Exodus 34-36, Psalm 28, Mark 1
Generosity abounded and the people were restrained from giving!
Exodus 34 – 36
In his book Puritan Boston, Quaker Philadelphia the prominent University of Pennsylvania sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, compared the Puritans of Boston with the Quakers of Philadelphia. Despite being a Philadelphian, Baltzell came out in favor of the Puritans. Quakers, he said, often denied and disguised their wealth, even building false fronts on their homes to disguise their true size. The Quaker adage, “If it isn’t broke it, why fix it,” features prominently in some people’s mentality. The idea of building the best that there can be isn’t in the Quaker DNA, except for education. This outlook has shaped Episcopalians throughout the Philadelphia region, who are known as “Quakerpalians!”
We have been fortunate in our church to have raised significant funds in capital campaigns. Annual giving has tripled during the past 18 years, but there still has yet to be a year where finances were not tight and hard decisions have to be made and many members have to be telephoned several times before offering their pledge. Young people joining the church seem perplexed that it takes money to support the ministries of the church.
Likewise, it has been an ongoing struggle for the members of churches like ours to realize that all of us have a significant responsibility to support the diocese. Episcopalians pay their taxes and support the federal government, but fully supporting the diocese seems like a nice idea, but hardly a necessity. It is hard to change a culture of scarcity into a culture of abundance.
A colleague of mine, who hails from Texas, says, “In Pennsylvania, if you have a pie and more people want a slice, everyone grimaces and thinks, ‘I will get a smaller portion.’ In Texas, people say, ‘Let’s just make a bigger pie,’ and everyone is happy.” That is what happens in a culture of abundance.
In Exodus 36:3-7, we are told that the Israelites, “still kept bringing [Moses] freewill offerings every morning…” This allowed the artisans, who were creating the breastplate and tabernacle, to do God’s work. Moses said, ‘The people are bringing much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.’” (Ex. 36:5)
Imagine that! The people gave more than was needed. They kept on giving and giving. The truth is that there at is always more than enough to do the work that God has called us to do. The problem is that “the more than enough” usually remains in our pockets and purses.
Moses, therefore, had a problem that few Episcopal clergy experience. We are told, “So the people were restrained from bringing; for what they had already brought was more than enough to do all the work.” (Ex. 36:6-7) Wow! No more phoning church member’s homes in the evening to remind them politely that we collected pledges in October, but in February we are still waiting for their gift. What if we said, “It’s too late! Our cup runneth over! We don’t need your gift. Others have been so generous that we have more than enough to do the work that God has called us to do.”
God never asks us to do the impossible. God invites us to share of the abundance that God provides for us and to offer the first fruits of our labors to carry out God’s mission. The Church is not a charity. It is the Body of Christ. My father told me years ago, “It is a privilege to be able to give.” He was right.
When the offering plate is blessed and placed upon the altar each Sunday, it is not just our money that is being blessed. It is everything that we have and all that we are that is blessed and set apart to serve Jesus. We are invited to serve as full partners to help build the most loving kingdom ever known.
Think today about the abundance that you have been given. Take time to write down 100 blessings in your life. Think about how much less your life would be without these blessings. Take time to note how virtually every blessing is a gift from God. Then do the math and think deeply about how your can share a larger portion of your abundance with the Body of Christ so that God’s people may be blessed. A person is not truly a Christian until he or she begins to live with a mentality of abundance, not scarcity.
Psalm 28 offers great imagery. God is our “rock,” “strength,” “shield,” “saving refuge,” and “shepherd.” How do we respond to such a great God? The psalmist writes, “I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.” In Judaism, the highest form of prayer is to pray with one’s arm towards God. It is a posture of praise and surrender, a sign of a humility and our dependence upon God.
The French sculptor Auguste Rodin created only a few sculptures of religious significance. He sculpted John the Baptist, Adam and Eve, The Cathedral, The Hand of God and The Prodigal Son. In the latter, a young man humbled by life kneels with his arms outstretched beseeching mercy from his father. It is the posture of true prayer, which signifies our need for the God, who is our rock, strength, shield, refuge and shepherd. God loves to help people with tender hearts who know that they need their Father.
There are four things briefly to note. First, John the Baptist was extremely humble. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (Mark 1:7) Each of us is called to be a John the Baptist for others. Our life’s mission is to point at all times to the One who is wiser, more powerful, more loving, more forgiving and more generous than we will ever be. Our task is to show people Jesus. John is a wonderful role model for us.
Second, Mark greatly encapsulates Jesus’s experience of being tempted in the wilderness. The story is summarized in a single verse. “[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:13) After enduring the wilderness and learning that John the Baptist had been arrested, Jesus proclaims “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
The Greek word for “repent” is metanoia. It means “to turn around.” It is easy for us to go in the wrong direction and get lost. God calls us to turn around for our own well-being and for the good of others. “Repent” is a good word. It’s not a condemnation, but rather a “heads up” that help us avoid harming ourselves and others.
Third, Mark tells us that Jesus “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:23) Those around Jesus were astounded. Our authority to teach the ways of God comes from a slow process of distilling God’s Word in our own lives and allowing it to transform us from the inside out. It is not about keeping lots of religious rules and citing them to others. The scribes were scrupulous about keeping the letter of the law, but they missed the spirit of the law. Jesus looks into the interior of a person for he knows that God’s love must radiate from the inside out.
Forth, we read that “in the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (Mark 1:35) Lancelot Andrewes was King James’s favorite preacher and one of the Church of England’s greatest preachers. He began each day with four hours of prayer and Bible study. This was the source of his power. It was the same source that Jesus drew upon. If we wish to lead powerful godly lives, this needs to be our power source as well. We do not need to spend four hours in prayer and Scripture reading each day, but we need to spend significant time in the beginning of each day to draw energy and wisdom from our creator to carry us through the day.
Each night before going to bed, I recharge my iPhone. In the morning, it is ready to go and holds a charge all day. I can rely upon it. The same principle is true for those who pray and study Scripture each morning. Their spiritual charge lasts all day and they are reliable instruments in God’s hand.
The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts. (Ps. 28:7)
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. (Mark 1:7)
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. (Mark 1:15)
In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35)
What percentage of your financial resources do you give away each year? Do you tithe and give away ten percent of what is available to you? Does your largest gift go to God? If not, what do you put in place of God in your life? Is God your rock, refuge, shield, strength and shepherd? If not, is there is a correspondence between your image of God and what you give or do not give back to God? How do you serve as a John the Baptist for others? Can you grow in this aspect of your walk with Jesus?
Holy God, Generous One, help us not to live in fear, fear that we may not have enough, fear that we might not get to do things that we want if we give our first fruits to you, fear that our children may miss out if we have put you first in our giving. Help us, O Generous One, to be as you are with us and to learn that abundant life is intimately connected to abundant giving. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania