Sunday, July 17, 2022

Phil Kniss: A basketful of worship

“Time, Money, and Worship”
Deuteronomy 26:1-15

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We end our six-week series
    on the “sacred currencies” of time and money,
    with a focus on worship.
We could easily have started with it.
    But it doesn’t much matter,
        because this series does not make a straight line,
        it makes a circle.
    Our focus on worship today completes the circle,
        and connects all the dots.

Where we actually started was with the idea that God trusts us.
    God trusts in, depends on, and is counting on us,
        and on our partnership in the nurture of all things.
    We are God’s Trustees.
    I can’t say that too often.
    Being God’s Trustees
        is core to our identity as people of faith.
        It shapes how we live in this world.
        It’s a foundation for ethics—
            ethics for individual relationships, group relationships,
                economics, politics, creation care, and much more.
    God has given us the privilege and responsibility
        to love the world like God loves the world,
        and act as God’s hands, feet, and heart in the world.

All the stuff we have—
    the stuff we have individually,
        like money, shelter, food, furniture, and such;
    and the stuff we have collectively,
        the mountains and rivers and trees and flowers and
            all the creatures of this world,
    all this stuff is not ours.
        It is God’s property.
        And we are the trustees of it.

Keeping that relationship in mind
    is essential for us to approach the act of worship
        in the right frame of mind.

It is far too easy for us to be lazy in worship.
    Almost without realizing it,
        we slip into the false notion
        that worship is mostly about us.
    We turn the worship of God into a consumer product.
    And listen, we are all in danger of that.
        Not just people who do worship that looks like a stage show—
            who darken the auditorium,
            and use smoke machines and colored spotlights,
            who have singers pacing the stage and crooning into mics,
            and put worship into a package
                that looks like a concert.
        Yes, those of us who sing four-part hymns,
            with tasteful additions
            of organ, piano, and acoustic instruments,
            who sit and stand and recite litanies and confessions
                and Lords’ Prayers—
            we are also highly susceptible to the falacy
                that the whole point of worship is for us to enjoy it.

In actuality,
    we have a pretty compelling model for worship,
    that God gave to us, verbatim,
        at least according to Deuteronomy 26.

And the central act of worship,
    the high point in worship,
    is not the sermon, not the children’s time,
        not the hymns or worship songs,
        not even the scripture reading.

The high point is the offering.
    Without a literal offering of tithes and firstfruits,
        and other sacrificial giving,
        there was no worship for the people of Israel.

And it’s not just here in Deuteronomy 26
    that we get this picture.
    Nearly every place the worship of God is described,
        or is prescribed,
        it involves music and reading of scripture, of course,
        but it centers around a sacrifice—
            whether a burnt offering of a perfect ox or lamb,
            or a grain offering,
            or a wine offering,
            or a first-fruits of the harvest offering,
        a Hebrew worship ritual is unimaginable
            unless it culminates in the offering
            of something economically and materially valuable.

So, if we see the act of giving as the high point of worship,
    we cannot help but put God at the center,
    and not ourselves and our individual preferences.

So why did God direct our worship in this way?
    Does God need the meat and grain?
    Does God need a weekly emotional boost?
    Does God need to be validated?
    Does God need a whole bunch of people reciting in unison
        how great God is
        and handing over to God the first and best of the harvest
            and the livestock,
        in order for God to feel loved?

That’s another false idea, I think,
    that can easily muddy our thinking about worship.

I’ve mentioned two ways we can do sloppy thinking about worship,
    and either way distorts our acts of worship,
        and distorts our view of God and ourselves.

If we start thinking that worship is doing something we enjoy,
    we might turn worship into a display of performative art—
        the forms of art we like, of course,
        and God gets lost somewhere in the shuffle.

Or . . . if we start imagining God has a fragile ego,
    it will turn us off to the whole idea of God-focused worship,
        and again, we end up putting together a program
        with rituals and music and prayers
        that feed our needs.
    And the offering becomes a fund-raiser,
        to cover the costs of doing worship the way we like it.

In stark contrast to all that,
    we have Deuteronomy 26.

This worship is utterly God-focused, and God-initiated,
    and at the same time
        deeply communal and celebrative and hopeful,
        and meets the needs of us human worshipers,
            and our neighbors,
            helping us all become our best selves.

How does that work?
    By recalling that God trusts us
        to take care of everything that God owns.
    And by returning to God, in an act of gratitude,
        the first and the best of what we have and who we are.

I find it fascinating, and deeply ironic,
    that the more we make worship about us,
        the less satisfying it is to us,
        and the cheaper and thinner it becomes.

