Monday, January 28, 2019

Sermon: "God Offers", Genesis 1:26-31/2 Corinthians 9:6-15 (January 27, 2019)

(Fourth in a series of four sermons during our stewardship season)


Pretty much everyone likes gifts, right? Does anyone here not like them? If you’re that rare person who doesn’t like gifts, it’s probably because our culture has made gift-giving occasions more of an obligation for tradition’s sake than anything else. But I bet that if you try, you could remember a gift that’s brought you joy. See, at their best, gifts are more than just a transactional obligation. Gifts are an expression of our positive feelings towards one another; they’re a way to express ourselves without words.

I want to begin this sermon with this in mind, and by making the assertion that offerings are a type of gift. When we talk about “offerings” in church, we usually think about passing the plates during worship, right? But that’s a dismally superficial understanding of what it means to give something of ourselves to God. Offerings involve so much more than just plunking our money in the plate, just as gifts are so much more than just obligations on birthdays, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day. As a matter of fact, if we want to think about offerings as gifts, we need to think more about WHY we give gifts—and as an extension, reasons that one might make an offering.

The most classic reason to give a gift is as an expression of love. That’s really why occasions like birthdays and Valentine’s Day are so closely associated with gift-giving: they’re times we set aside to show how much we love and appreciate others, and we often do that through gifts. It’s also why there’s a whole industry of “Thinking of You” cards, and why we often bring souvenirs back from vacation for our loved ones. Gifts are a simple way to say, “I love you” without words.

Sometimes, we give gifts as a gesture of welcoming. Have you ever brought a new neighbor a housewarming gift? Maybe someone gave you a “welcome to the family” gift upon your engagement or marriage. Even the inexpensive, mass-produced swag that companies or schools give out to their new employees or students serves the same purpose: to convey welcome as someone enters a new community.

We might also give a gift as the fulfilment of an obligation. I don’t mean the type of cultural gift-giving-for-its-own-sake that I mentioned earlier; I mean gift-giving that arises from a sense of responsibility towards another person or group. For example, pet owners and parents offer gifts of obligation when they give their dependents food, a place to sleep, and the other things needed to survive and thrive. Certainly, obligation sometimes overlaps with love, but ultimately, these gifts arise out of the responsibility that you’ve assumed for the people and creatures in your care. In the same way, we might give money to a charity or buy lunch for a stranger who’s down on their luck. These, too, are gifts given because we sense an obligation towards those in need.

All of these reasons are distinct from one another (although they overlap at times), but they have one thing in common: all of them are relational. They all have to do with our desire to connect, whether out of love, a sense of welcome, or even responsibility. Gifts are a way that we affirm and maintain relationships.

Hopefully, it doesn’t come as a surprise to you that we’re in relationship with God, just as we’re in relationship with the other humans in our lives. And, just as in our other relationships, we exchange gifts with God as a way to express ourselves, affirming and maintaining this important connection. God has taught us this lesson by generous example, but because of this boundless generosity, it’s nearly impossible to illustrate with a single scripture reading. I finally settled on a passage from Genesis to show how God gives to us for many of the same reasons that we give to one another, and that God has been doing this since the very beginning.

In Genesis, we first see that creation itself—our very lives—are an offering of love that God has made to us. As an all-knowing, all-powerful, self-sufficient being, the only reason that God could possibly have to create something is for the sake of that which has been created. God gave us life so that God could love us. Then, God offers us hospitality. God didn’t create us in isolation, but gave us the gift of community—full of complexity and diversity—so that we might have company and not feel alone. In just a few short verses, God demonstrates abundant offerings of both love and welcome.

And God even makes offerings to us out of obligation: at creation, God provides humanity with plentiful food to sustain us and a beautiful place to live so that we might thrive. God certainly doesn’t owe this to us, but God chooses to take responsibility for sustaining and caring for us. Luckily, God takes that responsibility seriously. Humanity has been given what we need to survive—and then some.

There are, of course, so many other things that God offers us for so many reasons: showing love through grace, demonstrating welcome in baptism and communion, fulfilling responsibility through covenants and promises, and more and even more. God offers us so much that it may feel like our offerings to God are negligible in return. But since we know that our offerings are an important part of being in relationship, we need to ask what gifts would be meaningful to God. How can we demonstrate our love, welcome, and responsibility towards GOD through our offerings?

