“Make Me An Offering” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – February 3, 2013
Call to Worship – from Matthew 5:23-24
If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to your brother or sister; then come and offer your gift.
Reading – from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
The reading is near the end of the book. Harry, Ron and Hermione have gone through successive chambers trying to prevent Quirrell from obtaining the Stone, which Voldemort wanted to achieve immortality. In this reading we see Ron willingly sacrificing himself in the chess game to save his friends. They win the game, and eventually destroy the Stone, and Ron survives.
Sermon – “Make Me An Offering”
The word offering can conjure up many images for us. When I was a child I attended a rural Congregational Church. The offering always felt like a great respite from what seemed in my eight year old mind to be endless words droning on for endless hours. The offering time meant we could move. As soon as it was announced, there was always a sudden shifting in the pews, almost like we were riding a wave. This sea change from calm to action meant men could pull their wallets from their back suit pants pockets, or women reach into their purses for loose bills or weekly envelopes to place in the wooden plate. Then once the soloist or choir had sung of their love for Jesus and His redemptive life, and the formally dressed ushers circulated to implore us to empty our wallets of their contents, a crucial climax occurred. Everything stopped, and the congregation was motioned to stand, and the doxology began to play, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise him, all creatures here below; Praise him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Those are three amigos that you won’t hear uttered from this pulpit. As we sang, the offering plates were brought forward and placed upon the communion table. It kind of felt like we were worshipping money. Yet this part of the liturgy also seemed the most worshipful to me – there was singing, standing, moving, and finally the minister would intone some words of blessing and we would all sit down.
In Unitarian Universalist churches I have witnessed a variety of approaches to the offering. In the first church I served as a student, the Unitarian Church of Davis, CA, there was no offering during the service. The idea was that every member would pledge, and then send it to the church office, so that the church service itself would not be sullied with this apparent non-spiritual practice of asking for money. This is the money as filthy lucre approach. For guests and visitors, there was an offering plate in an obscure corner of the church, sure to be seen only by the most observant and curious bystander. Render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, and unto God, well, since there was no God, all the renderings went to Caesar. While they implied that the offering was degrading, I think it was really more of a rebellious anti-Christian thing. They forgot the importance of an offering, and concluded, we don’t want any reminders of our militantly, ritualistic religious past. In Milton, which was a more Christian UU congregation, we didn’t sing those three Amigo words, but we did sing a UU version of the doxology, as the money was brought forward by the ushers. I took the plates from them, formally held them aloft at a table, and my apparent blessing was silent. Here in Watertown I don’t know the history behind our offering tradition. We sing a doxology, but it has no connection to the offering. The ushers collect the money our members give, but most folks send in their pledges, and place a token dollar or two in the box, and we eschew weekly envelopes.. Here the minister is not involved with the money. It is kind of shuffled off to the side, and then later disappears. Does that signify something? How do we feel about asking for money? What is giving to or making an offering all about?
There are really two ways of looking at offerings. First, offerings at religious gatherings have existed among all peoples from the beginning of recorded time, but that is not always true among our UU congregations. The background in congregations like ours began when our Puritan ancestors arrived in 1630. They established this congregation as the only religious game in town. We had a Congregational state church here in Massachusetts for more than two hundred years, until 1833, by which time our congregation was Unitarian in its theology. I know you are thinking of the separation of church and state in the constitution, but the state law took precedent. They must have been Republicans in training. There was no offering taken in these churches because all the money the church needed – minister’s salary, building repairs, etc. came from people’s taxes. Need more? Raise taxes. The problem with this was that you were required to pay if you owned property. You had no choice. If being a non-believer was fine in theory, for taxation purposes you were a Congregationalist with either a Unitarian or Trinitarian stripe. While the idea was that moral and civic principles would be inculcated throughout society, the town operated a coercive system. As lucrative as this was (everybody paid), and as easy as this was (you didn’t have to contact everybody and ask them to support the church), you were required to do it. People like the Universalists came along and said this was unfair. They believed our free choice of faith, also demands voluntary giving, and therefore must be a sacrament of freedom not coercion. I think that is a primary thing to remember about an offering in our church. It is not some forced requirement. It is a symbolic expression of your religious freedom, and your support of one of our communities helps ensure that freedom will continue for you and others. Thomas Whittemore, a Universalist leader said that for “religion to do any good [it] must operate in our hearts, and artificial support” is the death knell of a passionate and committed faith. All we have to do to see the truth of that is to look at Europe.