And the more we make worship about the greatness of God,
    the more likely we are to experience worship
        that is deeply fulfilling and moving
        and thirst-quenching for our own souls.

Because God designed worship to be that way,
    and created us that way.

This gets to the reason why giving is the heart of worship.
    Giving the first and best of what we have and are,
        is a reminder of our identity as God’s beloved Trustees,
        and it results in a celebrative overflowing of blessing
            to those around us.

God wants our worship not because God is selfish,
    but because it makes us better humans.
    It makes us better friends of God.
    It makes us better collaborators in God’s mission.

Notice how the liturgy plays out in Deuteronomy 26.
    In this highly ritualized act of giving the first-fruits,
        several things happen that make the givers’ lives richer.

    First, is that the story gets retold and remembered.
        The story of God becomes their story.
    As the offering basket is placed before the priest,
        the worshiper was instructed to recite their own history.
        “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor;
            he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien,
            few in number, and there he became a great nation,
                mighty and populous . . .”
        And the litany goes on retelling their suffering and slavery,
            and how the Lord delivered them with a mighty hand,
            and brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey,
                a fertile land, which produced a bountiful harvest,
                such as what is their basket right now!

But it doesn’t stop there.
    Not at all.
    After they let go of control of their offering—
        releasing it to God and the priest,
        the people gather these first-fruit offerings all together,
            and they hold a feast for everyone—everyone—
        including those who had no land for growing things,
        like the widows and orphans and foreigners among them.

    So the sacrificial offering becomes sort of like Jesus
        feeding thousands on a few loaves and fishes.
    Everyone eats to their fill.
        They all celebrate together as equals before God.
        The wealthy land barons and the poor immigrants alike.

Genuine worship is a great equalizer
    between those who have a lot,
    and those who have little.

Every gift is proportional to our means,
    is blessed, is consecrated,
    and is then shared equally with all.
In Deuteronomy, it was shared with the Levites (who had no land),
    and with the aliens, the orphans, and the widows.
    All ate.
    All were included.
    All had enough.
    And all worshiped God.

Left on our own, we forget where we came from,
    and where our stuff came from.
    We forget that it’s all God’s to begin with.
    We forget that we are only trustees.
    We will start acting like owners.

We don’t learn by default
    how to be good stewards of our sacred currencies.
    We learn by being intentional and disciplined.

The default mode is to act like owners,
    to use our resources according to what pleases us,
    what brings us comfort and security.

So we need giving rituals
    to keep our eyes and hearts tuned toward the Great Giver of all,
    and to help us become our best selves.

And we need habits and disciplines like the tithe,
    to remind us of who we are,
        in relation to the owner of all things.

    we have these rituals and practices embedded in our public worship.
    When a pandemic keeps us from meeting in person,
        or makes it less practical to pass a plate around the room,
        we don’t just do away with the ritual.
    We find a way to reshape it.
    But it’s still an important component of worship.
        A time to pause, to reflect on who we are and who God is.
    It is not a fund-raising gimmick.
        And if it ever feels like that, then “shame on us!!”
    No, it is a weekly reminder of our dependence
        on the Great Giver.

That ritual covers the money half of these two sacred currencies.
    What about our time?

The gift of time is also a grace that comes from the hand of God.
    And God is still the owner of that gift.
    We are entrusted with the temporary possession of it,
        and are invited to use it
            for the purposes and mission of the owner.

I’m sure we all accept that to be true in principle.
    We believe it, and strive to practice good stewardship of time.

But I wonder if we could do better in making a worship ritual out of it.

In this full-bodied liturgy in Deuteronomy 26,
    that involved setting down a basketful of worship before the priest,
    there was not literal money or time inside the basket,
        but the contents obviously were the result of both.
    The wheat or grapes or squash or whatever it was they harvested,
        represented a substantial investment of time and money.

For those of who don’t spend most of our working hours
    raising the food we eat,
    our offerings take a different form.

So maybe this is a question for further thought and discussion
    that you can take with you.
    Am I ready to commit to tithing my time,
        the way I tithe my money?
    Is time equal to money, as some say?
    How do I decide what tithing time looks like in my context?
    And is there a way we can ritualize and celebrate
        that kind of offering in our weekly worship?

Food for thought.

In the meantime,
    I am truly thankful for the model of worship we have in Deut. 26.
    Whenever we think about what makes worship life-giving,
        I hope we always start there,
            pondering the contents of our own basketful of worship.

Let’s sing our commitment to worship in that way.
    “Heart and mind, possessions, God, I offer unto you.”
        Voices Together #753.

—Phil Kniss, July 17, 2022

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