This sermon is the sixth in an on-going series about the purpose and meaning of the elements of the services we share in as a religious community. Today, the topic for consideration is the practice we share each Sunday of taking up an offering – a free-will, financial contribution from those of us assembled here for worship. What could be our theological justification for this?
By way of explanation, I want to tell you a story. Many years ago, in the city of Baghdad, there lived a rich merchant named Abu Kassim. Now, Abu Kassim had a lot of money, he was very successful, but he hated to spend it. He would not part with even one coin for a stranger who was hungry or for a cousin who had lost his place to sleep at night. He was so reluctant to give up any of his money that he refused to spend it even on himself. So his hair grew unkempt because he would not pay anyone to cut it, his clothes were old and tattered because he refused to replace them, and his shoes – his shoes were the worst of all.
They were so old and over-used that they had been broken and busted again and again, he’d worn hole after hole into them and every time he would patch them up with a bit of leather or cotton or wool, all fastened up with a handful of nails. So that they grew larger and heavier with the weight of all those patches until, wherever he went people would hear him coming. And the people would shout, “There goes Abu Kassim, who owns half the city, and is too cheap even to replace those ratty old shoes.”
One day Abu Kassim was coming out of the masjid – the place where people gather to pray. When you go into the masjid you have to take off your shoes, so Abu Kassim was looking to find his shoes again and put them back on, and he went to where he remembered leaving them, underneath a particular date tree. But he didn’t see his shoes there – instead, he saw a lovely new pair of shoes, clean and unpatched and not nearly so heavy. He thought that someone had made him a very generous gift, and so he put these new shoes on and went home. But then the chief judge of Baghdad came out of the masjid and went to where he had left his nice new shoes, under a particular date tree, he found nothing there. So he searched around under the other trees nearby until he did find a pair of shoes: an old, worn, heavy, broken pair, and as soon as he saw them he shouted, “Abu Kassim!”
Abu Kassim was taken to court and he tried to explain that it was just a simple misunderstanding, but the judge ruled that for stealing his shoes the merchant would have to pay a heavy fine – one that was ten times, a hundred times more than what he would have paid to buy new shoes on his own. That made him so angry at his old pair of shoes that he threw them into the river. But a little while later a fisherman pulled up his net a found two old, heavy, worn out shoes in there. Their nails tore his net and he lost a whole day’s work, and of course he knew right away who the culprit was. So Abu Kassim was ordered to pay another fine, and give up more of his precious money.
Now he was so disgusted with his old shoes that he just tossed them into the sewer, and that seemed to work. Until about a week later, when a clogged pipe broke and made a terrible mess and the workers who were sent to fix it found that the cause of the problem was…Abu Kassim’s shoes. Another fine, another chunk of his precious riches lost. That made him determined to destroy them completely by burning them up, but first they would have to dry, so he left them in the courtyard of his house in the sun. But a stray dog wandered through his gate and got interested in one of the shoes and dragged it out into the street and left it there. Soon after, a woman who did not see very well tripped over that shoe and fell and hurt herself and again there was no doubt about who was responsible.
This time Abu Kassim begged the judge, “Please, your honor, I will pay any fine, take any amount from me as long as you also take these terrible shoes!” And the judge did just that, and it was as though a weight had been lifted from Abu Kassim – from his feet, and from his soul. He allowed himself to cling a little less tightly to his money, even though he had less of it now. He was willing to use it to help other people who needed help, and also to buy himself, when needed, a new pair of shoes.
In this life, all too often, we get bottled up and weighed down with all the things we’re not going to do, all the risks we’re not going to take, all the kindness and the mercy we think we can’t afford to show to others and to ourselves. And we end up stomping our way through life weighed down by the worry and the frustration and the pain that keeps us from living generously. But when we come here, to this place where people pray, we leave all those things outside the door, just like Abu Kassim had to leave his shoes outside of the masjid. Here we get to practice being generous and kind and open with the people around us and with ourselves, so that when we get back out there, we don’t have to dress our spirits in those same, tired, heavy shoes again.
The offering is part of how we practice being generous here, together. When I first arrived here at First Parish we were holding the offering just before the sermon, around about the middle of the service. We’ve since moved it to immediately after the sermon, instead. One of you has suggested to me that this indicates a high degree of confidence, on my part, in the quality of my preaching – that I’m comfortable letting you pay what you think it was worth, rather than asking for the money up front. But, of course, the offering is not actually a fee for service. If the sermon does actually do what it is intended to do, it should leave you feeling inspired. It should provide you with some hope you feel called to follow or insight you need to pursue. The offering, then, is an opportunity to respond to that hope and that insight – each Sunday it is the first chance to answer the inspiration of worship with a concrete, physical action.
