Today is the first Sunday of Lent. The way we worship here will change. In place of a hymn to begin the service we will do a litany of repentance. It is taken from the Ash Wednesday service and intended for that day, but I have found it is a good weekly reminder of the season. It makes things a bit more solemn and allows an opportunity for reflection. We then cry out for mercy as we identify various areas of our life which fall short.
Another change is the absence of the word "Alleluia." There are usually a few folks who out of habit continue to say the word. They quickly recover and we all are aware. It serves to reinforce the fact that in Lent we are not celebrating in the same way as we will at Easter.
The biggest change, though, is the second collection. It is for outreach. Each week, the church gathers up offerings from the membership. The offering is intended as a gift to God, paying back a small portion in thanksgiving for all the blessings He has given us. Commonly at the time of offering we all say together, "All things come from Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee." In theory, the more people have the more they should give. In reality, giving is harder as one gets more. When you have nothing, what difference does it make? When I was low paid and living hand to mouth it seemed easier. But as one advances and income increases, suddenly 10% adds up to real money. The twenty-five or thirty dollars a week can soon become two or three hundred as a person achieves success. A Lutheran pastor once preached on this at a parish where I served. He was the one who pointed this out to me.
We do not bring animals to be sacrificed that ended with the fall of the Temple. Nor, like the ancient Christians, do we bring concrete goods: bread and produce. In the early days their ingathering of foodstuffs was used to provide for clergy, poorer members of the parish (inreach), and the poor and needy served by the church (outreach). It was understood that these gifts were given to God in and through the Church. To be generous with God was an act of faith and love. It was also thought to have salvific impact. [Following the Jewish practice of alms, the early Christians shared the belief that giving opened one up to God's saving work.]
The word sacrifice refers to giving it over to God. In animal sacrifice, in most cases, the animal sacrificed was eaten as a meal. Part of the meat went to the priest. Part of the animal was wholly consumed in the flames. But the giving to God (what was consumed in the flames) was complemented with the communion meal--eating together. In our own time, the word sacrifice has taken on a different connotation. Now it refers to suffering in most minds. So we talk about the sacrifices we have made in order for our children to have what they need. Therefore, we use the expression "sacrificial giving" to mean "giving until it hurts." In reality, all giving is sacrificial because all giving is a gift to God. Yet, I think we all get the point. The term sacrifice means giving in a signficant way. It means giving in a way that is consistent with the One to Whom we give. It is giving in an awareness that EVERYTHING is a gift and we need to be as generous in giving as we are "excited" about getting. We need to want to pour out blessings as enthusiastically as we celebrate receiving blessings.
Each Sunday in Lent we will take up a second collection. Every cent will go to outreach ministries. The act of taking up the collection serves multiple purposes. It reminds us that our mission and ministry is meant to extend beyond ourselves. It allows us to "heal and exorcise" by combating the Kingdom of Darkness with Light and Love. It gives us a chance to make sense of the typical Lenten exercise of "giving up ..." by transforming the absence (what we give up) with a presence (translating it into a gift). So if a person "gives up cokes" for Lent, the cost of those cokes is set aside and on Sunday the amount (five or ten bucks) is tossed into the basket. It gets translated into gift. Pretty simple process and multiply it by a couple hundred people and suddenly you are talking about real money. Literally thousands of dollars each week. So on Easter day we will have five, seven, maybe ten thousand dollars to distribute. That is a blessing.
Having the double collection in Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, has made a mentality in this parish. People value doing this. People are more sacrificial because they see the purpose. In Lent we are called upon to be transformed. We are invited to take on the Jesus approach to things. As Jesus said, "What you have received as a gift, give as a gift." It is all a gift, even that for which we labor. It is still a gift. Give to the glory of God!