The True Measure of Our Gifts

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 17th 2013.)

The King James Version has been the most influential English translation of the Bible for most of the four-hundred-and-two years since it was first published.  During that time it has contributed hundreds of proverbs, sayings and other phrases to the English language, more than any other single source, including Æsop’s fables and the complete works of Shakespeare.  When someone claims that “the writing is on the wall” or asks if “a leopard can change its spots”, when they describe something as “a labor of love” or say that their “cup runneth over”, they’re actually quoting the King James Bible.  (If it has a “thee” or a “thou” or a verb ending in “-eth”, that’s usually a clue.)

Now there had been a couple of earlier English translations but some mistakes had been pointed out by the Puritan wing of the Church of England.  The Puritans were concerned with the purity of their faith, after all, so they wanted any version of the Bible to be as true to the original as possible.  (Not that anyone at that time had the originals of any of the Biblical texts, but never mind.)  So when King James took the throne of England, one of the first things he did was convene a conference of scholars and clergy of the Church of England, charging them with the task of producing a new, more authoritative English version.  He also gave them specific instructions to make sure that certain Hebrew and Greek words were translated in ways that matched the organizational structure of the Church of England, so as not to give the Puritans any further fodder for their complaints about how the church wasn’t doing it right.  For less political reasons, it also used contemporary weights and measures in place of ancient terms that were unfamiliar.

For example, there’s a story told in both Mark and Luke where Jesus is in the Jerusalem Temple and sees a poor widow donating a couple of small coins.  In the Greek, both Mark and Luke use the word “lepton” to name the type of coin the widow is donating, the lepton being the smallest unit of coinage in the Greek-speaking world at the time.  (If you know your particle physics, you’ll realize this is the origin of “lepton” as the name of that class of fundamental particles which includes the electron.)  Of course, the scholars working on the King James Bible needed a word more familiar to their contemporaries, something even smaller than the farthing, which, at a quarter of a penny, was the smallest coin in England.  In the end, the translators went with the name of what was then the smallest coin in Europe: the mite of the Netherlands.

Here, then, is the King James Version of that story, as found at the end of chapter twelve of Mark.

“And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.  And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.  And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:  For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”

The last sentence can be a little hard for us to grasp when written in the over-punctuated and spelling-optional English of King James, so here it is again in the modern English of the New Revised Standard Version:

“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 poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

When it comes to sermons on generosity and giving — particularly in congregations that have some sort of annual pledge drive in order to fund the next year’s budget — the story of the widow’s mite is an obvious text.  I first heard it as a child, in fact, staying in services one time rather than going to Sunday school, my sister and I asked by the minister to help illustrate the point of her sermon.  One of us got what looked like a big bar of chocolate — it was actually made of cardboard, which was probably just as well or it wouldn’t have lasted until it was needed in the service — and the other got a considerably smaller fake bar of chocolate.  The minister’s point was that even if we each gave away the same amount of chocolate, whichever one of us had the smaller amount to begin with was actually being more generous.

And that seems to be implied message in the words attributed to Jesus.  “Look at this poor widow,” he says to his disciples.  (And according to Mark in particular, Jesus is constantly pointing out even obvious things to the disciples, since they otherwise spend most of their time clueless and confused.)  “Look at her,” Jesus says.  “She only has two coins to rub together — literally! — two practically worthless copper coins, but she gave them both to the Temple anyway.  There are all these rich people making a big show of putting lots of silver coins into the treasury, but this widow — disowned by her family after the death of her husband and living without any income — she puts in all that she owns.  She’s actually giving more than they are.”

It’s certainly a story that’s tempting to preachers who want to sway the hearts and minds of their congregants, at least in those traditions that proclaim the importance of what is known as sacrificial giving.  But is that really the point of the story, that church members should give until it literally hurts?

I was recently introduced to a method of trying to figure out what is going on in a given situation, particularly the context is an unfamiliar culture.  It’s natural, of course, to view any situation through our own cultural lenses, so it requires a lot of intention to not do that, whether it’s something that we see happen between two people across a room or something reported to have happened almost two-thousand years ago.  The method is known as Describe, Interpret, Evaluate, or D.I.E. for short, and those name the three stages.

The Describe stage requires naming what happened as clinically and objectively as possible.  In the case of the story of the widow’s mite, that’s done for us: Jesus sees people putting money into the treasury; some rich people put in quite a lot of money; a poor widow puts in two tiny copper coins.

