November 11, 2012, November 15, 2009

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 – Ruth and Boaz give birth to Obed.
1 Kings 17:8-16 — Widow of Zarephath

Psalm 127 – Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain. Sons are a blessing.
Psalm 146 – The Lord watches over strangers, and upholds orphans and widows.

Hebrews 9:24-28 – Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made with hands, but into heaven itself.

Mark 12:38-44 – Beware of the Scribes who devour widow’s houses. The widow’s two copper coins.


In this month’s issue of Connections, Peggy Hahn and I have an article on generosity best practices. We strongly encourage pastors to preach about generosity year round, not just when the congregation is preparing the budget for the coming year. If we only preach about stewardship during budget season, we might give the impression that we don’t really care about people’s spiritual lives – the dangers of materialism and the opportunities for spiritual growth that extravagant generosity inevitably provides. We run the risk of communicating that all we really care about is the budget and institutional survival.

Jesus talks about wealth, generosity, and materialism more than anything else, with the exception of the kingdom of God and love. It is a running theme that includes the rich young ruler, the rich man, Lazarus, wealthy Zaccheus who gives away half of his possessions, the unrighteous steward, and today’s story about the large donations of the wealthy and the two copper coins of the widow. Jesus says its hard for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God. He says it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. He says we cannot serve God and mammon. He warns us about building barns and hoarding treasures on earth that eventually rot or get stolen. If Jesus talked about this stuff so much, should not we, the preachers who bear his name, do the same in this wealthy society?

What’s keeping you from boldly preaching Jesus’ warnings and invitations about our use of wealth?

I love today’s story because at its very foundation, it is about proportional giving. After warning his followers not to emulate the religious leaders of his day, who like to show off their wealth, righteousness, and status, Jesus did a curious thing. He sat down right across from the offering box and watched people make their offerings. He watched. He paid attention. It matters. He noticed wealthy people putting in large sums, and the bulging eyes of those around, impressed, no doubt. The widow and her two copper coins would probably not be noteworthy for most, but Jesus casts the spotlight on her. “She gave more than all the others.” Why? Because she gave out of her poverty. Her offering represents a much larger portion of her income and wealth.

We see this today. Someone gives a large check to the church for this or that, and people make much ado about it. Saying thank you is, of course, the right thing to do. Another person comes along and gives an amount that is hardly noticeable, but represents a sacrificial gift. No one says a word. We need to pay attention to giving. This is important.

How do we talk about this in a culture that has a lot of taboos about money talk? Well first of all, people are hungry to talk about money. Because of the taboo, many were never taught money or budgeting in the home. They yearn for some help. They’re in debt up to their eyeballs. A little help goes a long way. Consider a program like Financial Peace University in your congregation. Your people will thank you. And they will grow in their giving. People want to give. They want to be generous, but they can’t if they’re unable to make ends meet. The sermon is not the time for a financial planning seminar, but it is a time to connect people to the joy of giving, because of the grace they have experienced and because of the joy they will experience when they give.

Secondly, I believe we can name some of the realities about giving in a neutral way that speaks truth to power, but does not shame people in a condescending way. The fact of the matter is, the more money people make, the less they give as a percentage of income. I think you can say that in a non-accusing way. It is, after all, one of the points of the story of the widow’s offering.

Third, we can speak with integrity about generosity if we are not asking for ourselves. When we have offerings for special causes, like a companion synod, world hunger, malaria, or a water well, there is no question that we are not lining our pockets. This is an invitation to give to others, not the budget. I know that budgets are important. They provide the infrastructure of the church which makes so much of this happen, but when we invite people into the joy of giving, all boats rise with the tide. Get them used to giving, and don’t worry so much about the budget.

Fourth, we cannot not talk about giving. Giving is what the gospel is about. God created the world and gave it to us. God gave you your life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Jesus gave his life for us on the cross. Whoever tries to hoard life will lose it, but those who give it away will find life. Giving of ourselves, in every way, is what the gospel is about.

Finally, I think we can talk about legacy. People want to be remembered as having been generous. We value this. In order to be remembered as being generous, however, we have to actually be generous. We can ask people good questions: How are you practicing generosity? What’s your plan for generosity next year? Generosity doesn’t happen well by accident. If you give your pocket change, you probably won’t rise to the level of extravagant generosity. Why not sit down with your family and talk about your giving for next year? How much are you going to give? What percentage? To whom?

