"Transforming Lives"
Scripture – Mark 12:38-44
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, September 27, 2015

A teenage girl stands before her closet surveying the multicolored landscape of her clothes. She shuffles the hangers as she inspects various pairs of pants. She gazes at dresses and sweaters, shirts and skirts. She goes from left to right checking out all the possibilities. When she reaches her last top, she retraces her path and peruses each item a second time. Finally, she stops and shouts to everyone in the house, "I don't have anything to wear!"

A teenage boy gets home after school and he is famished. He goes through the refrigerator, pushing aside the yogurt and fruit. He picks up the cheddar cheese and puts it back. He does the same with the havarti. He shuts the refrigerator and starts going through the cabinets. He pushes aside the cereal and pop-tarts; he eyes the crackers and chips. He moves the jar of peanut butter and sees cans of soup. He closes the cabinet and what does he say? "There's nothing to eat!"

Before we bemoan the youth of today, it is not simply young people who act this way. Their attitudes describe many of us. We have so much and yet we often see only what we lack.1

In a world that constantly urges us to have more, and to satisfy our every craving – even some cravings we did not know we were supposed to have until the commercial told us – how can we be content with what we have? One way is to recognize all we have in comparison with most people in the world.

Three days after she graduated from high school, we put our daughter, Grandison, on a plane to southern Chile. After a somewhat tumultuous four years of high school, she was heading off on a mission trip. For the three months of our summer – their winter – she worked with small children in a school run by a Presbyterian church. She had never witnessed such poverty. No families in the school owned a car and many had barely enough food to survive.

Grandison lived with the pastor and his wife in a frigid house with one fireplace. She stayed so cold the entire time that she actually layered jeans on top of jeans. It was probably the toughest 12 weeks of her life. It was also the most transformative experience of her life. She learned how fortunate she is and that led to developing a grateful heart.

Most of us must be clobbered by the dramatic contrast before we recognize how much we have in comparison with 90% of the people of the world. That realization can make you more grateful for what you have and less envious of those who have more. It can prompt you to think seriously about whether or not desiring granite countertops, a luxury SUV, and designer handbags is a genuinely fulfilling goal in life.

The prophets in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament constantly surveyed their societies. They searched for signs that people were living in harmony with the ways of God. Were people treating one another with dignity and respect? In particular, how were they treating the ill and the orphans, the widows and the poor? What Jesus and the prophets routinely found was neglect, if not callous disregard for the most vulnerable. And these blatant breeches of the commandments filled them with indignation. Their close connection with God fueled their fury at the way haves treated the have nots.

Today's passage is one such episode. It comes from the final week of Jesus' life. A day after entering Jerusalem, he takes his followers into the temple where people are coming and going, saying prayers and giving offerings. Various leaders who fear Jesus confront him with trick questions in an attempt to embarrass him and undermine his authority. After successfully foiling the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus focuses on his followers.

"Beware of the scribes," he says. "They love to parade in their elaborate brocade vestments and act as if they are virtuous. They mouth lengthy prayers to impress. Do not be fooled by their pomposity. It is a sham. They exploit the vulnerable, and they will pay for it."

Jesus herds his followers to the spot in the temple where people give their offerings. It is called the treasury but it is not an office where people hand their financial gifts to someone. The treasury refers to the actual receptacle into which people drop their gifts. It was probably made of brass or silver and people did not drop in an envelope with a check in it. Their currency was coins, so when they dropped coins into the treasury, anyone within earshot heard the clanging.

As Jesus and his disciples watch, a few wealthy people drop their offerings into the treasury. When a sizable bag of coins is poured into the receptacle, it makes quite a clatter. The disciple Matthew had been a tax collector so he had seen large amounts of money, but most of the disciples came from the peasant class. For them, this was quite a spectacle.

While the disciples are gawking at the wealthy givers, they nearly miss a woman who brings her offering. "Did you see that?" Jesus quizzes the disciples.

"See what?" they wonder.

Jesus says, "Did you see her gift?"

Her gift was two small copper coins, and frankly, they felt a bit embarrassed for her. After all that impressive clanging, the sound of two tiny coins dropping in made them feel sorry for her and so they pretended not to be watching. Jesus jolts them with a startling observation. He says, "This poor widow has put in more than all of those wealthy contributors."

