Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Be Generous on Every Occasion

Leviticus 7:11-15The Fellowship Offering

11 “‘These are the regulations for the fellowship offering anyone may present to the Lord12 “‘If they offer it as an expression of thankfulness, then along with this thank offering they are to offer thick loavesmade without yeast and with olive oil mixed in, thin loaves made without yeast and brushed with oil, and thick loaves of the finest flour well-kneaded and with oil mixed in. 13 Along with their fellowship offering of thanksgivingthey are to present an offering with thick loaves of bread made with yeast. 14 They are to bring one of each kind as an offering, a contribution to the Lord; it belongs to the priest who splashes the blood of the fellowship offering against the altar. 15 The meat of their fellowship offering of thanksgiving must be eaten on the day it is offered; they must leave none of it till morning.

Luke 18: 9-14 The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breastand said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
2 Corinthians 9:10-11
10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

This year my family is once again hosting Thanksgiving at our house. Because we have hosted for so many years there are some unwritten rules about how it is to be done. There is the early morning turkey ritual, which I am in charge of—slathering the bird with butter and spices. Later Matt gets up and makes the stuffing from stale bread, onions and celery and nothing weird like cranberries or nuts. My mother or sister brings the dinner rolls with onion soup mix. My in-laws come with pies. Everyone shows up with a food offering to complement the basics.

None of these Thanksgiving food rules are written down, but if they were, they would probably read like the Leviticus passage about the peace or fellowship offering. According to my children the feast MUST have the right turkey, stuffing and rolls to be a “real” Thanksgiving. We are a family of strong rituals for this meal. I’m sure you have your own as well.

Similarly, Leviticus 7: 11-14 is pretty much the ritual menu for this offering. It describes how to give thanksgiving to God. If we were to make it sound like a modern menu the Leviticus passage might read like this:

Thinking of this offering like we do our Thanksgiving meal is not that far off. This is one of the only Old Testament sacrifices in which the common people ate with the priests. Everyone gathered together, gave thanks and had a meal.

What’s important about this is the way the Israelites thought of the offering or sacrifice. For this offering, no future blessing was expected in return. They weren’t petitioning God for rain or fertility. They were giving thanks for things that happened in the past.

The people may have brought the bread and the animals as a sacrifice, but they handed it all over to God in the offering. Kind of like if we take a side dish a Thanksgiving meal. Once we hand it to the host, we don’t assume it’s ours. Sure we get a serving or two, but that dish becomes part of something bigger.

For the Israelites, the sacrifice they brought was handed over to God then they ate what was given back—as a gift from God. It is a circle of generosity and thanksgiving between God and God’s people.

God gives to us, we give thanks to God in an eternal and cosmic give and take and give again. But, it’s important to recognize that it’s not just between us and God, the give and take and give again is to occur with the people around us, too.

Thanksgiving is a community meal. This offering of thanks is a community event in which the priests and the people eat together, presumably in the presence of God.

We can be thankful to God in a variety of ways. Our thanksgiving can be expressed in a feeling we have toward God or a prayer or our worship.

But our thanksgiving is also demonstrated in the way we treat other people. Jesus tells us explicitly that our love of God is directly tied to our love of our neighbors. Our generosity needs to extend to others. By sharing generosity and thanksgiving we multiply it. 

Generosity and thanksgiving can spread among people like a good virus. God is generous to us and we give thanks. This inspires generosity in us. We give to others who then feel thankful and hopefully it inspires generosity. And so on. It is dynamic and flowing.

And there's no question generosity and thanksgiving feel good. It feels good to make a difference in the world. I mean, who regrets writing a check to the Good Samaritan Center or wishes they didn’t visit that sick person in the hospital? Nobody.

But, we have to remember that this cycle of generosity and thanksgiving has three parts—think of them as God, you and me—based on Jesus’ reminder to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Anytime we take de-emphasize one of the parts, we are out of balance.  Jesus knew this. Jesus knew that there could be danger in being generous, following all the rules, donating to the right places, saying the right prayers. The danger comes when we forget how and why we are thankful and generous. 

Jesus tells the parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector. In this parable we have two people who have influential positions in society.  Neither was likely poor or destitute. But they prayed in very different ways.

The Pharisee prays a prayer of Thanksgiving. The tax collector asks for mercy. On the surface it seems like they are both doing the right thing. The Pharisee is thanking God for the many gifts of his life and the tax collector is repenting and asking for forgiveness. The Pharisee probably follows Torah rules. The tax collector probably broke a bunch of them.

Lets hear those prayers again:
God I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.

God have mercy on me, a sinner.

The Pharisee was doing what he should. He had righteousness, but it was self-righteousness. He was out of balance. His prayer all about what he does and it’s not about what God does.  

The Pharisee knows all the rules and practices. He’s a regular worshipper. He tithes. He follows the Ten Commandments. He’s so ingrained in the religious rules that he mistakes following the rules for following God. He was doing the right things for the wrong reasons.

Jesus makes it clear that the Pharisee is out of balance. He's put himself where God should be. There’s too much “me” involved.

 Jesus teaches us that thanksgiving to God should recognize God at the top and not our own actions. 
It should NOT be "I thank God that I am so awesome!"

But, the world tempts us into praying prayers of our own awesomeness and celebrating our own generosity, especially this time of year. Listen to the advertisements. We are to “treat ourselves” for buying gifts for others. We deserve to be rewarded for our generosity. Being a good person means getting a little something for ourselves.

We can feel self-righteous about ourselves walking through the shopping mall, “I’m not like those other shoppers, I bought fifty dollar present and got a free gift for myself! I tell everyone Merry Christmas. And I put money in the Salvation Army kettle. I’m so generous!” At our worst, we can be tempted to leave God entirely out of the picture.

The Pharisee didn’t seem to appreciate where the money he tithed came from. He didn’t see God’s generosity in his life. Sometimes we don't as well. But there's an important connection between God's generosity, our thanksgiving and our generosity.

In 2 Corinthians Paul shows us a deep connection between thanksgiving and generosity, between receiving and sharing.

You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and your generosity will result in thanksgiving through us…We are enriched not as a reward, but so that we can be generous. 

God gives and we respond by giving thanks and giving to others. 

As Christ's church, we are witnesses to and examples of God’s generosity. We have felt God enlarging our hearts and inspiring us to thanksgiving. We need to show this thanksgiving and generousness to the world. We need to take Paul's words seriously and be generous on EVERY occasion, remembering that generosity is way of giving thanks to God. When we share what we have been given we are mirroring the generosity of God for the world around us. Be thankful and generous on every occasion.

*Explanation of the offering comes from the Jewish Publication Society's Torah Commentary Leviticus and the Union for Reform Judaism's The Torah, A Modern Commentary.

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