We should already have some ideas because pastors preach about this all the time. We demonstrate our love through offerings of prayers and worship, we welcome Christ through offerings of hospitality towards others, and we fulfill our obligations to God through volunteering and serving in different capacities—which we’ll have the opportunity to celebrate next week when we ordain and install our new elders and deacons. I’m sure you could come up with plenty more of your own, and I invite you to think more this week about the different ways and reasons that you make offerings to God. In these and countless other ways, we both reflect and respond to GOD’S offerings of love, welcome, and obligation through our own.

But although our offerings often echo God’s, it’s not a direct cause-and-effect relationship. We shouldn’t give out of a sense of obligation to “pay God back”. We should be partners with God in our offerings. Our gifts to God shouldn’t be begrudging compensation, but a joyful response to this back-and-forth relationship that just keeps giving, and giving, and giving. Because of God’s unfettered, unconditional generosity, we, too, are able to give openly and freely—we aren’t confined to giving back exactly what we’ve been given. That’s not the nature of this relationship. Paul tells the Corinthians, “Everyone should give whatever they’ve decided in their heart. They shouldn’t give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver.”[1] This is an enormous gift in and of itself: because of what God is able and willing to give to us, we, too, can and should give just as freely, out of joy instead of fear or guilt. Because of God’s offerings to us, the things that we give are free to emerge from our own desires, our own judgement, our own hearts—whatever the motivating reason. Our gifts don’t need to be driven by outside forces: God invites us to make offerings that originate in the very depths of who we are.

This never-ending flow of love, welcome, and obligation that we offer back and forth with God is important because it reminds us that our relationship is a two-way street, but there’s one other reason that we give that God doesn’t: gratitude. As the source of all being and the “unmoved mover”, God doesn’t require anything from anyone and thus has no need for gratitude…but the exact opposite is true for us. Although we should offer to God out of a sense of joyful mutuality in our relationship, God is so very generous that profuse gratitude is inevitable. Thankfulness bursts forth from us not because God has “earned” it, but because we’ve been given so much that we can’t help but feel grateful.

And yet, even our gratitude towards God contributes to the unending cycle of offering, even though there’s no particular reason for God to express gratitude back to us. We learned last week that God prefers us to express our thankfulness through sacrifices of justice, kindness, and humility. When others see and experience this in action, THEY feel gratitude towards God because of OUR OFFERINGS. Paul says, “You’ll be enriched in every way for your great generosity [towards others], which will produce [in them] thanksgiving to God through us.”[2] So through our own offerings of gratitude, we not only enrich our own relationship with God, but we bring others closer to God, perhaps even planting the seed of a new relationship and beginning a brand new cycle of offering.

Our gifts to God are never-ending, because God’s mercy and grace are never-ending. They can never be equal, because God’s gifts are so vast, but both are infinite. And these infinite offerings back and forth are what make our God different from all other gods that have ever been worshiped by humanity. Our God doesn’t just demand tribute from inferior beings; our God PARTICIPATES in the offering. Our God longs for this sort of relationship with us. So we join in, offering gifts of love, welcome, obligation, and thanksgiving to a God who does the same. And in the course of this holy dance, we find ourselves drawing others into this divine relationship, too. This isn’t the reason that we give. It’s not even a deliberate side effect. But in God’s infinite wisdom, this is what happens when we give back to God—we build connections for and with our fellow human beings.

The most authentic response to God’s gifts is gifts of our own. God offers, so we offer. We offer, so others offer. And all our offerings together, back and forth, bountiful and unfettered, bind us to one another in a way that’s holy and sacred. Our gifts, given freely and generously, are more than just tokens of faith. They’re instruments of God’s kingdom. May we give cheerfully and joyfully. May we participate fully in this mutual relationship that God desires for us. May our offerings be as plentiful and unconditional as God’s. Amen.


[1] 2 Corinthians 9:7, CEB.
[2] 2 Corinthians 9:11, NRSV.

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