by Bill Carroll
I grew up in a family that was nominally Christian but didn’t go to church. Both my parents were born in the Midwest. They went to various churches growing up–not the Episcopal Church. But, by the time my sister and I came along, we were living in Southern California, where there was no expectation we’d be in church on Sunday morning. And so we weren’t.
The sole exception was for a year or two. When I was just five years old, my best friend and his little sister died in a horrible fire. And, after that, my mother started taking us to a Presbyterian Church, where she’d been invited by a friend.
I don’t remember much about that little church. I remember joining the children’s choir. I remember my Sunday School teacher, who taught us to sing “Yes, Jesus loves me.” I also remember a children’s sermon about Noah’s Ark. But, beyond that, I don’t remember much. What I do remember is feeling safe and loved and welcome. But it only lasted for a year or two. After that, we stopped going–I don’t know why.
The next time God showed up (at least in my conscious life) was my junior year of high school, when a friend of mine took his own life. At the time, I started to read the Bible and tried to pray. But, if you asked me, I would have said I was an atheist.
By the time I was in college, I was looking for something. I wasn’t sure for what, but I was definitely looking. I started attending Daily Morning Prayer and Sunday services with my roommate. I was struggling spiritually. But the turning point was this: One night, I found myself kneeling in the snow on a crowded street in front of a crucifix outside a local church. I started pouring my heart out to Jesus, and telling him that, for the rest of my life, I would live for him.
After college, I found my way into the Episcopal Church, and was baptized with the service in our Prayer Book. What I remember most about that day were the words spoken by the priest: “Bill, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” These words have summed up the Gospel for me ever since. They remind me I am a child of God–called and commissioned to share the love of Jesus with ALL the neighbors God gives me.
Some of us have been lucky enough to hear our Presiding Bishop preach. There has never been a more exciting time to be an Episcopalian. This Jesus Movement he keeps talking about is nothing new. It’s just basic, New Testament Christianity. The Jesus Movement is all about following Jesus together, in the power of his Spirit of love. It’s about helping Jesus love our neighbors–ALL of them, and especially the least of these. It’s about sharing our stories of meeting Jesus and having him change our lives.
There has never, ever been a greater need for Jesus and his love. We can see the problems all around us. We see the hatred, divisions, and self-centered behavior. We can feel the fear. And we see the fruit of it in horrific acts of violence and despair. We need congregations like those of the Episcopal Church at our best–communities where all kinds people can belong. Places where we find welcome and acceptance and love, with Jesus at the center. Places where our gifts are put to use, and we help God change the world.
That brings me to our Gospel lesson–the story of the widow’s mite. Jesus notices her gift and points her out to his disciples. That’s because (unlike so many in the Temple, who are giving out of their excess), this woman puts in everything she has.
It is a dangerous lesson for stewardship sermons. It has tempted many preachers to overplay our hands. In fact, this lesson was the text for the only sermon I’ve ever walked out on. At the time, my wife (who is also a priest) and I had just gotten married and moved to a new city for seminary. We didn’t have much except each other. Neither of us had a job yet. We had joined the local parish, and the fall stewardship campaign came around. In his sermon, the priest said that, if we weren’t pledging, we shouldn’t be there. We weren’t, and we couldn’t, so we left.
I’m sharing this story with you not because of my own immature behavior, but because I want you to know I get it. There are times in our lives when we can’t afford to give much money to our church. Sometimes, we are struggling to provide the basics, and our giving needs to be minimal.
We can give in other ways. And–believe me—gifts of time and work are always needed to create the kind of joyful, thriving Christian communities we want to be part of. But—and this is VERY IMPORTANT—we can’t do most of the good things God is calling us to do without gifts of money.
How we budget and set priorities for spending money is one of the ways we respond to Jesus and his call to follow him. Every year, when Tracey and I set our family budget, we think and pray about how we might increase our giving to the various churches we serve. For you and your family, it’s an important way to decide where you fit in with what God is doing in your congregation and community–and in God’s wider world. Stewardship is all about is prayerfully discerning what our piece of the puzzle is. How do we fit in with the mission and ministry God is setting before us?
For some of us, our gift will be close to the widow’s mite, the two small coins she puts in that represent the whole of her life and labor, offered to God. For others, we may be able to make more substantial gifts. Every gift, of whatever size, matters, because it represents our faithful response to what God is doing in our lives.
My challenge for us today is to think and pray about where our giving fits in with the rest of our lives as followers of Jesus. As a priest, I’ve been blessed over the years to see God at work in many, many lives. As I meditate upon the widow in the story, I wonder what her giving means to her. How does she feel about her gift, and why does she offer everything she has to God? We will never know for sure. But what we do know is that Jesus sees her, and he points her out to his disciples. Her example is one he lifts up for us today.
One of the places I see God most clearly at work is when people come up to receive Holy Communion. Over the years it’s been my privilege to share the Bread of Life with many people. In some cases, I have known their stories. I remember their outstretched hands. I remember their smiling, often tear-streaked faces. Sometimes they were struggling with forgiveness. Other times, they’d come back to church after a season away–or perhaps a forced exile. Still other times, they were grieving–or carrying heavy burdens. In a few cases, they’d attempted suicide, or were wrestling with mental illness. Some were veterans, struggling with trauma they’d experienced in combat or as prisoners-of-war. Many were just garden-variety sinners, like you and me.
But whoever we are and whatever the reason we find ourselves in church, God offers us the same priceless gift. A gift we could never earn or deserve–the broken body of Jesus, given for our salvation. And God doesn’t give the way the world gives. As Kathryn Tanner has argued, God doesn’t give, in order to get something from us. God has no need to manipulate or control us. God has no need for barter or exchange. God gives us gifts, because God loves us–because God delights in us, and wants to make us happy, whole, and free.
And though it’s true there’s nothing we can do to earn it (Grace is free or it isn’t a gift.) And, though it’s true, there’s no price we could ever pay to buy it, God does invite and expect a response from us. What God wants is our love and gratitude. Eucharist means thanksgiving. The way we receive God’s gifts best is by sharing them with other people. Ultimately, God wants our whole lives. As one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it, in our worship, “we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies” as a living sacrifice to God.
For me, it’s all about that moment, kneeling in the snow, giving my life to Jesus and his mission of love. It’s about the seeds that were planted in another branch of the Jesus Movement when I was five years old and grieving. It’s about the love and welcome I found, when I first walked into an Episcopal Church and made my way to the waters of Baptism. And it’s about the many times since, when I’ve seen Jesus and his love at work in human lives–mostly through congregations and fellow followers of Jesus.
The question for us is this: where has Jesus and his love touched our lives? And how do we make a faithful response to God’s staggering generosity to US? Not because we have to, but because we want to. Jesus said it best, “Where your treasure is, there your hearts will be also.”
There are as many different answers to these questions as there are people. But the question for us is how best to respond–how do we use ALL we have and ALL we are to advance the Jesus Movement, here and now? Only you can decide what a faithful response looks like for you.
Whatever your piece of the puzzle happens to be, I pray you’ll be faithful with it.
To quote from the mission statement of Christ Church, Tulsa, for which most of the words were written, God calls us to “follow Jesus, love people, and change the world.”
Note: This is adapted from a stewardship sermon preached at Christ Church, Tulsa. The things I say about our “piece of the puzzle” comes from the theme set by that congregation. My thanks to their Vicar, the Rev. Dr. Everett Lees and the People of Christ Church for the opportunity to be with them. They have a remarkable story of growth and redevelopment after a split, with inspiring leadership from Fr. Everett and their elected lay leaders over the past several years.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.