If you’ve ever read the Hebrew book of laws, the third book of the Bible, (although I’m not sure why you would have done that), Leviticus skips any introduction and starts right off detailing the process for a burnt offering, then the grain offerings, then offering of well-being, then the purification offering, and the reparation offerings, then the section on how to do a proper sacrifice begins, and so it goes. Laws, prohibitions, consequences, offerings, and sacrifices fill the pages of Hebrew life until we are left with a heavy sense of legalism, judgment, and harshness that squeeze life into a long pattern of doom and gloom religious offerings unto the Lord.
In the readings of page after page of offerings demanded in expiation of sin and guilt, the two meld into one; sin equals guilt equals offerings. If we read nothing else, offering and guilt become so associated that we are hard pressed to separate the two. All offering talk become guilt inducing, so that only the very brave soul or the very pure hearted come to worship during October.
Today, we hear another offering story from scripture, this one is not about sin or guilt or purification. It’s about a party. This is not just a one Saturday afternoon tea party; it’s a party that lasts a whole week.
The scriptures explain the Festival of the Weeks, “when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing-floor and your wine press. Rejoice during your festival, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, as well as the [priests], the strangers, the orphans, and the widows in your towns. (Everyone in town gets this party invitation.) For seven days you shall keep the festival to the Lord your God…for the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all your works, and you shall surely celebrate.”
Celebrate Good times, Come on! Celebration.
We gonna celebrate and have a good time.
This isn’t a ‘so sad I’ve been bad’ offering atmosphere. This is a parrrty— food and wine for all, family, friends, strangers, orphans, everyone in town parties for a week. The core of the party mood is thanksgiving, gratitude, celebrating the provisions of God. It’s held at harvest end (about this time of year). The field has provided food to carry us through winter; the vine provides grapes pressed into wine. The earth, God’s earth, cares for the people. It is joy that fills the hearts of all- joy that encompasses life and spills out in thanksgiving to the Lord your God. Now that’s the image for offering.
One other part of this week long festival of sharing food and drink and thanksgiving is tzedakah. Several years ago Dennis Wheeler’s grandson was born; he was not expected to live. When Denny’s prayers were answered, and his grandson grew strong; he wanted a way to honor his grandson and give thanks for his life. Denny began making wooden toy boxes. With the help of his congregation, he filled the first one with winter coats and gave the box and the coats to another church to give away. The congregation received his toy box and filled it many times over each month with items designated for folks in need. You place donations in that wooden box in the Gathering Place every month.
He built more and more toy boxes and gave them to more and more churches who filled them and gave them. A few years later, Denny returned and asked if we wanted another one to give away. We received another wooden box and the task of deciding where it would go. Since boxes had passed through almost twenty other churches, I called our friend, Rabbi Azriel. I told him about the toy boxes and asked if the Jewish community would care to join in a practice of giving. The rabbi told me about tzedakah, boxes in the Jewish home and communities designated for giving.
They were delighted to participate in this chain of giving he said, generosity is a core principle of our faith. So a toy box made in a Christian church became a tzedakah in a Jewish synagogue.
Several more years later, Pastor Denny was preparing the 100th giving box, which were all now called tzedakah. He returned to me and asked if this congregation wanted to give the 100th box in this circle of giving. This tzedaka, built by Christians, named by Jewish tradition in the Festival of the Weeks, is being filled with winter coats by you. It will be given to our Syrian refugee family bringing joy and warmth into their Muslim home.
That’s the thing about giving; that’s the notion of re-gifting; gifts must always pass through our hands into another. Mark shared with staff last week a book titled simply, “The Gift.” It was lent to him and he lent it to me, and I will share it with you. The re-gifting happens all around us. The author, Lewis Hyde, tells folktales about gifts and principles that guide them. Gifting is universal among tribal people- which we all were at some point. He tells the story in particular of the Massim peoples who lived in a ring of islands in the South Sea. There were two ceremonial gifts, arm-shells and necklaces, which were given and received. Given to visitors who come into a village or given to inhabitants of villages by visitors to enter, as gifts to neighboring tribes, the shells moved continually around and through the wide circle of islands. These shell accessories were not objects of commodity; they were not payment for the visit; they were gifts. The gifts must always move. One must not keep them as possessions or build wealth through accumulating them. Movement might take a year or perhaps two, so when given away, the gift moves out of sight and in doing so it grows in value. These ceremonial gifts are highly prized not in the prosperity of building up wealth, but for the opportunity to show and tell: look what I was given, by whom and how it was acquired.
But the greatest asset of the gift is in the plan, to plan to whom I will give it.
The excitement lay in the opportunity to give, to re-gift, to move the blessing along to another.
When I heard this story of ceremonial giving, I thought of a Golden Jesus head. Let me explain. About seven or eight years ago, best as I recall, Susan, our finance manager, was cleaning out the finance closet when she found the Golden Jesus head.
It was a statue, a plaster bust, of Jesus, with a gold layer of metallic paint. Rather than awe or reverence, this Jesus head evoked more of a startled laughter. It sat upon Susan’s filing cabinet for some time. After a bit, it went unnoticed, no longer provoking comment, laughter or startled response. Someone on staff decided to give it life once more. The head began to move.
Debra entered her office one day, turned her desk chair around, to find the disembodied Golden Jesus head staring back at her with scarf and hat upon his head.
Her shriek echoed down the hall; our laughter followed in return. A month or two, perhaps six went by, the head was forgotten until Loren opened a deep desk drawer one day to find not files but the Golden Jesus head, with different accessories of course.
People would laugh and slowly forget… who had it last, where was it now? One day I entered the private restroom in my office. Turning on the light switch, my exclamation, “O Jesus” heard down the hallway notified others that Jesus had been re-gifted once more.
The joy of receiving the Golden Jesus was that possession of it allowed you to begin planning who and how it would move again. The unspoken passage of the gift was an unspoken link of relationship between staff as well.
Meister Eckhart, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic of the 13th century reminds us of our greatest gift. God’s gift to us is life. In our gratitude, we let go of attachment to worldly things and direct our lives to God. We open ourselves to receive God In our gratitude, we pour out to bear fruit. Elkhart believed that we are not really alive until we have borne the gift back into the Godhead.
Today, we share in the Eucharist, called also Holy Communion, or the Great Thanksgiving. This meal is an example of gift giving. At this table, we give thanks for God who created us all, who sustains us and provides for us with grain from the field and juice from the vine. At this table we remember the life and the death of Jesus of Nazareth, who gave his life as he lived it in unselfish acts of love. At the table we share in bread and cup like Jesus who shared in the Festival of the Weeks each year of his life. At this table we share in this remembrance of Christ’s body, the gift which establishes new covenant.
We receive the gift – the bread – take it into us to become part of our blood and our bones to link us with all others who eat of the grain of the earth and the fruit of the vine.
And we respond to these gifts – of life – of provision- of all that we are and all that we have – we respond to this gift of community and communion with God and all God’s family.
In our response, we delight in being part of the festival of the giving circle for all we have is not ours alone to keep. All that we have is a gift to pass through our hands as re-gift and a Celebration.
May it be so.