Written by Pastor Ed
October 9, 2016
Luke 17: 11-19
Deut. 26: 1-11
At the Worship team meeting last Sunday, one of the items we discussed is one that seems to come up from time to time in most congregations; what to do with the offering? Not how to spend it, but rather where it should be in the order of service, and whether in this day and age we even need to take an offering.
Curious, I wrote a post on FaceBook asking for input from friends, many of whom are pastors, on what their thoughts were on the subject. And I got a whole variety of responses. One of my friends responded with a picture from Chester Cathedral in England where he had been recently that perhaps illustrates where we are at today.
That’s right, you can simply text your offering in to the church. Others give electronically, and we have provision for that through Canada Helps; you can find a link for that on our website. As more and more of our transactions are done electronically, shouldn’t the church catch up. Some churches even offer credit card machines at the church to receive offerings.
Some noted that their church doesn’t collect an offering during the worship, but simply has a box in the foyer. In some ways that recollects how offerings used to be taken in the first church I pastored, when there was an alms box by the door for people to drop their coins in. There’s a whole story behind this box. When the original church was torn down, the custodian rescued it from the garbage heap and took it home with him. When he had auction, I bought it since someone had told me the history, and had it in my possession for a number of years, until the church decided they wanted it back and bought it from me to return to their historical collection!
I’ve known churches where members were simply assessed a certain amount, dependant usually on how much land they owned, although some told of current practice where members were required to show their income tax forms in order to determine if they were actually tithing or not. I also recall one church we attended where everyone got up and filed past the pastors in the front who were watching to make sure everyone contributed. And they said if someone didn’t have anything to put in, their neighbours should give them something so everyone could contribute.
One person at the meeting recalled that in some rural churches, the offering was an annual event, taken after harvest when the farmers had their checks in hand. Some people give weekly, other monthly depending on when checks come. One interesting response I got to the question of whether offering were becoming obsolete was from Elaine, who said, “It will become obsolete only when reading a sermon at home replaces listening to one with gathered believers.”
Perhaps the most impassioned response was from Lynn Miller, who once served as a stewardship consultant for Mennonite Church USA who said, “No,no,no, the offering is not a financial transaction between us and the church, it is a moment where we prove to God that we meant what we just sang and prayed and preached. Look at 2 Cor 8&9, its as if God is saying after all our words, “Show me the money!” Interestingly, he later noted that he now gives electronically through a direct transfer, and just says, “Thank you” when the plate is passed.
So how might we think about this? I’m sure you have opinions as well. One of the interesting things to note is that we actually have a rather detailed account in the Old Testament of how the children of Israel were supposed to bring their offerings to the priest, the account we read from Deuteronomy 26. This passage comes at the end of a long list of regulations and instructions, but is perhaps the most detailed in terms of how it is to be actually carried out. It goes like this:
After you have settled in the land and planted and reaped the harvest, you are to take some of the first of all the fruit that you have harvested, put it in a basket and take it to the priest. And then, when the priest has taken it you are to remember why it is that you are bringing this offering by reciting holy history.
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”
The children of Israel were invited to recall their history as they brought their offerings of first-fruits. To recite that history was to remind them that once they had been a slave people in Egypt, and God had delivered them from that bondage and brought them to an abundant land, “flowing with milk and honey” and in response, “so now,” they were bringing their offering.
But, you might say, what does that have to do with offerings today? We live in a much different time and place. We don’t bring our produce, except maybe on Thanksgiving Sunday when we bring food for the food bank. And we weren’t slaves previously.
And while all that is true, I do think there are some principles we can take from this, and perhaps think of some ways to translate this for today.
First of all, as Lynn Miller and other pointed out, the offering should not be seen as simply a financial transaction between us and the church. Yes, our offerings help to pay the bills and keep the programs of the church going, clearly. But first and foremost, our offering is a response to what God has done for us in the past, and will continue to do for us in the future. We may not have been delivered from slavery, but certainly we can reflect on what God has done for us in the past.
But maybe we have lost something that is important, namely the reminder of why we bring our offering to God. Perhaps we need some kind of recital like the ancient Israelites had. In some congregations after the offering is collected, it is brought to the front, raised high, and the doxology is sung, or a prayer of thanks is given. I’m just thinking out loud here, not necessarily proposing anything, but I would invite your thinking as well.
There is, I believe, something good about a tangible offering. While we don’t bring literal first-fruits, participation in some way in the act of giving makes our thankfulness real in a way that clicking a button doesn’t. Craig Morton, a pastor friend in Idaho suggested that there could be other things put in the offering plate, other than money. He said, “Replace the money in the plate with weekly opportunities for people to be specific about how they will give their lives not just their money. We used to collect notes from our congregation as to how they were going to give of their life: conversations, volunteering, time with neighbors, etc.”
Someone else suggested that even if you give regularly electronically in some way, placing even a small amount in the offering plate is worthwhile. Giving as an act of worship is saying thank you publically, where our children can see and learn. It shows a certain commitment and response to God’s actions.
We shake our heads and “tsk” at the 9 lepers who didn’t return to say thank you to Jesus for their healing, and yet we too sometimes fall into the habit of taking things for granted and not saying thank you. And, as David Lose points out in his commentary at WorkingPreacher.org the one who returns and gives thanks receives a double blessing. The other nine were still healed, but acknowledging the blessing of healing and saying thank you is like receiving a double blessing. There is something powerful in acknowledgement and saying thank you.
There is one more thing I want to note from our passage in Deuteronomy, and that is the last line of the passage, which says something I think we sometimes forget. After they are instructed on how to bring their first-fruits and offer them to the priest, the passage says, “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”
Two things I note. First, after bringing the offering, they were encouraged to use the rest of the harvest, the bounty they had, to celebrate and live. But secondly, it was not just for their own personal use, but also to be shared with the Levites and the aliens living among them. The tribe of Levi, you may recall, was not given any land, so the Levites did not have a harvest and could not provide for themselves in that way. And the same was true of the aliens, the foreigners who lived among them.
So even after they had brought their offering, the best of the crop, in thankfulness to God, they were still expected to share of the rest of their bounty with those who had little. It was again a reminder as Paul states in II Corinthians that when we have plenty we should share it, because the tables may be turned and sometimes others will be able to share with us. It also reminds us, as does the story of the 10 lepers, that we are called upon to care for those on the margins. Jesus was in the borderlands and healed the 10 regardless of who they were.
Giving thanks to God can be done in many ways, and we need to be mindful of that at any time. Meister Eckhart, mystic, said ““If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is “Thank you”‘ it will be enough” I don’t think that we’ll do away with passing the offering plate anytime soon, but as we do so, I encourage us to take that time, as we pass it, to say thank you, whether you put something in or not, make it a time for reflection on what God has done for you, and for God’s people through the years. In that way it becomes much more than simply “giving money to the church” and becomes a true act of worship.