What does giving do?

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

As we approach Veterans Day again this year, I remember that my own father was only a small cog in a big wheel of a huge battle. As I described in my Children’s Message just now, he played a small part in a very big war. Yet for anyone who has worked on a combat mission, sports team or factory division or office work group, you know it takes all the little pieces working together. Families know this, churches know this. It takes everyone contributing his or her small piece.

On this Veterans Day weekend, I imagine some of you are thinking of your own military service, of the men and maybe even women, who served with you. All the small and seemingly insignificant pieces you or they contributed to war and peacetime efforts together. Some of us think about family and friends who are connected intimately to us on this day; we might think of those who currently serve in Afghanistan or the Middle East, or are stationed anywhere around the globe, doing/giving their small parts of a huge effort by our nation to keep the peace, insure justice. They do their part to, yes, enable the continuance of a certain way of life that we Americans have come to expect, with all the freedoms and the privileges that this way of life entails. We might recall that there is not, at present, a draft and compulsory service in this country. A very small percentage of our country actually fights our wars for us now, smaller than any time in our history. Acknowledging of national observances like Veterans Day can get complicated! While my dad’s generation experienced a general, although not full, agreement about “who is our enemy” and the need for our countries fight in both Europe and the Pacific, we really haven’t shared that kind of consensus about going to war as a nation since then. We’ve seen debates about the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, and more recent wars/invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq divide families and congregations. Many of us want to honor veterans and support current troops, yet few churches have ongoing programs addressing the often nightmarish needs of our most recently returned veterans. How do we acknowledge that Veterans Day is both a happy and sad day, as I described to the children? How might we to respond to the enormous needs of the current group of returning veterans, as we look ahead to Veterans Day on this Wednesday? What are we called to give?

We remember that it was 97 years ago, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month that the armistice with Imperial Germany and the Allied nations went into effect and the killing in Europe stopped. Both my grandfathers, young men in their early 20s, served in the trenches in northern France. When I peppered my surviving Grampy with questions about life in the trenches however, he would only say with a solemn smile: “Well…the trenches of France were where I learned to drink black coffee.” Answering my puzzled look, he continued, “because we couldn’t get cream and sugar in the trenches.” And that was all he would say. I remember pondering over this small detail, really the only child-appropriate detail concerning the hellish conditions of trench warfare, and a whole new world opened up to me. Into my safe, bountiful, post WWII childhood experience of the world came a new awareness about not just wartime, but about less, having little….and learning to appreciate what you had.

Jesus of Nazareth seemed to have a preference for little, insignificant things. In his teaching stories he would talk about little lost sheep, small coins misplaced in a house, tiny mustard seeds. And today in Mark, this story of the widow dropping a minuscule gift, roughly equivalent to two pennies, in the Temple offering box. The New Testament Gospel accounts record that Jesus spent a lot of time with the little, insignificant people of his time, the lowly street people, the reviled sex workers of his day, the resented tax collectors, the repulsive folks with leprosy, and all those scrappy bothersome poor people.

We say in the Christian faith that Jesus is the visible sign of “God’s character and passion” (Marcus Borg, “Heart of Christianity,” p. 81). I would guess that God must be pretty interested in little things and insignificant people too. As I read through today’s story from Mark, I would dare say that God has a real passion for the small: God is concerned about the underdog and the weak in our society, those without title or status or education or property, the people who seem “little” to us.

We learn about God’s attention and concern as Jesus points out the widow in the temple in today’s reading. Jesus has been doing some people-watching on the outskirts of the huge Temple in Jerusalem. He notes this sharp contrast between the pompous giving of the scribes and the generosity of the woman with little money. Scribes were not Jewish priests in the temple; they were actually a rich class of educated landowners found in the urban centers, and at that time were often known for their manipulation of the poor, including powerless widows. Lest we think of ourselves as too different from the scribes, we remember that most of us probably live well or even adequately in part from our own efforts, and also in large part, for many of us, because of the accident of our birth into particular skin color, families and communities. We live well in part because others around the world live poorly. This was the case of the first century scribes. They lived well because of others’ poverty. It is difficult for me to remember, as I marvel at some inexpensive item at my local big box store, that imported cheap goods are mostly made by people in factories who are brutally underpaid. So small daily choices I make even in my shopping connects me with the rest of the world.

