Sermon preached for Pentecost 22, Proper 25C, on Sunday, October 24, 2010.
Once a Baptist and I were joking about a woman who won millions in the lottery. He said he told his Pastor to call on that woman but I told him that would be sheep steeling. That woman did not know it yet, but she was already Lutheran. We laughed. I said that Baptist integrity would keep them from accepting money from gambling but we Lutherans accepted most things in moderation. We could take her money without any pang of conscience. We laughed. Another person nearby stopped the laughter. He said that he had not yet met a church which would refuse money from anyone, no matter where it came from! Ouch!
Today we encountered a story of two offerings, one accepted by God and one refused by God. This account of Cain and Abel offer us a familiar if some what confusing story. Why was one offering accepted and one rejected? Why did Cain get so angry, he killed his brother? And what does this have to do with us today?
Offerings are about as popular as visits to the dentist. Why is it that giving has become such a burden to us as people? In Abel we saw a man who found the offering to be the privilege of faith, returning to the Lord the best of what the Lord had given him. I tend to think that we all take more after Cain than Abel when it comes to the offerings we bring to the Lord.
If you look at the story, you are left with only two conclusions. Either God preferred the offering of a lamb over the first fruits of the harvest... OR there was something in the heart of Cain that distinguished his offering from that of Abel. I am going with the latter. It was not the offering that made all the difference but what moved that offering. Abel saw the offering as a privilege and Cain saw it as a duty. God saw the delight of the offering born of Abel’s faith and the resentment of having to give that came from Cain.
Abel gave the Lord his best. Cain gave God what he had in abundance. Abel's gift cost him something because it was the best he had to give - a sacrifice that was moved not by the demand of God but the delight of faith. Cain resented what he gave because he felt he had worked for it, earned it, and gave it from a sense of duty or obligation rather than faith.
Abel gave out of joy – as one who had learned to delight in the gifts God surrounded him with every day. When he looked at his life, he saw not what he lacked but what God has given to him. Cain saw it differently. Cain felt he had earned all he had, that he had no more than most other folks had, and that it was a great sacrifice to give to the Lord something he had worked so hard for. Their offerings were brought by very different hearts.
I vividly recall visiting a congregation in which the Pastor got up before the offering and told the visitors not to give an offering, that giving was the privilege of membership. What a different perspective than we usually encounter! In the early church, those who were not yet baptized left the congregation before the offering because only those who were baptized had the privilege of giving an offering and receiving the Sacrament. How different from the way we think today!
We are talking about Gospel giving and law giving here. It is the difference between an offering given because it is supposed to be given and an offering born of faith and given in joy. When we bring our best to the Lord, moved by faith, God knows it. When we bring to the Lord our resentment, out of a sense of obligation, God knows it. When we bring our best, moved by faith, God is glorified and we are blessed in the giving of what we bring. It is a true offering, borne of a grateful hearts, offered with joy to the Lord, as an acknowledgment of His gifts to us, and made as a sign that we are grateful for His grace and we trust in Him by faith. Anything less and the gift, no matter how large or impressive, is not an offering but the payment of a bill.
Too often we approach the whole subject of stewardship from the perspective of the Law – what is required of us. Here we see the perspective of the Gospel and faith as the power of faithful stewardship. Too often today, we Christians give like Cain – from our abundance, out of a sense of duty, and then we wonder why it is such a painful subject. It was this pain that grew into the resentment that caused one brother to rise up against another.
If there is a giving problem among Christians, it is not for lack of resources, but for lack of faith. It is for a lack of vision to see what we have as God’s gift to us. It is for lack of joy and gratitude for God’s daily care of this body and life and His eternal gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. So we tend to be more like Cain than Abel.
What you bring is money but it is also much more. You bring the offering of yourselves, the offering of your time, the offering of your abilities, and the offering of your worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God. This is not given to earn God's favor but as a reflection of knowing His favor and grace in Christ, of the new birth that is ours in baptism, and of the faith that joyfully proclaims what is His gift of grace and mercy.
Can was fearful of giving, selfish of all that he called his own, and both jealous and resentful that his brother was able to give cheerfully, freely, and willingly. This bitterness conspired to bear the terrible fruit of death in his life. Because he could not stand the limitations of his own heart and because he resented the giving heart of Abel, he turned on his brother and murdered him. But Abel's faith and joyful offering is raised up for us still.
So, what about us? In addition to the gifts we bring today, what do we bring in our hearts to the Lord? It is one of the great miracles of grace that every Sunday our Lord takes what we bring in faith and lifts it to the Father through His own sacrificial offering on the cross so that it becomes the sweet incense of a prayerful, thankful, and grateful offering of the faithful. And we bask in the glory that we have been privileged to give our best for His glory through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.