8. Offertory - the Sacred Economy
What does it mean to make an 'offering' to God? "Everything in heaven and on earth is yours. All things come from you, and of your own do we give you." On the face of it, God already owns everything and we are simply giving back to him what is his. Does that mean that our offerings are meaningless? An empty gesture? What is really going on when we bring wine, bread and money to the Communion table?
One of the things that happened when, last week, we crossed from the liturgy of the sacrament of the Word to the liturgy of the sacrament of the Eucharist, with the Peace acting as a bridge between the two, was that we all suddenly became active in a different way. In the first part of the service, we heard the Word read and proclaimed and we responded with praise (the Gloria) and a statement of faith (the Creed). Now in part two we are called upon to engage differently - as guests invited to a meal. This is a collective celebration during which we act out what it means to be truly in community with each other and with God.
In the offering, we are acting out what it means, within this community, this fellowship, to work, to labour, to earn our daily crust. Of course, some of us are retired, or we work in the home, or in the community, unpaid. We are all part of an economy - certainly if the Chancellor has his way - but more importantly we are also part of a 'sacred economy'.
Our modern world is based on the very ancient model of 'mutual gift-exchange'. We meet, we transact. "I give you something, you give something to me." Try it in Tesco. It works! Of course supermarkets like to make you think you are getting something more from the exchange - a 2-for-1 offer or Buy-One-Get-One-Free - in order to gain something from you on which they place great value - your loyalty.
This transaction between you and the supermarket implies other, earlier transactions. How do we obtain the means to fulfil our side of the bargain when we transact with someone? Either we sell our labour, or we own assets that provide an income - a pension perhaps - or we enjoy the protection and shelter of someone else. In whatever way we obtain our daily bread, there is a power relationship implicit within it. There is the power I use to work on the world, in hope of a return, an increase, to extract from the world what I need to hold my place in it, balanced with the power over me that others have that compels me to work in order to hold my place in the world.
The old cotton mills of Bollington remind us of a time when a person's labour became a commodity, to be bought and sold, subject to market conditions. This conflict between labour and capital is a drama that plays out today. It reflects the principle of competition on which the market economy is based.
From the perspective of the 'sacred economy', things are different - "The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof." The elements of the sacred meal together with money, symbolizing our 'work' are brought to the table not as a sacrificial offering - something of which we deprive ourselves in order to gain the favour of God - but to enact our recognition that the whole of life comes out of his gift of himself in creation, out of his plenty, his fulness. This is our 'market condition'. Our work and therefore our offering only gains meaning within this context. God's work in creation is completed in partnership with us. God's gift of plenitude and the rest, or 'sabbath' that followed his work, is prior to any attempt of ours to work on it, to produce an increase from it. Indeed it is God's rest, his Shabbat, which gives meaning and order to our work, just as silence gives meaning and order to music. We do not work in order to rest; instead our work comes out of rest - God's rest, God's plenty. And in this sacred economy, what we bring ritually to God is always given back to us a thousand-fold. As Luke's Gospel puts it, "A good measure pressed down, shaken together, running over." (Luke 6. 38) That is an image, appropriately for a reflection on the Eucharist, of a winepress. The wine that is pressed from the grapes that people have worked so hard to harvest overflows the vessels. God is a God of abundance. So then, what is the 'more' that God wishes to place into your lap this morning as you gather with each other to eat and drink, to share in the sacred economy?
One aspect of this wonderful economy is here with us in church, overflowing as it is with gifts for refugees in Europe. This is indeed a sharing of that 'more' that God has already given. It reminds us that in the economy of heaven we are all receivers, even as we are all called to be givers.