Jesus wants us to consider the scribes’ disregard for and even misuse of the poor. He also wants his listeners to notice the widow’s confidence, this woman with just a few coins. She boldly walks up to the Temple offering boxes and gives everything she has. She doesn’t hold back, paralyzed by thinking she is too old, too weak, or poor or insignificant to accomplish anything for God. Small things done with faithfulness, with consistency. This is the work of God’s kingdom, says Jesus.

It is important to remember in this interim time, this period between one settled pastor and your next settled pastor, that God can do much with small things. Maybe you have never pledged before to a church, or haven’t pledged your financial support here in a long time. For starters, it may help to remember that the size of a pledge is not the most important issue here. I believe it is the intention, it is the claiming of a hopefulness, a willingness to engage in the unfolding future of this congregation, even if the pledge is for only a few dollars a week. It’s the consistency in fulfilling that intention that begins to shape us through the year, as we commit ourselves to God’s work in and through this church. Some would say it’s a discipline that, when practiced regularly, helps put a lot of things into perspective for us. Our giving makes us more conscious about how we spend our money in general; we watch and are aware of each piece of spending that we do and each intention and value that this spending reflects. Small daily activities, that add up over time and shape us into who God calls us to be.

Perhaps this Veterans Day weekend, it can be the daily small acts of bravery and compassion performed by our servicemen and women that inspires us. What do we do here on the home front that furthers God’s hope for peace and justice in our world? How might this church reach out to both active-duty servicemen and women and to our local veterans? How might our church contribute to peacekeeping in our community? Perhaps we might explore how this church could provide a forum for civil, respectful and peace-filled conversation about the controversial sidewalk issue emerging in Falcon Heights! There are new small things that we have yet, with God’s guidance, to imagine.

Let us not underestimate what God is doing now, and dreaming of doing in the future, through this church. Size doesn’t seem to be an issue to our creative and transforming God. God is simply looking for partners who will side with the vulnerable, the poor, the returning veteran who is struggling, the disenfranchised in our world. Who will do these little but self-sacrificing things on their behalf, like the woman with the few coins? God is asking us to be co-creators in taking little and creating much. And how blessed we are to be invited into this partnership. Amen.

Treasures and generosity

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

You may have heard about how the popular personal finance expert Suzy Orman begins each of her conversations with a new client. She asks them to think back over their upbringing and youth, their early adult years, and to describe to her their memories about money. She invites people to tell a money story from these years. I might tell a story about learning the value of a few small coins after I had taken some from my mother’s purse at age 5. And then lied to my dad about it! What story would you tell about money in your childhood? Do you remember seeing it or holding some before you knew what it was? Perhaps there was strained money talk between your parents, grandparents. Was there arguing about how it was spent or earned or saved, or was it never discussed at all? What memories about money might shape how you think and feel about money today? If you were raised during or right after the Great Depression in this country, your experience of money would be very different than someone born in the 1980s.

If you were raised in a faith community, what did you learn about money in Sunday school or from your church leaders? What did you think God thought about money? How did your parents and church leaders talk about money? Was it an encouraging message? Or did the pastor or priest harangue folks about giving, giving, giving?! Did large donors to the church get treated differently than the people who gave less?

We each bring different experiences about money into the life of a congregation. And each generation represented in this congregation brings different ideas and attitudes about money, based on when they were born and which generation they identify with. The World War II generation, and those born during World War II, have quite a different perspective on money. They often have stayed with one company or business, eventually paid off their home mortgage and may seldom carry a credit card debt. There is my generation, the Baby Boomers. We have different ideas about savings and debt and compensation. There is my own kids’ generation, duly named the Millennials and born from the mid-1980s up until about 2000. A generation often mired in school debt, with early access to credit cards, and sometimes unable to find adequate work or to buy a home of their own. Perhaps not raised in the church, this generation may have no history or practical knowledge of what it means to support the work of the congregation financially. And oh, yes, how about those kids born in this 21st century? They are not very old yet, don’t hold jobs or credit cards, but their experience of money is already very different. Watching parents pay with debit and credit cards, or the flash of a smart phone, they may not even know what paper money or coins look like! This is getting complicated. Is it any wonder we get all tangled up when talking about money and dealing with finances in the church?

