The Value of Coins

Luke 21:1-4

I remember the senior pastor I worked alongside in North Carolina telling me more than once, “Deborah, we don’t have to worry about challenging our church members too strongly with respect to their financial giving because Presbyterians definitely know how to hold onto their wallets.”  Of course we do!  If we pay attention, generally we know what we can afford and what we can’t.  We also know how easily we can get in trouble financially when we forget what it is that we can afford and spend more than we have.  In general, we know the level of generosity that is comfortable for us and the level of generosity that becomes uncomfortable for us.  We know how to hold on to our wallets. 

We each have a personal value system about how money is spent or saved, one that is often an outgrowth of what we learned as children.  Perhaps you did not agree with the value system you were exposed to growing up, so as an adult, you intentionally shape a new value system regarding money.  Or perhaps you saw the great benefits of the value system you were exposed to growing up, so you continue to employ a similar system of values with respect to your own wallet as an adult.

            As we move through this season of Lent together, I do hope you are making use of the envelopes in your Lenten packet, one marked for each Sunday of Lent.  The purple sheet with a scripture reading, reflection, discussion questions and a suggested prayer are worthwhile to ponder throughout the week.  They were chosen specifically for HRPC from the complete Lenten devotional book by Rev. Jill Duffield, senior pastor at First Presbyterian in Greensboro, NC.  She titles her devotional:  Lent in Plain Sight.  Duffield focuses each week on a different ordinary object.  I want you to know that this week I sent a note to Rev. Duffield to let her know how we are making use of her devotional for our congregation during Lent 2021.  She was thrilled and told me that my note made her week!

Thus far we have looked at the ordinary objects of ashes and oil.  This week our ordinary object is coins.  You can do a little exploring yourself about how often coins are mentioned in the New Testament.  Look it up—only once in John, with the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, but coin or coins are mentioned in the other gospels several times.   When you go broader and look at how often money is mentioned, you will find an entire column of citations in very small print in a concordance, with about half of them in the Old Testament and half of them in the New Testament.

            Jesus has an opinion about coins.  Like the rest of us, he carries a value system about how money is used which he expresses in several different encounters, in teaching the disciples, and in examples in preaching through some of his parables.  The text we heard today from the gospel of Luke tells about the poor widow who contributes two small copper coins to the temple treasury.  These are the smallest denomination of coins in the Greek empire, like a penny for us.  The pennies that are worth so little that when people drop one by mistake, many do not even bother to pick up the coin at all.  The widow could have purchased three grapes with her two coins.  They would not even have been enough to purchase a sparrow for an offering in the temple.  Almost nothing.  Yet it was all she had.  Jesus cares not about the amount of her gift, but about the motivation and the generosity of her spirit.  What would she live on tomorrow?  Somehow she trusts that help will come her way, and to her it is more important to give what she can while she is able.  Tomorrow is another day with its own challenges and surprises.

            Jesus lifts up the widow’s value system as he is sitting outside the temple watching worshipers file in.  He describes her value system as one which views money, even a very small amount, as a means to show devotion to God.  In the process, he clearly puts down the view of money held by the rich people who are also on their way into worship, the ones who carelessly drop money into the offering box.  For the rich, it was simply skimming some money off the top, and any amount they put in would not have been noticed in their bank accounts or their wallets.  Listen to this parable provided by NT Wright, a British scholar and preacher:  suppose you have two balloons filled with air.  One is quite small and the other is very large.  You untie the balloons and release the same amount of air from both balloons.  The small one is completely deflated, while the large one does not really look any different! 

This temple treasury was a box for what we might call a free-will offering—worshipers could give what they wanted to give.  The funds would have been used by the temple leaders to keep up the building, pay the priests, basically run the entire Jewish religious community.    Some point out that this religious institution had a bad reputation of ignoring the needs of vulnerable people like poor widows, and that women like the one in this story definitely did not benefit from this kind of temple-centered economic system which was known for exploiting the vulnerable ones in society.  Others say that the temple as an institution must not have exploited the vulnerable, or Jesus would have told her to keep her money instead of depositing it in the offering plate.  Based on the descriptions we find elsewhere in the gospels, I tend to lean into the idea that the faith institution of Jesus’ day did exploit the poor.   This makes me think of the people today who really don’t have money to spare who get sucked into giving and giving and giving to a televangelist, or maybe a radio religious personality, thinking their sacrificial giving will reap blessings for them as individuals or as a family while they run the risk of eviction or malnutrition.  When an economic system centers on one pastor or one faith institution which takes advantage of poor families, that is a current day exploitation of faith-based generosity.

