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Made to Worship: What Shall We Bring?

(a sermon for October 21, 2018, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost; sixth in a series, based on Micah 6:6-8 and Mark 12:38-44)

“The morning offering will now be received.”

It occurs to me that of all the usual things that get said during our times of worship together, aside from “let us pray,” “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and maybe “please rise and sing,” this is the phrase that’s most likely to be spoken regularly from service to service! And that’s because with a few exceptions throughout the year, there’s almost always going to be an offering as part of our worship!  Oh, there are churches that seek to find alternative ways of dealing with this part of their life together – from creating a faith-based “honor system” that assumes that the good stewardship of their members will happen without having to pass the plate every Sunday, to actually placing several electronic kiosks throughout the church building so that worshippers can conveniently give to the church with their credit or debit cards (no joke!) – but by and large, no matter the size or the tradition of a particular congregation, there’s always going to be a time in the midst of worship in which we are pastorally encouraged to give freely after the manner that we have freely received!

Now some people, as I’ve shared with you before, refer to this part of the service as “the collection” (a label which as you well know, I dislike intensely!); and then there was the man from a prior church I served who ever and always called it “the pew tax,” much to his wife’s consternation!   I even have a clergy colleague who speaks of it to her congregation as “TCB,” that is, “Takin’ Care of Business!”  My preference, of course, is simply to refer to this part of the service as our offering unto God, your and my tangible expression of thanksgiving unto the Lord for all of our many blessings and our continuance of the Biblical tradition of giving a portion of the “first fruits” of our lives back to God.  In the parlance of the Old Testament, it’ tithing, giving 10% of what we have unto God (and that’s to start, friends!); but if not that, at the very least a significant and sacrificial and above all, faithful, gift.

Of course, if we’re being honest, then we do have to acknowledge that there’s a practical component in having the offering: indeed, the financial gifts we receive through the offering and by our faithful stewardship as members of East Church is what keeps this church up and running from year to year (did I happen to mention that next Sunday is Stewardship Sunday?  Just sayin’!). The morning offering is meant for the support our shared ministry as part of our local church, as part of the United Church of Christ and extending out to the whole Body of Christ; and electric and heating bills, snowplowing and (if I might borrow a word from our church treasurer here, gulp!) even pastoral compensation is all part of that!   So there is the practical, real world component to consider here; but nonetheless we need to understand that from the very beginnings of our faith and the life of the church, the time of offering in our worship has always represented the very movement that we’ve been talking about all through this sermon series; going from praise and thanksgiving, to hearing and reflecting upon the Word of God, to finally responding to that Word with lives of faithful service as disciples of Jesus Christ!   And how is the best way to respond but by giving of ourselves in real ways and real time by our time, our talent, and yes, friends, our treasure!

So… as you and I are “made to worship,” it’s not a question of if there will be an offering as we do so; but of your and my response to those words that get spoken each and every Sunday morning: “The morning offering will now be received.”  Ultimately, for us as people of faith the real question is – as it’s always been for as long as people of faith have gathered to worship the Lord – “what shall we bring?” How are we to answer this call to give of ourselves?  Scripture is actually full of insight as to how we might respond to that, but this morning I want to focus on one answer that’s found in this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel, the familiar story of the “widow’s mite.”

But be aware, though… it may not be the answer you’re expecting!

You know the story:  Jesus is there at the temple in Jerusalem, taking the position of a fly on the wall as he watches the faithful bringing their offerings to the temple treasury during this celebration of the Passover.  And of course, from this vantage point he can see all the rich and powerful sauntering in, showing off their fine clothes and making dramatic gestures as they put their large yet ostentatious gifts into the treasury receptacles.  To this display of largesse, Jesus is profoundly unimpressed; but then, up walks this elderly woman, identified in scripture only as “a poor widow,” who quietly takes out two small copper coins – worth a half a cent each, if that – and places them into the receptacle and walks away without a sound.  A tiny offering, just a mite, made even smaller in comparison to all the other, much larger offerings that had been made that day; but this is the gift that Jesus praises over and above anything that the rich and famous offer up because, Jesus says, “all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Truth be told, however, there’s more to it than that.  It’s worth noting that just prior to Jesus sitting down to observe what was happening in this “service of offering” at the Temple, he’d actually been railing against the hypocrisy of the scribes; the scribes who, remember, were the educated class of religious leaders and were thought of as those who were pious and wise and deserving of respect (or perhaps more accurately, those who at least liked to think of themselves in that way!).  And yet, nonetheless, the scribes were also the ones who flaunted all of that; they were the ones “who like[d] to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” the ones who sought out the best seats in the synagogues and who loved sitting at the head table during the temple feasts, and who would do whatever they needed to do assure themselves a comfortable life in the seat of religious authority, even if that meant “devour[ing] widow’s houses.”  I dearly love how D. Mark Davis, a biblical scholar and an expert in New Testament Greek, describes these so-called religious leaders:  as “Pretentious Pretenders Pressuring Penurious Penniless Pensioners!”  And if that glorious alliteration weren’t enough, Davis adds that Jesus’ words about “devouring widow’s houses” actually was a very intentional and rather sharpened play on words on Jesus’ part, for the sad truth was that these scribes, all for the sake of preserving their own power, were feasting as much on the resources of the poor as much as that which was on the menu at the Passover meal!

