When I was a kid, we occasionally drove to New York to visit my relatives there. I remember being a boy, maybe seven or nine years old, sitting at my grandparents table. It was the kind covered in that really thick plastic, draped over a vinyl table cloth, where it felt like my skin stuck to the table if I put my forearm on it.
So there I was sitting, somewhat bored, when my grandfather walked in with a box. He put it down on the table and inside were more pennies than I had ever seen in my life. Coins were everywhere across the box, some dull, some shiny, some looking old and some looking new. He then presented books to store the coins we found, dating back to the inception of the Lincoln penny in 1909.
My brother and I dug in. Inside the box, I found a bunch of pennies like you might expect: from recent years and some that were a few decades old. But buried among the coins were some very old pennies. One from 1912, another from 1909 with the initials of the designer stamped below the grains of wheat on the obverse: V.D.B. That coin is somewhat rare, as I learned, and I was excited to find it.
Since that year, sometime in the early 1990s, I have kept up with collecting pennies. Over the years, that collection has grown to include other interesting coins I find. I also have every state quarter from when the mint was producing four states per year on the obverse of the Washington quarter. Coins have always fascinated me.
Many of the coins I’ve added to the collection are those I have found from getting change back at stores or restaurants. But I have fewer and fewer coins to sort through each year as coins fall out of favor. Perhaps you’re like me: rarely having any cash on you, almost exclusively using some form of electronic payment. That means, there are fewer moments where I hand over a five dollar bill and get back change. But on the now rare occasion that I do, I sort through it to see if there are any old or interesting coins among them, saving them in this decorative box at home, adding them to my coin collection.
Coins are the object for today’s sermon and for this week in our common devotional. Let’s hear a story about coins from the gospel of Luke, the famous story of the widow’s mite.
The story tells us that the widow gave all she had to live on; two small copper coins. In Jesus’s time, these were called lepta, with one small copper coin being called a lepton. I have an example up here on the altar table; a real lepton like this widow would have used in the temple from Jerusalem around the time of Jesus.
When you see the coin, you can see just how insignificant it is. It’s small, about the size of a penny but thinner, and not artfully stamped. The Romans produced some beautiful coins, but not this one. And it’s not made of a precious metal either. Copper wasn’t exactly common for the ancients but it also wasn’t the equivalent of making a coin out of gold or silver.
So this coin doesn’t represent much in terms of wealth. In fact, one lepton equalled about 1/128 of a denarii. You may remember denarii from some of the parables of Jesus. That particular coin equalled about a day’s wages in Jesus’s time. So, to get a sense of the value of this coin, I looked up the average daily wage for a worker in the United States today. That number is $252 a day. A lepton is worth 1/128 of that, or about $1.96. This widow put in two lepta, which means she put in about $3.95.
It’s not nothing, but it won’t buy you lunch, it won’t buy you even a gallon of gas at the moment, it won’t buy you much of anything anymore. And Jesus reports that these two lepta, these two mites, this $3.95, is all she had to live on.
Imagine you only had $3.95 to your name. That’s all the money you had to pay the bills, buy food, provide for yourself. Then imagine you decide to give it all, all of it, to the church. That’s what this widow is doing.
Now, fear not, I’m not about to ask you to give all you have financially to the church. That would be foolish. And that’s not what Jesus is advocating for here. Sometimes, this scripture is preached in just that way: give more to the church, give sacrificially; it should hurt when you give to the church! It should cost you something!
It kind of sounds like that’s what Jesus is getting at. The rich people put their gifts in, cheerfully giving whatever size gift and not worried about it. Their gifts didn’t cost them much, didn’t make them hurt, didn’t cause them to wonder where their next meal was coming from or how they would afford oil for their household, a staple ingredient in Jesus’s day, or how they would pay the tax collector when he came by. Their gifts didn’t cost them the way the widow’s does.
And Jesus uses this stark contrast to say that the widow has given more than any of the rich people. Even though monetarily she has given far less, about $3.95 compared to what was probably hundreds or thousands of dollars from the rich people, she has actually given more.
But Jesus doesn’t share this to say that we must give all we have, that it must be painful when we give to the church, that it should be something that costs us dearly.
No, that’s not the point. And it’s not the point of this sermon, either. In fact, while Jesus has more to say about money than any other topic in his preaching and teaching, this story isn’t about money specifically.
Rather, Jesus uses this story to illuminate the kind of giving like my grandfather bringing home that box of coins.
I’ve never forgotten that moment. There are tons of moments I have forgotten since I was seven or nine years old. But not that one. I doubt that the gift of the box of coins cost my grandfather very much; after all, they were just pennies. But it was unexpected and it was an extravagant act of love.
So it is with the example of the widow’s mite up here on the table. Back in 2016, as I was preparing to leave my position as Associate Pastor at Vineville Methodist up in Macon, where some of us are going today to participate in Rise Against Hunger. As I was leaving that position, I was wrapping up a 24 week bible study called Covenant. We’d met Wednesday nights since sometime in September, carefully following the Covenant curriculum to examine and learn about the Bible.
On the last day of the Covenant Bible Study, we’d all brought in some food to celebrate and mark the ending. We went through the lesson and enjoyed each other’s company, talking about what we’d learned, all that we’d been through together over the course of the weeks and months that had gone by. As things were winding down, one of the participants brought out a gift for me. It was this framed widow’s mite, with the participants in the Bible study having signed the back. It was an extravagant gift of love, of appreciation and celebration for my leadership, and wholly unexpected. I was, and remain to this day, deeply grateful for this very thoughtful gift.