One Lenten practice worth trying is to take stock of your own value system around spending and saving coins of any value.  It starts to really hit home when we ask ourselves questions like the ones Jill Duffield explores in one of her reflections in the Lenten devotional—some of them are questions Hunting Ridge (and many other congregations) have struggled with over the years, and even very recently.  Questions like, should we maintain a comfortable nest egg so we will have the funds for a rainy day?  After all, our building is old.  Or instead, should we empty our accounts and spread the wealth to those in our community and beyond who are in financial need? What about the thousands of dollars spent on refurbishing an organ?  Some will say—well, we got donations to cover the cost here at Hunting Ridge.  And yes we did.  But what is the value system at play in refurbishing an organ for our enjoyment instead of building a playground for children in the inner city, for example?  And how about putting out money to redecorate the fellowship hall?  Or to put in an elevator?  Is it simply frivolous spending or perhaps a way to make our worship and fellowship spaces accessible to all?  What about raising funds and setting aside annual budget dollars to fund a mission trip or to send our youth to conferences in the summer?   Yes indeed, as Duffield says, “questions about money bring to the surface deeply held opinions and emotions”.  Certainly,  these kinds of debates illustrate our varied value systems, and quickly!  Duffield shares a marvelous example: “I remember vividly a conversation with a fellow Presbyterian attending a workshop on stewardship.  He told me how angry his father would get at his mother for taking a portion of their family’s crops and chickens’ eggs to the pastor.  What his mother saw as faithful, his father saw as foolish.”   What do you think?  Was it faithful or foolish?  It depends on your value system, on how you look at coins and spending and saving. 

I am reminded of another event shared in Matthew’s gospel, the 26th chapter.  It is getting close to the end of Jesus’ life.  He is in Jerusalem having dinner at the home of Simon the leper (not Simon Peter the disciple!).  A woman came in and poured a bottle full of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, anointing him in a very worshipful act.  The disvalue system for money, were quick to get angry.  They asked Jesus: “Why are you allowing this kind of waste of resources?  If she has this expensive perfume and wants to honor you, why does she not sell it for a large sum and give the money to the poor?”

Remember, Jesus has a different value system for money.  He berates the disciples for putting the woman down, telling them that she has performed a valuable act of devotion, pouring out her precious resource to essentially prepare him for burial.  Jesus knows the end is coming.  As a matter of fact, immediately after this event, Matthew tells us that Judas leaves the group and finds the chief priests, agreeing to betray Jesus into their hands.  Jesus recognizes that the woman knows she should express her devotion while she can.  Jesus is not going to be around forever.  In Jesus’ mind, this is not a waste, but appropriate devotion.  Faithfulness, not foolishness.

What is a faithful way to look at the coins we have at our disposal?  What is a foolish way to look at them?  We likely will have different answers.  I wonder what we would learn about each other if we had conversations around the use of money in general and the use of money in the life of the church?  Perhaps each of us would grow as we listen to others.  Amen.

Separated for Service February 21, 2021

Exodus29:1-9

Olive oil was and is the oil of choice in Israel.  Ancient olive groves are filled with gnarled olive trees that provide farmers with olives which are pressed for oil and sold.  Olive oil is truly a treasured gift from God, something to be thankful for on a daily basis. In scripture we learn that oil has multiple uses—perhaps because it is so easy to come by in the Middle Eastern climate.

Just as we do in our kitchens today, Middle Eastern cultures have long used olive oil in cooking. Remember the story of the widow in 1 Kings who was visited by the man of God named Elijah?  We call him a prophet today. The widow lived with her son in Zarephath, which was outside of Israel.   Poor as she was, she was just about out of oil and flour, essential, bare-bones ingredients used to make bread to keep their stomachs full.  She was out gathering firewood to prepare the last meal for herself and her son when Elijah shows up, having been instructed by God to look for her.  She explains her plight, and Elijah asks her to make bread for him!  She does, and then she miraculously has a lifetime supply of flour and oil.   

Oil was also a source of income for some—there is a story in 2 Kings about another widow who was deeply in debt and in danger of losing her two children who could legally be taken from her as slaves to settle the debt.  The prophet Elisha tells her to borrow as many vessels as she can from her neighbors, and the little bit of oil that she had in her house becomes a fount of oil that fills container after container until they were all full.  She is then able to sell the oil and pay off her debt, keeping her family intact.

Oil was used for light, poured into a clay lamp with a wick to provide a warm glow in the darkness in a home or by a group of bridesmaids waiting for the groom to arrive so the wedding festivities could begin.  Remember that parable Jesus told about the unprepared bridesmaids who had not thought to bring extra oil?  They ended up in the dark, went looking for oil and missed the wedding.

Jesus also tells another parable that includes the oil that was used to wash the wounds of the Jewish man who had been beaten by robbers and left for dead alongside the road to Jericho.  Perhaps you too know the cleaning properties of oil, having washed with olive oil soap today.

