A Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, October 5, 2003, Pentecost 17, World Communion Sunday, dedicated to my colleagues worldwide who lay down their lives for Christ each day in conditions of oppression and struggle and always to the glory of God!
I Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
In recent years, the "WWJD" craze has arrived and stuck around. People ask themselves "What would Jesus do?" in relation to ethical decisions, moral dilemmas, and everyday living. But, often we don't ask the question in relation to the church and our practices of faith. Today's gospel text answers the question, "what would Jesus do?" in relation to stewardship. "What would Jesus do during the collection of the offering?" The answer is: Jesus would watch who was putting in money and how much they were putting in the plate. In addition, Jesus would also comment on the quality and quantity of the gifts placed in the plate.
Now, if you are like me, you would find it unnerving to have Jesus watching and commenting of what we weekly contribute toward the stewardship and mission of his church. As he was watching, what would he see? What would his comments be? Would he point out the quality and quantity of your gifts and mine? Yes, that's what Jesus would do. But, he would also not inveigh against large gifts or romanticize small ones. He would simply note that some, after giving large amounts, still have abundance, whereas the widow, after her gift, has nothing - nothing that is except complete trust in God.
Coming from a world in which widows were victimized, Jesus was particularly taken by this woman. She did not whine or retreat into bitterness. She did not become anxious about what was not hers. She simply shared all that she had. Have you ever witnessed such faith in giving? I have. It is rare. It is beautiful. It is an act of faith and love to admire. It is in no uncertain terms - a miracle. It is a miracle.
Time and time again, scripture speaks of money and the use of money. What I believe troubled Jesus most of all in relation to money was excessive greed - people hoarding what they had; people acting out through lying, deceit, and exploitation, all because of their greed. It was not wealth that caused him pain, but when those who possessed the wealth held onto what they had, refused to share, closed their hearts and minds - all because of possessing things over loving God and others. This really upset Jesus. And the reason, I believe, it upset him so much, is that such people placed their possessions ahead of God. They forgot what good God had done for them. They clung to their possessions as if they were truly their possessions - not gifts from God in their care. This broke Jesus' heart.
As we turn toward our times, perhaps the question you should ask is not "what would Jesus do," but rather: "In what way is my belief about my Savior, Jesus Christ, reflected in my perceptions concerning money and material possessions? Or perhaps this: "If I take the sayings of Jesus concerning wealth seriously, how will I change my actions?"
When faced with wealth (which according to the world's standards, most everyone in this sanctuary possesses - to a greater or lesser degree), we have to seriously look at what we are called in Jesus' name to do.
What happens to the soul of a people in relation to money was Jesus' concern. What happens to a people of God given much? Simply - much is expected in return. I came across this story sometime ago.
In July 2000, St. Mary's United Methodist Church, a middle-sized church in St. Mary's, Georgia received a $60 million bequest from then recently deceased, Mr. Warren Bailey. Warren was a 87-year-old bachelor who had owned a local telephone company with his two brothers. After sharing his resources with eight individual beneficiaries, he gave the rest to St. Mary's. Pastor Derek McAleer serves as pastor of St. Mary's. When he received word of the $60 million dollars coming to the church he was terrified. Pastor McAleer reports:
The first thing I worried about is what this was going to do to the church. Most of the scriptures in the Bible about money are negative in nature. So I see money as a great trap. I was much more worried about how this bequest was going to hurt us . . . We've been scared to death in trying to preserve our own flock as well as to care for other people . . .
Although the huge gift has affected the church in a number of ways, according to Dr. McAleer, the congregation has made some excellent decisions in the face of this gift. They have put $40.7 million in a separate foundation with a firewall between the church and the money. Another $2.8 million was put in an endowment fund for the church trustees to use for the ministries Mr. Bailey supported. They gave $500,000 to a ministry commitment that Mr. Bailey had made, but not yet paid off. Another $16 million was allocated to the missions committee to give away. Within seven months they had given away $7 million! They made a decision that none of the money would be used to expand the building. They would have to raise that money themselves.
The congregation has decided to give the money away over time and to do it responsibly. Pastor McAleer reports that the year before, when they had a surplus in their budget of $22,000, they had given that away, too. Although the amount changed, the commitment to mission and the ethic of being faithful with a little had not changed! Immediately after the gift, the church's pledged giving increased by about $70,000 as members heard about the gift coming in, too. In addition, giving to weekly missions has also increased among the entire membership!
Pastor McAleer adds:
The Bible says that where your treasure is, that's where your heart is going to be. When our church decided to put its treasure in helping others in mission work, maybe our hearts are going to follow that . . . Our goal is be a Christian congregation when the money is gone. We could easily become a club . . . (He concludes) Through it all, I don't think our basic attitude has changed. We formed our basic attitude about money years ago, not just me, but the whole church. This is not a wealthy church, and has not always had a lot of money, but it is the most generous congregation I have ever served. They are gracious people and want to do for others and see the need to be active in the community and in the world. The bequest didn't form these opinions. But it sure made us dig a little deeper into our values because there is no question that we were tempted far beyond what we were tempted before.
I would like us to be like the congregation at St. Mary's. I want us to act out of the presence of God in all that we say and do. I want us to be in Pastor McAleer's words, "A Christian congregation when all this is gone." I want us to look at our core values of compassion, sharing with others, justice, grace and love. I want us to see the glorious gifts God has given us; to respond by sharing in abundant love; to share our resources with gratitude in our hearts, yes - to be abundant givers - or as the Apostle Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, to "Be hilarious givers!" Laugh and love and share your gifts! I want us to be like that.
As we become hilarious, abundant, joyful, Christian givers (meaning in the way of God in Jesus Christ), then we will be looking at Miracle Budgets, not minuscule budgets. We will be giving without analyzing where each penny has gone in the church budget. Instead we will be placing our time and energy analyzing where millions of dollars are going in a city where over 130,000 people have no health insurance, and countless poor people have no medical homes and too many of them have no homes at all. We will analyze how best to serve the jobless and poor - impacting policies and actions through our analysis.
When we talk of miracles in our lives and in the life of this church, we will be standing on the promises of God, not the worries of humans! By standing on such promises and by embracing the miraculous hand of God in all this, we will be sending people out in mission monthly, to every corner of the city, the nation, and the world. We will be tutoring hundreds of children in Columbus Public Schools. We will be building homes. We will be welcoming children to our church organs from the mean streets of this city to the glorious and holy place where music reaches upward to the heavens and resounds in heavenly accord back to our listening ears. We will be invested in God's plans, in God's budget, and God's vision - on that day - on that glorious day - when we count the cost of discipleship as opposed to the cost of doing business.
To reach that miraculous day, we must begin today by remembering Christ.
Somewhere around the globe today, a Christian is remembering Him and remembering you and me in prayer. That man, that woman, fully aware that we are united in celebrating the Eucharist or Holy Communion across all Protestant denominations today, and of course, across all Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions today, is praying for you.
From some village in Africa, some open field in Asia, some military hospital or barracks in Afghanistan or Iraq, from some Cathedral in Europe, some mountaintop in Peru, some school serving as a church in Jamaica, some church that serves as a school in Brooklyn, NY, the people of God in Christ are praying for you and for me. They are praying that the Holy Spirit will come upon us. They are praying that we will receive this Eucharist, this day, and be transformed by the love of God poured out in this simple and splendid feast. They are praying for no less than a miracle.
Remember him. Remember his words: "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." A miracle like calls for a feast. Let the miraculous feast, in Jesus' name, begin! Amen.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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