And that’s what Jesus wants to say, wants to celebrate, wants to point out in contrasting the large gifts of the rich with the extravagant gift of $3.95 by this widow. Jesus is saying to the disciples and us today that the attitude of the giver matters far more than the amount of the gift itself.
The rich gave out of obligation. We know what that’s like. When we get invited to a wedding and we don’t really want to go but we must anyway. And so we begrudgingly buy a gift off the bride’s registry, seeing how little we can spend and yet still meet expectations. Or we have to go to a birthday party, or a baby shower, and do the same gift purchasing. Might be a little uncomfortable to admit, but we’ve all been there, giving out of expectation and obligation. So it was for the rich giving to the temple; they’re giving because they feel obligated, expected to give. Their hearts aren’t in it.
The poor widow’s gift was an extravagant act of love. She apparently was so bought in to the work of the temple, so in love with God, that she gave all she had because her heart was fully in it. She believed in what she was doing, she wanted to contribute all she had to live on, which was only $3.95.
Giving as an extravagant act of love versus giving out of obligation. That’s the difference Jesus wants to communicate. That’s what’s found in those two copper coins.
When you give a gift, which is typical of you?
Think about Christmases of the past. We’ve all received many gifts over many Christmases. Which gifts do you remember distinctly? I’m sure it’s the ones that were extravagant gifts of love. And those probably weren’t the most expensive gifts you received; not nearly. Some of them were probably gifts handmade by your children when they were young. Others might have been unexpected small items that were thoughtful and meaningful to you.
Perhaps there are gifts you received throughout the year that hold a special place in your heart, like this framed widow’s mite. On my wall in my office is a print of Sterling Everett’s painting of the spires of Mercer University. I didn’t go to Mercer but worked there for three years. As I was leaving that job, my boss and future mentor knew how much I admired that painting. She got a print, framed it, and had my coworkers sign the back.
Also on my wall is another gift. When I was about to get ordained, two members of this church beautifully framed a print of this church. That’s something I’ll take with me from here, remembering that gift of generosity, thankful for the time I have spent here.
And on my bookshelf is a chalice and paten set; the plate and cup used for communion. It was a gift of my best friend; a thank you for baptizing his daughter, which was a high honor to begin with. But he commissioned a local potter to make the chalice and paten for me, which was incredibly thoughtful. And that local potter was my former district superintendent, the one who appointed me to my first church.
I have many stories like this I could tell about items around my office. I bet you have stories like that, too. If you were to look around your house, your office, I imagine you’d find many memories of gifts that were extravagant acts of love.
And those matter. They’re often not the fanciest, not the most expensive, not the nicest, gifts, but they’re the ones that matter the most because they’re not given out of obligation or expectation but out of the extravagant love from one person to another.
That matters because when we give out of our extravagant love, we give of the love of Jesus.
The coins, these two small copper coins, these lepta, represent the extravagant love we find in Jesus Christ. And because they do, any coin in our life can remind us of the extravagant love of Christ. Just like when we talked about bread a few weeks ago and I encouraged us to use every encounter with bread as a reason for returning thanks to God for sending us Jesus Christ, when we encounter coins in our daily lives, they can be a reminder that Jesus Christ loves us extravagantly. And a reminder that we are called to love on others with that same extravagant love.
Sometimes, we’ll have to give out of obligation. There will still be weddings and showers and birthdays that we don’t really want to go to but we must and we must bring a gift. And yet, perhaps there are ways to make those gifts out of extravagant love, too. Maybe there’s a way, no matter the monetary value of the gift itself, to give not as the rich did but as this widow did. Maybe there’s a way in that moment to show extravagant love. If, when we must give out of obligation, we search for a way to give with extravagant love, I have no doubt we’ll find a way.
And then other times we’ll see the opportunity to gift to someone extravagantly, or we’ll feel a compulsion to do so. When that happens, do it! There are times that we might think to ourselves that we shouldn’t, that it might be embarrassing or violate some rule of our relationship with that person. Find a way to do it anyway. When we feel called to love extravagantly, that’s God calling on us to show his love through gift giving.
Extravagant love found in these two small coins given by a widow, sharing the entirety of her worldly wealth of $3.95 with the temple. Coins, if we’ll let them, can remind us of the extravagant love of God; a small sign of the way God has gifted us through Jesus Christ.
So, to help us see coins in that light, I have a challenge for us today. Go home and find all your spare change. Search your car, the couch cushions, the place where you empty your pockets at night, old purses, anywhere a coin might be hiding. Find all the coins in your house and cars. Then, count up your coins and take a picture with them to post to social media. But before you post, however much you’ve counted up in spare change, give an equivalent amount to UMCOR for the relief of refugees from the war in Ukraine. Information on how to do that is in the bulletin and on Facebook. What we give, the total of our spare change, may not amount to much. But that’s not the point; the point is the attitude we have when we make the gift. And the point is to allow these coins to remind us of the extravagant love of God.
Which means only find and give of your the coins in your homes and cars if you can do so out of a heart of extravagant love. For that’s the point here: to give out of the extravagant love God has given us. It doesn’t matter the size of the gift, nor the monetary value. Every little bit, even if the change you find around your house only amounts to $3.95, it’s the attitude with which we give the gift that matters, far more than its value.
Because when we give with extravagant love, we not only give of Christ’s love to the world, but we nurture Christ’s love within our own souls. That’s one way we walk farther down the path of discipleship, growing to be more Christlike.
So, with a heart of extravagant love, go home, count your coins, and give to UMCOR for the people of Ukraine. And then, whenever you encounter coins in the future, let them be a reminder of this widow’s example: giving with extravagant love out of the extravagant love Christ has given us.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.