Truthfully, participation in the offering doesn’t have to be a sign that you appreciated the sermon at all. Consider the story of two people who were seated beside each other in church. The first heard the preacher’s words and was greatly moved by them. So moved, in fact, that they opened their wallet and put the largest bill they had into the plate as it passed. The parishioner to their right, however, opened their own billfold and counted out several smaller denomination notes, totaling double what the first had contributed. The first whispered to the second, “Say friend, you must have liked the sermon even more than I.”
The second replied, “I rather doubt it. But if that’s the best that the preacher has to offer, this congregation needs all the help it can get.”
Now, there is a way of thinking, I want to acknowledge, that finds the handling of money in church to be distasteful. In the Jewish tradition, one does not so much as touch money on the Sabbath, and even though our Sunday morning worship does not fall on Shabbat, I know that for some of us who were raised Jewish, there’s a strong clash of customs here. If it truly stops you cold, I understand. Participation in the offering is not a requirement, and there are many other ways to contribute to the church, both financially and otherwise. In fact, no matter what any outward appearance or assumption about the people seated around you, please keep in mind that there should be no compulsion in our religion. Neither you, nor I, have any means of knowing from Sunday to Sunday why anyone else might choose to let the plate pass, or to put more or less into it.
But there’s also a similar, yet very distinct, concern I’ve heard raised about any sort of financial matter in church. This is the idea that money, as a secular, even profane subject, is antithetical to the project of religious living itself. And that, therefore, we ought to keep the talk of it to an absolute minimum. This is a real feeling that a number of you have shared with me before, so I want to treat it with care and respect. There are precious few of us who are so comfortable and non-anxious that we haven’t got any worries or wants tied up with money. Wanting a space in which we can feel relieved from that is entirely understandable. The truth is that our society has a profoundly broken and destructive relationship to money – we are driven by it, and obsess over it, to a wildly unhealthy degree. It is at the heart of most of the greatest injustices of our age – in matters of race, religion, politics, and war. It is more than enough to explain the impulse to want to tune out when you hear someone start to talk about budgets and line items and money this and money that. But here is another truth: what we cannot talk about, we cannot change. No pathology was ever cured by ignoring the subject. We are a part of the world, we are none of us entirely free of its faults and failings, and we seek to make it better by living out the sorts of transformation we would wish to see in our society as a whole. That demands that we talk about the impact of money on our lives and on the life of our congregation: what is needed, what can be given, why we are, many of us, killing ourselves in order to earn all that we can.
There was a heavily played song on the radio this past summer by the hip-hop artist D.R.A.M. all about how money can insulate us from the worries and the cares and the people we might not want to have to deal with. In the piece, D.R.A.M. talks about all the things he has now that he’s making good money in the rap game, all the stuff he can do for family and friends. Most of all he focuses on what he doesn’t have to deal with: anyone who’s broke, basically. He doesn’t have to talk to new people if he doesn’t want to, and his favorite conversation partner of all is now his cash machine. The *ffffffffffft* noise it makes as it counts up large stacks of bills – that’s the sound he wants to hear.
Money really can help to overcome some of the most basic and grueling problems and indignities of poverty, and anyone who lives or has ever lived with their back to the wall can be understood for valuing an escape from material need. But it also carries an incredible danger to alienate and to isolate. The weekly practice of the offering is one way we try to use our money – however much or little we have of it – to connect to each other, our community, and the meaning that shapes our lives. Its mirror is the annual ritual of our canvass, which is now underway. Each week, when the plate reaches our pew, we put in what we can according to our own calculus. I can tell you that when I sit out there with y’all on a Sunday, my policy is that I empty my wallet – whatever cash I’m carrying, I put in. That might sound impressive, but I’ll be honest with you and say that it’s not always. What it is, is a discipline. I leave church with an empty wallet, and when I do, I feel lighter and better for it.
Similarly, over the next weeks, we, as individuals and as households, will each be deciding what financial pledge we will make to First Parish for the coming year. Each of us gives according to our own calculus, and you will make yours, just as I and my partner make ours. When folks ask me for guidance of what a proper pledge should be, I remind them that there is not hard and fast rule, no set minimum fee to belong here. But the figure that I strive for, and that I hope you will to, if you’re not there already, is 5%. 5% of gross household income. I’m not telling you not to give more, I’m not demanding that you not give less. But I am offering you the same discipline of giving that I and my family follow. Because this congregation matters deeply to us, and because I would rather have my share in its work and vitality to show for it than any product or commodity I could buy with the same amount of money.
If I remind you that we live in uncertain times, I hope you will forgive me for the understatement. For some personal reasons particular to my family, we’re honestly uncertain of exactly what our household income will be in the year ahead. Sara and I have talked about what we can do this year, the importance, now, more than ever, of what First Parish does, and is, and represents. So we are raising our pledge by $600 – increasing by 20% from last year. Your circumstances are, no doubt, different than ours. Each of us is unique. I ask only that you look deeply into your hearts and your wallets, and recognize that those two things ought not to be separate from each other.