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Mark 12: 38-44

You may remember the song “Feed the Birds” from the movie, “Mary Poppins.” When I saw that movie in 1964, I was much more interested in another song called “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” than “Feed the Birds.” When “Feed the Birds” was sung there was little action on the screen and the song was slow. To my young ears I just endured it until another scene appeared. Not so with Walt Disney. Walt had personally spent a great deal of time getting the rights to the film and putting his own “Disney spin” on the story. He was just two years short of his death at that point and in one of the filmed stories of his life, I recall hearing that when days grew long trying to bring the film in on time and on budget, he would go into the sound room, take a seat in a comfortable chair, and say to the audio technician, “Play it.” His little signal was immediately clear to the tech: he was ready to hear “Feed the Birds” again for the 10th, 12th, or 25th time. He found it soothing, and it would often bring him to tears. The scene that I simply endured as a child was his favorite. It is interesting to see how perspectives change from one person to another. At my young age I had to ask my parents what “Tuppence” was. “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag” is what the bird lady sang. “It’s like two pennies” my mother told me. “In England they call it tuppence.”  Tuppence is an insignificant amount of money. Like when a man says “I’ll give you my two cents,” he does not mean he’s been hired as an expert; he’s simply sharing his opinion. Sometimes off-handed opinions are just worth two cents; other times they can be gold. In the middle of the twentieth century and earlier, people might have asked “What does it cost?” and another might answer “two bits,” a holdout from Spanish coins that could be broken into 8 bits. Two bits were the equivalent of 25 cents- which was something, but not much. And in Jesus’ day the coins the widow put into the treasury, the ones almost worth nothing were called mites in the King James Version of the Bible, but history calls them leptons; little copper coins. A lepton was the smallest of Roman coins. The King James says two mites make a farthing, but in a table of Roman coins from Jesus’ day it says this: 4 leptons equaled a quadran; four quadrans equaled an assarion, and 64 assarions equaled a denarius, considered by most to be the amount earned for a days’ wage. So the woman gave a very small amount; but from what could she have given her two leptons? What was her source of income?  In Biblical days a widow had two choices since she no longer had a husband to support her: she could either beg, sell herself, or sell her body for one choice; or the other choice would be to marry another man, often a relative of her husband. Occasionally a widow would just be taken into the household of a relative as we learned happened with Naomi by Boaz in the book of Ruth. But suffice it to say that if two leptons—two two copper coins—were insignificant to a man of means, to woman with nothing they were valuable. Perhaps this woman had 5 mites to her name—almost nothing—it was at least enough to buy a crust of bread or a little grain. Yet she still chose to give two copper coins back to God.Today we will walk in the annual CROP walk a total of 5 kilometers to remind us that many people in the world have to walk that far each day just to get a jar of water or a small bowl of rice. For many people today, 5 kilometers will be a long distance to walk; at the end of the day they might have aching muscles and sore backs. But that is how far many poor people walk each day to survive. Imagine what two copper coins could be worth to someone who has nothing. When you have nothing, two copper coins is something. If those were all you had and you offered them to the church treasury as the widow gave her coins to the temple treasury, it would be quite a gift. It was quite a gift, a sacrificial one, because it was significant compared to what she had. She loved God and wanted to honor God. By so doing, Jesus noticed her and blessed her with his words. Today’s story is about an exquisite offering, because she had to do without to give it.

When I was in my first church, the president of one of the banks in town was a church member and who grew to be a friend. But when I first came to town, I entered his bank one day when he had another man in his office. They were in suits and he called me into his glass office: “Hey preacher! Come in here a minute.” I went into his office and he introduced me to his friend and said, “A minute ago we were talking about church tithes. When the Bible says a person should give 10% of his income, does that mean from net or gross income?” I said, “God will be honored to have from your tithe; it’s from gross income; off the top.” “Ouch!” he grabbed his chest like he’d been shot. “I was afraid you were going to say that!”

