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Sunday, March 3, 2013

A modern parable

Yesterday I was preparing to lead the lectionary study group this coming Tuesday. While reading a commentary on John 12:1-8 I was taken by this story:

I will never forget the furor sparked at a stewardship conference at which an ecumenical group of pastors gathered to discuss generosity. One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God, and the clergy began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.”
The reaction was electric. Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching that greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume. One whispered it was illegal to burn currency. Another was heard to murmur, “If he is giving money away, perhaps he has a few more.” There was nervous laughter around the room.
“Do you not understand?” asked the speaker. “I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.” It was an anxious moment.

- Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, Bartlett & Taylor, ed.

"It is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us." How often do we think of our church offerings in that way? How often do we give "with no strings attached?" How often do we look at what is given and think "Thy will be done" and not already have some preconceptions of what God's will should be? How can we, sitting in a building paid for by money, led by a person paid by money, rooted in a society built on and operated by money, give "our" money that we "earned" and not think in terms of that money being given for business as usual?

This story made me think that maybe we lost something when we lost the concept of burnt offerings. With those there was no question that the sacrifice was anything but being given wholly to God - although even then the skins were given to the priests. I am not saying bring back animal sacrifice (note that the $100 bill in the story was also a burnt offering). But I am thinking about how can we give and truly have no expectations as to the earthly disposition of our gift? How can we give and not get mad if our gift is "wasted" or "misused" or directed in a manner we do not approve? This is not a theoretical question - churches have split and people have left based on this very topic.

How can we give and make sure in our giving that it is not somehow earmarked to be "useful for the rest of us?" I ask this after handing our pastor a check yesterday indicating it was for an explicit purpose. I still think that purpose was valid. However, I am not so sure it was "offering a gift directly to God," but instead was simply making the gathering that is our little church run a bit more smoothly. Still perhaps a good thing, but not necessarily a holy one.

I will be thinking about this one for a while.

I should note our pastor is bi-vocational and currently not paid by the congregation. But the expectation is that some day we will be able to support her work by paying her. And when I do "supply" preaching in small churches I am paid. It is hard to not think of the offering in terms of a paycheck when you know some of it will flow directly to you for "services rendered."

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