Saturday, November 10, 2012

Widows and orphans and resident foreigners

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-44 

In the Old Testament, widows, orphans and resident foreigners represent the needy of their society. Over and over again, the LORD calls for the wealthier people to remember the widows, the orphans, and the foreigners. Today, two of our readings highlight the situations of widows, and it forms a strong contrast.
We know the story of Ruth: Naomi and her husband Mahlon moved from Bethlehem to Moab because of a famine; they had two sons, who grew up and married Moabite women; one year, Mahlon and the sons all died, making Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah widows.
Naomi made plans to return to Bethlehem and advised her daughters-in-law to go to their homes and find new husbands. Orpah did that, but Ruth went with Naomi to Bethlehem. It was harvest time, and Ruth worked hard gleaning the fields to feed herself and Naomi. A distant  relative named Boaz protected Ruth and became friends with her. Naomi developed a plan to get Boaz and Ruth married – which they did. Ruth was the great-grandmother of king David.
Notice how well the widows were taken care of in this story, and compare that with the widow in the Gospel story. This woman had very little, yet she gave what she had to God through her gift to the temple offering. Jesus compares her devotion to that of the scribes, who give for show, and who give a much smaller percentage as offering. It seems like no one is protecting her, making sure she can have enough to eat. Yet she gives her last coins to God. She is grateful for the little she does have.
How do we today take care of the widows and orphans and foreigners in our midst? Who else do we need to take care of? …  Some congregations do a good job of ministering to the needy; some go farther, and have a passion for it. I want to tell you a couple of stories about the ways churches have used money and property.
First Lutheran Church has a strong ministry with the needy. The building houses a large food pantry, collects and gives away household goods, participates strongly in women of the ELCA ministries, engages in ministry with the other churches in town. It has a flourishing children’s ministry, and a strong senior ministry. First Lutheran works hard to take care of the widows and orphans in its neighborhood. It seems like a perfect church. Yet, it has a problem.
First Lutheran has a large endowment fund, at one time nearly a million dollars, though I’m sure it is much smaller since the market crash. When it was started, the bylaws made it clear that the principle of the fund was not to be touched; only the interest was to be spent, and only for new ministries, to give them a head start. With the fluctuations in the market, there might be several thousand, or only several hundred to share each year. The endowment fund was used to build the shelves for the food pantry, to buy books for a new children’s after-school program, and so forth.  
Yet the talk on the streets of town was that the church was wealthy. Many parishioners felt the same. They think: there is so much money in the fund that they should not have to give much offering. Instead, the money in the endowment fund should be spent for day-to-day operations of the church, and for building repairs. The folks were forgetting the reason the fund was established – to take care of the orphans and widows, and they were forgetting the reasons we are all commanded by God to give – because it’s good for us.
First Lutheran had a couple other challenges. People with money wanted to give, but with strings attached, to serve their own purposes. The first was the source of some humor. A woman in the congregation died and when her will was read, there was a gift of several thousand dollars to the altar guild. As the council learned of this gift, they all imagined drinking much finer wine for communion. It could also provide for new banners, a remodeled sacristy, and so forth.
The second gift was much more troubling. It was a six-figure gift that would provide much needed money for overhauling the heating plant, and replacing the roof, in their large building. For the gift to be given some strings were attached. The giver wanted the church to remodel a room that was used for many purposes, including small funerals, Bible study, and council meetings, into a chapel with pews, to be used only for worship, Sunday school opening, and funerals.
The council recognized this gift as a bribe, and declined it. This gift had nothing to do with taking care of widows and orphans, or even the needs of a busy congregation. It had everything to do with pleasing a small group of people interested in limiting how the congregation used its space.
At Hope, we have had similar challenges. We ask ourselves many questions, not all at the same time, of course: How do we use what we have for ministry? How do we use large and small cash gifts? Are our buildings being used for outreach to the community? Can we designate space and time in our buildings without an increase in cost? Do we receive gifts with strings attached, such as taxable land? (NO!) How do we spend the endowment fund proceeds? If needed, may we use the cash in the endowment and memorial funds? Does it make sense to raise funds to send our gifts to distant lands when we have so many needy right here in Citrus County?  
In short, how do we use what we have, what God has given us, so that we can care for the widows and orphans and foreigners … and (others) … in our midst? It’s a question we need to ask over and over again, as a congregation and as individuals.
Today, we celebrate the end of the stewardship drive with a party – refreshments in Luther Hall. We continue to find ways to use our space, as the YMCA begins classes in the afternoon, and the scout groups and backpack program continue. Needy people call and come in seeking assistance, a gift of food or gas money, or help with utility bills. We help some of them, but have learned to not help all of them.
This week, I invite you to think about the many ways in which your offering helps take care of the widows and orphans and foreigners through the ministries of our congregation, in the synod, in the nation, and around the world. Give thanks to God for what you have, and for the freedom to give some of it away.
Please pray with me. Merciful God, you give us so much. Teach us to be grateful for all that we have. And teach us to be generous, so that all people may have enough. Today, we also pause to give you thanks for our veterans, who have given themselves to ensure the freedom we enjoy in America, the freedom to worship you any way we choose, whenever we choose. Amen