Gratitude and Giving

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
November 18, 2018

Mark 12: 38-44 (CEB)
38As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. 39They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”

41Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. 43Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

Typically, when we come to this passage, it means a sermon about why it is important to give to the church. We covered that a couple of months ago in the midst of a sermon series focusing on stewardship. So, with Thanksgiving now before us, I want us to consider the immense gift of the widow and how our sacrificial offerings are a sign of gratitude before God.

As you all know, it’s getting on toward Christmas-time now. We are starting to think about gifts, especially for the little ones. Christmas is such a magical time for children and youth, and we always want to make it special. But isn’t it even more wonderful when children have the idea to make Christmas special for the ones they love? You know, we go out and buy toys and games, maybe some clothes or books. We always try to get at least one thing on “the list,” right? But children don’t really have that ability. They can’t drive around to stores, they don’t have money to spend. So if they give a gift, it’s usually because they’ve gotten a little help from Mom or Dad. Or maybe it’s because they’ve been doing a little work on their own. Sneaking around the house, a child might find a piece of paper and a marker to make a card, or maybe she’ll string some macaroni onto a piece of yarn as a necklace. And when the child eagerly presents the gift, you know how much it means to her. How proud she is of the gift; how hard she worked on it, how important it is that you love it. And we do love it, don’t we? These are often the most special gifts we receive because they are a pure expression of the child, who basically has nothing to give, and yet (somehow) gives everything.

God requires much of us who claim the Christian faith. God desires that we would give everything we have to give. God wants more from us than simply warming seats in a church on Sunday mornings. God wants a priesthood of all believers. God expects that we will take the Kingdom that began with Jesus Christ and we will do everything we can to help that Kingdom spread and grow. But if we are going to be faithful in the work that God has called us to, then we have to be willing to give all of ourselves; to not hold anything back. In other words, we have to be willing to make some sacrifices; and when it comes to being followers of Christ, sacrifice takes on many different forms.

The most powerful definition of sacrifice I have ever heard came from Kendall Soulen, one of my seminary professors. In my Systematic Theology class, Kendall offered this description, “Sacrifice is costly self-giving.” Costly self-giving.
What does costly self-giving look like? How do we most fully express gratitude to God? I believe the widow of today’s gospel lesson gives us a perfect picture of grateful, costly self-giving. In Jesus’ time, widows were the epitome of the poor and helpless. They had no status in society, no resources, and no one to provide or care for them. And so Jesus here lifts up the widow in contrast to the rich people who can give extravagantly to the Temple treasury and make sure others see them doing it. Society tells us that the great people are those with money, power, and prestige. But Christ paints a different picture. Jesus lifts up the widow’s gift as noteworthy because she has given literally her “whole life;” those two seemingly insignificant copper coins, which were actually all she had to live on that day. Greatness is not determined by the size of our gift, but by our willingness to sacrifice extravagantly in God’s name. The widow’s gift was small in comparison to the bags of money being thrown in by the rich, but her sacrifice was total.

So what about today? What is sacrifice? What is it to really give of ourselves? I think costly self-giving looks like putting aside that deadline to provide a shoulder for a mourning friend to cry on. I think costly self-giving means stepping away from our agenda so we can hear the hearts of the people around us. I think sacrifice leads us to push aside our fears and open the doors for the “unknown.” I think costly self-giving means offering to God our “first fruits,” not just our excesses. Sacrifice means that we put God first in our lives, and we shape all of our actions based on that; we push our own desires aside to follow God’s will. I believe that sacrifice means we have struggles; that we know pain and disappointment in our lives, so that those persons who have never known anything but pain and disappointment might get a taste of God’s grace, mercy, justice, peace, and most especially, God’s love. This is the best way we can thank God for God’s sacrificial gift for us. This is costly self-giving. This is sacrifice.

