A Temple Talk on stewardship I gave today at church.
My talk this morning is on giving as an act of worship. These talks are structured around Mark Allen Powell’s wonderful book: Giving To God, the first chapter of which is “An Act of Worship.” I can’t recommend this book highly enough, but I don’t want to recite to you what he said; I want to tell you about my reaction to the first chapter and my interaction with God through it.
I do want to give you an organizing quote, though. Powell writes: “The Sunday offering is a worship event that provides us with the opportunity for expressing our love to God in the purest way imaginable, by giving up something that we value.” I’ll come back to that.
Some years ago, [my wife] was reading “Our State” magazine when she saw a photo of the NC mountains in fall that she just loved. It was a shot across rolling hills full of vibrant wild flowers. I researched the photographer, found his web site, scoured through his prints and couldn’t find it. I called him. He had only recently taken the photograph, and had never made prints for sale. He made, framed, matted and sold me a 20 x 24 print and shipped it. I gave it to [my wife] for Christmas, and she has the first and maybe only one. She delighted in the receiving and I in the giving. Both our lives were enriched.
When I read that quote, “The Sunday offering is a worship event that provides us with the opportunity for expressing our love to God in the purest way imaginable, by giving up something that we value,” I thought about that picture and how excited I get about giving gifts to those I love, but I hate to give money. I stopped to talk to God about that.
I told Him, “That’s just it God. We put everything in terms of money today, and it’s so boring. I wish I had something precious to give you like the Magi or that picture I gave Kerri, but I have nothing you need.” Now, don’t go call the paddy wagon and send for a straight-jacket. I don’t see burning bushes or hear voices, but at that moment I sensed God telling me: “But, Bo…I don’t need your money either.”
We don’t give to God because He needs what we have. All we have is already His, and He wants to give us more. Sacrificial giving as an act of worship is one of the ways in which God allows us to exchange rusty, moth-infested rubbish for treasure in heaven. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. When Jesus told us to store up treasure in heaven He was by no means suggesting that we could earn our way in. Just as with our family and friends we do not give gifts to earn another’s love; likewise, we are not earning anything by giving to God.
The offering is not a free market exchange process in which we exchange labor for pay and pay for goods and services. It’s an organic, ecological process of growth. We are like potted plants that the master gardener is preparing for a special and beautiful place in a new creation He is planting, and giving as an act of worship is part of the process by which God nourishes and feeds us so that we may grow into a plant ready to be taken from the pot and deeply rooted in good soil.
In the tangible realm we are still part of the old decaying creation. The blessings God has given us in this world are indeed good and useful for life, and love and re-creation, and we should offer thanks for them, but unless we want to become root bound in this pot of flesh we must cease clinging to those things which are impermanent and exchange them for permanent things.
We give gifts to our children that are appropriate to their maturity. It is in the act of giving to God in worship that He matures us and enables us to put away childish things so that we can receive even greater things. It’s as if He is continually taking us from smaller pots and putting us in larger ones. The seed He planted in baptism He nurtures and cultivates and nourishes in worship, all of worship from thanksgiving and confession, praying and listening, eating and drinking, giving and serving.
When we cheerfully and freely give back to God what He has first given to us we are telling Him “I get it!” It’s a humbling, joyful and hungering process. It’s humbling because we first have to understand that we don’t deserve any of it, not even the most simple, essential gifts necessary to sustain physical life. It’s joyful because once we understand that we deserve none of it we don’t have to struggle to earn any of it, because we know we can’t, and we don’t have to fight to keep any of it because…we know we can’t. It’s hungering because once we’ve had a taste of God’s grace we want more, and we want it fully, in greater measure; we humbly and joyfully thirst for it like a deer panting for water.
In giving we grow to want the things we cannot earn but which we can keep, eternally. We give to God not because we have anything He needs but because He has everything that we will ever need, in this world and the world to come. In giving we become imitators of Christ. It is precisely through imitation that children learn and grow. When we do not freely and cheerfully give we are not keeping anything from God; we are keeping God’s grace from fully maturing in ourselves.
And yet, we all know that the most precious gifts we have to offer are not tangible. Imagine a relationship in which we never gave those we love our attention, approval, or affection. But, being the frail creatures of the tangible world of sense that we are, when we freely and joyfully give tangible gifts to one another—be it a photograph, a hug or love note—we are able, by doing so, to also give them intangible gifts.
While the offering is not a sacrament it does share this in common with them: The offering is one of the worship events in which the tangible intersects with the intangible. In giving our tangible gifts to God as an act of worship we open ourselves to receive the intangible gifts of His grace and love, and in doing so we grow, we are transformed more and more into His likeness until we are ready to be taken from our pots and planted in a garden that will glorify Him. Thanks be to Him to whom all glory is due, now and forever. Amen.