Pass the plate

Good morning, Friends!

This morning is Pledge Sunday. But before anyone gets all tensed up, I’m not going to tell you to give more.

I don’t talk very much about money. When I come and visit you at home, I don’t ask for money. When I send out our weekly e-mails to everyone, I don’t tell people to give more. Springfield Friends are very low key when it comes to fund raising.

I have no idea what anyone gives to the meeting. It’s not part of my job as pastor, I don’t see anyone’s pledge, and I’m just as glad not to know.

We all know that it takes a lot of giving for a church our size to run. And most people here are generous and like to be quiet about it. We have a lot of fund raisers for special purposes during the year, and we work hard at them, but they’re almost as much about fun and fellowship as they are about raising money.

One of the best stories I ever heard about fund raising took place down at the beach.

This man was walking along the beach on his vacation, enjoying an afternoon stroll, when he heard somebody screaming.

Looking around he saw this woman kneeling down next to a little child. The man quickly figured out that the child had swallowed something that was blocking her airway. So he held her upside down by her heels and gave her a quick thump on her back. Sure enough, the child started to cough and spit out a coin onto the sand.

“Oh, thank you!” cried the grateful mother. You knew exactly what to do. Are you a doctor?”

“No, ma’am,” the man replied. “I’m the head of the finance committee for my church.”

Our scripture this morning is one you probably haven’t read before. Last year we looked at it during our Wednesday night Bible study, and I flagged it to use on a Sunday sometime. Today seems like a pretty good opportunity.

It’s about tithing. We usually think about tithing as a high-pressure sales pitch where they tell you to give 10% of your income to the church. Actually, in the Old Testament, it tithing have any resemblance at all to what churches do today.

When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket.

Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”

The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. Then you shall declare before the Lord your God:

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor.

 Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression.

So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.”

Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.

When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

Then say to the Lord your God:

“I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them. I have not eaten any of the sacred portion while I was in mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor have I offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done everything you commanded me. Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

– Deuteronomy 26:1-15

We always have to remember that the people in the Bible were almost completely agricultural – they lived close to the land. They were mostly farmers or nomads who followed their herds. Even the greatest leader of Israel, King David, started out life as a shepherd. The whole thinking of the Bible was the thinking of people who raised and grew and herded and caught the food that they ate every day.

Most of us don’t live that way today. A few of us keep vegetable gardens. Some of us even bake our own bread. Some people here in the meeting hunt and fish now and then.

But the overwhelming majority of people in our society don’t raise what we eat, or even know where it comes from. Food comes from a supermarket, or maybe from a farm stand, but most of us don’t feel that close connection to the earth.

The people in the Bible were much more aware of how fragile their lives were. A drought or a flood, a change in the climate, a war or an illness, could leave them with nothing. And they knew it! They knew that they depended on the rain and the seasons. Everybody knew that they depended on peace and working together.

Most of all, they knew that they depended on God. And so, a central part of their worship was to give back, to share with God the blessings they had received.

This morning’s reading gives us an insight into that way of understanding the world. This is a time before the temple was built, before they had kings or taxes or computers to keep track of them.

“Take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name” – they didn’t even have a Temple or a building then – “and speak to the priest in office at the time. . .” They didn’t pass the plate around the room. Instead, each family brought a big basket of food, because this was a society where physical money hardly existed. And when they carried the basket in, they had to say out loud, in prayer, that God was the one responsible for all the blessings we had received.

Part of the prayer was to say, “My ancestors were wandering shepherds; they were slaves in Egypt; we were few in number, but we became a great nation; we were treated harshly and suffered terribly; but we cried to God, and God saw our suffering and our labor, and God delivered us; God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an arm reached out to us; God brought us here to a land of milk and honey; and so now I bring this gift, the first of my harvest, which you, O Lord, have given me.”

I have actually been in churches where they did that. On pledge Sunday, people bring their pledges down front, one by one, family by family, and say out loud that God is the one who provides for them, and that this is the part of their income that they are returning thankfully to God.

