Penny Power

Mark 12:1-2, 13:2-4, March 2, 2014

This week I’m going to talk about money and that’s a very, very personal topic. Next week I plan to talk about faith, specifically how we talk—or do not talk about our faith, another very personal topic. I share this as an invitation to further discussion about money and faith. I certainly do not have the last word on either of these topics. Still, I expect that my thoughts will stir some thoughts in all of you. I hope so. Church is a place where we can talk about difficult, personal topics, I believe.

As long as I can remember my family has collected coins for One Great Hour of Sharing. My brother and I would bring home boxes like this one from Sunday school and they would remain on the dinner table throughout Lent. They used to be square and have blackandwhite pictures of needy people who benefited from the One Great Hour of Sharing offering. Our pennies made a difference. When I was in 3rd or 4th grade someone asked my class what giving to One Great Hour of Sharing was like, and I said, “It’s like putting little things together to make a big thing.” I understood that my pennies would be joined with lots of other pennies and the hungry children we saw on our coin boxes would get food to eat.

In 1956 a Christian woman in India had a similar idea. She started the Least Coin Offering. Whenever Christian women gathered they were encouraged to bring the least valuable coin of their country to the meeting and say a prayer for peace and reconciliation as they contributed to the offering. Today Church Women United continues the Fellowship of the Least Coin offering. That’s why we’ve got the new map of the world table cloth on the communion table this morning. As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we also remember that this sacrament unites us with Christians in other places.

Giving small coins has a good precedent for Christians. Our first lesson from Mark has Jesus calling attention to a poor woman who threw two leptons into the temple treasury. We talked about this around the lunch table Tuesday. And some of the questions people asked led me to some pretty neat discoveries. These contributions were voluntary, beyond what people were required to pay to support the temple. Money tossed into the temple treasury went to aid the poor. Back in Jesus’ time people didn’t swipe their debit cards or write checks to make contributions. There was no paper money, so one could see how much people contributed. But here’s the part that is neat; one could also hear what people contributed. The temple had a number of these treasuries and what people put their coins into was like the bell of a trumpet, so tossing coins in made a noise and the larger coins made a larger noise. Does this sound familiar?

We ‘ve been taking Joyful Noise offerings for a few years now. They’re fun and a lot people have change jars at home. The money we collected this morning is going to the work that the deacons do. Thank you. All my life I have been finding money on the ground. My mother used to say it’s because I’m built close to the ground. But I’m taller than she is now and I still find money on the ground a lot For the past few years I’ve been putting it into a special piggy bank which I keep on my desk. When we have a Noisy Offering I throw the coins in. Except this time, I decided to count it up and it came to $10.21! That’s since our last Noisy Offering. Pennies really do add up! Pennies really do make a difference! There is power in pennies! At the temple people could make a big show of their generosity by holding up valuable coins and tossing them into the treasury for maximum impact. Rich people did that regularly. “Threw the bums a dime, in their prime.” And let’s be honest, more money means that more people can benefit. But Jesus calls attention to a poor widow, who contributed everything she had to live on. There are only two other people who receive such high praise from Jesus in the gospels. One is the Centurion in Matthew’s gospel [ch. 8] who asks Jesus to heal his servant. The other is the unnamed woman who appears in the second lesson from Mark this morning.

This is a very, very troubling passage, for several reasons. Jesus is visiting in someone’s home and a woman, probably a member of the household, poured expensive, scented ointment on Jesus. It’s not clear, how much this ointment was worth. A denarius was the wage for a day’s work for a field hand. Imagine that’s about what someone today would get for working a minimum wage job for eight hours. So in today’s terms, the ointment that this woman poured over Jesus was worth around $16,000! Now, the text does not indicate that she was a poor woman, still this is a wild, wasteful, extravagant thing to do. Had I been sitting at the dinner table, I would have said that this was wasteful and foolish. This kind of waste feels sinful to me. In my family, shaped as we were by the Depression, we never, ever wasted anything. Ever. For something to “go to waste” was the worst possible thing.

Last week I bought this conditioner by mistake. I get my shampoo at the dollar store and it’s all the same to me. I buy the one that either promises the most interesting smell or has the most exotic name. I stop noticing the smell after a couple days. The only thing I care about in shampoo is that I get the largest quantity for the lowest price. I bought conditioner by mistake; my hand grabbed the bottle next to the one I meant to grab. I didn’t notice this until I put some on my head in the shower and didn’t get any suds. I read the bottle and saw my mistake. I had wasted a $1.05! And I couldn’t give this to the food pantry, because I’d already used it! I can afford shampoo. I was a little irritated that I’d have to go back to the dollar store, but what really got me was…this conditioner is going to go to waste. I thought I’d just use it until it ran out—that felt like the responsible, faithful thing to do. Who knows, maybe people would start commenting in my silky radiant hair…Then I saw a sign outside the preschool

We are looking for corn starch and

cheap hair conditioner.

We are making a modeling compound.

I was elated! My dollar bottle of conditioner was not going to waste!

Let me very, very clear: conditioner is not nard, and I am not Jesus. The only things these two stories have in common is something oily and fragrant being put on someone’s head.

People at the supper table are upset that the valuable perfume was not sold and the money given to help needy people. It’s hard to imagine that such a use would not be noble and even pleasing to God. But Jesus defends the woman, gives her very high praise and says she has performed a good service for him. This is the only place in the Gospels where Jesus says that. I have to take a deep breath here: Jesus gives high praise to the woman who has just poured $16,000 worth of perfume on his head. Jesus praises this extravagant, wasteful gesture and says that what this woman did will be remembered.

Remember two weeks ago, when Mariana Berber preached on Psalm 133—how good and pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity…”It is like precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard.” Having oil poured over someone is called “anointing” and in what we call the Old Testament, three kinds of people got anointed, prophets—those who spoke God’s word; priests—those who communicated between the people and God; and kings. We call Jesus “the Christ” because he was anointed with oil. This is the moment when Jesus gets his “last name.”

Still, this story is troubling to us. We’re hard-working Protestants. We watch our pennies closely would anyone here spend $16,000 on perfume? OK. Let’s suppose the woman had sold the perfume and given the money to needy people. Who would have bought the perfume? What would they have used it for? The point of perfume is to make a pleasant smell. Why not enjoy it? Why not enjoy it?

I’ve been challenged the past few months by the training I and several other leaders in church are receiving in Creating Congregations of Cultural Generosity. One of my challenges is how difficult it is for me to trust that God will provide…that God doesn’t just send sufficient life, but desires that we enjoy abundant life! That the signs of a faithful church are joy and gratitude, faith and trust, a willingness to celebrate the gift of grace that God sends us through Christ. I am not alone in being challenged in this way. Christians have struggled with finding the balance between faith and frugality for a long, long time. Here’s something John Calvin said more than 500 years ago.

“This topic [money and the use of possession] is a slippery one and slopes both sides into error, let us try to plant our feet where we may safely stand..Let this be our principle: that the use of God’s gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author himself created and destined them for us, since he created them for our good, not for our ruin…Now, if we ponder that end…we shall find that God meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight.”

God provided for delight. Did you hear that word? Delight! This morning we heard about two women who gave lavishly, extravagantly, recklessly, wastefully? Two women motivated by love and faith. Women whom Jesus praised as highly as anyone because they moved beyond the market mind set and lived the life of the spirit. What they did wasn’t safe, or reasonable. But it was faithful.