Date: September 27, 2015
Bible Text: John 21:1–6 | Reverend Dr. William A. Evertsberg
he also saw a poor widow put in tow small copper coins
This little vignette from the life of Jesus occurs rather late in Luke’s little Jesus-biography. This probably happened on the Tuesday of what would later become Holy Week, so Jesus has three days to live.
Every day of that last week of his life, he sits outside the Temple in Jerusalem spinning his rustic little yarns for whoever wants to listen, and all week long he watches the faithful tossing their weekly offering envelopes into the receptacles standing next to the Temple entrance. They’re shaped like trumpets with a broad-lipped bowl at the top of a long thin neck. Think of them as ancient offering plates.
Some of the well-heeled, in the first-century equivalents of Ralph Lauren suits from Nieman Marcus and Jimmy Choo’s from Saks, toss in some rather fat wads of cash. And then a woman with a flannel shirt from Wal-Mart shuffles past and throws in two small bronze coins.
Luke calls them leptons. If you know anything about quantum theory, you know that in today’s world leptons are infinitesimal, elementary particles smaller than which it is impossible, presently, to conceive. Electrons are a kind of lepton. You need The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to see them, if “seeing them” is the right way to talk about it, and molecular scientists call leptons ‘leptons’ because in Jesus’ day, a lepton was the smallest coin issued in Palestine.
Luke calls them leptons, and Mark tells us that two of them equaled the Roman quadran, and you can tell from the sound of it how much that was worth; quadron is a fourth, or a quarter. This woman in the Walmart shirt threw 25 cents into the offering plate; two leptons equals two bits.
And then Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them, for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but out of her poverty she has put in all she had.” No further comment.
This sermon is called All of Me, All of Us. Let me explain. One thing we can learn from the story of this poor widow is that true Christian charity requires total commitment. She didn’t give much, but it was all she had. When those two bits clamored down the brass neck of that trumpet-shaped receptacle, there was nothing left.
But here’s the thing: Jesus never expected that of her. He didn’t want her to give her last quarter to the work of the Temple. What was the look on Jesus’ face when she dropped those two bits into that offering plate? Was he stunned to see her radical commitment? Did he smile in friendly benediction at her fantastic sacrifice? Probably both.
But another emotion must have crossed his face too as he watched her. Do you remember how our scripture lesson began? “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses…They will receive their condemnation.”
Jesus, you see, didn’t even want this woman’s last quarter. He was ever on the watch for religious hucksters who’d lay the guilt on so thick if you didn’t empty your pockets that poor widows felt compelled to part with their lunch money.
Jesus wants your total commitment but he doesn’t want your last quarter. When he saw that widow give hers up, on his face were looks of awe and compassion, but also anger at the priests in long robes who ladled the guilt on so thick it meant widows went hungry.
All that by way of saying: if you’re hurting, don’t give your last quarter to the Church. The rest of us will carry you along till you get back on your feet. In every Church I’ve served, including this one, there are always a few people who give so generously out of modest means that I almost want to give it back. That doesn’t happen very often, and I never say it out loud, but that’s how I feel about the sacrificial gifts some of you have given to this Church.
Jesus doesn’t want her last quarter, but he celebrates her gift nonetheless. Her gift was, he tells his disciples, the greatest of them all. Tiny in size, it was huge in meaning. What he means to tell us is that the significance of your gift, the meaning of your gift, the beauty of your gift, has nothing to do with its size, but with its cost.
What makes a gift large is how much is left over for your own use after you give it. The smaller the remainder, the larger the gift. You’ve got to notice when you write check; it ought to pinch a little, right? Did you ever write a large check to a deserving charity and then instantly regret it? “What in the world made me do that?” That’s not a bad thing.
One day in my Grand Rapids Church, I walked into the office of that congregation’s Bev Lang. The Business Manager at that church was a guy named Dan Nicely. What a great name, huh? Dan Nicely. Dan’s dead now, and I miss him like crazy.
Dan was a coal miner’s son from Clifton Forge, Virginia. He used to tell us, about once a week, “Never ask a man if he’s from Virginia. If he is a Virginian, he won’t be able to tell you because his momma taught him not to brag, and if he’s not, you don’t want to embarrass him.” Dan Nicely had a booming bass voice that God long regretted having given away, and Dan loved to use it—all the time. He was never at a loss for words.
But then one day I walked into his office and Dan was sitting there behind his desk stunned and speechless. I’d never seen this before, so I asked him what was the matter. He was clutching a check in his right hand, looking a little dazed.
I thought maybe somebody had dropped one of those huge checks on his desk. This happened in early December. A couple of days earlier, on Thanksgiving Eve, someone had walked into Dan’s office and handed over a check for $100,000. This was in addition to his regular $10,000 pledge. There was only one condition: we couldn’t tell anyone who gave it. He ran a drug company in Kalamazoo; “I had a good year,” he said. Even that didn’t leave Dan speechless. But this check was anything but large. Dan showed it to me. It was a paycheck made out for $78.11.
But then he told me who it came from. It was from Peter Petrenko. Peter and his wife Lilja were Russian Baptists, unwelcome at the time in their homeland, the former Soviet Union, so my Church sponsored their settlement here in the United States. Peter was large and round and ruddy-cheeked, and Lilja wore flowered peasant dresses. In the dictionary under “Russian Peasant,” there’s a picture of Peter and Lilja. They’d been bee-keepers in Russia.
