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 five 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.
And now, Jackson and Carter have taken interest in the collection. Just last week, I was sorting through thousands of pennies I’d received about a year ago, determining which to add to my collection. They both sat down to help and became interested in the various coins I have. It’s been a really nice bonding experience this past week.
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 for viewing after the service has ended; 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, this lepton, 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 $1.97. 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 will buy you a gallon of gas and a bit more but it won’t buy you a book; it really won’t buy much of anything. 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 for us to do. 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!
That’s not Jesus’s point, but it kind of sounds like that’s what he’s 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 in Luke isn’t about money specifically.
Rather, Jesus uses this story to illuminate a 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 in the chancel. Back in 2016, I was preparing to leave my position as Associate Pastor at Vineville Methodist up in Macon. 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 in deep ways.
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 teaching, 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 some other party that we don’t want to attend, but we must, and that must comes with an obligation to purchase a gift. And so, we begrudgingly go purchase a gift. 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 they’re 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 a wall at home 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. It’s a meaningful gift, given out of love.
On my windowsill in my office is a chalice and paten set; the plate and cup used for communion. It was a gift of a close 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, Tommy Martin. I just used it in the memorial service for Sheila Miller in the Sunday school hour today. It’s a meaningful gift, given out of love.
I have many stories like this I could tell about items around my home and 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 extravagant love from one person to another.
That matters because when we give out of 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. Sometimes, we’ll have to give out of obligation. There will still be weddings 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.
There will also be times where we’ll feel the need to start giving for the first time, whether to the church or to a charity, but we might feel some embarrassment or shame about the amount. I’ve been there. I felt that way when we were attending Martha Bowman. We weren’t giving to the church and a sermon convinced Dana and I that we should. So, even though I felt embarrassed about the amount, we started giving $10 a month. That’s all we felt we could do. But in that giving, I found God teaching me about generosity and about showing love through giving first of what God has given to us. The amount didn’t matter; what was in my heart mattered far more. And that’s one of the points of this story about the widow and her mites: when we choose to give charitably, no matter the amount, God blesses us and our souls grow in ability to share the love of God.
And then other times we’ll see the opportunity or feel the compulsion to give to someone out of the blue. 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. One of the best ways I know to do that is to write people personal, handwritten, cards. When we feel called to love extravagantly, that’s God calling on us to show his love through gift giving.
I was reminded of this attitude on Wednesday, March 1. In fact, I met a modern day version of the widow in this story. I was walking through the lobby of the office and heard the door buzz. I knew Onna and Zach were out; they’re the ones who usually answer, and I knew Hunter was out, the usual back-up, so I answered the door. At least, I attempted to. I quickly realized I’d never answered the door before. Millie heard me struggling and came rushing out to show me how to talk back to the person.
Even after that, I couldn’t understand him through the speaker, so I went down to the door. There, I met a man who looked like he lives on the streets. As I opened the door, he looked at me with kind eyes and told me he’d gotten the shoes on his feet from Macon Outreach and wanted to give back. In his left hand, he was holding a wad of empty wrappers, like from protein bars, and receipts. I was ready to receive that as his offering, with gratitude. But then, with his right hand, he reached into his pocket and handed me a $50 bill. He said as Macon Outreach had given to him, he wanted to give back. A protest rose up in my throat, thinking this was far too much: the shoes didn’t look worth $50, he clearly needed the money more than me. I was about to tell him that I would give $50 to Macon Outreach for him so he could keep his cash, when he grabbed my hand to press the bill into it, shake my hand, and introduce himself. I introduced myself, we said our goodbyes, and he walked away.
A modern day widow with her two copper coins. He gave as he felt God had called him to give, out of a spirit of love. His name is Randolph, best I could understand him through a speech impediment, and Randolph stands as an exemplar of faithful giving for me. In his attitude, in his generosity, he showed the extravagant love of Jesus Christ.
Let us go and do the same.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.