a sermon on Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Acts 4:32-37
I suspect that the offering might be one of the least-liked parts of the worship service. I’m not talking about the wonderful and beautiful music that Julie blesses us with week after week but rather the act of gathering the gifts of the people as we worship, the strange process of passing offering plates back and forth across our pews to collect the monetary gifts of those who come to worship. Any dislike of this part of the service is probably not even about the process of passing the offering plates either but rather rooted in a general discomfort that many people feel around giving money—especially when we know that other people might be watching.
I think most everyone probably agrees that it is a good thing to bring our gifts to God, but there has not always been clear agreement about the best way to do this. We have biblical records like both of our readings this morning that describe a physical act of bringing gifts to God, of sharing very physical items with the religious institutions or the church community to show a measure of devotion to God and the community. As the early church developed its liturgy and practice further, it shifted away from bringing the monetary gifts of its members in the offering to instead bring the bread and wine that would be shared in communion. In the medieval church, though, as the people’s participation in communion became less frequent, the bringing of bread and wine in the offering was replaced by a procession of the people’s monetary gifts. In the Reformation, many liturgies did away with all this formality entirely, attempting to take a bit of the show out of giving so that our financial gifts would be offered in a way that was less about flaunting wealth and more about a gracious response to God’s grace in our lives. At some point in the centuries since, the public collection of the offering returned, though in some places this trend is starting to shift a bit nowadays with the rise of online giving to churches—one even we have joined in in recent months!
However church practice may change with emerging technologies or frustrations with flaunting wealth, bringing offerings is likely to remain an important part of our worship for a long time to come. But why? Why not just put an offering plate or a locked box at the exit and ask that people drop something in on their way in or out? Why not try convincing everyone to move to online giving and gain back the three or four minutes that we take to collect the offering and hear the offertory? Why not find some other way to collect the gifts of worshipers so that we can remember that the whole of worship is offering the gifts of our whole lives to God?
First of all, bringing offerings as part of worship goes back many, many centuries. Both of our readings this morning describe how bringing offerings were part of worship in the life of ancient Israel and in the early church. In our reading from Deuteronomy, as the Israelites prepared to enter the promised land, they were given instructions to take the first fruits of the harvest for the worship of God. The people were to give thanks for for God’s gift of land, God’s gift of freedom in the exodus, and God’s provision for the people in the wilderness. This thanksgiving was important enough that it came as part of worship, in the place where the people gathered to show their praise to God, as all the people, regardless of religious practice or ethnic origin, began their worship by celebrating “with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” The first fruits offered in this moment were enough for everyone to share as they gathered to give thanks for all that God had given.
The Jewish tradition of bringing offerings in worship carried over into the early church. The letters of Paul and others and the book of Acts give us insight into the early church’s tradition and practice of bringing offerings that shows how the church connected offerings in worship to the life of the community. The offering was the source of the community’s common support for one another as they held all their possessions in common and used the wealth of the privileged to meet the needs of the poor. By gathering offerings in worship, they came together with one heart and soul to share the grace that they came to know together in Christ.
Beyond honoring these past practices, gathering the offering as part of worship makes it clear that offering these gifts is an integral part of how we praise God together. We do not just give out of obligation—we give because we want to offer praise to God for all that we have received. Our financial gifts are just one part of all of our offerings that we bring in worship. Our songs of praise, our prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, even our proclamation and hearing of God’s Word come together with our finanical gifts and so much more so that the whole of our worship might reflect our gratitude for all that we have received from God.
In the same way, our individual gifts do not stand on their own—instead, the gathered offering reminds us that our individual gifts come together with the offerings of our sisters and brothers in the faith to be a part of God’s work in the world. The offering is a communal task, where ultimately the amount of our individual gifts matters far less than our collective commitment that shows our gratitude for God’s many gifts and our commitment to join in God’s work of transformation in the world.
Interestingly, the collection of the offering is one of the most carefully choreographed moments in our worship. Our instructions for our greeters who collect the offering are surprisingly specific about how it should be done—and having experienced worship in a number of other churches over the years, I think it is fair to say that our practices are actually quite simple compared to many others! Still, some of these practices for receiving the offering can easily confuse what we are really doing here. We do not bring our gifts as a sacrifice to God, hoping to appease God in some way by giving enough money to hold off divine retribution for our sinfulness. We do not collect the offering in worship so that we can place the monetary gifts of the people on some sort of divine altar, giving them special treatment that sets them apart from all the other gifts that we bring to worship and offer to God in the fullness of our lives. And we do not bring our gifts forward to show off what we have given, hoping that everyone along the way will notice how these plates are overflowing with envelopes and checks and cash and even coins to support the institutional operations or even mission of the church.
Instead, the offering—the monetary gifts we bring, the way we collect and recognize those gifts in worship, and the many other gifts of our lives that we present to God—the whole offering that we offer throughout our worship is ultimately about showing our deep gratitude to God each and every day, in our financial giving and in the giving of our whole lives.
Many years ago, one of the advisors to the national collegiate ministry team I served on told us about how she embodied her gratitude to God through the offering in worship. She had a personal commitment—a spiritual practice, even—that she would always put something, the smallest bill in her purse, in the offering plate every time it was passed as a mark of her deep gratitude and thanks to God. If God could never stop caring for us, then she could never stop showing her thanks in her life—and from her pocketbook. Sometimes this was easy, she told us—especially when she had a $1 or $5 bill in her purse. But if the smallest bill was a $20, it was a good bit harder to keep her commitment, though she did it anyway.
Over the years, I have tried to follow her thoughtful and considered practice myself. I don’t do it here—it is a bit awkward to fish out my wallet and drop in a bill when I am leading worship!—but when I am worshiping elsewhere and the time comes for the offering, I embody my deep gratitude for God’s grace by putting something in the offering plate if at all possible, sometimes even asking a friend who is with me if I can join in her offering and pay her back later if my wallet is empty or the smallest bill a bit too large for the moment! Even if this practice isn’t feasible for some of us, even if we faithfully give what we can to the church once a month or online or through some other method, the act of sharing the offering in worship reminds us to pause in this moment and give thanks to God in some tangible way for the incredible gifts that we have received.
So as we bring our gifts to God week after week, may we always be united with one another in sharing not only our abundance but even more our gratitude for God’s amazing grace so that our whole lives might reflect our thanks and praise for the God who gives us life and invites us to share that life with the world. Thanks be to God! Amen.