When they arrived here, Peter found a job sweeping floors in a local factory and Lilja operated a sewing machine at the same place. Dan told me that that check made out for $78.11 was the total amount of the first paycheck Peter had earned here in the United States. Dan had tried to give the check back, but Peter had said, “God has been so good to us; I need to give this back to God. This Church helped us find a new home. I want my first paycheck to go to the Church.”
That gift from Peter Petrenko was All of Him. Yes? Now, am I going to give a gift that is All of Me, or at least a lot of me, or at least one I’ll notice?
So much for the first part: All of Me. Now what about the second part: All of Us. Don’t worry, this won’t take long. So, here it is.
A lot of you are already giving all of you. A lot of you are giving all you can. So, this year, if you’re giving all you can, we’re not asking for any more. If you’re already giving a gift that you notice, don’t give us any more. Well, go ahead, we’ll probably take it.
This sermon is not for those of you who already give $4,000 or $10,000 or $25,000. You’ve already come through. I’ll let Rhonda and Herb give you some further numbers in a moment, but we’ve already received 63 pledges for over $600,000, or 50% more than last year on the equivalent date, and almost a third of the way to our goal.
You can do the math and notice that so far, the average pledge is almost $10,000; that will go way down by the time we get all the pledges in, but it’s a fun number to think about just now, and if at the end of the day, we can get the average pledge up to $3,000, we will meet and exceed our goal to support the ministry God is calling us to accomplish in the small corner of the world God has made us stewards over.
So this sermon is not for those of you who come through generously every year. This year, I want to talk to the 300-400 families who don’t give anything, or at least don’t pledge anything, to the Church; maybe they drop a $10 bill into the collection plate when we’re not looking.
I know, I know, they’re probably not here. I’m preaching to the choir. But maybe someone will send them a sermon CD or a manuscript. Because if we can get an average pledge of $1,000 from the families who now give nothing, we’ll go home with money in the bank. Well, no we won’t, we’ll just be able to give more away.
And the thing about giving is that once you start, it quickly becomes a habit. Giving is addictive. It’s like cocaine; you gotta do it again, and you gotta do it with more, and more and more and more. And pretty soon, before you know it, you start looking and acting like Jesus himself.
One last thing and then I’ll quit. I’m going to tell you about something I did in my last Church, but you have to promise not to tell anyone else because it turned out to be a pretty lame idea. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but not really.
I did a wedding for a young woman from my Connecticut Church, and at the reception the father of the bride gave me a little envelope, and when I got home I was surprised to find $600 inside. People shouldn’t give me anything for doing something they already pay me for anyway, but $600 was way too much for doing the most fun thing I get to do in my job all year long. It is gift enough to be able to marry your children off to the loves of their lives.
I thought about how I could use it in the Church’s ministry. We had a children’s sermon in our worship service. Kids would come up to the chancel for a children’s sermon and then leave for Sunday School. It was my turn that Sunday.
I wanted to teach the children that God has blessed us extravagantly. We have so much, such an embarrassment of riches. So to do that, I went to the bank and cashed my wedding check, and when the bank teller asked me, “And how would you like your cash, Sir? Would you like it in $100 bills?” And I said, “No, I want it all in $10 bills. So as she’s counting out 60 $10 bills, she’s looking at me a little strangely; I think maybe she wondered whether I was going to spend it on a bunch of dime bags or something, but in fact this is what I wanted them for: I wanted to give each child who came forward for the children’s sermon a $10 bill, with no strings attached. My point was to get the children to understand that all we have and all we are is a gift from God without strings attached.
It’s all free: the earth, love, family, everything’s free. And we have complete freedom to do with it whatever we want. We can keep it, we can save it, we can blow it on video games or a back-pack full of bubblegum, we can tithe it, and we can give it all away. It’s free. I told the kids they could do with their $10 bill whatever they wanted to.
You see what I was trying to do. Isn’t that a great idea? No, not really. Most Sundays we had 40 kids come up for the children’s sermon at our Church, a big Sunday would be 50; 60 ten-dollar bills was way more than I needed. Except this Sunday. When the shy kids who usually stayed behind with their parents in the pew for the children’s sermon saw that this one involved free money, they suddenly decided that children’s sermons weren’t so bad after all. There must have been 70 kids up there, and I had 60 $10 bills. Not too many tears, but a few, and some crushed hopes.
But this is the reason I’m telling you this: One of our families has this beautiful daughter, I don’t know, maybe 7 years old at the time. Let’s call her Gracie, because that’s what she was, pure Grace.
Gracie was one of the lucky ones; she got a $10 bill. Another little girl in her Sunday School class was crying because she didn’t get one. So Gracie—you know, you come to Sunday School every week and after a while, even when you’re 7, you learn some things—Gracie hands over her $10 bill to her friend, and says, “Here, Sarah, you can have mine. I have another one just like it at home.”
You see? You see? Write a check. You have another just like it at home. It’s there for you to blow at a fancy restaurant or to buy a new Lexus, or whatever it is that floods your brain with a serotonin bath. This ministry takes All of You. And it takes All of Us.