Sunday, November 1, 2015

Rejoicing and Responding: Thoughts on the Sunday Collection

From The WORD of St. Timothy's, Herndon, November 2015.

“Then the people rejoiced because they had given willingly, for with a whole heart they had offered freely to the Lord.” I Chron. 29:9.

I’m so grateful to Bob Kimmel, Sean Kenis and Elaine Horsfield for reflecting on Christian stewardship in such thoughtful and compelling way in the lead up to our Consecration Sunday celebration.  Though as I write the big event hasn’t yet arrived, there really seems to be excitement throughout the congregation about focusing on this part of our spiritual life.  A number of you have come to thank me for talking directly about the importance of giving.  Others have stopped by my office to share why financial support of the church is such an important part of how you practice your faith. 

Opening up the topic in this way has also led to some helpful questions.  One of our head ushers, Jim Wallis, mentioned a concern to me about the fact that people who make their donations electronically don’t have anything to put in the plate on Sunday mornings.  Their gifts, also, he noted aren’t blessed as part of our worship service.  Should we do something about this, he wondered.

Now our dedicated treasurer and our counters would want me to begin by assuring you that electronic donations make the work they do much easier.  I actually tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce electronic giving in both of the congregations I served before.  Electronic giving allows congregations to enjoy a more consistent cash flow, and simplifies the work of tallying and recording donations.  It reduces anxiety for our leaders and allows them to make wiser decisions.

But, as Jim was pointing out, something also is lost in that switch; something that’s at the heart of what it means to offer gifts to the Lord.  The word offering comes from the Latin for “to bring forward,” and it suggests a physical act—giving a certain thing over to God to be used for his purposes.  In ancient Israel, that offering was an animal, grain, wine or oil--a natural product.  Some of the gift would be burned or poured out in an act of worship in the temple, and the rest would be stored for distribution to the clergy and the poor.

This was true in the early church as well, when the bread and wine, the Eucharistic gift, was brought forward alongside other kinds of food.  The practice of the priest washing his or her hands at the Eucharist was originally for scrubbing up after shifting livestock.  The switch to monetary offerings only came gradually, and the practice of taking up a collection and then presenting it at the Altar only became main stream in the Episcopal Church about 150 years ago.  Before that, church attendees generally left their gifts on the floor in the aisles, and expenses were paid mainly by annual pew rental fees. 

The spiritual value of the offering is that it serves as a powerful bridge between the work we do in the world and the worship of God in the church.  Every week, we send you out “to love and serve the Lord.”  One of the most important ways you do that is by using your skills, your time and your effort in work that earns money.  You bring part of that money back to God in gratitude for those skills and the strength and time He has given you.  That money is then blessed and taken up into the holy work that is done in His Name.   The physical offering is a symbol of your inner desire to give yourself back to God, so He might use you in His service.  The offering, therefore, should be marked by joy, as it was for those who brought gifts for the rebuilding of the temple in I Chronicles.  God has been good to us.  We rejoice in His grace.  We respond by giving back.

I saw an illustration in a book about the Eucharist for children years ago that imagined what’s really happening here.  It showed a rather typical congregation, with ushers bringing forth the plate.  But everyone in the pews was shown with symbols of their work—a doctor with her stethoscope, a teacher with his pile of textbooks, accountants with their calculators, and so on.  The offering was gathering together all these experiences and blessings.  It was a real harvest of God’s good work through His people. 

God then uses a little part of these gifts, namely the bread and wine we purchase and bring forth, as a means of allowing us to share the great offering His Son has made for us, when He poured out His life on the Cross.  God’s gift to us is so much greater than what we offer to Him.  But our offering is essential to His work of grace—He can’t bless us in this unique way unless we give Him something.

The offering is appropriately worldly.  It’s an important place where the eternal realm meets the insides of our wallets.  To lose that connection is dangerous. 

One of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, remarked on this in a recent interview.  “My concern about modern Christianity?,” he said, “I don’t know when, why, or how it happened, but at some time the mainstream denominations put themselves in charge of the Sunday job of accrediting people for admission to Heaven, turning the workdays, the human economy, and the material creation over to the materialists. And so it became possible for people to commit their souls to God while participating in an economy dedicated to the swiftest possible extraction and consumption of everything it values in God’s world, with unlimited collateral damage to all creatures, humans included, that it does not value.”

Berry is being a bit contrary here, as usual.   But I think He makes an important point.  The Eucharistic Offering is our way of making sure that “the workdays, the human economy, and the material creation” don’t get “turned over to the materialists.”  The offering reinforces the duty we all have of serving God faithfully in the world so we can return to Him something worthy of His goodness.   If our work really deals in “the swiftest possible extraction and consumption” of God’s gifts, then we really shouldn’t be offering a symbol of it in the Sunday collection.  God expects more of those who would serve Him in the world, and the Eucharistic offering is a valuable reminder of that calling.  And I suppose that reminder works best when it is as tangible as possible—maybe not our calculators and stethoscopes, but real money or a real check, physically presented in worship. 

So where does that leave us with Jim’s thoughtful question about those electronic gifts.  Maybe we could make a printout once a year of the totals, put it in a sealed envelope and bless it alongside the rest.  Some electronic giving companies suggest a small card or token which can be placed in the plate by electronic givers.  Maybe if you give this way, you could place your hand in the plate as it goes down the pew with a little prayer—a reminder of how your gift, too, is involved in this sacred act.

But perhaps one of you has an even better idea—why not talk with me or Rick, our treasurer about it.  Good questions so often lead to new discoveries, and we might all still have more to learn about joyfully offering our gifts to the Lord.  

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