I’m not going to make us do that. You can relax! But I want you all to see how different the way we do things now is from the way people did things in the Bible.

The next part of what it says is almost equally foreign to us today. We write checks to church or to charity, and then we save the cancelled checks so we can take money off on our taxes. But here, in Deuteronomy, it says, that after you give your gift and make your prayer, everyone has a party! Everyone is invited! The priest, and your family, but also the poor and the widows and orphans, and the people who have no family.

Even more – it says the party includes even the foreigners who aren’t a part of the people of Israel. The immigrant workers. The remnants of the people who were here in the land before us. Everyone is invited! Even the people who, quote, “don’t belong”, unquote are invited to rejoice and eat their fill, along with the poor of every description. And this is God’s commandment.

It may not be what we do today when we pass the plate. But this custom had a lot going for it. It had humility, and prayer. It acknowledged God, as the maker of the world, and as the savior of us all. It understood clearly that everything we have is a blessing from God.

And – there was joy. Giving was about joy. Joy that we have enough. Joy that we’re alive. Joy that we have all survived, joy that we’ve got something to share.

And it includes the commandment that everyone has to be included, especially the poor, especially those who we might otherwise exclude. Sometimes we’ve forgotten it, but God always reminds us: blessings aren’t just for us alone.

God has given generously to us, more than we need, not just so that we can live in comfort and security. Those gifts are given to us so that we, in turn, can share. Not so that we can keep all these gifts to ourselves, and pile our possessions higher and higher. God commands us to be generous, and to rejoice when we give.

I had an experience of joy in giving a few years ago, when I went to Africa. You probably know that there are more Quakers in Kenya than there are in the whole United States. It’s one of our most successful mission fields.

I went there to help train some of their ministers. They wanted me to teach some classes for them about Quaker history. I would up learning a lot more than I taught.

One weekend they sent me out to small Quaker meeting out in the country. They had invited the neighboring Quaker meetings to come as well. We got there early, while people were still arriving.

Soon they asked all the young people to sit on the floor, so the older people would all have seats. Then they brought in extra benches. Then they borrowed chairs from all the nearby houses. By the time they were singing the first hymn, there were teenagers sitting up on the rafters. There were crowds of people leaning in through the windows. It was packed!

They took up a collection. But it wasn’t like any kind of a collection I ever saw before. They were very rural people, and nobody had any money. But every family set aside a small portion of their fields. And whatever grew in that corner, that was dedicated to the Lord.

The day that I was there was the day they brought in their offerings for the Lord’s work. They brought in sacks and sacks of shelled corn, and they emptied them out and piled them up at the back. The pile was the whole width of the building and at least six or seven feet tall.

You know, kids are the same everywhere. They’ll always find a way to have fun. So, while the singing was going on, and the sermon and everything else, the kids were climbing to the top of the corn pile, and shrieking as they slid down.

And everybody laughed. It was a joyful occasion. They laughed because they knew they had enough to keep their church running for another year. They could pay their expenses, and fix the roof, and contribute to missions. These poor people who had almost nothing, contributed generously to help start new churches and spread the Word of God.

Later on, they bagged the corn up again. It would have filled a couple of big trucks. But they loaded it onto their bicycles – just about everything in Kenya moves by bicycle – took it to the village market to sell, and used the money for God’s work.

It probably wouldn’t be practical for us to try to fund Springfield Friends Meeting that way. It would take a really big pile of corn!

But I wish we could have that same sense of joy, and experience the pleasure and excitement of our blessings, the way those Friends in Kenya did.

Every time I speak at a Pledge Sunday, or a stewardship event or a fund raiser now, I always remember that day. There is enough, for whatever we need to do. And God is the one who provides it. All we do is to give back a small share of the mountain of blessings which God has given to us.

I just wish we could feel the joy of the children, and hear the laughter of everyone, as all those blessings were shared.

That’s what I want to say this morning. I hope we’ll remember these words in the future, whenever we pass the plate.

It’s about giving and sacrifice. But it’s really about joy. God will provide whatever we need. He always has. He always will. Let’s think about these things.

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