By Whose Bounty All Are Blessed, Part 1

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
November 11, 2012 Mark 12:38-44


The late Sally Clapp once commented to me about a problem, a stewardship problem. The problem, she said, was in having the stewardship sermon on Stewardship Sunday, that she wanted a message prior to that Sunday to help frame her response. It was a good point, though not without a downside. Sally, I said, partly in jest, if a stewardship sermon helps you to adjust your annual pledge in the right direction, then you’ve hit on a good idea. If, however, after hearing a stewardship sermon you decide to lower your pledge, then you have a little problem, and I have a bigger one.

Sally has joined that great cloud of witnesses, where we believe there is no pain, only light and love and joy, and, presumably, no stewardship sermons at all.

Nonetheless, the theme itself is too big for one week – not money and faith, so much, though that is a big idea, but abundance, and bounty, and how it does connect with how we share what we have, including our financial resources, our money.

So part two will be next week, as we bring our pledge cards to church to present them during worship. Part one this morning. You’ve received, I hope, a stewardship newsletter called “In Touch,” and a mailing with additional information. You know we’ve landed on a theme, “By Whose Bounty All Are Blessed," which I believe to be a terrific one on many levels.

We’ve heard from several church members over the past few weeks who have shared how they have experienced the bounty of this place. Today we thought it would be helpful to hear from our very own Peter DuBois, who will share how our musical offering response – the one that includes those important words – came to be.

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“By whose bounty all are blest…”

Words that we sing every Sunday – AND the theme for this year’s stewardship campaign… but where did they come from? John Wilkinson asked me to speak briefly about those words, and how the offering response that we sing each week came to be…

Not long after John came to Third Church in 2001, in conversations about worship, he expressed the desire for us to sing something unique at the offering – perhaps different from the Doxology – that expresses something of the meaning of the gifts we offer.

So, I put it in the back of my thinking, to percolate over time – and would occasionally look for something that might work – but nothing seemed to quite fit the bill. Over the years, we’d been using a variety of responses – sometimes a stanza of a hymn, or we’d use the Doxology, sung to a tune other than Old 100th – and periodically the topic of a new offering response would come up.

Then, in 2004, I received from friends at Hope Publishing Company, a book of collected hymn texts by the wonderful British hymn writer Timothy Dudley-Smith – one of the leading hymn writers in the world in recent years. After looking through the collection several times, I spotted a text that came close to the kind of thing we were looking for – but we didn’t want to sing multiple stanzas at the offering – so I took part of one stanza and part of another and melded them together to form what we sing. It seemed to capture the spirit of what John had expressed early on. I then wrote to the publishers to ask permission to use it in this altered form – and they agreed.

The next step was to match it to music. John had suggested that I write something – but I was more than a bit hesitant – as I don’t think of myself as a composer – AT ALL! But as I looked for a good tune for these words, nothing quite seemed to fit, or had too many associations with other texts – so I started thinking about it and working out some ideas in my head. And, as I worked with it, the words themselves really suggested the shape of the tune and rhythm to me. Given the author of the text, too, I felt that something not unlike an English hymn tune would be appropriate. So, it just sort of evolved from there. Many hymn tunes are named for places that are important to the composer, so you’ll notice, when we sing it, the name of this hymn tune – MEIGS ST. And later in this service, we’ll get to sing the entire hymn – slightly altered to include a refrain.

In the past six months, I’ve actually had the opportunity to get to know Timothy Dudley-Smith, the author of the words, a bit, as I’ve been working with him on a hymn commissioning project through the Sacred Music Program at Eastman. He’s a delightful gentleman – a retired Bishop in the Church of England – who now lives in Salisbury. At 86 years old, he continues to write hymns – something he’s done for over 50 years now, and that number well over 400. And his words are always both timely – and timeless. I’ve let him know that we sing his words every week, and he is delighted with that knowledge.

As we ponder the gifts we’ve been given – and that we’re asked to share in this season – let us truly remember that by God’s bounty we are all blest.

***

Two weeks ago, we met Bartimaeus, a poor, blind man who had the audacity to call out to Jesus and ask him to restore his sight. It is an extraordinary episode – his hope, the disciples reluctance and obstinacy, Jesus’ openness. Once again, we witnessed the gospel unfolding from the fringe.

Another astonishing episode today, again, from the fringe, where the gospel seems to reside, which must make it not so much the fringe, but the horizon, the direction to which we should all set our sights.

There are actually two components to this morning’s gospel reading. Jesus first teaches us to be aware of the scribes, the religious authorities. To paraphrase, they put on a good show. They are treated with respect, get the best seats in synagogue, sit at the head table at banquets (in our parlance, get preferred parking and don’t wait in line at airport security!), offer long and flowery prayers, wear fancy and formal robes – a cautionary reminder to those of us who do wear robes. For all their appearance, they are more sizzle than steak.

