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Sermon – The Offertory

The Offertory

Sermon Preached by Reverend Stuart Langshaw on Sunday, 3 March 2024.

Today marks a new beginning for our parish.  Over the past 3 ½ years we have done many things to cope with Covid – we had our churches closed completely for a month or so to enforce isolating. Then when the churches re-opened we were socially and liturgically distanced, had Holy Communion with the bread only. We have had Holy Communion with individual little cups rather than the common chalice. We have sung through masks. We have sanitised our hands. We have refrained from any physical contact as we pass the peace. We have bumped elbows at the door after the service instead of shaking hands.  But being sensible citizens and observing all that our public health officials have told us to do, we have seen a gradual return almost to the way things were 4 years ago pre-Covid. And today is a major return to the way things were.

Today we are re-starting the passing of the collection plate along the pews during the offertory hymn, and we are re-instituting the presentation of the gifts of Holy Communion bread and wine from the back of the church. These are significant new starts and are filled with meaning.

“Offerings” have always been a part of worship … and a part of belonging. We pay membership dues to clubs we belong to. We recognise that such dues help the club or organisation to exist and to have its life – and because we like and appreciate that life, we are content to pay our dues. In religious worship offerings have taken different forms over the years, depending on the time in history and on the sort of community the church was in. Sometimes people brought produce from their farm or garden as an offering – perhaps an animal, perhaps crops or plants. Whatever it was, it was as a form of gratitude for all that the people had – and a recognition that God had seen them through another season, another harvest, another agricultural year.

But as society grew away from agriculture and horticulture, and other sorts of occupations arose, offerings became more and more based on cash and money. In the Old Testament, the standard of the tithe, or the tenth was instituted – and people gave a tenth of their income to show thanks to God and to help the temple to operate.

There was a time when Jesus was standing in “The Court Of The Women” in the Jerusalem Temple. It had this name, not because women and women alone were allowed there, but because this was as far as women were allowed to go into the Temple. They could not go into any of the inner courts and rooms. This Court of Women was a large, busy area, always bustling with people coming and going.

In that court there were 13 offertory chests. 13!!! They had individual purposes. Two chests were reserved for the temple tax. Chests 3-7 were for collecting funds for the value of turtle doves, pigeons, wood, incense an gold vessels. Chest 8 was for money left over from sin offerings. Chests 9 through 12 held funds left over from guilt offerings, from the sacrificing of birds, from the offerings of Nazirites, and from the offerings of lepers Chest 13 was for voluntary contributions.

These chests were called “Trumpets” because that was their shape – like trumpets resting on their bells. Narrow at the top. They were made of metal. If you put your offering coins into the chest in a particular way, it could make a most satisfying “dong” as the metal coins bounced off the interior of the metal collecting chest. It was a very public act of giving. And some Jews who turned up in their Georgio Armani cloaks and wearing their Gucci sandals, and reached into their inner pocket to get their Louis Vuitton money bag, sort of “threw” rather than dropped their offering coins into the metal “trumpet” as it was called – and people passing by noticed the melodic, metallic “gong” as the large coins made their way to the bottom. It was all very attention seeking. All very self-satisfying. “Oh what a good boy am I!” they thought.

But as Jesus kept observing, a widow came to Chest 13 for the free-will offerings. And from the depths of her op-shop cloak, she brought out a small op-shop purse, reached into it, and dropped coins into the chest – two coins – two small coins – worth … hardly anything on the open market or in the shops. In effect, commercially, her two coins were almost valueless … but to her, they were priceless.

Jesus’ comment was that the satisfying “dong” people had given out of their wealth, and had wealth left after they gave.. This op-shop widow gave out of her poverty and had nothing left after she gave. In God’s eyes her small gift was of enormous value because it came from her heart.

Passing the plate along the pews is very much more private than the trumpets in the Court of the Women was. Placing our offering in the depths of the velvet bag is very much more restrained than what happened in the Temple. Whether we put in an offering envelope or one of the laminated cards for those who give electronically or put in cash – is irrelevant. What is relevant is that whatever our offering is, our offering arises from our heart, like the widow.

It’s good to have a hymn dedicated for the act of giving, because it emphasises that this is a definite, specific moment in our worship.

The collection plate is in full view, and is no longer placed at the back of the church as it has been for Covid. As the plate comes to us we make a definite, voluntary action of offering. Our offerings are joined in the collection plate with other people’s offerings. The offering comes from ME, an individual Christian, as an integral act of worship, joining with my friends in the body of Christ, to offer something of our effort and earnings to the God who makes efforts and earnings possible.

It’s good to have the offerings brought to the altar rail to be dedicated publicly, so we can witness this act of liturgical dedication to God, after our act of private dedication to God.

Also today, we have the offering and presentation of the bread and wine for use in the Holy Communion. It’s important to see that these gifts from the earth are also the gifts of the congregation. It’s important to see that they do not sit at the front, but they are gifts made possible by the offerings of the congregation. Without these gifts from people’s offerings there is no Holy Communion.

The rubric (or the instruction) in our Prayer Book says “The gifts of the people are brought to the Lord’s Table.” Then, “The priest takes the bread and wine for the communion and places them on the Lord’s Table …” These are the gifts we bring that make the Holy Communion possible. When you come to receive the bread and the wine you are receiving a little of what you have already given – and others are receiving from your generosity also.

I rather like the words used by Christians of another tradition, for they say, “Blessed are you, Lord of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and the work of human hands … through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you, fruit of the vine and the work of human hands …”

The bread and wine symbolise God’s gifts to his people and also the gift of human work – we bring our labours united with God in his work. Both the Holy Communion elements and our monetary gifts are a symbol of our labour, they are an act of thanksgiving, our gratitude to God, who makes them all possible.

It’s all summed up at the end of Communion, when pray together the after-communion prayer … “Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice …”

The offertory – what an important part of our worship. The offertory – how good to have it reinstated in our service after Covid. The offertory – bringing to God the symbols of our effort and life. The offertory – giving of generosity for everyone here to benefit. The offertory – the living sacrifice of ourselves. 1406