Here’s a newsflash: churches do things differently, and that includes passing the plate. In the Assemblies of God (where I had my first life-changing experience of church), and other churches, the language of an annual pledge for giving isn’t often heard. At least, I didn’t hear it. I became more used to hearing things like, “Give what the Lord lays on your heart.” Sometimes I heard calls for a literal tithe, ten percent, to be offered for the work of the church. (Some people debated if it should be before taxes or after taxes!)
Something else I heard of on a fairly regular basis was the “prosperity gospel,” or prosperity theology. It is especially demonstrated by many televangelists. It’s the idea that God financially rewards those who have enough faith. Sometimes preachers will refer to giving to their ministry as sowing seeds. The more you sow, the greater the harvest you will reap. Oh, and you might hear, “God has promised me a private jet. I need this jet. Will you believe with me and stand on the promise of God and support us in this vital mission to spread the gospel all over the nation and all over the world?”
(By the way, we’ll come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings!)
We Presbyterians (and others in the so-called mainline churches) aren’t exposed to the prosperity gospel quite so much. Still, it’s really not anything new. It’s even in the Bible—though not that anyone prayed for a jet. Take Job, for example. When he lost all of his livestock, all of his wealth, and then suffered the loss of all his children, and then his health, his friends concluded he must have sinned. (Actually, that was after he professed his innocence.) He must have done something wrong. If he would only repent, he might see the return of his fortune.
There is something in the human spirit that drives us, that impels us, to please a God who apparently, in an almost whimsical, capricious fashion, will withhold blessing if we don’t measure up. We are put on the scales, and if we are found wanting, then something will be taken away.
One more note about Job. If you skip to the final chapter, we see that the Lord is angry with Job’s friends. “[Y]ou have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). The idea that God acts like a vending machine—insert money and a goody comes out—is upended; it is rejected.
If that’s true, then what do we do with scriptures throughout the Bible that mandate giving to God in order to find blessing?
Let’s go back thousands and thousands of years ago, when humans began to have some awareness of a reality beyond them, when they eventually began to worship deities. Sacrifices were deemed necessary to guarantee good hunting, to ensure healthy crops, to assure health for themselves. It’s the vending machine mentality.
And as we’ve already seen, that mentality, that spirituality, does appear in the scriptures. There is indeed a tug of war, a back and forth, a struggle to walk the path. There is the vending machine. Yet contrary to that, there is the call to act in faith, to act in faithfulness, to act in gratitude, to be thankful.
In particular, the prophets denounce the approach of offering the proper gift, saying the proper words, going through the proper motions, but without it coming from the heart. The outward form of worship, without a concern for holiness, for justice, for love, is useless and empty.
That’s true with the call for the first fruits in Leviticus 23. The word of the Lord comes to the people: “When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall raise the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance.” (vv. 10-11).
If it feels like we’re still in transition from the “give to the deity, so that you may get back” mentality, that would not be totally wrong. In the following verses, it is stipulated what’s involved in bringing the first fruits. Along with the sheaf, a lamb is to be brought for sacrifice, a lamb “without blemish.” There is also a grain offering, one of “choice flour.” Translation: if you are to give to God, then you are to give your best.
I wonder if that applies to donations. We’ve all done this, haven’t we? You know, you’re going through your belongings and deciding what to give away. There’s the “donate” bin and the “trash” bin. Sometimes you get them mixed up—no big deal. It’s going to the thrift store; they don’t know the difference!
Here’s a crazy thought: what about buying brand new items and donating them!
But back to the sheaf of the first fruits of the harvest. Just a few verses later we read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (v. 22).
Wouldn’t that fit into the category of performing the proper form of worship and pursuing a concern for holiness, for justice, for love? By not hoarding every scrap of produce, of product, there is an effort made to provide for everyone. By not maintaining a mercenary economy—by building into the system care for the poor and the alien—holiness, justice, and love are given at least an equal standing with the profit margin.
Along with the poor, there is the alien, the foreigner, who is valued as a member of society. The foreigner is to be held in esteem. The refugee is to be held in esteem.
Pointing out how God’s peace is found in these structures of laws of worship is part of what prophets do. Among the various approaches that can be used, there is one that seems to have greater meaning and effect. Richard Rohr addresses this.