But worse than that, they rob the poor and take advantage of the disadvantaged. “They will receive the greater condemnation,” Jesus says. There is enough there for a lifetime of consideration, and, in fact, next week, we will think a bit on the matter of bounty and abundance and the great economic disparity we now realize in this country.

Jesus continues. He and his followers were in the temple, checking things out. The crowd, the congregation, was making its offering. What we learn first is that many rich people were putting in large sums. Note that. What follows does not, it seems to me, condemn the rich, but it does challenge them. For what they see next is a poor widow. Like Bartimaeus, she exercises her deep faith from the fringe, with two social and religious strikes again her, her poverty and her widowhood. And she places two small copper coins, a penny’s worth, into the offering. And listen to what Jesus says: This poor woman has given so much. The rich people gave from their abundance. That is to say, what they gave was from what we now call “disposable income.” What they gave they could afford to give, perhaps easily afford. This woman gave from her poverty, everything she had, threatening her very survival as she offered those two small coins.

This is the lectionary text for today, not because it’s the Sunday before Stewardship Sunday – the lectionary committee when they set this into place decades ago was not aware when we would receive pledges in 2012. But the fact that the two come together should not allow us to sentimentalize it away, either.

Beverly Gaventa notes the irony of connecting this text and stewardship – Jesus’ criticism of the pretentious religious professionals who exploit the vulnerable, his observations about the rich, and so forth. And even now, theologians differ on how to respond to the woman’s offering. Gaventa writes that “a traditional reading lifts her up as an ideal figure, whose small gift is set over against the contributions of the rich and is honored because of her poverty…making her a character…to be remembered for her extraordinary commitment.” (Texts for Preaching, Year B, pages 583-585)

Recent commentators have invited us to look at the social dimensions of the text. What of her plight? What of the corrupt temple? How do the scribes offer care to the poor?

Clearly, it seems to me, Jesus came to save the poor. But clearly as well, it seems to me, he praises this woman for her extraordinary generosity, even in the face of her poverty. She understands that in the face of the circumstances, she is blessed, and that in her giving, she can share from what she has.

We are called to capture the prophetic edge of this story, and how we respond to the poor and others of God’s children who live on the fringe of society and at the heart of the gospel.

But we are also called to capture the stewardship implications of this story, to connect the words of our offering response, which we will sing more fully in a few moments, with the sharing of our financial resources.

Stewardship is about sharing all of our gifts, what we have received, by grace, from God, our time and talent, our gifts. But it is also about sharing our money. And here are our needs. They are real.

Any way you look at it, this congregation is rich in resources – physical, human, programmatic, financial. You have been generous in your support, and the endowment, the gifts of those who have gone before us, supports us in ways that let us do things we couldn’t otherwise do. But our costs are significant, and each year we live in the fine line between red and black. This building, managed prudently, still delivers big costs. Our programs are actually very modest in cost, with the exception of outreach, when we support as generously as we can those opportunities that serve those in need. Our biggest costs, obviously, are personnel, this extraordinary staff who work hard and well and creatively. Several years in the past 10 we have offered no raises; the remaining years modest ones.

So even as we are rich in resources we seek to be fiscally prudent and manage responsibly. And you are responsive in kind.

So on behalf of the Stewardship Committee, here is what we’d like to say. Thank you for your giving. If you’ve pledged over time, or more recently, thank you. If you’ve not pledged ever, or recently, please prayerfully consider doing so, at whatever level. Get in the game. If you’ve pledged at a certain amount for a while and not thought to re-adjust, if your circumstances or capacity has changed, respond in kind. Several thousand dollars here and there will make a difference in our annual budget.

Give what you can and stretch yourselves. Do not measure yourself against the poor widow, necessarily, but be instructed by her response. Do not give from your perceived scarcity, from reluctant stinginess. Don’t worry about what you can’t do, but think boldly about what you can do. Don’t let your perceptions get in the way of your generosity. Give from your abundance, give from your blessings, give from gratitude.

And as you prayerfully reflect on your pledge card this week, influenced not too much, either way, I hope, by a stewardship sermon, as you think about that response, as you think about all the gifts you’ve received, as you think about all the places your money goes – food, mortgages, bills, tuition, charitable donations – all avenues to experience God’s abundance – let the powerful and poignant image of this poor, unnamed widow wash over you, her gratitude cascade over you. Whatever she gave, she got it.

“By whose bounty all are blessed.” Let us sing it, believe it, live it. Amen.

 

 

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