A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sermon (November 8) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Big Spender"

     I like to think of myself as a big spender. You know. Someone who isn’t cheap. Someone who toward the end of an expensive dinner with several friends isn’t afraid to say, “I’ll take the check, please.” 
     I like to think of myself as a big spender. But I’m not sure that I qualify.
     One summer, Penny and I would often visit a wonderful ice cream stand that had a drive through window. Ice cream stands with drive through windows are the most wonderful things in the world!
     We ended up going to this particular ice cream place so often, that it became embarrassing when the person at the window didn’t even have to ask what our order was. “Large chocolate shake for you. A medium chocolate cone with sprinkles for your wife. And a doggie dish for your Westie, right?”
     “That’s right,” I would say with a tone of embarrassment in my voice.
     And like many ice cream places, this place had a tip container at the order window with a big sign that said, “Your tips are appreciated!”
     And since we would always get the same order, I would typically get the same amount of change back.  The change would often include at least one quarter and the rest of it included a combination of pennies, nickels, and dimes.
     So being the big spender that I am, I would extend my arm from my car window as far as I could and place the change in the tip container. In the container, I proceeded to return the pennies, the nickels, and the dimes, but never the quarter.  NEVER THE QUARTER. 
     I have a special place for quarters in my car. I keep them in a small compartment where I have easy access to them. Ever so discreetly, I would quietly place the quarter it in my quarter stash. And every single time, Penny would say, “You take that quarter back out, and put it in the tip container right now.”
     I don’t know exactly why I do this, but I just don’t want to part with quarters. I have the same problem at coffee shops that have those coin containers to help with feeding programs around the world.  In go the pennies, the nickels, and the dimes, but for some reason, I always keep the quarters to myself.
     I’m not sure why I’m as fixated as I am with quarters. Perhaps it was that time when I was in a major city, pulled into an open parking spot along a busy street, only to find out that the parking meter only took quarters, something I didn’t have at the time.
     Or maybe, it’s because you just never know when you might be driving and you see a toll bridge in the distance. And you just never know when you might have a hankering for one of those giant size gumballs. What if you didn’t have a quarter in your pocket?  That would be terrible.

