A Time to Worship ...
O come, let us worship and bow down:
let us kneel before the Lord our maker.
For he is our God;
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand (Ps. 95:6-7a, KJV).
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on" (Lk. 21:1-4, NIV).
My wife grew up going to a church that was pretty much a straight shot from her family home. You just went down to the corner, made a right turn, and drove straight for eight blocks – and you were at the church. There was only one major intersection at which you had to stop and then the rest were neighborhood intersections where other traffic had to yield, including one that was next to a school.
I think that was the intersection that, on one Sunday, someone taking a short-cut from the businesses on the U.S. Highway that ran parallel to their route failed to yield and crashed into the little Ford Fiesta my wife’s family was riding in.
From that point on, my mother-in-law refused to drive that way to church – or to go through that intersection, declaring that it was “a bad intersection!” (which was probably true). But her altered route either doubled or tripled what was maybe a three-minute trip largely because now you went through two or three major intersections and stoplights. I used to tease her that based on her reluctance to use the “bad intersection” she would soon be going to Carthage (a town about fifteen miles away) just to get to church!
Eventually, they stopped worrying about the “danger” of that intersection and would take the old, regular route simply because it took too long the other way. Then, the Joplin tornado struck, and they moved to a different home, and later changed churches; so now they are still only about a three-minute drive from their church.
One of the things I enjoy about my position is that it requires me to worship with a myriad of congregations – and I see the different ways in which we approach worship. One of the common things about worship was the bringing of tithes and offerings as an act of worship. I have seen the common methods in the states that involves the passing of a plate to receive our cash, checks, and pledge cards to the literal bringing in of the first fruits … a bag of rice and various gifts of food to support the celebration and dedication of a new building.
Consequently, one of the meaningful practices for me has been to put a cash offering in the offering plate when I was worshipping away from my home church. I tithe via electronic giving to my home church … but I make the habit of giving a cash offering when I am present in worship at other churches – whether it be one of our churches here in ABCRM or a church on some mission field, I love to participate in the service not just through speaking, but through giving. The amount varies … but for me it is an act of worship that helps me feel connected to the ministry of the church I am visiting as well as connecting more fully with the God I am worshipping. But for Jesus, it seemed to be even more important.
When Jesus taught at the temple, it seems He often taught near the treasury … one of the most public places inside the walls of the Temple Courts … where it was said thirteen boxes were lined up with trumpet-like openings to receive the gifts of the worshippers. These gifts not only paid for the upkeep of the Temple and its work, but also was used to provide for the priests. The priests monitored these boxes and the people had to declare aloud what they were giving and the gift’s designated use. And, of course, it was there that Jesus challenged the giving of some (who gave for self-aggrandizement) and where he praised the sacrificial giving of the widow.
We see something like this in the African American tradition where there may be two boxes or baskets … one for tithes and offerings and the other for the building program or maybe benevolences … and the people are invited to come up as directed by ushers to put their gifts in the basket. They don’t have to publicly declare the gifts as they did in the temple, but still it is a public act of worship!
In the Euro-church … we just pass the plate, I guess to maintain some sense of anonymity, but it is still done during the actual worship service. Or at least it was done that way … before Covid.
You see, during Covid, many of our churches took heed of the advice of the CDC and stopped passing plates and inviting people to come to the front to offer their gifts … receiving public offering for fear of unknowingly giving the gift of Covid to one another.
It was a “dangerous intersection” to be avoided at the time. I was one who led the charge for making these necessary adjustments to our worship services during that time, and yet, while most of the “in-person” worship practices of the church pre-Covid have come back … the act of publicly worshipping through the giving of our gifts seems to still be side-lined.
Most of the churches I have visited post-Covid tell me that the plates are at the back or I can use my phone to give or do something other than receiving a physical offering … and it’s just not the same to me. Why have we chosen to bring other parts of public worship back, but kept giving as an act of worship on the Covid sideline?
Giving – as I’m exiting the sanctuary – instead of being a part of the worship service just feels wrong … it feels a little like visiting a historic site with a donations box at the end that invites us to help maintain the structure … like encountering a street musician and throwing in a couple of bucks in appreciation for her talents … like an afterthought and not as an intentional act of offering our gifts to God in the fullness of God’s presence.
Yeah, I know God is always with us, but I am not always fully conscious of God’s presence as I’m leaving the sanctuary, my thoughts are more on “What’s next?” than it is on offering this gift to God in a symbolic way that expresses my offering myself as well.
And given where we are at with Covid in the rest of culture … I wonder if it’s not time to stop avoiding the dangerous intersection? I wonder if it’s time to reincorporate the passing of the plate, the presentation of our gifts in public worship, and to focus less on the electronic opportunities we have to give.
At the very least, if we are going to continue to give in a more “safe” manner, we have to find a way to incorporate the act of giving as a part of worship again … to give before the eyes of the Teacher so that the Teacher might instruct us on the fullness of our gift.
Today, Lord Jesus, I offer myself to you. I offer myself to you not just in the quietness of my study and in solitude, but in the craziness of the marketplace and in full sight of all who are around me. Receive my gift not because it repays any of what I owe only to you, but because it reminds me of how much I owe to you. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Steve Van Ostran
American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains