provides us with more than mere means of survival.  Money provides us with autonomy, a sense of security and a sense of invulnerability in the world.

The widow wasn't dependent on the money for anything at all.  She was vulnerable and she knew it.  So she gave what she had to God because she knew where the line of independence was drawn.  She was dependent on God for everything–everything she needed and hoped to have would come from the grace of God.  As Janice Joplin sang, back there in the sixties, "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."

Her kind of faith goes far beyond optimism or pessimism. We know the old adage about those who look at the world as a glass half empty or half full. The widow had a sense of faith in God that went far beyond the amount of liquid contained in a glass.  She had a core conviction about the goodness and the grace of God; she knew that to live she was totally and utterly dependent on God for all she was and all she would ever receive.  She knew in the center of her being that God is good and that the goodness of God would be revealed to her throughout her life.

The question of faith in the goodness of God often surfaces in our lives.  It can come in the midst of a difficult illness or a painful separation.  The question about whether God is good may come when a family is fighting and there doesn't seem to be a way out of the logjam or when there is an unexpected crisis in believing.  And the question about God often surfaces with respect to resources and our stewardship of them.  Will there be enough?  What will we do if there isn't enough?  What will we do if there is an accident, a crisis, a shortage or an unexpected expense? How can we keep control over what we have, so that we will always have enough?  Money, believe it or not, is a huge faith issue.

The central issue is not about how much money we have, but what money means to us.  How dependent are we on it?  Does money actually make us rich?  Does the lack of it mean that we are poor?  Jesus teaches us that the widow had no idea where her next two cents was coming from, but she trusted in the abundance of God and knew that everything she could ever need would follow.  In this culture of ours, full of the demand of the material, we hear Jesus making a demand for spiritual wealth.  The widow is our spiritual example, as she stands at the margins of the worlds rich and famous.  She was unafraid to give all that she had and by doing so, she held on to what was most important to her —God's grace.

She gives us an example of how to think about our giving as we contemplate our stewardship giving for next year at UCCB.  She suggests for us to be unafraid to give what we can and have to give, to think of our pledge in larger terms than money going to the church every week, month or quarter.  The widow suggests that giving be in response to the surprising abundance of God's grace in our lives.  Not in terms of money, but in terms of identity.  We can remember this abundance no matter how wealthy we are or how poor we feel.  It’s not only about how much we give, but also about how deeply we trust in God's grace.

I am learning, still learning about God's grace in my own life.  I am learning that I no longer have to save myself, justify my actions or prove my worth according to how much money I make or how important I am in the world or even whether or not I am a good minister, friend, preacher, teacher or pastor.  (You can fill in the blank of your own life). I am learning that unless God is at the center, all I do and want is in vain.  (Unless God builds the house, we labor in vain).  To love God and be loved by God is the abundant life and I am learning to be grateful for that abundance which is everywhere if only I will embrace it.

A while back, Tony Robinson, the senior Minister of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle wrote to his congregation about the practice of stewardship giving. He described his own giving pattern, which involves giving about 6-7% of his annual income to the ministry and mission of the church he pastors.  He gives another 3-4% to other groups and causes that have something of God in them.  He comments about this practice in his own life, "I am not bragging.  Left to my own devices I would never have done this, and I am learning to be grateful for it.  I am not by nature a generous person.  I need help.”

“By giving this way,” he continues, “I've learned a few things:  for one, when you do it year after year, you will have given away quite a pile.  I suspect when you go back over the years you will feel better about this than many of the other ways you spent your money.  At least I do.  I have also learned that the way to be rich is to be generous.  The very best way to quiet the incessant voices within and around us that chant "never enough, never enough, never enough" is to give money away."

The widow could have said it if she were around today. "The best way to be rich is to be generous."  Giving is the central reminder and response we have to the goodness, the graciousness, and the surprising abundance we know in the life of faith.  She could give all she had because even in her poverty, she knew she was rich–rich beyond measure, in her love for and trust of God.

I need you to finish this sermon today.  There are so many ways that we experience God's surprising abundance in this congregation and in our mission and ministry.  I could begin to list them, but I know I would miss something you have known and experienced.  You'll see that in every Order of Worship there is a piece of paper with the word's “God's Surprising Abundance” written on it.  I want to ask you to write down how you have known God's abundance within your own life or in this congregation. You'll have plenty of time to accomplish this; the ushers will be collecting them from you during the morning offering.  You need not put your name on them.  The Stewardship committee will share some of them with us in Crossways and/or the stewardship materials.

We are grateful for the abundant life we are given.  I ask you as you consider your pledge for the coming year to pray about abundance–God's surprising abundance in your life, the life of this congregation and at work in the world.  In February you'll be making your stewardship pledge for the year 2006. Tony Robinson has given us a percentage guideline for giving, our stewardship materials will be giving us a programmatic reason for giving, but the widow has given us the example of giving because she knows we have been given the abundant life by the grace of God: The surprising abundance of God's grace.