Sermon for Sunday, October 5, 2014 || Proper 22A || *
Because of my peculiar and very frustrating allergy, there’s one aisle of the grocery store I never travel down – the bread aisle. If you read the nutrition information on each and every plastic-wrapped and twist-tied loaf, you’ll find it contains soy flour, which means I can’t eat it. But there’s a happy byproduct of this limitation. Because I can’t eat the store bought loaves, Leah makes our bread from scratch. And, boy, is it good. I’ve watched her make it on several occasions. She starts by activating the yeast in warm water. She mixes the ingredients in the Kitchen Aid, counting the cups of flour aloud so she doesn’t put in too much. She let’s the dough hook work its kneading magic. She waits for the dough to rise, first in the mixer, and then, after forming the loaves, in the pans before putting them in the oven. The whole process takes the better part of a morning.
A group of dedicated women follows a similar process each week to make the bread we use for Holy Communion. What fascinates me about the process is how many steps there are between setting the ingredients on the counter and pulling the bread fresh from the oven. (And this doesn’t even take into account the number of steps needed to make the ingredients in the first place, such as milling the flour from grain or picking the grain from the field.)
When we celebrate Holy Communion, the gifts, which we offer to God and then share with one another, derive from a combination of God’s bounty and human industry. The bread and wine both have their roots in…well…roots. Seeds planted in the ground send roots down and stalks up as the soil, sun, and rain nourish their growth. The grain grows tall and full. The grape grows fat and juicy. Up to this point, their growth has been in God’s hands, as the overarching gift of nature’s cycles, which God wove into creation, promotes their cultivation.
But then a farmhand (or, in today’s less romanticized world of big agribusiness, a mammoth combine) comes along and picks the grain. A vineyard worker picks the grape. And human ingenuity, creativity, and wisdom begin shaping this raw material, this God-given bounty into the bread and wine we share each week.
Do you see what’s happening here? When we offer the bread and wine to God in thanksgiving, we give back to God what was always God’s in the first place, but which changed shape as humans interacted with the raw material of God’s blessing. There are two vital ideas embedded in this thought. First, whenever we give to God, we are really giving back to God. And second, God invites us to partner with God – to use our own unique constellations of gifts – in order to turn the raw material of blessing into nourishment, into justice, into peace, into hope.
Thinking of our giving as giving back keeps us in right relationship with God. When we acknowledge that God is the source of our blessings, we are less likely to attribute the bestowal of a particular blessing to the blessing itself. This erroneous attribution is how idols are made. Idols happen whenever we worship the gift instead of the giver. This way ultimately leads to disappointment because the idol will never give more than itself. And you will find yourself serving it, and you will notice more and more of your life being taken up by trying to make the idol greater than it is. And in the end, you will live a very small life, confined to the goal of making the idol into something worthy of your worship.
You might notice this happening when our relationship with money starts becoming idolatrous. Instead of thinking of money as some of the raw material of God’s blessing, we mistakenly see money as the source of our blessing. Instead of seeing it as a resource, we mistakenly see the amassing of money as the goal. It’s easy to do. Money allows us to live comfortably, after all, and to afford the things we desire. But the more we bend our lives around the accumulation of money, the less time we have to enjoy the benefits it offers. You end up spending too much time in the office, and before you know it, you’ve missed four of your daughter’s soccer games in a row. Call it the Ebenezer Scrooge problem. He lived his life bent on increasing his wealth and by the time the three ghosts are done with him he realizes he never actually lived his life. That’s what idols do. They contort our lives around the wrong goals and reduce us to very small versions of ourselves.
But when we have a proper relationship with money, a non-idolatrous one, we see our financial resources as some of the raw material of God’s blessing. Remember, through human interaction, the grain of God’s bounty become bread. The grape of God’s bounty becomes wine. The same thing happens with our money. The dollar becomes half a dozen notebooks for a classroom at St. Luc’s school in Haiti. The check becomes a hundred juice boxes for WARM’s summer lunch program. The financial pledge becomes fuel for God’s mission happening here at St. Mark’s.
If you’re anything like me, you sometimes have trouble putting money in the same category as all the other gifts God has given us. I’ve always had trouble doing this because money has this ephemeral, transitory nature. We turn it into other resources and these are what we think of as our blessings instead. But when we have a right relationship with money, it goes in the same bucket as all of blessing’s other raw materials.
To symbolize this reality here at St. Mark’s, I’m going to start doing something that I should have been doing all along; indeed, something that most Episcopal churches have always done. During the offertory, the bread and wine come forward and a few minutes later, the money comes forward in the collection plates. Because there’s a delay between these two processions, we might not connect the two. But they are connected. We give the bread and wine back to God in thanksgiving for our interaction with the raw material of blessing. In the same way, we give our financial resources back to God in thanksgiving for and in support of God’s mission here in our midst.
So from now on, I plan to leave the collection plates on the altar as we celebrate Holy Communion in recognition that we give thanks for all the blessings of our lives. When you see me place them to the side of the other gifts we are giving back to God, I hope you will remember that God has given us all that we have and made us all that we are. And God delights in seeing all the unique ways we use the raw material of blessing to further God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.
We give back to God out of the myriad gifts God has showered upon us for two reasons. First, by giving back we stay in right relationship with God. We worship the giver instead of the gift. We live full lives enriched by multitudes of blessings instead of tiny lives in service to lifeless idols. And second, giving back offers us the opportunity to partner with God and use our unique constellations of gifts to turn the raw material of blessing into new and abundant life for all.