So it’s wonderfully fitting that even as Jesus is right there, teaching his disciples all about the scribes’ hypocrisy, selfishness and utter abuse of power,  here comes this elderly, powerless and impoverished widow; quite literally bringing her “two cent’s worth” as her offering to God and it’s everything.  It’s everything she had to live on, it’s her whole life; she walks up to that offering receptacle and gives it to God and she does it faithfully and unselfishly.  It’s a monumental gift, to be sure, and utterly sacrificial, but the question is why? Why would she make that offering if that was all she had?  Karoline Lewis, professor of biblical preaching at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, wonders about that.  Was her offering made “out of obligation,” she asks.  “Respect?  Demand? Expectation? Religiousity? Piety?  All of the above?”  After all, the reality of the time and of the religious belief and tradition that righteousness would be related to one’s sacrifice at the altar!  No, this was different; Jesus could see that and so can we. In the end,  yes, the widow gave because she needed to; but she needed to because something deep within her knew that what she was doing, what she was bringing before God would “manifest itself in something beyond herself.”  It was her response to the very essence and the power of God in her life and in the world.

Not bad for a couple of copper pennies!

It turns out, you see, that it’s not the amount of the gift that matters as much as the way the gift is given.  In other words, the begrudgingly “generous” gift from the one who has money to burn might fill the offering plate but has far less meaning than the modest but heartfelt gift from the one who literally didn’t have two pennies to rub together; it’s the difference between reluctantly making a contribution and truly giving an offering unto the Lord, offering up your whole self in praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done in your lives!

What all this means is that whatever the gift we need to consider the motivation for our giving.  Because ultimately, you see, our offering is all about the grace of God and what we do with we received.  Scott Hoezee writes that “we all live immersed in the… grace of God in Christ” and that everything we do in the Christian life – including giving to the offering plate – is an outflow and an overflow of that grace.”  That grace, says Hoezee, “allows us to rest easy by taking joy in whatever we are able to do for God.  Grace gives us the freedom to be who we have become as new creatures in Christ.  We use our gifts and give of ourselves not because of some stern external obligation or pressure or because we’ve been made to feel guilty as we are manipulated by the church.  Instead we are free to be who we are, free to let the Spirit move us along in ministry.”

And what that all means, friends, is that every Sunday morning after we’ve prayed together as a congregation and I say a few words that lead up to the regular admonition that “the morning offering will now be received,” we’re not setting forth the requirement of doing the right thing and putting a few dollars in the offering plate.  What we’re doing is presenting the opportunity to let all that we’ve received in the love and care of God in Jesus Christ overflow into the life we seek for ourselves, for our church and for the world.

How would it be, I wonder, if we really did view our Sunday morning offering as an opportunity for a true spiritual blessing to take root and grow in the gardens of our lives?  For that matter, since it is stewardship season after all (!), what would happen around here if the pledges and promises we make for the coming year, be they financial or otherwise, not be made so much out of an obligation to the budget but rather as wholly embracing the possibilities of who we are and what we can do in this place as disciples of Jesus Christ and members of East Church?   What if our offering plates became more than merely the receptacle of this week’s (okay, I’ll say it…) “collection” but rather the place where hopes, dreams and prayerful intercession are transformed into Spirit-led action?