“Prophets, by their very nature,” he says, “cannot be at the center of any social structure. Rather, they are ‘on the edge of the inside.’ They cannot be full insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either. A true prophet must be educated inside the system, knowing and living the rules, before they can critique what is non-essential or not so important. Jesus did this masterfully…” We will see an example of that in a few moments.
Rohr continues, “Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value. A prophet critiques a system by quoting its own documents, constitutions, heroes, and Scriptures against its present practice. This is their secret: systems are best unlocked from inside, and not by negative or angry people.”
The prophets want their traditions to expand, evolve, and frankly, just get better.
In the New Testament era, we see the apostle Paul model this approach. He calls himself “a Pharisee, son of Pharisees” (Ac 23:6). He is “a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Ph 3:5). He is thoroughly educated in and familiar with the system. He is also able to see where the system falls short, indeed, how it can crush people. The vision of Jesus the apostle Paul has enlightens him to these truths.
In Acts 20, Paul is saying goodbye to the leaders of the church in Ephesus. He has lived there almost three years. They are heartbroken at the news he is leaving them.
Among his final words are the reminder that he commends them to God and to the message, the good news, which will build them up. He also reminds them, “I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions” (v. 34). Paul gives them a challenge. “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak” (v. 35). He shows the proper use of money and resources. As with the first fruits of the Hebrews, the harvest must benefit all.
And then, he finishes the thought with “remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
If you do some checking, you’ll find that these words appear nowhere in the gospels. They’re more in tenor with Jesus’ overall teachings. For example, in Luke 6 when Jesus is talking about loving one’s enemies, he says, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great” (v. 35).
Obviously, the few writings we have about Jesus do not contain everything he said. These words of wisdom are among them.
Toward the end of John’s gospel, we have the modest statement, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). There isn’t enough room in all the world! I think there might be a tiny bit of exaggeration at work.
We do have some of Jesus’ words, and they continue our theme on money and its uses, for good and for ill. They appear at the beginning of Luke 21, and they go like this:
“He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’” (vv. 1-4).
In Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped, he brings up this story of the poor widow. Jesus points out that the wealthy are contributing to the temple fund out of their abundance, money they won’t even miss. However this widow, with her two coins, is putting a major dent in her finances. Indeed, she is left destitute. The moral of the story, the way it’s often presented, is that we should praise and imitate the widow; she’s making a big sacrifice for God.
Our friend Doug speaks about a visitor to their church who shows up while they’re having a discussion about this story. I love the line this fellow comes up with. “I think you have that story totally wrong.” Now that’s the kind of guy you want at a Bible study!
But it’s true. Those other folks, in terms of the amount of money they’re giving, are doing a great deal. But when you look at percentages of what they have, it’s almost a pittance, a drop in the bucket.
Here’s where we come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings. The system of the temple, with the religious and political structures that go with it, can be a beast. It can chew you up and spit you out. Think of the poor souls who are swindled by the prosperity preachers.
Still, we need not go to the extremes of people being bullied or scammed. We can expand our vision and ask, as noted earlier, is money offered in a spirit of holiness, justice, and love? Do we share our resources in that spirit?
We could come at those questions from many different angles, but I would like to make an observation from these last few days. Actually, it’s not my observation, but that of one of the mothers of the dance students who have been staying at the PERC [Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center]. She wrote down her thoughts in a letter, and I’m quoting part of it. (She gave me permission!)
[This photo was not taken in the summer!]
She speaks of last year having been “in a pretty rough place mentally and emotionally.” But then she underwent “a transformation,” and a big part of that was “the respite [she] was given at the PERC. There is a peace that exists at the mansion that is nothing short of healing. It is home and family and rest.”
She says she couldn’t wait to come back this year, noting, “Toxicity has a way of creeping in while going through daily life. I needed to come to refocus and renew. I needed my whole family to have that opportunity as well, because I can describe my experience all I want, but that doesn’t lead to understanding.”
When her family returned this summer, they were offered lodging that was, let’s say, underwhelming. Reflecting on that, she notes, “When I knew that we needed to have a different experience than what we arrived to, I knew I could just make a phone call and be welcomed with open arms.”
Here’s how she finishes: “The PERC is not just a building, there is a presence there that is palpable.”
Friends, that is what sacred space is all about. Sometimes we need to get out of the way and allow the Spirit in to create that sacred space. We are seeing that happen at the PERC. We are seeing that happen right here.
Give with holiness, justice, and love. Give what the Lord lays on your heart. Amen!