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A Ringing Recognition of Generosity

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Nov 08

Text: Mark 12: 38-44

From the age of about fourteen through the end of graduate school, I spent my summers working two and sometimes three jobs in Orleans on Cape Cod where my mom still lives. I did landscaping, heavy house cleaning (waxing floors and cleaning carpets) and lots of bussing and waiting tables. Over the years, my friends and I developed an after work habit of heading to the local bar for drinks and a bite. The place is called the Land Ho, or the Ho, for short. To this day, on or off season, the Ho is always abuzz and full of local color, and it’s not just the people -- the salty fisherman, the gas station attendants, teachers, shopkeepers, realtors. On the walls, and hanging down from ceilings, everywhere you look, are hundreds of signs of small and local businesses. Pretty much anyone can bring a sign in and the Ho will hang it, free of charge! It gives the place a uniquely local feel and a sense of caring for one another’s interests, economic and otherwise. As a result, their customer loyalty is off the charts! There’s another small tradition that helps. The Ho has a bartender’s tip bell. Whenever someone gives a notable tip, the barkeep reaches up over the cash register and pulls a rope that hammers the brass for all to hear! There’s no logic to when it gets rung. A twenty spot from a wealthy tourist can easily go unnoticed. Meanwhile, an extra buck from the guy who orders a cup of chowder and a water could easily deliver a hearty ring! It's the recognition of generosity that counts. It’s also a subtle reminder for those who have not yet paid.

You can see where I’m going with this, right? Let’s turn to our passage. If I were a treasurer at that temple and saw what that poor widow did, dropping her last two pennies into coffers, you can bet I’d ring the bell for her. Jesus does as much when he sees her gift and calls the others to take notice. The passage seems to be saying something about the virtues of sacrifice, of giving until it hurts, though its not as straightforward as it may seem at first.

For one thing, this poor woman gives all that she has to an institution that Jesus himself says in the very next line is about to be destroyed; “not one stone left” is the phrase he uses in the next passage. And the institution is clearly being mismanaged by corrupt and greedy leaders who are already “devouring” widows’ houses. This is crazy, if you think about it, that Jesus would commend this widow for giving up everything has for them. What about her own self-care and well-being? What about her next meal? Clearly, there must be more to the story.

One can read his calling out the scribes as an indictment of the whole system of unequal power and privilege – let’s do away with the whole thing, and the Roman Empire too, because God’s realm of love and justice is drawing near. The passage begs for comparisons to our own sometimes imperial public institutions, religious and political, often full of hypocrisy and often resting on the backs of the vulnerable, like when the poor in our country are too often asked to bear the burdens of tax cuts for the wealthy. Those are sermons for another time.

But what if the passage isn’t ultimately about sacrificial giving, a strong as that lesson might be, especially for a Sunday in stewardship season? And maybe it’s not about our kneejerk tendency to want to question the worthiness of the cause. What if the passage is meant to ring a bell for us about something else? A recognition of generosity, to be sure, but also, maybe, an invitation for followers of Jesus to engage in a conversation not just about how we give but how we live. Whatever may be the context, the story is about a woman’s willingness to give over everything she has, all she had to live on. Beyond mere generosity, there’s a deeper lesson here, one about this woman’s deeply held values and about her loyalty to something greater than herself.

In addition to this being a stewardship Sunday, its is also a day that a group called the Conversation Project has invited us to join with over 30 local congregations to participate in something called a Conversation Sabbath. Begun in 2010 by the writer and journalist Ellen Goodman, the Conversation Project is dedicated to helping people talk about death and their end of life wishes. Even more, it’s about creating conversations about how people want to live at their end of life. We’ve held a few rounds here and Taj will say more in a few moments about another opportunity after church we are hosting today. Anyone who has ever tried to participate in these conversations knows that trying to imagine what a so called good death looks like is an exercise in considering what a good life looks like. Wondering about what’s most important, what constitutes “quality of life”, what might be more important than one individual’s “survival at all costs” raises a host of fascinating and important questions. The Conversation Project is about equipping people to begin to have these conversations with loved ones and also with their doctors so that when the end of life does come, which it most surely will for every single one of us, we can be as prepared as possible and our loved ones can be so prepared as well. It’s not only what degree of life support you want to authorize or about who you trust to make decisions. The Conversation Project raises questions about our deepest values, what we care most about and how we want to be remembered when we are gone. As we continue the conversation here, know that we are joining with over 30 congregations who are hosting Conversation Sabbaths, and not only for our sakes, but for the sake of our entire healthcare system which is disproportionately burdened by extremely high costs of end of life care.

Why am I talking about the end of life given our scripture? Well, for one thing, as Taj and I discussed in my office this Sunday, the woman in our passage is a widow. We might wonder what she learned from that experience of loss that could have changed her sense of priorities, let alone her social status and position in society. Her risk in giving everything she had may well have stemmed from her pain and grief and recognition of how fleeting life can be and how reliant we are on God’s love to hold us. With that faith, perhaps she knows she had nothing to fear, and nothing to lose, and that somehow God would provide.