The disciples glance at each other. "Is he joking?"

Jesus realizes that the disciples were so spellbound by the noisy jangling made by the wealthy, that they had forgotten something critical about the gifts we bring to God. Jesus said, "The others contributed out of their abundance; but she put in everything she had."

Jesus transformed the tinkling of tiny coins into a thunder clap. She held back nothing. She gave all she had to God. It was a humbling moment for the disciples and it is a sobering teaching for us. How can we not feel embarrassed when we compare our devotion to God to the devotion of the poor widow?

We can rationalize that it was easy for her to give everything to God, because she had little to lose. We have so much, we could not possibly do such a thing.

As he routinely did, Jesus used a sensational example to drive home his point and to rattle us. He intends to make us sufficiently uncomfortable so that his words keep bouncing around like a pinball in our brains.

Being faithful to God means putting God at the center, not the periphery, of our lives. Being faithful to God does not mean fitting God into our lives when it is convenient, but rather striving to live in harmony with God all the time. Today's story is one of several that define the core teachings of Jesus. Being faithful to God requires sacrifice. In regard to financial giving, it means not giving to God simply from our surplus, but giving to the point that we feel the pinch. Why? Because giving is so rewarding.

When Grandison spent those 12 weeks serving the poor, she learned to be grateful for what she has. But more importantly, her experience transformed her into a generous person. On some level she understood that giving is more rewarding than acquiring. Until you learn that lesson, you will always be missing something vital.

A new book, entitled The Paradox of Generosity, reveals the results of a sociological study of 2,000 Americans. The researchers discovered what religious and philosophical wisdom has taught for thousands of years: "In letting go of some of what we own, we better secure our own lives. By spending ourselves for others' wellbeing, we enhance our own wellbeing."2

The study revealed that "the more generous Americans are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy. [Unfortunately, it also revealed that] many Americans fail to live generous lives."3

The study also found that one's income does not determine one's generosity. Wealthier people are not more generous. In addition, the study confirmed that generosity is a choice. People choose whether or not to orient their lives toward being generous.

Very soon you will receive a letter asking you to make a financial pledge to Westminster. That will help our leaders calculate how much we can spend on ministries for children and youth, local feeding and housing ministries, staff salaries, global ministries in Guatemala and Congo, our music program, our education program and much more.

More importantly, making a pledge demonstrates your commitment to God. It declares that you are not going to wait until the end of the month to see if there is anything remaining, and if so, scrape off the leftovers for God. But, rather you are giving a portion of your income because God's work is being carried out in our faith community and we are transforming people's lives.

Would you like to make a difference in the world? Here's your chance.

To take just one example, Monday through Thursday, we have dozens of at-risk children meeting downstairs in an after school mentoring program. These children come from impoverished neighborhoods, and most of them were found on the streets after school with nothing to do, susceptible to troublemaking and vulnerable to violence.

Downstairs, they are in a rigorous program that helps them with their homework and convinces them that they can be good students and not only graduate from high school, but go to college. An even greater benefit is that the program focuses on instilling in them basic Christian virtues – kindness, patience, forgiveness, self-discipline and treating people the way you want to be treated.

Generosity transforms the lives of people in need of an education, shelter, health care, and a second chance at life. Generosity also transforms your life. It transforms you into the person you can be when you are at your very best.


  1. Peter Barnes, "Provision for the Day."
  2. Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, The Paradox of Generosity, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), p.1.
  3. Ibid., p.2.


Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton

Generous God, knowing that your love and your care changes everything, we come this day offering praise and thanksgiving for gifts great and small. Trusting in your generosity, we ask for help and healing this day. Where there is pain, bring relief. Where there is sadness, bring comfort. Where there is fear, bring the assurance of your presence. And, for those who face an uncertain future, and those who are not clear what tomorrow holds, we ask for your peace. Come, O God, and fill all our hearts with peace.

Where faith traditions collide creating tension and violence, and where poverty holds people in captivities of hunger and hopelessness, we ask that your generous spirit might bring winds of hope and healing. And, let those of us who profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior, be willing to stand with the poor, the oppressed, and the dispossessed in our own community and across the globe. So that we grow in our commitment to follow you, come O God, and fill our hearts and our lives with your peace.

With gratitude for your love demonstrated most especially through Jesus Christ, we pray the prayer he taught saying, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.