Sermon: Beyond Charity

Sunday, November 11, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

I joined the Peace Corps when I was fresh out of college.  I wanted to travel and see a different part of the world.  And I also genuinely wanted to help others, to give some of the abundance of what I have received to other people.

What I didn’t expect about this experience was how much I would receive in return.  Over the four years that I spent in the Dominican Republic, I got to meet lots of amazing people.  And I found that, more often than not, the person receiving the generosity and help of others was me!  I almost had to laugh one time when my community received a bunch of canned food from a ministry group that had come down to the island.  I’m sure I probably thought, “Oh how nice that other people are also sending help to this poor community.”  Imagine my surprise when members of the community showed up on my doorstep to give me food – because I lived alone and didn’t have any family in the community.  

But I think their generosity was most fully on display when my dad and my aunt and uncle came down to visit.  We started our visits at one end of the community and spent an entire day going from house to house until we reached my host family’s house at the other end. Every single place we went, a banquet was spread; we were offered coffee and pop and cookies and cakes and sweets.  This community that had lovingly accepted me was so eager to welcome my family.  But I knew what it must have cost them to offer these things – many of them offered us much more expensive treats than I knew they bought for themselves.  It was humbling to receive such incredible hospitality.  

I thought of my Dominican friends as I was reading through our texts for today.  Today we read a couple of stories that are also about hospitality and about extreme generosity.   

In our first reading, we follow Elijah to the town of Zarephath, where he meets a poor widow.  Elijah asks her for water and she gives it to him.  But when he asks her for bread, we learn that she is literally gathering sticks to go prepare a last meal for herself and her son before dying because they have so little left to eat.  Elijah asks her again for something to eat and promises her, “thus says the Lord God, the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”  This woman sees that Elijah is a messenger of God – and she trusts in God’s promise that God will provide what she needs.  And God does indeed provide!  With just her handful of meal and her little bit of oil, she and her son and Elijah are able to eat well for what may have been years!  Immediately before this story, Elijah actually prophesied to King Ahab that there would be several years with no dew or rain!  So through her act of faithful generosity, this woman goes from preparing for her own death and the death of her son to having renewed life and renewed hope.  God saves the lives of three people through her meager offering.  And her son’s life is actually saved again immediately following this story.  After getting sick, her son dies and God, working through Elijah, raises him to life again.  All throughout this story, God brings life and hope where before there had only been the certainty of death.

God is the giver of all good gifts.  And as the widow discovered with Elijah – and as I discovered in the Peace Corps – when we faithfully respond to God’s call to give of ourselves and our possessions, it can be an opportunity for God to bless us even more richly.  I know we’re veering dangerously close to prosperity gospel territory right now, but I promise that is not where this sermon is heading.

Giving deeply connects us with God and with other people.  Like with my Dominican friends, our mutual generosity and hospitality built up strong friendships, even across cultural and language barriers.  I mean, I don’t need to stand up here and tell you all about what it feels like to give of yourself to the people you care about.  I watch you do it all the time!  You visit the sick and the homebound and do service work in the community and share food with one another.  And any time there’s a new illness or a death or some other tragedy, at least four or five different people reach out to me to make sure that I know about it, so that the people who need care from their pastor can receive it.  

You are faithful givers.  And like Elijah and the widow, you have seen that generous giving can lead to outcomes you didn’t even think were possible.  I know that’s true – because I wouldn’t be here otherwise!  St. John’s definitely falls into the small-but-mighty category of congregations.  And I know that when you entered the call process you were looking for a part-time pastor, or to share a pastor with another congregation.  But even in the midst of times of transition, and even with a relatively small member base, you continued to give – you continued to generously invest your time and your money and your presence in this community.  And I am here – your full time pastor – because of what God did with your faithful offering.

God takes the things that we give in faith and makes amazing things happen – even if all we can offer is a handful of meal or a couple of copper coins.  And when we give to the church, and the church gives to the synod, and the synod gives to churchwide, God grows and grows those gifts into something much larger than they ever could have been on their own.  Our small gift can open us up and connect us with people all over the world.  Generosity opens us up to the reality of other people’s lives and it invites us to be transformed by it, to receive even as we give.

That brings us to our gospel reading.  It’s typical for us to read this passage as a story about a poor woman’s noble sacrifice, but that’s not actually how Jesus presents it.  This story doesn’t end with a “go and do likewise.”  If anything, it’s a cautionary tale.  This is a story about a community that is failing to connect with others and to be transformed by their faithful giving.  

Jesus has a lot of harsh words for the religious leaders and the wealthy people in this passage.  It’s not like they aren’t being generous.  They are making their offerings, just like the widow, but they’re missing something.  They are oblivious to the need of a neighbor on their very doorstep.  The gifts they give probably help keep the temple’s lights on, but they are not allowing that giving to transform their hearts or their lives or to connect them with other people.  Jesus denounces them for being more interested in making themselves look good than in genuinely doing good.  

Why does Jesus point out this whole little scenario?  We might be tempted to think that this is another case of Jesus telling us that we need to sacrifice everything we own and become poor ourselves – kind of like how we often hear the story of the rich man we read a couple of weeks ago.  But again, I don’t necessarily think that that’s what Jesus is asking us to do here.  After all, we know that God is the giver of good gifts.  God has generously given all things to all people, so that no one will be in need.  God wants all of us to have enough.  

So instead this story raises the question: why do so many people not have enough?  If God has given all things to all people, why are some left with nothing but a couple of copper coins or a handful of meal to live on while others have an abundance to give from?  Why do some congregations struggle so much to hire a single pastor while others can afford multiple staff people?  Why is it that when we assemble the school kits and quilts and health kits every year we never have to wonder whether there will be enough people who need them? We already know there will be.  How did things get so out of balance from the way God created them to be?

I think that faithful giving calls us to more than just distant, abstract giving like the wealthy people in our gospel story.  It calls us to be truly invested in the lives of our siblings around the globe.  It calls us to be charitable and also to wonder why there is so much need for our charity. 

Faithful giving is about much more than just giving of our money or our stuff or our time.  It asks that we be involved with our whole hearts and invested in the wellbeing of our neighbor, even when it means wrestling with difficult questions of justice.  This is the kind of generosity that opens us up to transformation and connection with the whole family of God.  

We can give with boldness and faith, trusting that God will provide.  And we can live with the expectation that God – the giver of all good gifts – will continue to do wondrous things with all that we give. 

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