Leave your gift

File:Second Temple view1.jpg

Thursday

Matthew 5:21-37

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we hear the word gift and altar we cannot help but think of the offering plate and a church altar. It’s hard to imagine a religious institution teaching that you should not make an offering if you are at odds with someone. Every organization dependent upon donations is normally trying to remove any obstacles to giving, not adding one. But then, the mission of the church is not to encourage offerings; it is to make disciples of Jesus.

In the traditional liturgy of the church, just such a moment happens before for the offerings are gathered. The presiding minister declares “The peace of the Lord be with you” and, following the congregation’s response, “and also with you,” bids the community to share the peace with one another. God has made peace with us in Christ Jesus – now, before you give an offering, before you come to the table, we are summoned to make peace with one another.

I wonder how the community would react if we spoke more bluntly: “Don’t come to the dinner table divided from one another.” “You can’t be reconciled to God if you won’t be reconciled to one another.” “God doesn’t want your money if you’re not going to walk the walk.”

Jesus and his hearers, of course, are not imagining people in pews with ushers passing offering plates. They are imagining the massive temple platform surrounded by its grand colonnades. They are imagining the inner courtyards: for Gentiles (beyond which no gentile could go); for women (beyond which no woman could go); and for men (beyond which only priests could go). In the walled and colonnaded courtyard that is open only to ritually pure Jewish men there is a gate that leads further in to the temple courtyard with its great altar and the smoke of the rising offerings. Beyond that altar stands the temple proper, covered in gold, its giant pillars guarding huge closed doors. What could be seen only over the top of the enclosing walls is now revealed in full glory. To that gate a man brings his calf or lamb (or doves, if he is poor) where it is slaughtered and the priest takes it to the altar for the gift to be burned in part or in whole.

By the time you had completed the rituals, passed through the courts, and stood in line with your animal – to be told to leave the creature there and run out in order to be reconciled with some adversary… now we can hear the startling point Jesus is making.

God is in the world to reconcile. God is in the world to heal the human community. God is working to restore the torn fabric of life. It is not just murder that rends the human community, but every word of insult and anger. It is not just the act of adultery that tears at society, but the passions willing to violate the integrity of another family. We ought not think, says Jesus, that our moral behavior and religious acts mean anything if they are not joined to the reconciling work of God.

Tough words. Important words. Life-giving words.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASecond_Temple_view1.jpg By Ariely (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

With what shall I come?

File:Offering to the Ganges, Varanasi.jpg

Friday

Micah 6:1-8

6“With what shall I come before the Lord?”

In the student union every Friday during my senior year in college, the students from the botany department sold flowers from their greenhouse. This was significant because I attended school in Minnesota where the snows lasted from Thanksgiving to April. For the price of a soda I could get one sweetheart rose to take to my girlfriend. I enjoyed giving the gift; it was sincere, not mercenary. But we all understand that arriving with a gift, however small, makes the other more favorably inclined to you.

And so the prophet asks: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What gift will make God favorably inclined to us? What gift will generate a smile as you stand knocking at the door?

Even people who are not religious will cry out to God in times of great distress. Promises get made. We offer ourselves to save our children. I have heard the prayers that promise to go back to church or to make some sacrifice. I understand. It is an almost instinctual cry, as if God could be bought by some favor.

So the prophet poses our question: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What will make God inclined to hear my prayer? To grant my request? But it doesn’t work that way. God isn’t interested in purchasing our trust and fidelity as if we were mercenaries. Jesus said that God sends rain on the just and the unjust.” The mercies of God are open to all.

Standing with a rose at the door of my girlfriend’s place wasn’t an attempt to barter for favor. It was a gift to please, a gift that shows she matters to me, a gift spontaneously given because I want her to be happy. And what is the gift that pleases God? Is it our church attendance? Is it our donations? Is it our volunteering? The answer, consistently, throughout scripture is that it is not our sacrifices.

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

No, the answer is always about lives of compassion and faithfulness to the human community. We see it in our psalm this Sunday. And we hear it from the prophet:

8He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Justice and mercy will not make God concede to our prayers, but it does make the heart of the universe smile.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOffering_to_the_Ganges%2C_Varanasi.jpg By J Duval ([1]  Uploaded by Ekabhishek) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The poor shall eat and be satisfied

File:Hand carved offering plate - West Virginia - ForestWander.jpg

Thursday

Psalm 22:1, 16-28

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.

It is because of God’s deliverance that the poet sings God’s praise (“From you comes my praise”). And because the poet survived his desperate illness, he is able to complete the vows he made on his sick bed. These are sacrifices made “in the great congregation”, at the temple in the presence of Israel’s faithful (“before those who fear him”).

The sacrifices the psalmist offers are sacrifices, thanksgiving sacrifices and fellowship offerings that provide a banquet not just for the man and his family, but for the poor of the city: “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.” It is the nature of the sacrificial meal. When David brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the sacrifices provide food for all.

The gifts we give to God are not for ourselves alone. They are shared that all may rejoice. The joy of the healed poet becomes joy for many. The grace of his healing becomes grace for others.

