The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
November 8, 2015
I remember the first week we lived in Spring. Maggie and I are in the Northampton subdivision, and everything just seemed so perfect. The trees are tall and beautiful. The lawns are all manicured. Somehow, on garbage day, all the trash can march themselves to the curb and march themselves back again. In the suburbs, we are protected and secluded from much of the world. And the world is cold and dark place.
The numbers are staggering. There are around 160 million children in the world whose physical growth has been stunted by undernourishment. 160 million. It gets worse. Every day, the equivalent of six jumbo jets full of children die from diarrheal disease. This is because large swaths of the world do not have access to proper sanitation facilities.
The numbers at home are also startling. 19% of Harris County residents live below the poverty line. That’s not Houston, that’s Harris County. And actually, poverty is worse in Houston’s suburbs than it is in the city itself. The Houston area is the largest human trafficking hub in Texas, and one of the largest in the country. I’m talking about real deal, no joke, slavery in the year 2015. Sex workers. Domestic slaves. And forced industrial and agricultural labor.
If the numbers don’t get us, the stories do. Here in the church office, whole families that live in their cars come in asking for help. I don’t mean to be rude, but you know that they are living out of their cars because they smell like it. Imagine that, imagine being a child without a home. Without a shower. The barista at the Starbucks I go to can’t come to church on Sunday because she’s working two jobs just to make ends meet. I have spoken with teenagers who have tried to take their own life. We live in a cold, lonely world. We don’t have one problem, we have problem upon problem. And when we try to address one problem, we’re confronted by at least three more. Think about gun violence. When we try to address gun violence, we’re confronted with the glorification of violence in the media, parenting issues, poverty issues, racism, mental health. Or take clean water in developing countries. To get to clean water – to stop children from dying by the thousands – we have to confront the corrupt politicians and the corrupt businesses that are in cahoots. And sometimes those are our businesses and our politicians.
And we’re overwhelmed by it. Or, at least I am. I mean, what can I do in the face of such evil and ugliness? There is simply too much. How can I do anything? I mean, I am just one man with a busy job and a family. I can’t stop slavery. I can’t stop malaria. I can’t get clean water to everybody in the world that needs it. What can I do?
You know where that thought process goes. There are people that have a lot more money – they should help. There are people that are a lot more powerful – they should do something about it. I can’t, because, look at me. I’m just me.
Churches say the same things about themselves. Sure, working together, churches can make a difference in the world. But look, we are not that big. There are other, much bigger churches around us. Yeah, Champions Forest Baptist Church, they’re huge. They should do something about these problems. Or, what about Joel Olsteen’s church? They have, like, 20,000 people show up on Sundays. Why don’t they do anything about it? We’re just a small little church and we don’t have anything to give.
There’s a story about Jesus like this. Sitting with his disciples, he’s watching people put their offerings into the temple treasury. He sees many rich people come by and put in their offerings. There would have been big, metal boxes for the treasury. And the coins they used were copper. When a rich person came to put in their offering, it would have make quite a sound. Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang.
And then a poor widow comes along. “Poor widow” is an oxymoron. Widows were poor by virtue of being widows. She puts in two small copper coins. They would have barely made a sound. Just a clink. Clink.
What set that poor widow apart was her courage. She had the courage to walk past all of those rich people and put in all that she had. Just two small copper coins. And let’s face it. When it came time to do the accounting, the temple would not have gone hurting if the poor widow had kept those coins to herself. Her two small copper coins did not make or break the budget. They were just a small rounding error.
What she gave was her heart. She gave her heart. That poor widow could’ve looked at all the rich people and said, “well, my offering doesn’t matter. What I have to give is so insignificant, I’ll just keep it for myself and let everybody else do the giving.”
It’s ironic, or maybe it’s providential, that this is our gospel lesson for the day we bless our pledge cards. Imagine that Jesus is watching us give our offerings to the church. The question is not how much we give. The question is, does it make a difference in our lives? Does our giving affect our bottom line, or are we so wealthy that we’re just giving a little bit off the top? If Jesus was watching you fill out your pledge card and turn it in today, which he is, would you do anything differently?
See, everybody has something to give. It’s not about the amount. It’s not about the size of the gift. It’s about the size of your heart when you give it. Is your heart in with Jesus, or is your heart in that new car you want to buy; that bigger house; those season tickets; that Caribbean vacation? Everybody has something to give. And that might mean giving up something else.
And yes, I’m talking about money because Jesus talked about money. Jesus talked about money more than he ever talked about sex, politics, or marriage. Money was crucial in Jesus’ ministry, and it’s a crucial part of our discipleship.
And I’m talking about more than money. I’m talking about our whole lives. We all have something to give. It may not be much in the grand scheme of things. It may not be much in comparison to the staggering evil and misery that surrounds us. But it is something. You can keep it to yourself. That is an option. If you think that all you have is two small copper coins, you can trust that somebody who is more talented, more respected, or more powerful do something about the misery in our world. You can say that everybody else should help while you stay at home.
But what I say is this: that’s how the world has gotten itself here in the first place. Normal people with normal gifts have stayed home instead of helping the world. By our human nature this sin has beset us. This is the sin of greed. Of being self-centered. Of small-mindedness. This is the sin of laziness. It’s a vicious, downward cycle. We hold on to whatever we have – money, skill, talent, compassion – instead of giving it away. Which therefore makes the world an even crueler, and darker place. Which then makes us even less likely to give away what we have. The cycle of sin and despair exacerbate the gathering darkness.
Whatever God has given you – money, talent, skill – you must give it away for God’s greater glory. That’s the whole point. You may think to yourself that what you have to offer to God’s Kingdom is small and insignificant. But to God, there is no such thing as small or insignificant. Each gift we give, each act of charity, each time that we mentor a child, or visit the sick, or welcome a stranger – it is as if we are walking into the temple and dropping our coins in the treasury. And Jesus is watching. Jesus is watching.
In reflecting upon all of this, I am struck by the motto for the Daughters of the King; a religious order of women in the Episcopal Church. Many in this church belong to the Daughters of the King, and they understand what I am saying. The motto for the Daughters of the King goes like this: “I am but one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do. Lord, what will you have me do?”
What is it that the Lord God is calling you to do? What gift, what skill, what talent do you have that should be returned to God for the betterment of his people? It doesn’t have to be huge. What it has to be, is your heart. You have to give away your heart. Take courage from the example of that poor widow. Remember what Jesus said about her: “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty as put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” When you give away all that you have to live on, you learn what it means to live for God.