Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
There once was a very poor man who found himself in desperation making a deal with God before a priest and several parishioners. “I promise, God, if you let me make some money, I will give you a dollar for every ten I make.” Sure enough after a time he found a ten dollar bill, and just as he promised, he gave one of those ten to God. The man’s riches began to grow. After a while he found himself making $1000 a month, and still he kept to his word, giving $100 to God, just like he promised. His riches grew even more and in time he was making $100,000 a year. This meant though that he was giving $10,000 a year back to God. This began to feel like a whole lot of money that he was giving up. He did it, but much more grudgingly. By the time he made $1,000,000 he became very uncomfortable about giving $100,000 of that to God. He went back to the priest and asked if there was any way he could get out of his deal with God. The priest thought about it for a minute and finally replied, “I don’t think so, but if you would prefer to go back to giving only a dollar, I’m sure God would be happy to reduce your income back to 10!”
Isn’t it easier to give more when you have less? Statistics prove this out – that the poorest people give a much greater percentage of their incomes to charities, especially the church, than wealthier folk. But we can see it for ourselves, sometimes in incredibly profound ways. Jack Shriver told me about his mission work on the border handing out food, water and medicines to those crossing into the United States. He said that the volunteers who were trying to help avoid more deaths and dying, especially in the children, would call out announcing that they had food and medicine and water to share and that sometimes people would come, though many times, out of fear, they would stay hidden. One time, however, those hearing the group calling, “food, water, medicine”, came timidly out, with their tiny bags of belongings. They had misunderstood the call “food, water, medicine” as a cry for help. And they came out with the little amounts they had, the tiny amounts they had, apologetically offering everything they had left, while knowing that if they gave away the little they had, they might not survive the journey. Even so, assuming that the group that had come down to help was in fact in need, they offered what they had. Even in the face of the tiny amount they had to survive, they offered it to those they believed were also in need.
I experienced the same thing when I was with a group touring Guatemala and Nicaragua. We met some of the poorest of the poor - people who lived bunched together in homes put together from what they could find; people who struggled daily just to live. None the less, these people would gather whatever food resources they had to offer us, wealthy Americans, the best food that they had, food they could not afford, but that they gave from their hearts, just because we were there to hear them, to meet them, to be with them.
This doesn’t just happen in other cultures either. There have been several videos circulating recently that have looked at some of the behaviors of the homeless in our own culture. In one video a man, well dressed, clean, clearly with resources, was asking people on the street for hugs. Not money, not anything except a hug. But as he passed all the people heading to shop or to work or to wherever they were going, no one passing would give him a hug. Not one person. They were afraid or they were wary. Whatever it was, they avoided him, said no, walked (ran) away. So he approached a bunch of homeless people. And in contrast, not one of them turned him away. They don’t have resources, but they still had care and affection to give.
In another video, a man approached a homeless man and gave him a $10 bill. The homeless man was taken aback and asked him why he had done this. The first man said he just thought the homeless man could use the money. The homeless man stared at him for a minute and then said, “Please, sit down for a minute. Just a minute! I’ll be right back!” The first man sat, not knowing what to expect, but in a minute the homeless man returned, with two lunches that he had bought at the nearby store, one of which he gave to the first man. The first man now was the one who was stunned. He said, “Why did you do this? You could have saved that money to spend on a second lunch tomorrow!” But the homeless man said, “Well, you see, I could. I had the money and I would like to share this meal with you.” Out of the little he had, he gave half to someone who wasn’t even asking for it, just because he could.
In the book, “Richistan”, the author, Robert Frank discussed several studies which showed that no matter how much money a person earned, no matter how much, whether it was $10,000 a year or $10 billion a year, most people felt that if they only made exactly twice what they were making now they would be okay. Most people, regardless of their income, felt that they just didn’t have nearly enough. This points to the reality that as humans we NEVER are satisfied, we never feel we have enough, we always think we need more. The book also showed that actually making more money did not increase happiness, having more money did not increase a sense of well-being. Money does not in fact make us happier. It does, however, increase our sense of what we need. What we perceive to be our needs often grows beyond our incomes, no matter what they are. We can see it happening in our lives and in the lives of those around us, but it is hard to stop it. In contrast to the stories I have just told about poor people around the world, a person I know whom I will call “Sally” has an income that exceeds mine by over five times. Sally spends a great deal of time and energy worrying about her money, and is right now in a place where she absolutely finds it impossible to be generous with time, talents or money. She is often found lamenting how trapped she feels, how tight things are financially. She is often found complaining that she doesn’t know how the bills will be paid next month. And the truth is that she isn’t making this up. She really does struggle to keep up her expected standard of living. Her investment properties, her cars, her get away homes, the time she spends with friends of like economic status at vacation spots, expensive restaurants, her home remodel – all of these things do take every bit of the income that she brings in as well as every extra minute of her time. Of course, for those of us who don’t live like that, it is easy to see the other side. How much of that is necessary spending? How much is luxury? But this is what Sally is used to, what she knows, what she has come to believe is necessary.
She has forgotten the bigger picture…the picture that says that none of her resources are actually her own. They are all God’s and therefore should be used for the good of all rather than the good of just Sally. She has lost touch with the fact that one of the meals she eats out in a month at these luxurious restaurants could feed a family overseas for six months and that this is a better use of God’s resources. Sally has become owned by her possessions and lost in her material wealth. And she is poorer because of it. We do the same. If each of us were to commit to eating out one less time a month, or giving our coffee money for one week of every month to those who really need it, we could make an amazing difference in the world. But we stop seeing these things as luxuries. We forget that we don’t NEED these things. And we forget that all of these resources are God’s, entrusted to us for the good of the world.
But the reality is that I don’t actually want to guilt you into giving money to the church. Because we are not called to give out of guilt. We are not called to give out of guilt. We are called to give out of gratitude. Everything we have has been given to us from a God who loves us beyond our imagining. And that is cause for giving and for celebration.
In today’s scripture the poor widow put more in than all the rest. She put in everything that she had. I don’t think she was sitting there calculating what percentage of her things she was contributing to God. I don’t think she put that money in out of guilt or even a sense of obligation. She gave all that she had because she loved God, because her faith is what made her rich, not her money. She was grateful for that day in her life, for the blessings that she had, though others might see them as few, and so she returned to God what she had been given. How powerful is that? How faithful is that to return to God all that you have, knowing that God will use that gift – that gift of all of you – for the good of all people?
We are called to lift up our joys every week as a way of remembering the blessings God has given us. We are called to serve God with everything we do – choosing work that empowers God’s people and takes care of God’s creation. We are called in every interaction to be loving and caring and warm. We are called to give back from our talents, from our resources, from our money, from our gifts – not because it is “the right thing to do” (though it is), but because we remember that God has blessed us and continues to bless us in every moment and because of that insight, because of the wealth that our love of God gives to us, we are grateful, we are so grateful, that we can hold nothing back. It is all God’s and so we are given the opportunity to give it back.
At a church meeting a very wealthy man rose to tell the rest of those present about his Christian faith. "I'm a millionaire," he said, "and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. I remember that turning point in my faith. I had just earned my first dollar and I went to a church meeting that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his work. I knew that I only had a dollar bill and had to either give it all to God's work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give my whole dollar to God. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today."
He finished and there was an awed silence at his testimony as he moved toward his seat. As he sat down a little old lady sitting in the same pew leaned over and said to him: "I dare you to do it again."
That dare, that challenge applies to us as well. But not out of guilt. God has blessed us and we are in gratitude and love given the gift of being able to offer it back. That is a joy. And it is a privilege. Amen.