Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” (NRSV)
I don’t relish preaching stewardship sermons. Like most pastors, I know that not everyone makes a formal pledge, and those who do usually prefer to pledge the same way that Jesus urges us to pray: In private. That’s not the way of Christian stewardship, though. What we do today is a defining, and sometimes a defiant act of communal and sacramental faith.
One significant role model for us is a nameless widow who makes a four-verse appearance in Luke, and the same in Mark. As a widow in first century Jerusalem, this woman’s presence in the temple stirs the air about as much as a falling leaf. But she floats into the clutter and ruckus of Passover, and whispers her two-cent blessing—barely a trifle against the temple’s budget.
Giving out of abundance is one thing, but giving out of poverty can be a prophetic act. I say “can be” because of how often wealthy televangelists take money from lonely people who can’t afford to give it, and then use that money to fund lavish lifestyles. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about giving that expresses a purer sense of gratitude, and a humbler trust in God who says, “my word…shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.” (Isaiah 55:11)
Faithful temple leaders would commit significant resources to caring for people just like that widow. Over time, though, the religious community had developed a predatory appetite for wealth. Its leaders colluded with violent power to protect their hold on material privilege. So instead of caring for those who were at risk, they used their considerable influence to make people feel both vulnerable and beholden. Like many Christian leaders today, they wielded an angry and vengeful god in order to protect a status quo rather than truly proclaiming and demonstrating God’s love and justice.
Another unmistakably Lukan attribute in this story is that the one whom the community is supposed to shelter and care for becomes the one who teaches the teachers about true gratitude and generosity. Jesus makes an enduring example of a woman who gives all she has to a broken institution.
Look at this widow, says Jesus. She gives all she has to the temple in spite of its failures. She offers all she has not because of the community’s faithfulness to God, but because of God’s faithfulness to humankind.
I hear Jesus saying that while the widow may give out of the scarcity of her pocketbook, even more does she give out of the abundance of her faith, hope, and love. Through some uncommon grace, she sees the presence of holiness in the Creation, and in spite of human failures, she can give to the temple because she has not given up on God.
Another compelling thing about this story is that Jesus sees his own life reflected in the widow’s actions. Her gift to the temple anticipates Jesus’ gift to the creation.1 You, and I, and the Church can all be as selfish, power-hungry, and hurtful to one another as the temple leadership was to first century Jews. Nevertheless, for them and for us—a broken and beloved humanity—Jesus drops the two cents of his life into the offering plate of time. For his gracious efforts, his people arrest and execute him. They—We—abandon him. Nevertheless, Jesus empties himself in love for us and in praise of God. His one human life, among countless billions in human history, is a two-cent act of prophetic stewardship.
Jesus and the widow invite us to pledge our own lives to that same prophetic adventure. To follow them is to live a nevertheless faith because yes, there’s much about us and our church that’s broken; nevertheless, we live and give in such a way as to declare our trust that God is present and at work even now redeeming and renewing the Creation. And isn’t that what Jesus refers to when he says, “Blessed are the poor”?
For years, Jonesborough Presbyterian has supported Sunset Gap through our alternative gift fair, and since that ministry is not local, it’s probably the one with which we’re least familiar. So, last Wednesday, six members of our missions team traveled to Cosby, TN to visit Sunset Gap.
Built in 1924 as a school and community center, Sunset Gap now focuses its efforts on serving the people of Cocke County, a county in the grip of widespread and persistent poverty.
Sunset Gap’s property straddles the Cocke and Sevier County lines, and when you stand on the high front porch of the main building, and look straight ahead, you look into Sevier County, where the road climbs up from a wooded hollow and curves to the right at the Sunset Gap’s front door. From that same porch, when you look left, you look into Cocke County. And right there, at Sunset Gap, the well-maintained Sevier County road gives way to Cocke County’s unmarked, pot-holed asphalt that rumbles and crunches through a landscape that looks like it should be many miles and border-crossings away from the consumeristic carnivals of Dollywood and Gatlinburg—which are only 15 minutes away.
Sunset Gap is no longer a school, but it remains a PC(USA)-affiliated community center where—two cents at a time—food, clothes, school supplies, diapers, showers, laughter, and tears are shared with people living on the cusp of destitution.
The people helped by the other ministries we support through the gift fair face similar challenges. And through September and October, you all gave nearly $6000 to help these neighbors. That’s fantastic! Thank you!
Against the unyielding need of the world, or even our region, $6000 may seem like two cents, but when we give, we give to God, who blesses, stretches, and adds other two-cent offerings from other givers. And God continues to ask us to remember and help those who cannot help themselves. And because they matter, every two cents matters.
It reminds me of what Bob Hall from Family Promise said of your ongoing support: “It’s no small thing.” He said it twice. “Really. It’s no small thing.” Whether large or small, gifts given according to one’s ability to give, gifts given in faith, hope, and love, are no small thing. They make a difference far beyond the imagining of the giver.
During stewardship season, the Session is not asking anyone to respond to all that’s right with Jonesborough Presbyterian Church, or to react against all that’s not so right about it. We’re trying to encourage all of us to live prophetic lives, lives that proclaim and demonstrate the holy nevertheless of faith.
Whatever you pledge for the coming year, may you pledge in bold faith, prophetic hope, and generous love, to the broken people next to you, to the broken church around you, and to the faithful God within us all.
1Pete Peery, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. “Homiletical Perspective,” pp. 285-289.