Some people will squirm. That’s okay. Whoever taught us that preaching should not make people squirm? Invite them to think about their giving now and after they’re gone. You gave in life. Will you be giving in death? If so, you have to write it down now. If it’s not in your will, it probably won’t happen. I like to say, “The bad news is you can’t take it with you. The good news is, you’re not going to need it.”

In closing, here’s a story about legacy giving that has inspired me over the years:

At 11 o’clock in the evening, on April 17, 1790, Benjamin Franklin died at the age of 84.

An estate plan is thinking clearly through your affairs while you are still alive. How do you wish to dispose of your assets once dead?

Benjamin Franklin had an estate plan. Besides leaving money and land to various people, Franklin set aside £2,000 (a considerable sum in 1790) to be placed in a trust. £2,000 was the money he had earned as president of Philadelphia. Some believed political leaders needed to be paid, or else, only the rich would lead. Franklin, however, believed officials should serve without pay. Franklin was raised in a poor household and had been helped along in his profession as a struggling artisan.

“I wish to be useful even after my death, if possible, in forming and advancing other young men that may be serviceable to their country.” So Franklin arranged that money would be split between the cities of Boston and Philadelphia. These cities, he directed, would loan out the money to young artisans, and then be paid back at a rate of 5% per year. He figured that in 100 years each of the funds would be up to £131,000. One hundred years! Now that’s vision. But wait, there’s more…

At that point Franklin directed that £100,000 should be spent for public projects. Franklin was a big fan of public services, like public libraries. He wanted the poor to have access to things that only the rich could afford. Free stuff. Imagine. The remaining £31,000, he said, would continue to be loaned out. Then, after another 100 years he figured the fund would be worth over £4 million. Two hundred years! At that point, the £4M would go into the public treasury.

I still am amazed that Benjamin Franklin had a plan for his money to be used two hundred years after his death. Since he died in 1790, the two-hundred year mark was in 1990.

So, how did it go? Did it turn out as Franklin imagined?

Boston: In his book Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Sir Walter Isaacson lays out the details of Benjamin Franklin’s estate plan. Isaacson says by 1890 in Boston the fund was at a little less than Franklin had calculated. In that year, 3/4 was used (along with a matching bequest from Andrew Carnegie, a big Franklin fan) to establish a trade school, which is now known as the Franklin Institute of Technology. Then another one hundred years later, in 1990, the fund was at $5M (not quite £4M, but a substantial sum nevertheless). As per Franklin’s will, the sum was disbursed. It went to the Franklin Institute of Technology.

In Philadelphia the money did not do as well. After 1890, Philadelphia used the 100-year-old money to form a Philadelphia Franklin Institute. By 1990, the remainder was worth $2.3M. It’s not what Franklin had hoped, but will anyone besmirch $2.3M? The money was divided between libraries, fire stations, the Franklin Institute, and scholarships for vocational training in public schools. Philadelphia did what Franklin requested: they gave loans to the poorest of the poor, and the repayments were not as strong. It’s probably not possible to calculate the difference that his money made and the number of lives it changed. Franklin’s hopes had been achieved: 200 years of loans for the needy and millions into the public treasury.

The names of the 2001 scholarship recipients would probably surprise Franklin today. In his day, most immigrants came from Northern Europe. Here are some of the 2001 names: Abimael Acaedevo, Muhamed Hogue, Zrakpa Karpoleh, David Kusiak, Pedro Lopez, and Rany Li. It would have delighted Franklin to know this. Maybe it does.

This story isn’t exactly the widow’s coin, but it is a reminder that we are invited to see our wealth as a tool for God’s work in the world. Franklin’s £2,000 served the poor for two hundred years, then multiplied to millions of dollars for the public good in 1990, on the 200th anniversary of his death.

Jesus taught and lived a life of extravagant generosity. He taught his followers not to hoard their wealth and possessions, but to give themselves away for God and others. He gave everything he had, 100%, even his life on the cross.

So I have to ask: What’s your legacy going to be? Every person has the ability to leave a legacy. Even if all you have is the widow’s coins, your giving means something. It matters. God will multiply it like yeast, like a mustard seed. What’s your plan for sharing what you have received in this life after you die? And, just as importantly, how is God calling to you to use the tremendous gifts you have received right now, for God’s work in this world, to be a blessing to others?