The Compassionate Cost of Caring

widowTo read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.

Sermon based on Mark 12:41-44

The late comedian Bob Hope once said,

If you haven’t got charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.

In thinking of charity of the heart I am reminded of the story of George Mueller. His life was a wonderful example of having charity in his heart. Born in Prussia in 1805, Mueller’s life was filled with many obstacles. He was described at an early age as a thief, liar and gambler. He stole government money that was intended for his father at the age of 10. He developed a gambling and a drinking problem as a teenager and he actually served time in jail during his teenage years. At the age of 20 he became a Christian and his life began to change for the better. He graduated from college and went on to seminary in Germany. When Mueller was twenty-five, he went to England with his wife to pastor a small church. Mueller moved in 1832 to Bristol, England, to be the pastor of another church. There an unexpected ministry with orphans began when two young children came under the care of the congregation. Mueller had only two shillings to his name when he began this orphanage ministry, but over the next sixty years more than $7. 5 million was sent to them to help provide for the needs of what became known as the Ashley Down Orphanage. New buildings were constructed, more staff was hired, and hundreds of children never missed a meal. Many times prayers were said over empty plates only to have food arrive at the last moment. Mueller resolved never to tell anyone what the needs of the orphanage were rather he prayed to God about these needs and confidently expected them to be met. During his life, Mueller started 117 schools that helped to educate over 120,000 young people and orphans and distributed over 300,000 Bibles. As if this were not enough for God’s kingdom, he also supported missionaries from around the world. Mueller’s personal stewardship over his lifetime equaled millions of dollars. Yet when Mueller died, his personal estate was valued at the equivalent of $850. Half of this amount was household and personal items. George Mueller chose to become a contributor.

Sometimes it is easy for us to become consumers rather than contributors. In our gospel lesson Jesus singles out a poor widow who gives all that she has to the Temple treasury while also warning those he considered were consumers. These consumers were the scribes. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he boldly attacked the religious practices of the scribes. Jesus saw through their vanity and greed masked in religious learning and practices. With their bloated egos the scribes wore long flowing robes and gave lengthy meaningless prayers. Their desire for prominence had them sitting in the important seats of the synagogue, sitting at the places of honor at banquets. What disturbed Jesus so much about the scribes was the show they put on in giving their offerings to God. Jesus realized the scribes had not learned the difference between parading their religion and practicing their religion. When we think of people who are consumers in society, one word comes to mind: greed. Greed is the most recognizable trait of a consumer. “Greed is good,” said Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street. “Greed is right. Greed works.” We want more and more and advertisers play upon our fears that we never have enough.

A perfect example of greed in biblical times was the scribe’s treatment towards widows. Widows, deprived of a spouse, were dependent upon the charity of the community. The scribes served as consultants in estate planning for wealthy widows. Their role gave them an opportunity to convince lonely and susceptible widows that their money and property should either be given to them for their holy work or to the Temple for its ministries. In either case, the scribe gained personally. If they were able to persuade a widow to become a patron of their work, a life of comfort was assured and if they gave to the Temple, the scribe determined a consulting fee. The scribes wanted more for themselves and cared nothing about who they hurt or destroyed to get there. As both the scribes and this widow demonstrates, one way in which we are called to practice our religion is through our giving, our stewardship.

I love comic strips that relate to ministry. One of my favorite comics over the years was from the Wizard of ID. This comic strip had a young couple leaving church with their infant child. The wife approached the pastor and says, “I apologize for my baby’s crying in church she is teething.” The pastor replied, “No problem, but why was your husband crying?” The wife answered, “He is tithing!” Financial stewardship continues to be at the center of life for a community of faith as it was during the time of Jesus. Entrusting our life to God through our stewardship does not have to be a tearful experience rather it could be one of the most fruitful experiences of our Christian life. As members of a church, we need to realize that a very significant act of our faith is the actual giving of a financial gift into the offering plates. It is the compassionate cost of caring that each of us is required to undertake.

When we give to the church, we are giving not just money, but a sign of ourselves handed over to God for God’s benefit and glory. The gift of an offering is just one form for making our love for Jesus Christ visible. Below  are some descriptions of ways that people often give. They are there for review to determine where you might fall and where you desire to be.

  • The Careless Way: To give something to every cause that is presented, without inquiring into its merits.
  • The Impulsive Way: To give from impulse—as much and as often as love and pity and sensibility prompt.
  • The Lazy Way: To make a special offer to earn money for worthy projects through fundraising
  • The Self-Denying Way: To save the cost of luxuries and apply them to purposes of religion and charity.
  • The Systematic Way: To lay aside as an offering to God a definite portion of our gains—one tenth, one fifth, one third, or one half (rich or poor can follow this plan)
  • The Equal Way: To give God and the needy just as much as we spend on ourselves.
  • The Heroic Way: To limit our own expenditures to a certain sum and give all the rest of our income.