Admittedly, what I propose is a tough pill to swallow. Sacrifice is counter-cultural in every respect. America’s market-driven consumer culture sends a constant message that any sacrifices we make should be for self-gain, not at self-cost. And that’s not really sacrifice at all. As Kevin Watson says in his book, A Blueprint for Discipleship, “It is often easier to coast in our faith in the direction in which our culture leads us.” But coasting at the whims of culture is not costly self-giving. Yet imagine how different our world might look if all people (or at the very least all Christ-followers) truly engaged in costly self-giving. How many widows, orphans, or ill, might have been served if all of the wealthy parading by the Temple treasury had made the same sort of sacrifice the widow made? What about a similar sacrifice from us? Just imagine the many lives that might be transformed by our willingness to step out of our comfort zones and proclaim the Gospel message to people in our lives. Think of the hope that might be restored in our willingness to speak out against injustices against the marginalized. Imagine the love that is shared when we give of ourselves in service to another. The gospel we as Christ-followers are called to proclaim requires that we make sacrifices and at times even suffer a bit, but because of what Christ has already done, we must express such gratitude to God! And through such acts, God’s Kingdom is glorified and expanded!

With that in mind, I want to share a story with you. You might also consider it a biology lesson. It is a story about the way in which they train Arab Steeds so as to carry on that particular strain of horses. These Arab Steeds are chosen for breeding and selected in much the same way as we are selected. We are a special people, chosen and called. The breeders of these horses select the best they have. They take the best of each year, each generation that comes along; they pull them out and then they train the horses to obey, to have intelligence, and to be able to do things that will require strength and skill.

Among other things, the horses are taught this: There is one supreme loyalty. When the trainer blows one particular call upon the bugle, it does not make any difference what the horse is doing, that horse is to go to the trainer; across water, over hedges, through barbed wire, against stone walls; somehow the horse is to get to the trainer when that particular blow is sounded by the bugle.

Then, once everything has been done to give the Arab steeds the best kind of training, here is what the trainers do. They take the horses and put them in a great corral at the top of a hill, and they leave them there without water a day and a night, and through the next day. It is burning hot and those horses are without water.

I don’t know whether you have ever been without water for a long time. I have been for long walks in the heat and burning of the day, with nothing but an empty water bottle in my hand and no water fountains nearby. When you get going like that and just have to keep walking, your mouth gets so dry it’s like it’s full of cotton. It is torture to have to go a long time without water. And if it is torture for the human being with the ability to think, imagine what it must be for those Arab horses; twenty-four hours without water. Yet, the trainer persists. Another night goes by, and another maddening day. Forty-eight hours and no water, and night falls again. The horses mill around that great corral, butting themselves against the sides of it, feeling the water down there in the stream at the foot of the hill, calling to their fevered bodies – fifty-two hours, fifty-four hours, fifty-six hours, and still no water.

Then, in the morning, they see the trainer coming up toward the gate of the corral. There before them, down the hill, is the water flowing in the stream. The trainer slips the hasp of the gate and the great gate swings wide. You can imagine the stampede that results as the horses tear down that hill towards the water. Then, when the stampede is at its height, the trainer back inside the gate of the corral blows this bugle, and only those that turn back are considered worthy of carrying on the bloodline of the Arab horse!

We know what it is to have a seemingly unquenchable thirst or insatiable hunger. We know what it is to take that first sip of water after a busy day in the heat, or that first bite of food when our stomachs ache with hunger. The question for us, like the test of the Arab Steeds, is this; when we have our greatest desires within arm’s length and God summons us, will we abandon that pursuit in order to answer God? Will we turn away from what seem to be our greatest hopes and dreams so that we can answer the sounding call of God? Will we climb walls, ford streams, and weave through barbed wire in pursuit of God’s call? Friends, this is precisely what God has done for us. And if we are grateful, we will do just the same.

Certainly this is not easy, but it is what God asks of us. God is our one supreme loyalty, and we must live our lives such that all we do is faithful to that loyalty; even when it requires sacrifice. God has already engaged in such costly self-giving himself. Jesus Christ made the ultimate sacrifice; laying “down his life for us so that we might live, and so that we might be a sign to the world of the power of the coming kingdom of God.” For this we owe the deepest gratitude, our greatest thanksgiving. It is for this cause, the Kingdom cause, that we too are called to follow Christ’s example and to sacrifice; to give of ourselves at a cost, even a great cost. This was the mark of the widow’s gift. This is the sign of the grateful, loving child with the macaroni necklace, and it is God’s call to us. And I fully believe that if we can truly engage in costly self-giving, then our service in Christ’s name will be complete and we will come to know and experience in its fullest sense the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.

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