Giving to God

Cain and Abel. What comes to your mind when you hear these names: Cain and Abel? 

The first two chapters in the Bible tell the story of creation. The next chapter tells the story of “The Fall,” of how Adam and Eve fell away from God’s blessing. The fourth chapter tells the story of their children, including their oldest sons, Cain and Abel. When you hear “Cain and Abel,” you remember the first murder committed, how Cain killed his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy. I want you to put that aside for the moment. Hard as it may be, I want you to put it aside. What were Cain and Abel doing before that? 

“Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.”

Cain and Abel were gainfully employed. One was a shepherd; the other, a farmer. And they were giving back to God a portion of their income. Did God need Cain’s produce; did God need any of Abel’s sheep? No, the Creator did not need to eat anything from His creation, but Cain and Abel gave anyway. And they gave something that was important to them and necessary for their existence. They gave Him food that would have benefited themselves if they had kept it. They gave sacrificially.  

Some interpreters of the Bible read a meaning into the difference between their gifts. Abel gave from “the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions,” while Cain gave whatever… So the interpretation is that Cain was stingy, while Abel was generous. Abel gave God the firstand  best of his flock; Cain did not.  This is why God looked favorably on Abel’s gift, but not on Cain’s. 

Giving back to God has been a religious practice from the very earliest days of recorded history until now. The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses) presents an elaborate description of both mandatory and voluntary offerings to God. Mandatory was the “tithe,” the giving of 10% of one’s income. Voluntary was the “peace offering,” an expression of fellowship with God and humanity. 

Today has been designated by our Parish Council as “Stewardship Sunday,” on which we contemplate our personal offering to God. I want to leave you with two thoughts, the first of which I have already spoken. Giving back to God from our income, from what would be personally useful to us, is what we do. It is what people have always done as an expression of love and gratitude to God. 

My second thought is this: I am grateful to serve a community that does not set a price tag on what the church offers. In my 40+ years here we have never set a price on the religious services offered here. People sometimes call and ask, “How much will it cost to have a baptism?” “How much do I have to pay to have a wedding here?” The answer is something to this effect: This parish survives because of the kindness and generosity of nice people like you. We need your support, but we won’t tell you how much. You have to fill out a pledge form; you have to give something, but we won’t tell you how much.” We don’t set prices on membership; we don’t set prices on sacraments. 

We try not to be legalistic, and instead emphasize our freedom to do the right thing. We emphasize proportionate giving, which is part and parcel of stewardship. In  the Old Testament  tithe, we see the requirement to give 10%. In the Lord’s words, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). 

I am certain that a few people take advantage of this, but in the larger perspective it benefits the church. Setting prices on our services gives the impression that we are a business selling goods and services, and this is not what a church should be. The church is the house of God; it is the Temple of the Holy Spirit; it is God’s workshop, where He works on you and me to make us better. 

So that’s what I want to offer to you today. (1) Giving to God  is what we do and have done throughout Biblical history. (2) We don’t set price tags on anything associated with worship. 

I want to conclude with a thank you note written by St Paul to the Christians in Philippi (Epistle to the Philippians) for their financial support. He writes in the first person singular, “I know… I rejoice… I have been fully satisfied…” but clearly the gifts were offered to him to support his ministry. So the word “I” refers to St Paul, but in a broader sense it can be seen as your church- our church. 

“I rejoice  in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

“You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever” (Philippians 4:10-20).