"Our Money Story: Reimagine"
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Our Money Story: Reimagine”
Rev. Amy Morgan
October 25, 2020
Leviticus 19:9-10; 25:8-12
9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.
8 You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years.
9 Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month-- on the day of atonement-- you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land.
10 And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.
11 That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines.
12 For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.
38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!
40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.
42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.
43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
It’s not about the widow. When someone references this story, when we hear “the widow’s mite,” what jumps to mind is someone who is fantastically faithful, someone who trusts God with everything she has, someone who gives everything to God. After hearing last week’s story about Jesus telling a rich young man to sell everything and give it to the poor, we might be tempted to think this interpretation of the widow’s mite makes sense. She is doing exactly what Jesus recommended. She is giving away even what she has to live on. She is so faithful.
But this story is not about the widow.
If we widen our lens and look at what happens just before and just after this episode in Mark’s gospel, we quickly and clearly see what this story is really about.
Jesus entered Jerusalem, and the first thing he did is drive the money changers out of the temple, declaring this house of prayer to be a den of robbers. Then he got into debates with leaders of the religious establishment about authority and taxes. And right before today’s story, Jesus proclaimed that the greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
Just after this episode, Jesus immediately begins predicting the destruction of the temple and coming persecution. Taking in this larger story, this whole Jerusalem event, centered in the Temple, it becomes clear that the “widow’s mite” is not a story about inspirational generosity. It’s a condemnation and a warning for the religious industrial complex.
This story is not about the widow’s faithfulness. It is about the judgement of those systems of authority, in particular religious institutions, that are oppressing and excluding and perpetuating inequity and failing to love God and their neighbor. It is a scathing indictment, and it comes with severe consequences.
The segment of the story we read today begins with Jesus criticizing the ostentatious scribes, the religious leaders who feast at banquets and devour widow’s houses. They hob nob with those wealthy folks tossing generous sums into the temple treasury, not so the widows can be cared for but so the religious leaders can buy fancier robes.
Note that Jesus has no condemnation for the wealthy. He says they give out of their abundance, but he doesn’t criticize them for it. He doesn’t say they should give more, or give everything.
Instead the criticism that is implicit in Jesus’s observation, when we read it in the context of the whole Jerusalem episode, is a religious system that is devouring widows instead of protecting them, a system Jesus holds the religious leadership responsible for perpetuating. In this system, the poor give out of their need, they give more than they should. Jesus doesn’t instruct widows to give everything they have and follow him. He instructs a rich young man to sell his possessions, to get rid of the excess, to undo the inequity that exists in his society. In God’s economy, no one should be giving all they have, everything they have to live on. That isn’t faithfulness. That is usury. And Jesus condemns it in no uncertain terms.
You might expect that during stewardship season, I would at least try to interpret this story in the traditional fashion. I could draw upon that image of the faithful widow, encouraging all of us to give generously out of our abundance or sacrificially out of our meager means. But that would only perpetuate the injustice Jesus is denouncing in this story.
What we are exploring this stewardship season are the money stories that shape our stewardship. So we are not talking about stewardship as a private, or even exclusively personal, matter. Good stewardship is not restricted to generous giving but must embrace the challenge of justice, indebtedness, financial exclusion and financial capability. It must address the social and political systems in which we participate, systems that shape and inform our personal money stories in powerful ways. Our personal commitment to generous giving cannot be divorced from our commitment to justice and righteousness around money. Our personal financial decisions, even our giving, do not take place in a vacuum. Giving is countercultural, a prophetic act. It challenges our personal preoccupation with wealth and calls us again and again to remember the poor and to act with justice in all our dealings.
And that is why I want to introduce you all to Calvary Presbyterian Church. Calvary sits on the corner of Greenview Avenue and 7 Mile Road, in the heart of one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Detroit. Across the street there is an empty city block that once contained homes that were condemned and demolished. The surrounding blocks are populated with barber shops, dollar stores, and auto repair shops.
If you look up Calvary on Google maps, the image is not labeled as just a Presbyterian church, however. The map indicates instead the location of a Food Distribution Center. The building is used by community groups and is the center of numerous neighborhood outreach activities. The small, mostly African American congregation is growing and thriving as they worship God and love their neighbors.
Ten miles north of Calvary, a large, suburban, mostly white Presbyterian church also worships God and loves their neighbors, partnering in ministry with Calvary through Detroit Presbytery’s shared mission. This church is surrounded by multi-million-dollar homes, golf courses, and upscale shops and restaurants.
The annual budget of Calvary is about $125,000. The annual budget of the suburban church is over a million dollars. The median household income in Calvary’s neighborhood is about $35,000. In the suburban neighborhood, the median household income is more than $107,000. 83% of household in the suburb own their home. Only 45% of the people around Calvary are homeowners.
