Message Manuscript of “Giving God a Penny” Mark 12:38-44
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, November 11, 2012
When was the last time you were walking through a parking lot somewhere and spotted a penny on the ground, and bent down to pick it up? You may be superstitious enough to hold to the saying, Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck. But, you may be like I am, thinking the energy and back strain involved in getting to it just isn’t worth the penny. Even if you got the penny, saw your luck increase, it wouldn’t be of any help in actually enjoying your luck. I hate to be so hard on the penny, but aren’t we all? We don’t pick them up anymore, we sweep them up with the trash, we throw them into fountains, we punch holes in them with machines that cost more than a penny at Six Flags and Cracker Barrel, use them to check the tread on our tires (thanks to the ginormous head of Mr. Lincoln), and we pile them atop our dressers and deep within our jars at home. Pennies are so neglected and undervalued. Did you know, though, that God really likes them? That’s what we hear today in our text, as we hear of what happened one day in the temple as Jesus was observing how the rich and poor gave their offerings.
As we hear what Jesus saw that day, we can come to an understanding about giving–and not just of our finances. Jesus used his observation as a teachable moment for the disciples, that they would understand what mattered most to God in their giving. The widow who gave only two copper coins, the equivalent of a penny, did what mattered most to God. She provided the example Jesus’ followers needed, as they were also poor and no doubt could identify with giving to God out of their poverty. As disciples of Jesus today, we must know what matters most in our giving to God, even if all we have to give God is a penny. How do you give to God when all you have is a penny?
According to Jesus, your penny is enough. The rich worshippers who entered the temple that day had bigger offerings to give. They knew their offerings were large, and they wanted everyone else to know it as well. They were much like the Scribes Jesus mentioned before telling of this widow. They were quite demonstrative with their efforts for God, with their long robes, their seats of honor, and their long-winded prayers. Everyone knew this about them and you can be sure it caused resentment and under-the-breath chatter as they swished by in their robes. How could you compete with them on any level, especially when it came to making an offering to God? They may be pious, show-off jerks, but they could sure give a good offering. Jesus knew what this thinking was about them among the common folk, so he used this time as a teachable moment about what really impresses God. He made sure they knew it wasn’t them. It wasn’t their big, loud offerings. Jesus stressed that giving God two coins worth a penny was just as desirable as a large offering of valuable coins. Both kinds of gifts were really insignificant to God, for what mattered most was what was in the heart of the giver.
This week I saw some numbers in a Preaching Today illustration that were shocking. They were from a Books & Culture article, A Lot of Lattés, by Ron Sider, in which he reviews the book, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money. Sider offers a synopsis of some of the authors’ findings:
If just the “committed Christians” (defined as those who attend church at least a few times a month or profess to be “strong” or “very strong” Christians) would tithe, there would be an extra 46 billion dollars a year available for kingdom work. [The conclusion of the authors] is surely right: “Reasonably generous financial giving of ordinary American Christians would generate staggering amounts of money that could literally change the world.”
Twenty percent of American Christians give nothing to the church . . . A small minority of American Christians give most of the total donated. Twenty percent of all Christians give 86.4 percent of the total. The most generous five percent give well over half (59.6 percent) of all contributions. But higher-income American Christians give less as a percentage of household income than poorer American Christians.
It is quite apparent here that what many Christians are giving just isn’t enough.
If you came to church with only a penny this morning, you can know that it is enough. It is enough if it is all you have to give. It is enough if it is a gift of your heart. It is enough if it is your all. It is enough even if it is the smallest gift in the offering plate. It is enough even if what other people give makes a lot more noise and seems to get more attention. You may be relieved this morning to know that a penny is enough. It is not enough, however, if you have much more than a penny to give. It is not enough if you have so many pennies you can hardly count them all. If you are such a penny-plenty person, there is an amount that is enough but one penny is not it. If a penny or even a boat load of pennies is what you’ve given, and it’s all you’ve given, then you haven’t given enough. Even if you give so much more than pennies, even big and loud offerings, good for you, but God is not impressed. He is not impressed unless you have given enough, at that point for you when you are giving from your heart.
If a penny is enough for some, but not for others, how can you be sure you are giving enough? What is the rule of thumb on this sort of thing? The Sunday School answer is 10%, which is a good answer. It, however, is not the complete answer. It was a calculated sum for the penny-plenty people Jesus saw–and heard–giving in the temple that day. It was a healthy percentage of their income, but they still had more to live on; more income. It was calculated for the widow too, but her calculations showed that giving both of her coins meant that she would have no coins. She was giving 100%, a sum not getting the notice of the crowd and certainly not of the religious elite, but it made that certain noise that is so loud that it echoes into the chambers of God’s heavenly temple. It is the sound of enough, filling the temple with an offering to God that has actually little to do with coinage. It is the sound a heart makes when it is in rhythm with God’s heartbeat. As Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “As far as she knew no one ever saw her give. But then again, no one ever saw her.” She was all used up. Her last penny was a fortune in God’s eyes. She was a percentage giver alright…she gave 100%. It took one to know one…she withheld nothing from God and neither did He. (Jesus).
Withholding nothing from God. 100%. How can this be? “You stepped on my toe at that 10% level, and now you are saying it is not enough?” Yes. Well, actually, that is what Jesus is saying here. It is what was reinforced in his heart as he saw the contrast between two very different kinds of giving in the temple. It was there in his thoughts as well, I am sure, as he knew he was in for some costly days ahead as he traveled into Jerusalem. I can’t help but think that the 100% level of giving was much on his mind as he was aware that it is where he would soon be, holding nothing back from God. C.S. Lewis wrote of this kind of giving, I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” Jesus would soon give more than he could spare. He would lay it all down for the cause of God, for a kingdom that was not his own, for a love beyond what he could just explain. And that was enough.
What about you? Where do you fit into this account today? What does 100% look like in your life? Our minds focus on money with this question, which isn’t a wrong place to start. But, it is not the right place to stop. In what other ways will you give your all? Maybe it is in service to the needs around you in this neighborhood. It could be the way you go the extra mile when you no longer feel like taking one more step. For some, it could be giving more of your ears to listen to someone who just needs to talk. It may be giving more of your hands to help people whose hands aren’t so handy anymore. Or, maybe it is giving more of your time to a child, a classmate, a person chatting you up in line at Brookshire’s, an at-risk student, a spouse, a parent or a friend for whom you really don’t have any time in your busy schedule this week.
I’m pretty confident that you will see a penny this week. I encourage you not to pass it up. Instead, see it as significant enough to pick up. I don’t believe it will give you good luck, but what I do know is that it will be enough for God, if it is all you have to give.
Audio of sermon: