READING FROM THE GOSPEL (Mark 12: 38-44)
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and 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 and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Garrison Keillor once said that “Anyone who thinks sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.” That kind of reminds me of Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel reading: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and 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 and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
I think what Jesus is trying to say is: “Just because you sit in a garage, doesn’t make you a car.”
Just because someone gives away the money that he didn’t need anyway, doesn’t mean that he is any more faithful to God than anyone else in the room.
Like the poor widow, those who give all of what they have to God, even if it is two pennies and a tender heart, put far more into the treasury.
We are about to launch our new First Church website, OMG, I’m so excited, and our website developer made us an advertising video for our church that’s really quite beautiful. I posted it on First Church’s Facebook page. You should watch it if you haven’t already seen it.
When I posted it, I wrote, “There’s room for all of who you are here.” After about 24 hours of the video being up, a random person from the internet who lives in Alabama or someplace far from Sterling wrote, “yeah, there’s room for all of your money here.”
There is this pervasive myth because of the rise of televangelism and the megachurch, that churches in this country are get rich quick schemes rather than places to take your tender hearts and trust other human beings and God with them.
There is a myth out there that we are only interested in your money. And yeah, it costs money to keep us going, but we aren’t exactly rolling around on stacks of cash like Madonna in the Material Girl video. We pastors aren’t exactly getting rich and buying multiple Mercedes Benzes while the rest of the country starves.
There are far better get rich schemes out there in the world than the church.
The real story is that pastors and teachers are the two lowest paid masters degreed professionals in the United States. The average pastor salary in 2012 was $28,000 a year, with the smallest salary being $0. The Joel Osteens of the world—the megachurch pastors who make well into the six figures--are very few and far between. Our churches are closing their doors all over the country, rapidly, for lack of funding and lack of membership. Particularly Mainline Protestant churches like ours, those Christian churches that are more interested in the social gospel than the prosperity gospel. Particularly the United Church of Christ, the second most rapidly dying denomination in the country after the Presbyterian Church. Particularly in New England. There is absolutely no guarantee that the UCC will still be around in 20 years, and they won’t be if their membership decline keeps up the way it is. Which to me is a crying shame, since the UCC is one of the most life-saving, affirming, progressive voices in the Christian church.
If only we took our cue from the widow and gave all we had to churches like the ones the United Church of Christ supports—churches like ours that work tirelessly to feed the poor and love the stranger, and make the world a little bit more loving and just. Just imagine what the world would look like if the UCC were rich!
And yet we read passages from our text that feature Jesus commanding us to give it all to the church; to sell all that we possess and follow him, and I know we get itchy. We think, “see? All ‘they’ care about is money. Here comes a sermon asking us for more.”
But this story about the widow who gave it all is a story about what we get out of giving. The more we give to God, the more we get back.
Jesus’ message here about our widow is that we all have something to give—not just the richest among us, but all of us. Did you know that statistics show that the poorest in this country give away a higher percentage of their income than the richest? Jesus is reminding us of the truth: that we all have gifts to give.
Putting our time and our money and our heart into a God-kissed community that pledges to uphold our deepest held values is an investment worth making.
The Good News is that this investment pays back in love, and satisfaction, and a priceless feeling of well-being.
There is a treasury of gifts that come from our sacrificing our time, our money, our spirit, our love, to God.
On this Veterans Day weekend, we could all take our cues from our Veterans, who sacrificed, who gave it all—some even their lives--for the sake of country—for a principle larger than themselves. We could stand to take some cues from our military in the American church. Our world would be a better place if all people were a people of sacrifice to high principle, rather than a people of sacrifice to the marketplace.
I met with beloveds who are interested in our church and membership last week in our path to membership class, in preparation for our new member Sunday next week.
Let me tell you, this is an impressive group of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, from all different places on the theological spectrum, of all ages and stages of life. I love them so much. They are going to make us a better church, transformed in relationship to each of them. You are going to hear from one of them, Ann Taft, a little later about what led her to us. Her story will bless you the way it blessed me.
And this group, they asked the same question that I get asked every time I talk to people about membership, which is a really important one.
“What’s the difference between being a member and being just a person who worships here every week?”
A more direct way of asking this same question is: “What’s in it for me? What do I get out of this?”
Truthfully, I say, there’s not much of a pragmatic, discernible difference in things that you “get” with membership. We don’t believe in privileging some people over other people around here, because we don’t believe that’s what the spirit of Jesus looks like.
