The smoke of sacrifices

Sunday Evening

Psalm 66

13I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
14those that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.

It would be interesting if the offerings we put into the offering plate gave off the aroma of roasting meats. Such aromas evoke summer barbecues and laughing children and whole neighborhoods gathered together for national holidays.

When we hear about burnt offerings it is easy to mentally skip over these ideas. Such sacrifices are not part of our experience. Truth be told, they seem a little brutish and bloody for us. And it is easy to think that those times were barbaric and we are more enlightened.

It was a bloody affair; butchering animals always is, but few of us have been to a slaughterhouse. Just because we buy meat wrapped in butcher paper doesn’t mean someone somewhere wasn’t involved in blood and the giving of a life.

I wonder if I would eat meat very often had I to raise and slaughter the animal myself. I suspect meat would become a rare and special treat, only for those occasions of large family celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas. And this is the way it was for people in the ancient world – at least for ordinary people.

The slaughter of an animal was a rare and special occasion – a feasting to which many were invited – a feasting that was shared also with the priest and with the poor. It was a costly affair; the offering of an animal was a great sacrifice. But it was also a time of joy.

The vow of which the poet speaks is the vow to sacrifice an animal. It is a promise to give God his most precious possession if God will come to his aid. It is not a vow that was taken lightly. These were no sick bed promises soon forgotten when the crisis was passed. These vows were kept – and they were times of great celebration, for the prayers had been answered, the life saved, and the whole community was invited to share in the joy.

I wish we had a better sense of this when we put our envelope into the offering plate. I wished we recognized that we were giving a gift of value in thanksgiving to God for all God’s mercies, a gift that was being shared by the whole community in the feast of song and Scripture and Holy Eucharist – the “sacred thanksgiving” – the shared bread and wine that embody the majesty of divine grace. The feast that accompanied the ancient sacrifice was a table fellowship not only of all the guests, but a table fellowship with God to whom the animal had been offered. And so is our feast. We gather in table fellowship with God and one another, filled with thanksgiving for heaven’s mercies, rejoicing in the peace with God that brings God and us to one table.

In a torn and divided world, it is a great and powerful sign of the world reborn. And all this from the simple sacrifice of a portion of our labor and bounty placed in the offering plate.

The offering is not a necessary collection to keep the lights on; it is not dues; it is not a gift to the budget. This is a sacrifice that all might gather to feast on and rejoice in the precious mercy of God.

And this is why the first portion of that gift is given away to those in need. The church tithes its offerings so that our joy might be shared, and our offerings be a sign of that feast to come when all the world is made new.

This is the aroma I wish we could smell as the offering plates are brought forward to the altar.

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