And then there is the oil used for anointing, establishing a person or a thing as set apart for a special purpose, making the person or the thing holy with the oil sprinkled or poured.  The recipe for anointing oil is found in Exodus chapter 30—you take the olive oil and mix it with myrrh, cinnamon, sugar cane and cassia, which is a close relative of cinnamon.  Seems like the anointing oil smelled really good!  At one point in the book of Exodus, the people are instructed to bring the items to the tent of meeting that are going to be needed for the worship space to be outfitted and equipped.  It is an offering of silver and gold, dyed yarn, beaded leather, olive oil and spices to make the anointing oil.  Sounds like the offerings we give regularly which are used for the ongoing ministry of our congregation, for salaries, supplies and spaces for worship and study.  God instructed Moses to instruct the people to use the anointing oil on the tent of meeting, on the altar for sacrifice, on anything that was to be designated as holy, dedicated for God’s use.

The anointing oil was also used on people.  First it was employed in the ordination of  priests, such as Aaron, Moses’ brother, and Aaron’s sons.  It was poured on their heads and on their special priestly garments, including a turban and a crown, setting them apart for holy service.  Later, the same kind of anointing oil was used to anoint the kings chosen by God, setting them apart with the special task of leading and protecting the people.

The action is described as a consecration, a dedication or simply as making the priests holy, depending on which English translation you use.  But each one of the translations I consulted translated the same word in English— ordain– for the Hebrew idiom “to fill the hands of..”  Scholars are not sure how that idiom arose, perhaps it was a part of an ordination ceremony that we no longer have access to.  To me the idiom illustrates very well the ministry responsibilities of the priests.  They are set apart to fill their hands with the concerns and needs of the people, lifting them up to God in prayer.  And at the same time, they are set apart to fill their hands with God’s word, God’s message, for the people. 

Think for a moment about our ordination practices in the Presbyterian Church.  I am sure most of you have seen an ordination, whether of deacons, elders or ministers of Word and sacrament.  Did you know that the same eight questions are asked of the one being ordained, no matter which office her or she is being ordained to?  Each office has only one question that is unique, a question pertaining to the unique tasks of their office.  The questions are designed to be sure that the individual is adequately prepared and fully ready to assume the duties of this office which sets them apart for a particular service in the church.  It does not make them better or closer to God.  Unfortunately, we have often put pastors in particular, but maybe elders or deacons as well, on a pedestal, thinking that because they are ordained they are to be treated differently, more highly regarded, etc.  This mindset has led to abuses of the power of the office in too many sad stories of a person of the cloth taking advantage of a church member in some way.  Let’s be careful here—being ordained does not mean we are superior to other believers in any way or worthy of being fawned over.  Nor does it mean we have a more direct line to God.  Being ordained means being set apart for service, for a particular task of ministry—whether service, governance or preaching and teaching.   I so appreciate the line in our list of what has been described as the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, the core of what we believe as Presbyterian Christians:  We believe that God elects (or chooses or sets apart) people for salvation and service.  That is all people, not simply those who are ordained to particular offices in the Presbyterian Church.  Each of us is set apart for salvation through Jesus Christ.  Period.  Not through any action on our part.  Through the grace of Christ.  And each of us is set apart for service—service to God and service to others.  As we make our way through Lent toward the cross and ultimately the resurrection of our Lord, perhaps we can spend some time reflecting on our role as believers set apart for salvation and service.  If you believe that, how is it visible in your life?  Where are you using your God given gifts?  In whose life are you making a difference with your time, your wisdom, your energy?  How are you using your wallet to serve others, to contribute to the ministry of this congregation or other helping agencies in our community? 

Each one of us has been selected.  In our congregation, some are selected by God through the voice of the people to serve as elders.  Active elders serving on session make decisions and create a vision for our witness in the world.  They care for our entire flock, providing for pastoral care, spiritual nurture and enough challenges to ensure that each of us is growing closer to God.

We do not actually make use of anointing oil for ordinations in the Presbyterian church, but we do practice the laying on of hands.  When a person is first ordained, others who have been ordained in the Presbyterian church, either elders or ministers of Word and sacrament, are invited to come forward to lay hands on the one being ordained.  Usually there are so many hands involved that we have to make a human chain, pre-Covid, of course!  The ones closest to the person place a hand on the head or the shoulder or the arm, and the others place their hands on those who are standing in front of them, so the power of hands is transmitted through the human chain to the kneeling man or woman or youth.  I wonder if it is our Presbyterian way of pouring oil on the head, of anointing the person, setting him or her apart for a particular task of ministry?  Surely it is the hands full of love, support, encouragement which reach out to fill the hands of the one being ordained, so that he or she will begin serving God and serving others in a new way.  It is our oil substitute.  And like the olive oil, this is a gift from God. Amen.