You are radically welcome here. All people are. You are welcome to come to every worship service and every event we have every week regardless of your “official” status. I will still be your pastor, because I am called to pastor to more than just the members of this church. We will still love and care for you as our “own.” I will do your weddings, I will baptize your babies, I will do your funerals, whether you have signed the book or not. We believe that every person deserves a blessing.
Your kids are welcome in Sunday School any time, whether you have signed the book or not. They can go rock climbing at the rock climbing gym with our youth group, they can sleep over at our lock ins, they can be confirmed, whether you have signed the book or not. You can make soup in our kitchen with the women’s fellowship, you can join us on a mission trip to La Romana, whether you have signed the book or not. You can take communion with us at our open table, you can ask us to pray for you, and we will pray for you with every bit of concentrated energy and heart as we have for our “official” members. Whether you’ve signed the book or not. We’ll even ask you to pledge your money to us whether you have signed the book or not, too, because someone has to keep the lights on and the staff paid, and the programs running, and if we are not all chipping in, it’s gonna fall all on the person sitting next to you, which isn’t fair. So you can be financially committed here without ever signing the book, as well.
Here’s what you do miss when you aren’t a member, according to our bylaws. When you’re not a member, you can’t vote, and you can’t serve on committees. But to be perfectly frank, that’s not usually why people are looking for a church anymore (if it ever was)—to be able to vote on this year’s budget or the color of the parsonage paint. These things are not always appealing to all faithful people, nor is the sometimes tedious, very detailed work of serving on a committee.
So, why. Why would someone want to become a member of a church like ours?
What you “get” with membership is really a chance to “give.” Like the widow who gave her all, your giving pays you back in something priceless.
It pays you back in commitment and investment. And investment in a community matters to our own spiritual health, and to the spiritual health of the other people here. And commitment means forming deep and lasting relationships and sticking with them, even when it gets hard. Because investment means giving our all to something, and that’s worth spending our life doing. Because commitment to something larger—a community focused on loving God and neighbor--pays us back in something more profound than we get anywhere else in our lives.
And no, membership isn’t necessary. But the commitment gives us the security of knowing that we belong to one another. Promising to walk with one another on a path of faith—giving our all to a community of imperfect people just like us, committing to doing the best that we can, forgiving one another when we screw up, and catching one another when we fall…that promise, that symbolic commitment, that investment makes a difference.
I liken it to living with someone before you get married. You can live with a significant other for years, and share finances, meals, and even children, and still cross a significant, meaningful, sacred threshold when you make promises to bind your life with theirs in a marriage ceremony. It feels different. And unlike marriage, you can leave our church and membership at any time and without filing divorce papers and paying lawyers. But committing to stay, even when the going gets tough, matters.
And showing up for one another matters. As members of this church, we are making the decision to give a part of ourselves away to the other people in this room, maybe even all of who we are. And so showing up—in body and in spirit-- matters.
What is the gift of giving our all to this church? We start to think in “us” terms rather than in “me” terms. We feel a profound sense of belonging. We become shareholders, rather than consumers. We promise together to raise each other’s children, to walk with each other through the hell of scary diagnoses and difficult conflict and death and new life, and we will watch together how God transforms mess into beauty. It’s really pretty amazing.
When we invest in a community, our investment gives back to us. When we give ourselves away, you and I are repaid more than we ever paid in.
We are doing what the widow in our story does, First Church in Sterling. We’re taking everything we have--our tired, tender and maybe terrified hearts and some small investment--and we are turning it over to a group of people and to God to tend to, to nurture, to hold for us. It’s brave, and its not for everyone, but its worth it.
And I’m going to tell you the truth: this church will disappoint you, because it is a human project, and human projects are bound to disappoint. I will disappoint you, since I’m also profoundly, deeply, human. I will let you down. And these people gathered here will, too. At new member gatherings, Nadia Bolz Weber warns her new people to her church of this inevitable disappointment, and then she says: “Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God's grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And it's too beautiful to miss. Don't miss it.”
All of you, my beloved: Give it your all, even though it will disappoint you. Don’t miss the way God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness because it’s too beautiful to miss. Whether you are a member or not, take a risk and deepen your relationship with this church, either by signing the membership book next week, joining a group or an event, or coming to social hour. Give your all to this flawed and fabulous human project, so that we might learn to love God by loving one another. Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org