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

That stubborn claim

Friday

Acts 4:1-13

File:Villamblard église vitrail choeur détail.JPG1While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, 2much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. 3So they arrested them…

I don’t know whether ‘annoyed’ is quite the right term for the anger of the Jerusalem leaders towards the apostles, but it is helpful to recognize in this simple sentence what ancients and the poor understand about authority: it serves the powerful.   They didn’t like what the apostles were saying so they arrested them. This is not a world in which people have rights.

But why should the preaching of these two from Galilee come to the attention of the Jerusalem leadership, and why should it offend them? It is common for people to suggest, because the Sadducees are named and the Sadducees didn’t find resurrection in the Torah, that the problem is the Sadducees didn’t like that the disciples were teaching the doctrine of the resurrection. But the resurrection was a common idea in Judea and Galilee and there were members of the high council that themselves held this opinion. The problem isn’t a doctrinal dispute. The problem is that Peter and John are preaching that Jesus was raised from the dead – the Jesus that these leaders executed for blaspheming God. To suggest that God resurrected this Jesus is to say that God was on the side of Jesus and not the leadership of the nation. Indeed, it says the leadership of the people has betrayed and forfeited their office for they rejected God’s anointed one.

To proclaim that the high priest no longer represents God is good reason for the high priest to have you arrested.

This is the same thing that gets believers in trouble when they declare that Jesus is Lord. When Caesar claims to be lord of all, he will not tolerate anyone declaring that someone else is Lord.

This is the joy and dilemma of Christian faith in every age. When Rome passes a law requiring every woman to be married and bear children, a woman’s choice of virginity becomes a declaration that her body does not belong to the state but to God. So St. Lucy is put to death. When the amorous advances of a suitor are spurned, he betrays her to the state. In the same way, the martyrs of Uganda perish when they reject the sexual predations of their king. Hitler made it the duty of every German woman to bear children for the Reich. Our culture now mocks virginity and considers our sexual self-expression essential to our humanity. A lot of money is being made selling sex, beauty, and little blue pills, but on that altar many of our young people are being sacrificed.

When St. Francis walks away from his father’s wealth to embrace a life of poverty, he is rejecting the implicit claim of wealth and privilege to supremacy. When Christians do such a simple thing as tithe, giving away the first portion of their income, they testify that wealth and possessions are not our master. Our cultural masters need us to buy more stuff – even at peril of the creation itself – for it serves the bottom line. But we do not belong to the economy; we belong to God.

The dark side of the argument in support of Charlie Hebdo is the idolatry of personal freedom – the belief that I am my own master, that no one can tell me what to do. To this Christianity must say “No, not quite.” There is another to whom your life belongs. He alone gives true freedom.

This is why Christians ought not equate “God and Country”. The two don’t quite match up. I may choose to serve my neighbor by serving my country, but my country is not my Lord.

Nor does God and prosperity quite match up – despite the numbers that Joel Osteen and ilk attract. Jesus kept saying things like “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” and “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s.” Jesus is standing in line with Joshua (“Choose this day whom you will serve,”) and Elijah (“How long will you go limping with two different opinions,”) Deuteronomy (“There is no God besides me,”) and Isaiah (“Besides me there is no god”). God and Asherah, God and Baal, God and wealth, God and sex, God and country, don’t match up.

There is a stubborn claim in the heart of Christian faith that life belongs to God alone. He alone is Lord. It is a claim that “annoys” civil, cultural and corporate leaders. It lands Peter and John in prison – and many after them – and many still today.

But God has raised the Jesus this world crucified – and to him all creation belongs.

 

Photo: By Père Igor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.