Often times, there is something profoundly clarifying about remembering our own mortality, remembering that none of us will be able to take any of our achievements, or the pennies we have earned or inherited with us. Perhaps the widow, as a widow, knew something about this.

The writer, Atul Gawande, a local physician and an Advisor to the Conversation Project, wrote a best seller recently called Being Mortal. He writes, from a physician’s perspective, about facing our own aging and mortality and also about end of life care. In the book, he references a Harvard philosopher named Josiah Royce who wanted to understand why simply existing for the sake of our own safety and survival seems so empty and meaningless to us. As Gawande writes, Royce came to understand that “we all seek a cause beyond ourselves. This was, to him, an intrinsic human need. The cause could be large (family, country, principle) or small (a building project, the care of a pet). The important thing was that, in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning. Royce called this dedication to a cause beyond oneself loyalty.”

Could that have been what Jesus was lifting up about the widow? Her loyalty to a cause outside of herself, especially as compared to those scribes who seemed to care only about themselves?

Gawande continues

The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don't, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not. Loyalty, said Royce, "solves the paradox of our ordinary existence by showing us outside of ourselves the cause which is to be served, and inside of ourselves the will which delights to do this service, and which is not thwarted but enriched and expressed in such service." In more recent times, psychologists have used the term "transcendence" for a version of this idea. Above the level of self-actualization in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, they suggest the existence in people of a transcendent desire to see and help other beings achieve their potential.
…As our time winds down, …we become less interested in the rewards of achieving and accumulating, and more interested in the rewards of simply being. Yet while we may feel less ambitious, we also become concerned for our legacy. And we have a deep need to identify purposes outside ourselves that make living feel meaningful and worthwhile.

My guess is that Jesus saw some of this tendency and this wisdom in the widow’s generosity. It wasn’t merely about her ways of giving, or even about how much she gave. It was about her faithful way of living, and about her sacrificial loyalty to a cause and community beyond herself.

I wonder. Absent giving away our own last pennies, how can cultivate this habit of faithful living and this loyalty to a cause and community beyond ourselves? Our Stewardship team has a pretty good idea for it that you’ll be hearing more about in the coming weeks. Rather than giving your last pennies, why not set aside your first ones? The Bible invites us to do this by asking people to set aside their First Fruits. Take it right off the top of you expected harvest and income.

Susie Neubauer told a group of us two Sundays ago that a former minister of this place, Wells Grogan, once demonstrated the idea of “first fruits” by taking out a fake dollar bill and starting to cut it up. He said most of us think of cutting across and cutting out the amounts we spend on housing, on food, on clothing, on vacations or family celebrations, etc and we see what we have left in the end as what we can give away to the church or other causes. Instead he said, what if you cut the dollar another way. Cut it long ways, across the top. Rather than seeing what’s left for others, instead see what’s left for you. What a visual! What a way to be “all in,” whether with a tithe of 5% or 10% from our overall income, a first fruits gift to the larger cause, taken out of everything we would give to ourselves. Its not quite what the widow does here, in terms of giving everything she had to live on, but its way of giving something out of everything we have.

When Nancy and I decided we wanted to give accordingly, to give of our own first fruits, and tithe, it took us a few years to build it in to our budget but in the end, it was a great gift, a way for us know and practice the joy of giving and a freedom from having to worry about how how much we have left to give in the end. We see it and feel it every month when we auto-pay our pledge online, and when we give to other causes as well. But it helps to us to feel more genuinely “all in” – “all in” and part of something greater than ourselves. It makes our lives feel more meaningful and rewarding, no question. And we often take as our models for this practice of tithing to faith community our lower-income friends and colleagues who know how meaningful it can be to be there for one another without the illusion of self-sufficiency and who spend their days in deeper reliance on the notion that God and community will provide for them. Let’s be clear, the low-income and poor in this country give away almost twice the percentage of their overall income as compared to most middle and high income folks.

But again, its not about how much. In the end, both giving and living are about relationship, whether in terms of time or money. As David Whyte has written, “to stop giving in any situation is to call an end to relationship.” By the same token, to start giving calls a beginning and a deepening to relationship. And to give continuously, to give something of all we have if not all we have like the widow, well, that bespeaks an even deeper commitment, an expression of genuine loyalty, the kind of loyalty that has the power to fill our lives with meaning, and genuine contentment.

In the coming weeks leading up to our pledge Sunday on November 22nd, I invite you imagine the faithfulness and loyalty that this place and God inspires in you. Imagine a bell being rung every time a gift of time or money is made here! Imagine that ringing recognition of generosity and loyalty as part of the journey that makes a good life and perhaps even a good death. And in the words of our opening hymn, may God…

Lend …joy to all our giving, let it light our pilgrim way
From the night of anxious keeping, lead us into generous day
Then when years on earth are over, and we’ve lived our human span
God fulfill beyond our dreaming, all our loving work began.


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