In my first parish, the people referred to their offerings as their dues. But we are not members of a club who must each pay our share to keep the club going. We are recipients of God’s mercy who bring our offerings that others might share the joy.

Yes, there are bills to pay. Heat and lights and water. The cost of musicians and secretary and staff. The pastor’s time and training not only to preach and teach but to visit the sick and comfort the grieving. There are bills to pay, everything from the wine for communion to the coffee for coffee hour. But the gifts are not dues. They are tithes and offerings given that all might share in the joy of God’s love.

It’s easier to understand dues. But ‘dues’ makes it about me, about what I get from the church and what I must pay to continue to receive it? The much more profound questions is what do I receive from God? And how do I pay it forward?

What is the offering appropriate for the sunrise? What is the gift that matches the gift of the world around us? What sacrifice can possibly reflect the sacrifice Jesus made? Whatever that gift is, it must be a gift that brings some measure of mercy and grace to the world. It must be a gift through which “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.”

 

Image:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHand_carved_offering_plate_-_West_Virginia_-_ForestWander.jpg http://www.ForestWander.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A Cappella

Sunday Evening

Psalm 25

Church.web.pancake supper8 Good and upright is the Lord…
9 He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.

Our musician didn’t show up for worship today, so we had to do the service a cappella. It was kind of sweet. Fortunately it was a simple service – absent much of the fuller liturgy that shapes our worship in seasons like Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter. But there was something simple, even pure, in the music coming just from us.

Part of what made the service special was the member who volunteered to sing an offertory – the special music when our offerings are gathered. It was a gift of thanks to God, for she had been forbidden to sing by her doctor. Indeed, she had unable to speak for several months, and then allowed only one hour a day. This week she got clearance to sing again. Her vocal chords are healed.

We pray often and regularly for those in need, those in critical care, and those facing the end of life. We don’t so often lift up with joy answered prayers, gifts given – or, like this, gifts restored – to a woman who loved to sing.

What also made our worship sweet was the gentle reminder that worship is an act of a community. It is something we do together. It is not so much prepared for us by others, as if this were a restaurant; it is assembled by us more like a potluck. It is a combination of our voices, our prayers, our various acts of service, our gifts of ourselves to one another and to God – and God’s gifts to us.

PS Our musician is alive and well; it was not a disaster that kept him from us today.

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.

Remembering the source of life

Wednesday

Deuteronomy 26

Thanksgiving Landscapes

Thanksgiving Landscapes (Photo credit: Christopher S. Penn)

1 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.  3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say…

For agrarian societies, all life depends on the harvest.  Indeed for every society all life depends on the harvest, but for industrialized societies that dependence is not so immediately evident.  It is no longer my fields upon which my life in the next year rests.

For all their work, the harvest is not under the farmers’ control.  They cannot make it rain, nor can they keep it from raining too much or at the wrong times.  They cannot control the locusts, the birds or the blight, so they turn naturally to prayer.  They ask for the kindness of the gods.  As Israel came from foraging in the wilderness, following a god of the desert, to dwelling on farm land, the cultural pressure was to follow the practices of those who had farmed the land before – to turn to the gods of field and fertility and rain.  The hidden powers that dwell in the forests and streams and fields need to be appeased and supplicated lest they do harm in their anger.

The playoff beard, the refusal to touch the division championship trophy on the way to the Stanley Cup, the routines on the bench and in the locker room and on the day of the game are not just superstitions; they are rituals that affect our mental state, rituals that shape whether we are “in the zone,” rituals that tap into transcendent realities.  When you join the team, you join their rituals.  So it was only natural that Israel would be tempted to take refuge in the practices of the Canaanites.

But God is a jealous god.  Not jealous in human terms, of course.  Not jealous out of insecurity or possessiveness.  Jealous like a music teacher who doesn’t want her students learning incorrect finger positions from some other instructor.  God has a vision and a purpose for us, a vision and a purpose for Israel’s life. They are to be a community of justice and compassion; gods of fertility and riches will lead them in other directions.

Israel will come to understand – later, unfortunately, rather than sooner – that there are no other gods, no other source of life and blessing than the one who opened the Red Sea, the one who stands at the beginning and end of time, the one who acts in history not just in nature, the one who speaks, the one – Christians will add – who bears the sins of the world.

So Israel is commanded to bring the first fruit of the land, the first fruit of the field and vine, the first fulfillment of nature’s promise and the first sign of life in the year to come – Israel is commanded to return to God who is the source of life that first fruit of life.  And as they do so, they are to tell the story how they were in Egypt and God delivered them from the house of bondage and brought them to this good land.  They are to connect the God of the desert with the powers in the fields, the God of history with the fruitfulness of the land.  They are to remember.

The Sunday offering is not about the necessary but vaguely tainted task of gathering money to pay the heat and lights.  It is that moment in the liturgy when we bring the first fruits of our labor and remember that all things come from God, even the breath we breathe.  When the offering plate comes by, this is the moment we say, “A wandering Aramean was my father” and give thanks to God for all life.