But here’s the rub: members in both of these churches are asked to pay the exact same amount per member for Presbytery and denominational operations. In the Presbyterian world, we call this payment per capita. Essentially, it’s a head tax. In Detroit Presbytery, per capita is $30.55. Not a huge amount. But $30.55 is a larger share of $35,000 than it is of $107,000. Now, because the suburban church has more members, they pay more in total per capita than Calvary does. But each member of Calvary, if they should pay their per capita, is paying a larger share of their income than the members of the suburban church. Total per capita for Calvary is 2.68 of the church’s total annual budget. It’s only 1.5 of the suburban church’s budget.
Not only that: the average annual pledge at Calvary is larger than the average pledge at the suburban church. At Calvary, every member has to give everything they can to keep the church going, to maintain its mission and ministry. At the suburban church, half of the members give nothing, and a few very wealthy and very generous individuals support more than 10% of the budget.
The suburban church tosses large sums of money into the Presbytery and denomination. They do amazing mission and give away a lot of money through their foundation, their Deacons’ Fund, and through shared mission giving. And, trust me, no one in Detroit Presbytery or at the PC(USA) General Assembly is getting fat off per capita. No ostentatious robes are being worn around this denomination, and our leaders aren’t out to devour anyone’s houses. But that doesn’t mean our system is just.
Our churches are not islands, separate from the surrounding cultural influences. Wealthy, suburban churchgoers aren’t keen on paying more per capita than churches in low-income neighborhoods, and they aren’t keen on paying more in federal or state income taxes, either. Because they already pay a lot, and I mean a lot, they feel they are doing their fair share.
Jesus doesn’t condemn them, or any of us, for being wealthy. There is no judgment from Jesus for being rich. There is no judgment on the sums of money being tossed into the treasury.
But there is severe condemnation on a system that requires anyone to give all they have in order to keep operating. We aren’t told why the widow gives everything she has. Perhaps she felt like she had to. Perhaps she was convinced she’d be rewarded. Perhaps she felt like it was the only way for her to matter as much as the rich folk in God’s eyes.
In the end, her reason doesn’t matter. Because there is no reason, in Jesus’ view, for her to be giving away her last penny to an institution that exists to serve itself, an institution that reinforces social inequity and participates in systems of injustice.
I don’t believe the Presbyterian Church is one of those systems. But I don’t want it to become one of those systems. And so, when it occurred to me this week that part of our system is broken, I felt we needed the chance to help fix it.
Changing our polity and operational funding structure is a monumental task that would require a lot of study and years of advocacy and overtures. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something right now.
Calvary’s congregation is about the same size as ours. They share our commitment to being the church for our neighbor on our doorstep. They share our passion for community engagement and advocacy for justice. They may be 1200 miles away, but they are our neighbors. They are our siblings in Christ. And they are putting too great a share of their money into the institution. They are supporting the institution instead of the institution supporting them. They are paying their per capita while they are struggling to call a new pastor. They are paying their per capita while they are feeding their community.
So here’s my subversive scheme: we can pay Calvary’s per capita. There are probably a thousand reasons this idea is crazy. For one, it’s stewardship season here, which means I’m supposed to be encouraging you to give money to our church, not another one. Second, I might have failed to mention this idea to our Session, which I could be rightly criticized for. Third, per capita in our Presbytery is significantly higher than in Detroit Presbytery, for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with income inequality or usury taxation.
But there are also plenty of good reasons to participate in this wacky project. Median income here in Loveland is almost twice that in the neighborhood around Calvary. Median home value here is more than five times that of the homes around Calvary. And 20% more of us own our homes than Calvary’s neighbors.
They shouldn’t be paying the same per capita as the other church’s in Detroit Presbytery. And we can help rectify that small injustice. With just $30.55. If each of us sent Calvary $30.55, instead of paying per capita, they can call a pastor, feed their neighbors, host community gatherings, and serve God in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. For just $30.55, we can tell our neighbors at Calvary that they should not give everything they have, more than they should, to support the institution of the church. We will support the institution so that the institution can support them.
For $30.55, we can begin to be the change we want to see in the world. We can witness to what other congregations can and should be doing to make our denominational system more just. We can instigate the transformation that might take years or might never happen but we can at least say we didn’t sit idly by wringing our hands about the matter. For just $30.55.
This is indeed stewardship season. So please, do send your pledge card into the church, or make your pledge online through the church website. Feel free to give generously. But don’t give us everything you have. And don’t give what you can’t afford to give.
But if you can give a little more, I invite you to send a check for $30.55, with per capita in the memo line, to Calvary Presbyterian Church on Greenfield Avenue in Detroit. Ramona is putting the address in the chat online, and there are envelopes with the address here at the church. If you want to give online, you can find Calvary through the Givelify App, and Ramona is putting up a link to that as well.
I don’t know what fruit this will bear. But I do know that stewardship involves more than what you decide to give to this church next year. It involves all our money stories and all our money practices. It is connected to justice and compassion. It is prophetic and political and structural.
So I pray that this stewardship season will not be fruitful just for this church and its ministry. I pray it will bear the fruit of loving our neighbor, of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. I pray it will bear fruit in Loveland, and in our Presbytery, and in our denomination. I pray it will bear fruit for our neighbors at Calvary and for the neighbors they serve.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.