Where people spend their money matters. Sometimes it shows priorities. People spend between $5.00 and 12.00 just to see a first run movie in a theatre. Or they pay from $10.00 to $70.00 a month for cable or satellite television, sometimes with sports or movie packages. Some are elite givers to their college football team and their sizeable gifts get them good seats. Some are able to travel regularly and their trips might amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars in real costs. In Henry Ford’s day, if someone wanted a Motel T they could buy one in any color as long as it was black. That was mass production! Bu
t now the choices of cars are astounding: new, used, borrowed, gas, hybrid. And money pours from our accounts to buy and maintain them. For some their car is just a method of transportation but for most people it is something comfortable or fun, often with some added options. Then of course we live in homes: constructed or manufactured; a condo, even a motel or a tent. The cost for those can be proportionately great.   Clothing is a cost but not often our greatest cost. And food cooked at home can be economical; but how many times do you eat out, or drive through to get coffee or treats? Eating at either a sit down or a fast food restaurant supports the economy, but if you add up all your tabs, how much are you paying for the luxury of a meal out? Suddenly the banker’s question really mattered:
If all he had to do was give to his church a 10th of what he had at the end of the month after all of his expenses got paid, some of them lavish and by choice, his six figure salary turned into very little left over monthly capital. But this banker began to change; he started to let Christ into his life, and to study the Bible. He was nominated to become an Elder, and I got to train him. It was interesting to see him grow spiritually as he learned how much he owed to his Savior. His life changed. He found a Christian woman to marry and he began to realize what he had : first, he had a privileged amount of money for a small blue collar town; and second, he had a chance to make an impact on the lives of others by giving according to his means. His big shift was this: one day after we had become friends, he put his arm around his young pastor and said, “Jeffrey, I want to tell you something. I’m tithing from my gross income now, off the top. Oh yes, it hurt a little bit when I wrote that first check; and it hurt a little less when I wrote the second check. But by the time I wrote my third check, it not only didn’t hurt, I felt good about it. And now I can’t believe I didn’t know the joy of tithing. I used to buy a lot of things. Now, well, now it’s just different. I thought you’d like to know.” And his little church in that little town began to thrive.

What a testimony that was. But it wasn’t the only one I’ve heard like that. I’ve heard other stories of people whose money went to plenty of hobbies, teams, cruise lines, airlines, and car payments. But then I’ve also heard from others who almost don’t have enough money at the end of the month; and some who receive a bag of groceries from HUM once every two months because they really need it. I know more than 200 people a day receive and need one meal a day from HUM’s hot meal program. In each case, when any of us give from our gross income, as perhaps the widow did, we can bless others. Even if have very little and you tithe from your poverty, Jesus can bless and multiply any gift. But this text says Jesus notes the sacrificial offering. I have not yet met anyone who originally gave to their church from what was left over, who began to live on what was left over after tithing to God, who did not have a positive testimony about their transformation and their peace. In this economy, in any economy, it is hard to take that step. That’s why I think Jesus pointed out the woman, perhaps even embarrassing her. Her gift was a sacrifice; is what you give as a church tithe a sacrifice? Or is it what you think you can afford to give? Every year Mary Ann and I ponder that question when we make out our tithe. Next week all of us will be invited to name our tithe for 2013. Church members will get a card in the mail this week and extras will be available next week. I know it seems like I’m meddling in your personal life here. But Jesus knew that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Money is not a financial issue to Jesus; it is a spiritual issue. He want your heart to belong to him; and in making the shift, he wants us to have a gift: the peace of God, which passes all understanding. Jesus talked about money in his stories more than any other topic. He knew what it could do for us, and he knew how it could undo us as well.  Tuppence was nothing to George Banks ,the bank President in Mary Poppins. But to the bird lady, tuppence given to her in trade for bird food put a meal in her stomach; it gave her daily bread. How might you give, not a month of meals, but a daily meal, to someone else? The storm that hit the northeast has made stars contribute as much as a million dollars from their means, and poor students or average workers have texted $10 to help others. Both of those gifts could very well have been like the two copper coins: great in the eyes of God. A storm comes up, people give, and they feel good about doing it. It is amazing what things we can learn from a story about two copper coins.

