A Sermon for Covenant
“Giving from the Center”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
November 11, 2012
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
“‘Tis better to give than to receive,” is what they always tell you, but that hasn’t always been my experience. As a child, it was always the thought of the presents I would receive that woke me bright and early Christmas morning, rather than the gifts I was giving. I remember the impetus to give great gifts as a child was there, but the follow-through was sometimes lacking. Like the year I decided to give my little sister my blankie for Christmas—it was a grand gesture as my most prized possession, but eventually I had to ask her to give it back so I could sleep at night. At a very young age, I learned that giving could hurt.
In our story today, Jesus did a curious thing: he sat down and watched the temple treasury. Why? Why sit down there and why watch? I cannot imagine Jesus picked that spot in order to play judge or so he could gossip later about who gave what. I imagine Jesus came to that place not with a scrutinous eye but with a curious one. I don’t think he was scanning wildly for a sermon illustration; he was just being observant. Jesus was as interested in people as a bird-watcher is interested in birds or a photographer is interested in light. Jesus was mildly curious to see what would happen if he watched the coffer and the people who passed it, and a dash of gentle curiosity is often all you need to find your way to a discovery. And what Jesus learned from the widow that day was so extraordinary, it became a story worth repeating.
You see, the widow did something not a one of us would dare to try. She gave all she had to live on, and though Jesus commended her, you have to wonder first if she was a bit delusional to give away her last two coins. If anyone deserved a free pass on tithing, it was her, but instead of giving her ten percent, she gave one hundred. What was she thinking?
Or, perhaps being that close to abject poverty, she was the only one in the room with her head on straight for she knew how fragile wealth really was. Those two coins may have fed her for the day, but then there was the next day, and the next, and then the next. It was going to take something more than her money to survive, and so she loosened her grip on that false salvation altogether and watched those pieces roll down into the box. I can just hear her sigh as the copper clinked softly against the mounds of silver that would never be hers. She did not know Jesus was watching, listening, wondering.
As this widow uncurled her hard-worn fingers and let her coins drop, was it a heroic act of bravery, this parting with her money? Or, as she sighed, was this her final act of defeat and resignation? What did that moment feel like? Was the atmosphere dripping with her despair or was the air lighter, like a weight lifted? Did her empty pockets weigh her down or had she just opened up a roomy space inside herself for grace to take up residence? Was this a defining moment in her life, or was it simple regular occurrence? Did it happen week after week, that she brought in her miniscule bounty, accompanied by faith that the extravagance of God would meet up with her dearth and produce a surplus?
When she sighed, was it the exhale of her angst, a deep cleansing breath of release? What did Jesus notice that inspired him so?
Maybe this text isn’t so much about giving away your blankie, i.e. finding a gift that will hurt when you give it, bullying yourself into generosity. Maybe this is a text about altogether surrendering your illusion of control and security. Everyone else in the story gave what they thought they could spare; the widow gave up the notion that the money was ever really hers at all. Maybe this is a text about giving from the core of yourself and not from the edges. You get the sense that what the rich people gave that day—though the sums were large—was a pile a pocket change in exchange for leaving their true selves at home. They gave from their excess; they gave what was extra; they gave money inconsequential to them or their living. The widow, by contrast, gave from her poverty, she gave out of her nothingness, which, was in fact, her core. How else could this widow have possibly “put more into the treasury than all the others,” unless she was the only one who gave from her center, the only one who gave a real and authentic gift?
It isn’t so much that giving must hurt or must put you at financial risk, as if the pain of the gift was the point. It wasn’t really about the percentage either—100% versus 5% of your income or whatever, and it certainly wasn’t about the amount it added it up too. It was where the gift came from that Jesus notices. Some gave from their wealth and one gave from her poverty, and that is what determined the gift’s authenticity and worth.
Tapping into our poverty sounds like such a bad idea. I’d rather focus on the goods I own rather than what I lack. And yet, the idea that I own anything at all is only an illusion—whatever I have, be it money or children or talents or dreams, I’m only the steward never the owner. I may be the recipient of blessings, but the blessings are not mine so much as they have been entrusted to me for awhile. It’s an illusion to think I get to be in control of it, and if you’ve ever lost something or someone who was valuable to you, you know what I mean. The things you love most can disappear from your grasp, just like that. That was the problem, I think, with giving from your wealth. The focus was on what you had to offer.
The widow didn’t think about what she had that she could offer. She thought about what she was holding onto that got in the way of trust. She dropped her two coins, and that opened her heart, which made her gift invaluable. That fraction of a penny was of untouchable worth, though it took someone like Jesus to take note.
Shopping around inside my neediness and brokenness and dependency seems like a sketchy place to find my gifts for the world. But looking inside there gets me past all my outer, greedy grasps on what I think I have and think I know. It gets me past the façade of success and knowledge I wear like a mask to keep love and people out. It gets me beyond that anxious part of myself that is desperate to impress and into the deeper well of who I really am. Ironically, only those in touch with their poverty can appreciate their wealth. Only they grow truly fearless. As Jesus put it, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Generosity arises from our core, from that place deep, deep within where we don’t pretend to own anything or know anything. Where we just are in the presence of God in such a profound way it sets us free to give and to love and to create.
Sometimes you tap into that place first, and then you give from the poverty. Sometimes you give first, in hopes of reaching that place, of coming to terms with your dependency on God. It’s a cycle really—give, then trust, trust, then give—but every time you engage the cycle, you are giving more to the treasury than you could possibly imagine. You give because it isn’t yours to begin with, and giving is one way to teach yourself the truth. Sometimes the truth envelops you, which is when you start to be a generous by nature and not just by practice.
That’s why tithing is a part of Sunday morning worship. Instead of sending you a bill in the mail, we pass the plate so you can worship God. So you can sigh an exhale of your angst, a deep breath of cleansing release as you open yourself up yet again to your dependency on God, as you surrender that very convincing lie that money will fix you. It’s not so much the percentage you give or how much it adds up to; it’s where the gift comes from, your wealth or your poverty, from your sense of self or your sense of God. Of course, not many of us have the right attitude about giving every time, and that’s okay too. It’s like everything else we do in worship; we come as we are in faith that God is big enough to handle our mess and good enough to meet up with our dearth and produce a surplus.
Oh beloved of God, may we come to know we are beloved. May we get beyond the excesses of our life, where we put up shows of success and try to earn favor and hold onto wealth and pretend to know so much and have it all together. May we tap that inner poverty where God truly is enough and where we are loved. May we give, love, and shimmer with light, such that if Jesus were sitting opposite, silently watching, he would be stuck with awe at what he observed: a simple people doing simple things in the most beautiful generosity you ever saw. Amen.