If an offering represents our freedom to choose a commitment, we also must understand what that commitment is, which empowers us to give. For that we go back to look at what an offering might mean to us. When I was sitting in the Congregational church of my childhood many years ago, the offering was not the only time I heard that word. The Hebrew Scriptures would frequently mention burnt offerings, or the building of altars to offer up sacrifices to God. The purpose of the burnt offering was to make atonement for the sin of the person making the offering, and thus to gain God’s acceptance and love. As a result of these stories we may have the wrong idea of offerings. We remember them as something given to appease the Gods, and make them happy, thus assuring the end of a drought, or victory in battle. Sacrificing virgins always seemed like the stock plot of “B” movies. The local tribe, always depicted in racist fashion, would pound their drums, tie up their victim, and place her on an altar as a gift to their Gods to curry favor. In this way, we think of offerings as something that prevents bad things from happening. This is also inherent in the traditional Christian theology of the atonement. God sends his only son to pay for our sins, and thus must die on the cross in a cruel and violent fashion in order that we can be redeemed. Does being obedient as Jesus was, result in salvation? Or is it harmful if religion teaches us to deny the power that is in us, to use power to manipulate and control others. Why would we teach that suffering is good for us?
The earlier story in the Hebrew scriptures of the sacrifice of Isaac may be helpful here. In this story God tells Abraham to cease and desist with the human sacrifices. A lamb is offered instead. A human sacrifice is not what God desires. No more killing one another for God. This story helps us to begin to question the replication of this whole sacrifice in Christian history. It is grounded in violence, especially towards women, who have often had to sacrifice their power. Later the Universalists said Jesus came not as a sacrifice to redeem us, but that he died as a result of trying to teach us how to be loving. He sacrificed himself for us, yes, but it was for love not blood. As Jesus stated it in the call to worship today: we cannot really give an offering when we are mired in guilt or lack the spirit of forgiveness towards another. We must be reconciled to the ones we are unable to forgive or feel compassion towards, and then we can offer up a true gift. An offering must come out of love not guilt.
Rather than asking what we can do or pay to please God to make our lives go well, we may want to look at what we are giving to the greater good. The early church placed animals or grain on an altar to feed the people, sort of like how we bring items for a giving box. These are offerings so that more people can have a happier existence. They can have food or clothes, rather than be naked or starve. Later in history money was substituted for material things, but the idea was still that we sacrifice our goods for a greater gain. Those who theorize about worship services say that an offering should come at the end of the service. We have examined ourselves, and now we want to give ourselves over to the higher calling. We have taken, or absorbed spiritual food in the service, and now we want to give back.
The offering is grounded in the principle of sacrifice. What do we sacrifice in our lives? This may be a loaded term because it harkens back to that theology that may remind us of violence or the oppression of women. Yet sacrifice is a common theme in popular literature. In this era when most people seem to think they can have and be everything, the yearning for greater meaning is important to recognize. It is a question we all address as we try to find time to work, eat right, exercise, spend time with our kids, improve our minds, volunteer, and oh yes, shop, cook, clean, and even, sleep. We sometimes think we don’t have to sacrifice anything. Yet just as Jesus does not reach his goal without the disciples, so the sacrifices Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione make for each other enable them to overcome Voldemort in the Harry Potter books . In the first four novels, Voldemort is unable to touch Harry because of the protection of Lily Potter’s loving self-sacrifice. Harry hears: “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign…to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” Then in the reading we see Ron sacrifice himself, so the others can accomplish their goal. In expressing their love for one another, they overcome evil.
There are two aspects to understanding sacrifice. First there is being appreciative of what has been sacrificed for us. I suspect the classic example of this is the Native American thanking the buffalo before he uses its body for food, clothing and shelter. For us that might mean greater awareness of what is sacrificed for us. The Shawnee tribe tells the story of “Brother Crow and Brother Buffalo.” The crow was pure white in the beginning. He was the brother to the buffalo. The Shawnee needed the buffalo for food and skins but every time the Shawnee would hunt the buffalo, the crow would warn him. When the hunting party gathered around the campfire to prepare for the hunt. Cawanemua said, “We must do something about crow.” “I will dress as a buffalo and when brother crow comes to warn the buffalo of our hunt, I will grab him.” The next day, he pulled the buffalo skin on and joined the herd grazing near by. Soon crow came to warn the buffalo as the Shawnee approached. Crow was crying,”Caw, Caw, Hunters!” Cawanemau jumped up and caught crow by his legs and carried him back to the camp.
