St. Augustine of Hippo


Episcopal Church

 


”Dress Code and Offerings: Why Do They Matter?”


November 11, 2018


The Reverend Nathanael Saint-Pierre



Why do we sit where we sit, almost always in the same spot? Why do we come to church dressed the way we do? Why do we not go to church if we feel sick, troubled or just can’t find that nice red outfit on Pentecost Day? Why should the priest wear a chasuble, the deacon a dalmatic and the bishop a mitre? Is the service less of a celebration without all of that? Do we come to church to assist a show, put up a show, or to offer ourselves?


The gospel of Mark is really expanding discipleship. Today, we read the story of Jesus teaching the disciples how prestige and decorum are in fact a mask for a hypocritical religious aristocracy. Jesus teaches his followers about dress code (false etiquette), the sincerity of prayer which is not dependent on the length of it, and the real value of offering.


If decorum and offerings cannot buy us a path to heaven, what then is important in God’s eyes?


Human beings have always been troubled by appearance. I am an Anglican because I love all the order, and processions, and reverence, and genuflections. That’s the tradition as I have received it. But all the regulations humankind has put on to it do not seem so essential for God when our hearts are in the wrong place according to the Gospel of Mark. Sometimes, we mix cleanliness with exorbitance, as if to be clean is to wear expensive fabrics or brand name garments. Sometimes, we prefer to buy into what oppressive systems want us to believe instead of the freedom God offers us in Jesus. The two stories told in today’s text deal with wealth in ways that continue to be challenging. We are still living in a materially oriented world in which some people believe they are more important than everyone else, either because of their positions of privilege or because of their wealth. In certain settings we see people expressing their superiority by what they wear, the place they sit, and people they consider important or choose to respect. The scribes, according to Mark, were self-important, arrogant, and self-aggrandizing. Mark is dealing here with a group of people who had an inflated opinion of themselves and Jesus (as portrayed by Mark) decided to respond to their antagonistic behavior. The scribes saw only the pompous side of worship and the regulations of their religion, the bling-bling, as if it were indispensably fundamental. Jesus condemns that perception and invites his followers to detach God from their personal need to rule and regulate. The Scribes wanted to value people according to the size of their contributions to the temple, sometimes pushing the marginalized into bankruptcy by demanding too much (we see how some prosperity gospel preaching groups are still doing that by asking more and more from their members). Jesus took the sacrificial nature of a widow’s offering – she did not have much to give – and made it more important in the eyes of God than the huge amounts given by people for whom these considerable amounts wouldn’t disturb their living.


May I remind you that widows in Israel’s scriptures are often presented as a group who needed the support of the community because of their femininity, their economic fragility and their devotion to God? It was a widow whom Elijah went to meet in Zarephath, in our first reading today from 1 Kings 17:8-16, asking her to feed the prophet, although she did not have much to feed herself and her son. We have heard how the prophet was able to give her hope without demagoguery and how God used the prophet to care for her by providing her with endless oil, endless meal: endless grace. Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth” (1 Kings 17: 13-14).

Mark’s Jesus is holding the scribes accountable, while bringing to light that true love is not measurable by the amount we put in the plate, but by the sacrifice entailed by our offering. We must not give only when we have too much and that giving is meaningless. We must give in gratitude because even in our precariousness, God cares for us. Having grown up in internalized oppression, we give lots of value to what the dominant class has shown us to be valuable: the way they looked became the way we must look, the way they behaved became the way we ought to behave. Maybe time has come to ask ourselves what is really valuable for God? Is it the dress code or ourselves? Is it the show off or the show up? We want so much wealth and so much exhibition of it that the leadership we elect is not based on competence based; we elect people whose speech has been to strip their adversaries of human dignity, people who can show their financial accomplishments, and we hope that they will save us. They’re so wealthy they know how to reshape the national economy, or so we think. By now we must understand that we’ve only empowered these so-called leaders to better themselves and not us. The poor are becoming poorer and the wealthy wealthier.


The offering that Mark’s Jesus found valuable was not the biggest amount, but the one that required the bigger sacrifice. The people that Mark’s Jesus found worthy were not those society was ready to glorify because of their economic status, but people whose faithfulness is was backed up by evidence. Sometimes, we are waiting to win the lottery to make a donation to an important cause. Sometimes, we don’t trust God enough to believe he will provide; instead, we take matters into our own hands, not taking the risk to give a little part of what we have to God. Sometimes, we open a pledge envelope knowing that it contains only one dollar. We ask why would someone put one dollar in a pledge envelope? What will that do for our church? Sometimes, we take our own envelope and are ashamed of putting in whatever we can afford to give for fear of being judged. Today’s good news is that all offerings are appreciated by God, but even more so the ones that come out of a sacrificial heart. We should not be worried about what people will say about the dress we wear and the amounts we give. We must be concerned with what God thinks of us; God, who can see our heart. When what we wear is genuine with no intention to look better than someone else or with the intention of being extravagant, when what we put in the plate or pledge envelope is coming from the heart but not with the intention to be named the highest donor of the church, God values us, not what we give or what we wear.


Bishop Taylor told a story of his ministry at St Martha’s, in the Bronx. When he arrived there, he met with a little old lady named Mother Powell. Mother Powell was aging and could not even stand tall anymore. She was convinced that the Diocese sent Bishop Taylor there to close her church. So she took her courage in her arms and confronted Bishop Taylor.

-Bishop, she said, I hope you’re not here to close my church. My daughter was married there and all my grandchildren were baptized there. I have reduced mobility and this is the only church I can walk to.

-My dear lady, answered Bishop Taylor, I am not here to close your church or any church.

-Promise me that you will keep it open, said Mother Powell

- I will, the Bishop promised

St. Martha’s had been closed for many years when Bishop Taylor got there because they could not afford to pay their bills and a minister. Surprisingly, a few weeks after their conversation, Mother Powell came to Bishop Taylor with a bag filled with money and told him,

-Take this money so that you can keep my church open

-My dear Lady, Bishop said, looking at her frail stature, knowing she was a widow, poor and with no money, I don’t need your money.

-Young man, Ms Powell replied, this money is not mine. It is God’s. For all the years the church was closed I’ve put my dues in this bag. Now I am just returning to God what belongs to God.


How many times, blindsided by our own internalized oppression, do we judge others unable, unworthy, incapable to be significant contributors in God’s plan for the church? In our biases we find people too poor, not educated enough, not savvy enough, not competent enough, not rich enough to contribute. We are wrong.


We need to understand then, that what is more important for God is us. Because behind the mask of our makeup and under the layers of our clothes, Jesus knows the sinners that we all are inside. The big donation may get us a spot in the finance committee’s honor ceremony, but not in God’s heart, unless it comes from a good place. An offering is an act of thanksgiving because we bring back to God a portion of what God first gave us. It must never be a demonstration of power, personal glorification or a tool to make someone feel irrelevant or nonexistent. When we strip someone of his dignity, using whatever means, we don’t advance the plan of God. Sometimes, we may not be watching and gauging the consequences of a simple gesture. But our actions matter. When we give more importance to the liturgical decoration than to the worship, when the length of the prayer become a disguise to fool people, when even our offering is not coming from the right place and is just wrapped in our narcissistic love, we are no better than the hypocritical scribes. May the body and blood of Jesus that we come here to receive make us the perfect offering, holy and agreeable to God through the grace of Christ our lord. Amen!