It’s Foundation Sunday, a long-standing tradition in this particular congregation. Not a bad time to do some reflection on money, stewardship and generosity. It’s a day to welcome the annual gift, which comes from a portion of the interest earned on the balance of the church endowment funds that are held in trust. Funds accumulated over the years from gifts received. Gifts from Falcon Heights Church members and friends who affirmed the founding vision of this church, and were hopeful and trusting about the evolving ministries of this congregation. Gifts given out of a deep desire that the giver’s own positive experiences about God’s power and the blessedness of community could be extended to others, long after he or she had left this earth. Legacy gifts, given to signal what was most important to the givers. Gifts that were a sharing of treasure, which give us an idea of where their hearts were at the time of the giving. This is a good Sunday to think about what we each treasure and how this connects with our spiritual well-being.

“Where your treasure is, there you heart will be also,” said Jesus. I love the fact that Jesus often talked about money, because it reminds me that Jesus was always practical about the life of faith. He knew where to touch people, where they were most needy, bringing comfort to the discomforted. He also knew where to nudge or poke people where they were most stuck, bringing discomfort to the comfortable. People in his time would often store their treasure in the purchase of extravagant and costly garments; women’s headdresses might be woven with coins. Not unlike today, with our homes, cars and clothing, you could tell who was of a certain means. We “store” our treasure in all kinds of places besides banks. Jesus not only called people out on not giving to the poor, a supreme value and mandate in their Jewish religious tradition. He also knew that how we “store” our treasure has a lot to do with our spiritual health. Not whether or not you get into the afterlife, but our spiritual well-being in this life. How attached am I to my possessions, to my stuff?

Perhaps you have heard the story of his interaction with a young rich man. This man approaches Jesus and asks about eternal, abundant life – Jesus, how can I live most fully, most abundantly, both now and in the life to come? Jesus patiently walks him through the basics of their Jewish faith: are you loving God with your whole heart, mind, body and soul? Are you following the Ten Commandments? Are you acting with love toward your neighbor? Yes, yes, says the young man. Well, says Jesus, and you can imagine him eyeing this young man very closely then—had news of this inquirer’s wealth reached Jesus, or perhaps it was obvious in his dress? Well, first, sell all you have and give it to the poor….and you will have treasure in heaven….then come and follow me. But “when the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:23).  What was the extreme loss this young man was grieving? He didn’t want to let go of something that he treasured. But something grieved him in the holding on. What did he recognize in that moment, with his hands and his heart full of attachment to his possessions?

The apostle Paul later wrote to the church at Corinth, as he implored them to give generously to help people in need in faraway Jerusalem: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” It’s a wonderfully ambiguous phrase in Greek: God loves a cheerful giver. It also can also be translated: a cheerful giver loves God. Jesus knew that the rich young man’s love of God and giving away of his possessions were intimately related.

Give away your possessions and “you will have treasure in heaven,” said Jesus. Is this about accumulating brownie points with God, which add up to a certain amount, the scales are tipped and we have access through the pearly gates when we die? I do not think so. But what? It may help to remember that Jesus was constantly reminding people that not only is there an unseen world all around and within us, but the Kingdom of God, God’s reign here on earth, is somewhat obscure. He knew we have a “default mode” where we tend to think that what we see, feel, taste, touch, measure is the totality of the real world. Like a default setting on our consciousness (see commentary by Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, February 25, 2009, on Working <>).
Jesus was always about confronting and shifting our attention, altering our perceptions.

Jews in his time were not preoccupied with the afterlife, certainly not in the manner that we Christians became myopically focused on heaven and hell beginning with European medieval times. When we hear Jesus talk about “heaven” we need to pay attention. He is referencing the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, God’s reign of peace, justice, mercy and compassion here on earth and within each of us. Generosity with our money, addressing the needs of the poor, is about something much more basic than heavenly brownie points. It enables us to put our “treasure” – what is most important to us – in God’s hands. We make our relationships, our bodies, our families, our possessions, our money, all that we treasure, available for the work of God’s reign among us.

Since you and I live in a money economy, where almost every day we are making some kind of transaction that involves our accumulated money treasure, we have many opportunities to engage this spiritual practice. And it’s a balance, isn’t it? We each have responsibilities and obligations related to our money. Few of us can give it all away. Somehow we must be fed and sheltered, and do that for our dependents. But Jesus would say, where is your treasure? Where is your heart this week? As we reach for the plastic credit or debt card this week, write a check, perhaps look over our investment portfolio, finger some dollar bills, rattle some change in our pockets, and make the exchange to purchase some additional something…where will our treasure be?

Thanks be to God for those who have gone before us in this congregation and who have generously shared of their treasure through the Foundation Trust fund. As the Apostle Paul declared: “…the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints (the church), but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” Amen.