     Whatever my issues are, I just don’t like to part with my precious quarters. And here I thought I was a big spender! I don’t even want to give up my quarters! So, maybe this is why I am enthralled with this story of the widow and the two copper coins from Mark’s Gospel.
     As Jesus is teaching, he decides to do a little people watching with his disciples. They were sitting across from where the Temple treasury was located.
     The Temple treasury was most likely a large box that had a little opening at the top of it for people to place their money to support the work of the Temple.
     You see, back then they didn’t have the option of online giving, like we now have on our church website. Just wanted to point that out.
     This large box was out in the open where the crowds would walk, so this would have been a great location for Jesus and his disciples to do some people watching. Picture crowds walking by, and once in a while someone steps up to this treasury box to drop in some money.
     Evidently, while they were watching all of this, they would spot a few people who had a lot of money to drop into the box. And because they had so much money to donate, they would stand there for a long time dropping in one coin at a time.
     But obviously, they didn’t give away everything they had, because they were wearing very nice clothes, and they probably had plenty of money to eat at a nice restaurant later that day.
     I can’t help but to think that the disciples would have been impressed as they sat there watching all of the rich people putting large sums of money into the Temple treasury. Who knows, maybe the disciples were feeling a little envious as they watched this impressive display of wealth and charitable giving taking place right before their eyes.
     As one person after another makes their way to drop in their big payments, someone makes her way to the same treasury box, and in a very brief moment, she drops in two copper coins, and is lost in the crowd again.
     Jesus, who always knew what to look for in a crowd, turns to the disciples, and makes sure they didn’t miss what this unassuming woman had just done. Jesus wanted the disciples to know who the big spender really was during their people watching exercise.
     It wasn’t the one wearing the nicest clothes and who gave the highest dollar amount. It was the one who gave all that she had to her name. Two copper coins.
     The people who gave the most still have plenty in their savings account.  But this woman, who probably won’t know how she will get her next meal, gave out of her poverty.
     What does it mean to give out of our poverty like the poor widow, rather than out of our abundance like those who were rich and put in large sums of money?
     Like so much of our faith, it really comes down to our willingness to trust in what God wants to do in and through us to be a blessing through our church and community. 
     This reminds me of the story of the successful millionaire businessman who was giving a testimony at his church one night. He said how as a young man he was struggling financially and he only had a few dollars to his name. So he prayed to God and he felt that God was calling him to give away all that he had and to trust God completely with his life.
     So he took the remaining few dollars he had in his wallet and put it in the offering plate the following Sunday. And then this man went on to say that by giving to God all the money he had, that’s why he was now a millionaire.
     A lady who was listening to this man’s testimony wasn’t impressed and she stood up and shouted, “I dare you to do it again!”
     It’s difficult for us to trust God with ALL that we have.  We’re afraid we’re going to lose even the little that we have. We want to hang on to those quarters instead of using them to be a blessing to others. So we end up holding back.
     I have a really good friend who is one of the most committed Christians I know. She’s a leading lay member in her church and active in the district and conference levels, knows her bible, loves Jesus, and truly wants to make a difference in the world.
     On her Facebook page, she shared that she missed an opportunity to trust God with all that she had. Here’s what she posted.
     “I blew it today…I was getting gas when the woman at the pump in front of me asked if I had any change because she was out of gas. I gave her all the change I had, maybe a buck and a half. I used my credit card and spent $45 to fill my tank and drove away.  It wouldn’t have hurt a bit to use my card to buy her $5, $10, or even a tank of gas.” 
     And then she ended her post with these words, “I won’t soon forget the feel of the dry skin of her hand as I handed her my change…”
     When I read my friend’s post, I remember thinking how much I appreciated her willingness to share this experience, because it reminded me of how easy it can be for us to hold back and not trust God with all that we have.
     I sat next to a man at a wedding reception several years ago.  Knowing that I was a pastor, he told me about a life changing experience that he had that summer. 
     He lives near the Dayton area and he asked me if I had heard about the “Extreme Home Makeover” TV show which came to the Dayton area earlier that summer to help a disabled veteran.
     I told him that I did hear about this story because I saw it on one of the local Columbus news stations.
     He said, “Well, a friend of mine called me one day, told me about the project, and asked me if I could run the forklift for a few hours to help them with some of the work that needed to be done.”
     So he agreed to give a few of his hours to help.  And then he told me, “But I didn’t just work a couple of hours. I ended up working 25 hours straight, because they needed all the help they could get to have things ready for this man in seven days.”
     As this man told me this story, he had this great big smile on his face. By giving all that he had, he experienced the joy of serving others and honoring God. The expression on his face in telling this story told me that he received more than he gave that day.
     A friend of mine shared his faith journey with me. Early in his marriage he would attend church on occasion but not very often.
     A buddy of his invited him to attend a spiritual weekend retreat which he did and during that retreat, he experienced God’s love in a way that he had never before experienced. That weekend became a major turning point in his life.
     When he got home after the retreat, he told his wife all about it. He told her about how he had experienced God’s love and grace in such a real and powerful way and how he made a commitment to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ during that weekend. 
     And so he asked her, “How much do we give to the church each week?” He had never asked her what they give each week.
     She told him the amount and he said, “Oh, my. That’s nowhere near what we should be giving. We need to at least triple that amount.”
     Not only did that weekend retreat change him inwardly, it also had a huge impact on his priorities, and his commitment in living out his faith.
     He began praying and reading his bible on a daily basis. He started attending worship with his wife and family every single week. He became intentional in sharing his new found faith with the people at work. And he began to tithe his income to the work of Christ and the church.
     If you would do the math, even before this man’s spiritual renewal weekend, he was giving a whole lot more money in the offering than the poor widow in our Gospel reading.  But it wasn’t until after that spiritual weekend that he realized that his gift was so small in comparison to her great sacrifice.
     He was now wanting to make up for lost time. He realized what the poor widow already knew, that our giving is a response to God’s gracious love in our lives.
     Today is stewardship Sunday which is a Sunday to reflect on all that God has given us and to prayerfully consider what our financial commitment will be toward our church’s ministries in 2016.  Many of us have received an Estimate of Giving card in the mail this week. 
     If you received this in the mail, I invite you to not toss it aside, but to just say a little prayer that goes something like this.
     “Dear God, as I continue to think about Pastor Robert’s awesome sermon from this past Sunday, help me to be like the poor widow who didn’t just give a small fraction of who she was, but she gave everything she had. When I fill out how much I will give to Christ and the church for this coming year, may it reflect my deepest love for you and your church. What do you want me to give to you and your church in 2016? I want to offer my very best to you. Amen.”
     That’s the kind of prayer that I invite all of us to say this week as we prayerfully consider our financial gifts for the coming year. And let’s pray for each other because together, we are the church.
     Bring your completed card to church next Sunday and we will have a special consecration of our commitments for 2016. If you brought your completed card today, you are welcome to place it in the offering plate if you’d like or you can hold on to it next week when we will have a special prayer of blessing over the cards.
     What we decide this week will go a long way in determining how our church will be able to faithfully live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world for the coming year.
     If you forget your card or need a new card, we will have extra cards with envelopes available next Sunday.  If you’re visiting with us today, we certainly do not expect you to make a financial commitment to this church.  We consider your presence here in worship as your gift to God. 
     As we make a commitment to give to God all that we have and more than we are even expecting to give, just think of how much joy and satisfaction we are going to experience as we place our total trust in Jesus Christ for this coming year.
    During the early years of our marriage, Penny and I didn’t give all that we could have given to the church.  We didn’t feel like we were in a position to be as generous as we wanted to be.  At the time, I was the only one working because Penny had gone back to college to complete her undergraduate studies.  And we also had two small children to raise at the time so money was really tight.
     One day, as the two of us were standing in the hallway of the church where I was serving at the time, a lady in the church came up to us and handed us an envelope stuffed with lots of money in it.  And this woman said, “I want you to have this money to help you pay for child care this weekend.” 
     She knew that we would be leading a church retreat that weekend and that we would need to pay a baby sitter while we would be away.  And of course, I said what many of us would have said in that situation, “Oh, this is so nice of you, but we really can’t accept this. This is a lot of money.”
     And I will never, ever, ever forget her response to me. I think it was the first time I became speechless. She said, “Oh, this isn’t my money. It’s some of our tithe money and we’ve already prayed over it and God wants you to have it.” Now, how are you supposed to argue with that kind of a response?
     It was that experience that led Penny and me to become more generous in our giving to the church.  This woman showed us what it means to trust God with all that we have, and to give out of our poverty rather than out of our abundance. 
     We will always be grateful for how this woman in the church totally changed our perspective on giving and stewardship.  And thanks to the poor widow who gave away her last two copper coins, we too, can trust God and offer our gifts freely and generously. 
     Together, their example of extravagant generosity can help redefine what it means to be big spenders for the sake of God’s kingdom.
     In preparing for this sermon today and in thinking about the widow from our scripture reading, I went to my car and carefully dug out all of the quarters that I’ve been stashing there.  I brought them here to show you. It’s a little embarrassing. I told you I have a problem with hoarding quarters.
     But thanks to the poor widow, I think it’s about time I finally let go and give these to Christ and his church.
(Pastor Robert places a crazy amount of quarters on the altar.)     

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