That night, around the fire, the hunters discussed the fate of crow. Some wanted to kill and eat crow, since they were very hungry and crow had spoiled the hunt by warning the buffalo. Others wanted to let crow go, thinking that he had learned his lesson and would not warn buffalo again. Finally, Cawanemau grabbed crow and threw him in the fire. But a young brave, Panseau seeing crow turning black from the fire and soot….grabbed him from the flames. Cawanemau was furious with Panseau. He yelled, “Crow deceives us, we are hungry and cold because he warns buffalo!!! Yet you save him from the flames!!” Panseau, in a small voice, quietly said, “Crow warns his brother. Just as I would warn you, my brother.” Crow, who was shaken and blackened from the flames, heard Panseau. Everyone was very still, thinking about what the smallest brave had said. Crow spoke, ” I am blackened for warning buffalo, who is my brother. I now say Shawnee is my brother also. I will never warn buffalo of your hunt and you, brother Shawnee, will remember to give thanks to buffalo for giving himself to you for food to fill your belly and skins to keep you warm. Cawanemau stood. “Crow is our brother. Buffalo is our brother also. We will only hunt buffalo when we need food and skins. We will remember to always give thanks. Brother crow will remain black, so he too can remember and remind us of his promise to never warn our brother buffalo.” That is how the crow became black.
We all must sacrifice to make a life together possible. We begin by acknowledging the sacrifices that are made for us. Looking back we may be able to see what our spouses gave up in terms of their career aspirations in order to raise children. We may see how our parents sacrificed a more comfortable life because they financed our college education. Here we may reflect on what sacrifices were made for us. Not long ago Lauren and I decided that we wanted the children to stay in the sanctuary for the offering each week. The cynic might say it was just a way to make sure the teachers put some money in the box, but in all seriousness, it was so that children would see it is the contributions of the people that make the life of the community possible. But beyond the mundane fact that we need money to support our programs, is the deeper meaning of the offering and why we have it as part of worship. In our celebration of life, we know that a necessary part of both worship and life are sacrifice and commitment to others. In an offering we give of ourselves to others that all might live more abundantly.
So an offering is about freedom. But it is also about commitment to others, and what kind of world we are building together. Do we see what others have sacrificed for us, and give thanks for that? An offering is also a time to recognize our own sacrifices. During the Martin Luther King breakfast, I invited the guests to take a few moments to greet a stranger. I asked them to consider a moment in their lives when they felt they were not treated equally. I didn’t participate at first, but then I told Martha Scott that I thought of when I was a single parent, and a church told me they would not call me to the ministry. Though they were intrigued by a man who was a single parent, they were worried I would not be there for them. That recollection also led me to think of sacrifices. I made the choice to have a child, and I made a choice to get divorced, but once I had custody I also made the choice to stay in Boston so that my son could have a continuing relationship with his mother. One small sacrifice was knowing that I would never look for greater career opportunities outside of greater Boston until he grew up. I gave that up so that my son might grow up knowing both parents, and hopefully have a good relationship with both. Within the context of the choices we make, we also make greater and lesser sacrifices. Each of us must consider that when we ask ourselves how is our faith going to transform us, and how will that faith be acted upon in the world. What are you offering up in love or service? Do you offer up an ear or some time so that a friend can feel supported or a child loved? Do you give up anything, to make a healthier, humane world? Sacrifices make a huge impact because they remind us that human life means something. If we sacrifice for a child it means we believe the world will go on. If we sacrifice for a loved one, it means relationships build a world of friendship and companionship. If we sacrifice some comfort and accumulation, it symbolizes that we all need to do with less and conserve more. Sacrifice means we love the world and its people and its children. When we take an offering, we all remember that we lay down our lives for each other, realizing that there is no greater way to express our love. That was what communion was meant to be. We are part of each other, and part of a whole.
Closing Words – from Anne Sexton
“Not So, Not So”
I cannot walk an inch
without trying to walk to God.
I cannot move a finger
without trying to touch God.
Perhaps it is this way:
(God) He is in the graves of the horses.
(God) He is in the swarm, the frenzy of the bees,
(God) He is in the tailor mending my pantsuit.
(God) He is in Boston, raised up by the skyscrapers.
(God) He is in the bird, that shameless flyer.
(God) He is in the potter who makes clay into a kiss.
Not so! Not so!
I say thus and thus
and heaven smashes my words.
Is not God in the hiss of the river?
Not so! Not so!
Is not God in the ant heap,
stepping, clutching, dying, being born?
Not so! Not so!
I cannot move an inch.
Look to your heart
that flutters in and out like a moth.
God is not indifferent to your need.
You have a thousand prayers
but God has one.”
May we live in ways that are not indifferent to each other’s needs, so that our thousand prayers become one.