The Interpret stage asks us to name how we understand what happened, based on the assumptions arising from our own experiences.  That’s done for us, too, in Jesus’ words interpreting what he saw: the widow put in all she had, and so in relative terms was giving more than the rich people.

What is not in the Bible’s text is the Evaluate stage, where we are called to bring our own sense of values into play and arrive at a value judgment based on cultural expectations.  If we’re only focused on making sure there’s enough money to pay the bills and employ enough staff to run programs and fund committees sufficiently for their work, then it’s natural that we’d evaluate the story as meaning that people really should give until it hurts, that there’s virtue in someone giving away more than they can really afford.  If, on the other hand, we’re focused on making sure that everyone has enough to live on, that the people who don’t have a lot to begin with aren’t expected to give beyond their means, that the people who have more can make correspondingly bigger contributions, then perhaps what Jesus was actually doing was criticizing a corrupt system where poor widows were expected to give up everything they had in order that the privileged could maintain their status in an unjust society.

(Immediately before the story of the widow’s mite, Jesus tells the people listening to him in the temple: “Beware 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.”)

So why am I talking about the story of the widow’s mite this morning?  We are, after all, heading into our annual pledge drive, the weeks each Spring when we canvass our members and ask them to pledge their financial support to the congregation for the next church year.  The story of the widow’s mite is, as I say, a common text for sermons on generosity and giving, but I’ve just explained why any preacher who uses it really should stop and re-evaluate it.  What’s more, I realize that while many Unitarian Universalists may have some academic interest in better understanding a well-known Bible story, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be convinced to behave one way or another just because somebody behind a pulpit quotes chapter and verse — even if it’s one of the stories that Thomas Jefferson left in his version of the Bible, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, when he took a razor blade to the Gospels and cut away anything he considered unnatural or miraculous.

No, I chose to talk about the story of the widow’s mite for a couple of reasons, one pretty specific and one more general.  The specific reason is easy to put into words: I want to note that generosity is relative.  The usual understanding of the story is correct in that sense, at least.  That’s why the pledge card that we ask all of our members to fill out at this time of year has a handy chart on the back that describes different levels of “fair-share” pledging in terms of percentages of income rather than absolute numbers of dollars.  And, of course, how any individual or couple defines their income is completely up to them — we’re not in the business of expecting to see anyone’s tax return form 1040 so that we can check what’s on line thirty-seven!

But this does take us to the more general reason for talking about the story of the widow’s mite: we need to take a look at the fact that the Unitarian Universalist relationship with money is, well, weird.  And it’s weird — even, some might say, dysfunctional — for reasons that have little to do with whether we’re good, well-meaning, hard-working people or not, but have a whole lot to do with our culture.  For just as the poor widow’s behavior had been conditioned by her culture, so has ours.

In the case of Unitarian Universalist congregations, in fact, we’ve been conditioned by two cultures.  The first is that of being middle-class.  Most people in America think of themselves as being middle-class, even if, technically, they’re not, and an even higher proportion of Unitarian Universalists claim a middle-class identity.  Why?  It’s safe to be in the middle class.  It comes with a built-in modesty where we don’t talk about money because it’s considered, well, rude, somehow.  Members of the poor and working class, on the other hand, have no choice but to talk about money because it’s a constant concern.  When you have to decide whether to pay the heating bill or buy food for your child, modesty kills.  And members of the owning, ruling class are expected to talk about money because it’s the way they assert their place in the socio-economic hierarchy.  But for members of the middle class, it’s simply not nice to talk about money.  We’re certainly conflicted about it.  The middle class looks up and wishes it had more, but then looks down and feels guilty about what it already has.  Or feels angry about not having more.  Either way, it’s just better not to mention the subject in the first place.

Then there’s the fact that Unitarian Universalism was profoundly shaped by an experiment in growth that took place in the 1940s and 50s and 60s.  That experiment was the Fellowship Movement, which birthed hundreds of small, lay-led congregations across the country — including this congregation — as a way to spread the good news of our liberal religion.  What was, at the time, the American Unitarian Association hired a man by the name of Monroe Husbands to travel the country, visiting cities that fit a certain profile, advertising in the newspaper for people who might be interested in forming a fellowship, and then bringing them together to try to get them to agree to start a new congregation.  One of the points that convinced many potential lay-leaders to commit, in fact, was that, though they would, as volunteers, need to give quite a bit of their time, they were promised that they would not need to give much money since their new congregation had neither a minister to pay nor a building to maintain.  This played right into the ideals of the modern middle class that was emerging after World War II, in large part thanks to the GI Bill, and it probably explains a lot of the success of the Fellowship Movement.

