Pastoral Series

Worship Matters: Offering

  The passing of offering plates in worship: is it the strangest, most incongruous thing we do when we are together in church? Or is it quite sensible and at the very heart of what we do in worship? There are better, more convenient and inviting ways to collect funds, and most churches engage in them: online giving, appreciated stock, the postal service and credit cards. It has always struck me as a little strange that, of all the many asks we make of people (their time, their energy, their passions, their talents), it is the money we bother to block out time for in the service. Valuable minutes are used up, and then we elevate the plates with their sparse dollars and change, as if money isn’t already lifted up enough for our attention all week long. You get the sense that churches feel the never ending pressure to raise money – so do we keep it in there to cling to the best chance we have of getting the bills paid?

But then I have this hunch that the offering is the best critique we have to the dominant idolatry of our culture. What better way might the church have to counter the fawning, seductive grip money has on us than by making each person take and then hand off an offering plate, and then watch it all be toted up to the altar and hoisted up to God?

Finance committees wring their hands and finagle ways to persuade church members their money really is needed, and is put to stellar and frugal use. And yet, the purpose of the offering isn’t merely to meet the bottom line of the budget. It’s about growing spiritually, and to counteract the stranglehold money has on our souls. The act of worship that is about money makes a powerful statement about who’s God and who isn’t, or what isn’t. Money talks – all week long. In worship God gets a word in, a true word about the meaning and purpose of money. With the offering, if I’m deeply engaged in it, my money is demystified – maybe all my money, not just what I give today in worship.

In ancient Israel, the offering was inseparable from real life outside worship. When the wheat finally ripened, instead of rushing in to bake the loaf for which your family was desperately hungry, you took that first grain, and burned it on a stone altar, the smoke curling heavenward, an expression of thanks to the One who sent the rain and made the soil yield something good. If your flock of sheep prospered, you expressed gratitude by killing and burning the most stalwart male (not the runt), the one any rational person would assume you needed for next year’s breeding. Yet if you trusted God, this was the sheep that you gave up, proving you knew the sheep and your future belonged to God in the first place.

In Israel, gratitude, and the declaration of who was God and who wasn’t, was entirely tangible, and costly. Perhaps this could be the most transformative lesson of the offering – learning to give not chunk change, and not just to tally a tax deduction, but a giving that matters. As Mother Teresa said, “You must give what will cost you something. This is giving not just what you can live without, but what you can’t live without or don’t want to live without. Something you really like. Then your gift becomes a sacrifice which will have value before God. This giving until it hurts, this sacrifice is what I call love in action.”

What can we do but shudder when we remember Jesus sitting in front of the Temple treasury, watching the wealthy pour in big, impressive sums (Mk 12:41)? But he was unimpressed. It was the poor widow, with two nearly worthless coins, who drew his praise. Clearly for Jesus, it isn’t how much we give, but from how much we give, whether it is love in action, a genuine sacrifice.

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