Well, beloved, the good news is it can and does happen when God’s grace is involved.  How else do you explain the strong stewardship of the people of this remarkable congregation?  How else can you describe how an initial offering made last year to help “lift the gift” in our church’s operating budget has expanded to the point where on many months we’ve been able to NOT draw monies from our invested funds?  How else could you ever say how, whatever the need happens to be, we have people in this congregation who do step up in miraculous and life-changing ways; and how that transforms us from, as we’ve often been know, from “the little church that could” to “the little church that can… and does.”  Yes, it happens because of your faith and your commitment and your hard work that it happens (and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that), but ultimately it’s because of grace revealed and responded to.  It’s because of what each one of you brings as an offering, in praise and thanksgiving.  It’s what illustrates, in wonderful and miraculous ways, the words of Micah who says that’s what’s required of is to “do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.”

You and I are made to worship… and as part of that, you and I are called to make an offering… this Sunday, next Sunday and truly, on every day of our lives as we walk faithfully with our God.  And as we do, may what we give be matched and increased by how we give, so that by grace our resources will grow.

And always, may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Minimum Daily Requirements

IMAG1884(a sermon for November 2, 2014, celebrating All Saints’ Day and the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 5:1-12)

It’s a piece attributed to Wilbur Rees, dating back to the early 1970’s, and one of those bits of writing that from the moment I first read it never really left me.  “I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please,” he wrote. “Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, not enough to take control of my life, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk… just enough to equal a snooze in the sunshine.  I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black person, or to go out into the fields and pick beets with a migrant worker.  Not enough to change my heart… I want the ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, but not a new birth…  [What I want is] a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please.”

Granted, some of the references come off a little dated forty years later (!), but I’ve got to say that even now that’s a powerful and disturbing piece of work; disturbing because I don’t know about you, but for me it points up just how much, where my faith is concerned, I fall short!

You see, I have always felt that being a Christian amounts to more than mere philosophy; that even though faith involves embracing the indescribable peace and comfort that comes in knowing God, that’s only the beginning.  To have faith, and to be a Christian is to be no less than a follower of Jesus Christ; and that means whatever I choose to do or am called to be in this life, whatever I put out there of myself for people to see, as a Christian I am to be identified first and foremost as a disciple.  A life of faith is meant to give shape and form to the entirety of our life and living; as Christians our lives are to be filled up with… Christ!

But then here comes a passage like the one I just shared and I come to the rather harsh realization that there is a wide chasm between how my life as a disciple should be and how it really is.  I begin to realize that I do cherish having God in my life, but the truth is that there are times that what I really want is enough of God in my life to feel the warmth and strength of God in my life; but not always enough of God to feel his pushing and prodding!

I’ll confess it; no, I don’t always want God leading me out of my own comfort zone in order to become a true disciple; I don’t really want to be put in the place where I might actually have to take the risk to step up and do what I already know is the good, and right, and faithful thing to do!  There are times I wonder, why can’t I just stand on the sidelines, nod knowingly and let others do the heavy lifting?  Sometimes I’d rather not deal with the cost of discipleship, because I want the joy (!); yes, I’m a minister, but I’m here to tell you this morning that sometimes I just want my three dollars’ worth of God, thank you very much!

Whew!   I guess if confession is good for the soul, then I’m pretty much good to go!  Actually, I suspect that I’m not totally alone in that confession; that there are, in fact, a great many of us who struggle with trying to truly live unto that which we know in our heart is true and real about our Christian faith!

It’s interesting to note that on this Sunday we’re marking the “Festival of All Saints” – celebrating those who have walked the walk of faithfulness throughout the ages – the gospel reading for the day is, in fact, “The Beatitudes;” in which Jesus gives what may be his first overview of the kingdom of God and of the people who shall dwell within it!  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God… blessed are the meek…” and the merciful, and the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, and even those who end up reviled and persecuted for their faith!  It’s one of the most beautiful and deeply meaningful passages of the gospels, and it’s meant as the spiritual reassurance to those whom Jesus came to save; but by extension it also represents what true faith ought to look like in us!

Which is interesting; because in all honesty, even at our most spiritual there are times for each of us when we are not as much hungering and thirsting for righteousness as we are simply seeking to get by!  To live a life in mourning, or to be poor – in spirit or otherwise – is not what most of us would expect or desire from a life of faith. And as for those inevitable moments of persecution; well, odds are our first response is not going to be “rejoice and be glad!” 

But there you have it: a “checklist for the saints,” so to speak, the very ideal of the Christian life as outlined by our Lord Jesus; and the hard truth is most often we’ve fallen short of that vision!  Perhaps we’ve let the vision slip away from us; the inevitable result of having compromised our faith in and through the changing culture of the world around us.  Or maybe it’s just easier to embrace discipleship’s joy without accepting its cost: part of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to as “cheap grace… the grace we bestow on ourselves… grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Whatever it is, the end result is that we’ve let ourselves become content with a passing, cozy relationship with God rather than wholly giving and directing our lives to God.