We’ve been conditioned, both by the wider American culture and by the organizational DNA of our own congregations, to feel shame when it comes to talking about money, particularly when it comes to talking about the money we’re personally pledging in support of those very congregations.  Unfortunately, it is absolutely essential that we do talk about money.  While we exist as a religious community in order to fulfill a particular mission — celebrating life together, growing a caring community together, searching for truths together, making the world a better place together — doing so is something that takes money.  Having staff to help fulfill that mission — because there are limits to what volunteers can and should do — that’s something that takes money.  Owning grounds and buildings as a customized space where we can fulfill that mission, that’s something that takes money, too.

So, inquiring minds want to know, how much money?  Well, about $1,200 per member each year.  I generally avoid stressing numbers in sermons, but let me repeat that one: $1,200 per member.  And I don’t provide that number to make anyone feel guilty, but because I think you should all be aware of it.  Obviously not everyone can pledge that much, given their own household financial realities.  Most members pledge less than that.  Some pledge more.  And generosity is relative, remember.  We also hold a number of special fund-raising events like the Casbah and we have a few other sources of revenue such as re-selling used books through Amazon, but the vast majority of what it takes to support the congregation in fulfilling its mission comes from pledges.

But, the inquiring minds continue, fulfilling a mission like ours is rather hard to quantify; what is that money actually doing?  Well, it’s giving us fabulous music on Sunday mornings, with more musicians and singers of all ages and abilities.  It’s giving us a better sound system in this Sanctuary, enabling more people to hear rather than being left out.  It’s giving us a variety of Sunday morning Adult RE programs that fill the room.  It’s giving us excellent children’s RE programs from Spirit Play to Our Whole Lives.  It’s giving us more programs at other times and on other days of the week, and space to hold those programs.  It’s supporting ministries to military families and LGBTQ individuals and college students.  It’s bringing families and young adults and our elders together in community.  It’s helping us care for our own members and their families through surgeries and other challenges.  It’s helping us to help the wider community, from our involvement with the PORT Winter Shelter to our responsibilities at the St. Paul’s Weekend Meal Ministry.  It’s giving us greater visibility, too, from our sign on Warwick Boulevard to the service we’re doing at Christopher Newport University next Sunday.  It’s making us known as a powerful voice for Unitarian Universalism, within the Tidewater Cluster, within the Southeast District, and within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

In doing all of that, every pledge counts.  Every pledge matters.  The Children’s Focus this morning nicely illustrated how even apparently small amounts of money can make a big difference in the life of this Fellowship.  We certainly need large amounts of money for the more costly parts of running a congregation — things like electricity bills and insurance premiums that are harder to have on hand to show the children than a bottle of glue or a roll of toilet paper — but the good news is that every pledge, big or small, goes into the congregation’s budget in exactly the same way.  Remembering that generosity is relative is one way that we can affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, as is thanking one another for whatever we are able to do, for whatever we are able to give to make this Fellowship such a special place.

So when you get that e-mail or that telephone call from another member of the congregation, when you’re asked to meet with that person as part of this year’s canvass, please don’t be shy.  Please don’t succumb to that middle-class modesty that merely serves to stifle the splendor of this tapestry of life.  A canvass visit is a special opportunity to better know a kindred spirit, something that is to be embraced rather than feared.  Being canvassed, in fact, is a right of membership as people who have committed to grow this beloved community together.  When it comes to your pledge, of course, I urge you to be generous, but remember that you’re the one who gets to decide what generosity means for you.  If you can pledge a four-figure amount or more, thank you for your leading support of the congregation.  If you can’t pledge as much as you’d like, thank you for what you can pledge.  If you can only pledge what seems like a small amount, thank you for your steadfast willingness to be part of a larger community.  And whatever your income, I hope that, unlike the poor widow, you won’t pledge until it hurts, but until it feels good.  Whatever it means to you, your generosity will be received most gratefully, and may your giving bring you joy!

So may it be.

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2 Comments »

  1. […] and even committee meetings are all means that serve the end purpose of transformation.  Our members and friends also pledge their financial support of our mission and ministry to change lives, from growing our individual souls and nurturing the life of the community to […]

  2. […] comes to our time, as well as to finite goods such as food and material possessions, not to mention money that is, after all, a surrogate for every other commodity, tangible or not.  It’s easy to get […]

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