Whatever category we may place ourselves this is how Jesus measures our giving. Not by the size of what we give, but by what we keep for ourselves.

In the Temple, Jesus sat down watching people give their offerings. I often have wondered whether some of those scribes who saw Jesus sitting there, gave more on this particular day. Jesus noticed not only the amount that they gave, but also the spirit in which they gave. While the rich gave offerings that lived up to their reputations as generous givers, one poor widow came, and she gave two coins that equal to a single penny in today’s currency. Jesus singled her out and was deeply touched by her offering. Jesus praised her actions because out of her poverty and without reservation she gave her whole living, her whole life to God. All the scribes had contributed out of their abundance, but as a servant of God, the widow gave what she could live without.

Do our gifts reflect an attitude of a consumer or a contributor? When we come to church, do we act like a consumer where we expect to be entertained or get something from the money we give to our church? Hopefully our attitudes reflect those of a contributor where our goal is to support the church through the gifts of our time, talent and treasure. The widow was a contributor. She supported her Temple, she gave more than she was expected to give and instead of telling others how much she gave, which was everything she had, she began to walk away.

Our own growth in Stewardship comes from being involved in church. The gift of a tithe or offering is an obligation of Christian stewardship but giving should be done willingly through love of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our challenge as a congregation is to become a church full of contributors. In the coming weeks we will be asked to consider our pledge commitments for next year. Like last year we are not asking for a specific amount for people to pledge. We are asking each member to covenant in prayer and action to support our church to the best of our abilities. Can your family give more? Can all of us as a congregation increasing our giving? Can we become a church full of contributors? Regardless of the answers to those questions, it is important for all of us to remember that the spirit in which we give to God and our church is what is important. Even the smallest of contributions given in the right spirit can accomplish extraordinary things in God’s Kingdom.

Take for example how a contribution of 57 cents from a young girl accomplished great things in her hometown and her church. If you are not familiar with the story of Hattie May Wiatt it is truly an inspirational one worth sharing. Hattie was a member of Grace Baptist Church in the city of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia in the 19th century. Hattie lived near her church where the Sunday school was so crowded that not all the children were able to attend because of limited seating space. One Sunday the pastor, Reverend Russell Conwell saw Hattie walking back home dejected because she had gotten a late start that morning and the seats in Sunday school were already full. She asked the Pastor if he would take her weekly offering to church. The Pastor took her back to church and made sure they found her a seat in the classroom, which thrilled young Hattie. Following that class, Pastor Conwell told Hattie that some day in the future they would have buildings big enough to allow every child to attend Sunday school and church. Sadly a couple of years later an unexpected illness resulted in Hattie’s death. The family called upon Pastor Conwell who had befriended their daughter, to handle the funeral arrangements. Inside her bedroom a worn and crumpled purse was discovered. Inside the purse there was 57 cents and a note scribbled in her handwriting, which read: “This is to help build the little church bigger so more children can go to Sunday school.”

 For a couple of years she had been saving this special offering. When Pastor Conwell tearfully read that note, he knew instantly what he would do. Carrying this note and the purse to the pulpit the following Sunday morning, he told the story of her unselfish love and devotion. He challenged his church to get busy and raise enough money for the larger building.  The Pastor began this challenge by having the 57 cents turned into 57 pennies and sold each penny that resulted in $250 raised. A house near the church was purchased with that $250 that Hattie’s 57 cents had produced and the Sunday school program started to grow even more. Some members of the church formed what they called the Wiatt Mite Society which was dedicated to making Hattie’s 57 cents grow as much as possible and to buy even more property so the church could continue to grow. Under Pastor Conwell’s leadership the church continued to grow over the years and they continued to purchase property as a generous spirit of giving spread throughout the congregation. Years later, the first classes of Temple College, were held in that original house purchased for $250. The house was later sold to allow Temple College to continue their growth. Temple College eventually became Temple University. If you were to visit the city of Philadelphia around Temple University, one would immediately see how massive their campus is these days. Thousands of students are trained at Temple. There is a hospital at Temple that cares for people and trains medical school students. Located nearby is what was formerly Grace Baptist Church. Today it is known as Temple Baptist Church. This small church with their humble beginnings now has a sanctuary with a seating capacity of 3,300 and a Sunday school building, where hundreds and hundreds of Sunday scholars attend. All of these things became possible through the generosity of a young girl who wanted to make sure all children had a place to sit and learn in Sunday school.

Whether it is 57 cents saved by a young girl, a penny given from a widow to the Temple Ministry or even us giving a few extra dollars a week to support the ministry of Christ Moravian Church, we are blessed in many ways through our generosity. Serving God’s Kingdom and giving to God’s Kingdom is part of our calling as Christians. Remember these words as we consider the compassionate cost of caring for the upcoming year:

We make a living by what we get out of life, but we make a life by what we give.

The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.

October 8, 2017