And the question is, how do we get back to that?

It seems to me that a good place to start comes from the prophet Micah in our Old Testament reading this morning:  “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high… he 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?”   Once again, familiar and powerful words to our years, words that offer some sense of stability in a complicated world; and yet words that set forth a radically different way of life.  Basically, what we have here are the “minimum daily requirements” of a life of faith in God:  to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk, humbly and wholly, with the Almighty in everything we do; three things that are infinitely more important than any sacrifice and offering we can make, and moreover, the sum total of what God intends for his people.

What’s interesting is that we tend to read those verses as very much a word of encouragement; but when you look at the backstory of Micah the prophet, you find that this edict to do justice and love kindness is less of an encouragement to God’s people than it is a judgment!  It’s true; if you read around those three verses of Micah we shared today and what you discover is that “the LORD has a controversy with his people,” and that God “will contend with Israel.”  In other words, if Israel fails to changes its ways, then it will become an object of scorn and derision among the nations and before God: the message here is that if you are going to be my people, then here is what is required of you.

I’m reminded of a story told about the baseball great Babe Ruth.  The story goes that during one particular game, there was this famous umpire of the day named Babe Pinelli; and Pinelli had the audacity to call Ruth out on strikes! Needless to say, the Babe was not pleased, and angrily said to Pinelli, “There’s 40,000 people here who know that last one was a ball, you tomato head!” to which Pinelli replied very calmly, “Yes, that may be so, but mine is the only opinion that counts.”

It’s very easy, you see, for us to seek out any and all short cuts where living faithfully is concerned; all too tempting to rationalize away what we know to be true even in the face of our own failures in that regard.  But in the end, you see, we stand with our damaged righteousness before the only one whose opinion truly counts; and so, here is what God requires of us.

And it is very simple – and attainable – but make no mistake, these are three requirements that mean everything. The first requirement has to do with conduct: to “do justice;” to live life with the gold standard of valuing others in the same way we value ourselves, and in the same way that we know God values us (it comes back to what we talked about last Sunday, the two great commandments: to love God and to love people).  It means to bring justice and equity and fairness hope to others; most especially the poor in Spirit, to those who grieve, to those who have been persecuted and are downtrodden; truly, “do[ing] unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matt. 7:12).  

That’s the first requirement; and the second actually builds on it: it has to do with character: to “love kindness,” you see, reflects an awareness of God’s mercy that cannot help but extend to our relationships with one another.  It is to love as we have been loved,   to forgive as we as been forgiven, to show mercy and compassion at least to the extent of what we’ve received the same from the LORD, which is infinitely.  If I might put this in another way, the first requirement is to do the work of God’s love; but the second is to mean it!

And for that to happen there’s a third requirement that has to do with communion:  to “walk humbly with… God,” which simply means to walk in fidelity with God, always speaking and acting and living as in the presence of God.   I knew of a minister years ago who was fond of making sure there was always one empty chair at the table of any church committee meeting, and of telling those on the committee that “that was where Jesus would be sitting.”  It served as a reminder that while they might not actually be aware of it, there is always a spiritual presence at these gatherings and the church’s business (and occasionally, its behavior!) needs to reflect that!

It’s a truth that extends to just about every endeavor of our lives, friends: it is “walking humbly with [our] God” that produces the character we need to possess to affect the conduct of our lives.  It’s in walking in fidelity with our God that we can learn to live without compromises and without rationalizations; and to dare to live as radically as God requires… for it is that kind of life that ultimately leads to blessedness!

That’s what’s wonderful for me about the Beatitudes, and yet another amazing way that the Old and New Testaments connect:  for Micah gives us God’s minimum daily requirements; but Jesus shows us the benefits of a life lived by God’s intention for us. According to Jesus, it is the deep desire to do things God’s way that will change your life; the blessedness that comes in knowing that even in the midst of poverty, or mourning, or persecution, we will discover a life that is light and a reward that is great and everlasting.

To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God:  that’s what God requires as we go about the business of life; that’s our pathway of righteousness.  And though we will falter and stumble on the journey – because that’s just who we are (!) – the good news is that we can just stand up and keep walking, because the great and glorious blessing that runs through the whole journey is that as we’re walking with God, God is walking with us… and for that, no matter what happens along the way, we can “rejoice and be glad.”

So walk humbly, beloved, this day and always; and as we do, may our thanks be unto God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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