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 11, 2012

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Ruth 1: 14-22

Next to 1 Corinthians 13, this is the passage that has been included in weddings for the ages.  The bookends of wedding Scripture, at least by popular culture, are the words spoken by Ruth, and the words of faith, hope, and love as shared by Paul. Today we focus on Ruth, and say, first of all, that this was a radical book to include in Hebrew Scripture: it broke one of the Levitical laws from Leviticus 19:19 which says do not breed two different animals, do not mix two kinds of seed for your field, and do not mix two different kinds of fabric for your garments. There was a reason for that law and it was considered sacred, even though today we have bred two different kinds of animals to make mules, for example, two different kinds of seeds to get hybrid fruit, and two different kinds of cloth to get cotton blends. The law extended, as the priests understood it, to also say do not mix a believer and an unbeliever in marriage. Later Paul affirmed it in 2 Corinthians 6: 14 when he wrote: “Be not unequally yoked together with an unbeliever.” Including Ruth in Scripture was radical. It was the time of the Judges, if we want to excuse or applaud what happened in that era. In the last verse of Judges, the book before Ruth in our Bibles, these ominous words are written: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all did what was right in their own eyes.” So in that time-period, we find the inclusion of this marvelous story of love, grace, and protection. Naomi and her husband are forced to move to the country of Moab from the little town of Bethlehem when there was a famine. They must have had quite a good opportunity for employment to give up their kin and their country to go to a place considered devoid of faithful people. Naomi and her husband Elimelech had two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. They moved to Moab and the boys grew into young men. Indeed, they stayed for such a time that they married Moabite girls, an action forbidden by their faith. Perhaps desperate times called for desperate measures, or, perhaps more likely, that love is blind. Few parents in our day are successful in getting their teenager to fall in love with the boy or girl they would choose! So that likely happened in Moab. Love prevailed in that new land, and the boys each married Moabite girls, one named Orpah, and one named Ruth. Naomi had the hardship of having her husband die even before her boys married but ultimately even her sons died too.  The second extraordinary situation in Ruth is the relationship that a mother-in-law has with her daughter-in-law. The relationship is apparently good for all three, but Ruth, agrees to leave her native land, where her family surely is, to go to a foreign land as a widow, and with her mother-in-law. Few “in-law” relationships are as strong as this one. In addition, they are returning to a country—Judah—that has no means of support for widows; the best Naomi could do, and the idea on which she pins her hopes, is to perhaps ask for compassion from a relative who might still live in Bethlehem. The decision for a Jewish widow and her Moabite daughter-in-law to go to Judah is either extraordinary or it is foolish, but it is clearly filled with devotion. It is from the lips of young Ruth, to her mother-in-law, not to her husband, that beloved words have been read at weddings over the ages. The King James Version says it best: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where though lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee from me.” That speech is filled with radical loved. Ruth agrees to give up the god of her ancestry and follow Naomi’s God, an extraordinary move. If it happened the other way—if Naomi had forsaken the God of Israel (our God) and followed Ruth’s god—our Lord would certainly have not been pleased. But here a foreigner is coming into the land, and to a household of God. It is outreach; it is crossing cultural lines; it is unforgettable. Further, as Noami discovers that Boaz still lives there, they remain on his property and Ruth submits that she will do whatever is necessary to be considered family. That would include helping with chores, many of them back-breaking. Ruth did not want to intrude so she went to work in the field’s of Boaz so he could see her earnest intensions of not being a freeloader but that she will earn her keep. When  Boaz saw her and asked about her, out of his own integrity he would not let a field of men get distracted by, or attracted to, a young woman in their midst. He immediately protected Ruth by telling her to work with the other young woman on his land, and to stay close to them. Ruth dropped her face to the ground—another sign of sincere devotion—and asked what she had done to deserve such kindness since she is a foreigner? Indeed, being a foreigner in those days was even more of a line in the sand than in our day. But Boaz says it was because of her devotion to Naomi, and her willingness to accompany her back to her own native land.

Later we learn that the love story is not between Ruth and Naomi, that’s a story of undying devotion instead. But the love story is beginning to blossom in the heart of an available man—Boaz—and a widow, Ruth. Here again, it was extraordinary how love grew: she was clearly younger than he, and she was clearly a foreigner. But unlike other star-crossed lovers, this story turns out well for those who like love stories. They marry and have a child, and Ruth gives her mother the honor of nursing the newborn child. All of the religious and political hardliners would have taken issue with this relationship. “It’s not right!” they might have cried. “It goes against our laws!” they might have thought. But God saw it all and surprised his people. God called this marriage good. And from it, children were born. From this union of one older and one younger; one Jew and one Moabite, God worked his purposes out.  God is always about taking what seem to be dead ends and impossible situations and turning them into a fighting chance at life. Even Paul, schooled in Judaism, stood for equally yoked marriages in his second letter to the Corinthians.  But God trumped Paul; and God trumped Levitical priests as an omniscient, all-seeing God saw around the corner of time, when the rest of us can just see the horizon. God decided to make an example of this mixed marriage. From this mixed marriage came some extraordinary, Godly people: Jesse was one; King David was the next one; and King Solomon was the next one: all great kings from the union of a
loving, devoted couple, who also were united in their love for God.

As Matthew shares the genealogy of Jesus himself, the reader might be surprised to read who is in Jesus’ family tree: among them: a foreigner named Ruth who gave birth to Obed, the father of Jesse; and Rahab, a prostitute, who gave birth to Boaz, the man who sheltered and ultimately married Ruth. You can read about it in the first chapter of Matthew. The tie that binds our hearts is that which has bound us to God and one another for centuries; it is love. It was out of love that we were created. And it was because God loved the world so much that Jesus came to save us. Even that is a love story. Today and always: blessed be the tie that binds our hearts. Our hearts are tied by love, and it all started with God.

Jeffrey A. SumnerNovember 4, 2012