From the Prophet Malachi:
A son honors his father, and servants their master. If then I am a father, where is the honor due to me? And if I am a master, where is the respect due to me? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. You say, “How have we despised your name?” By offering polluted food on my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? Try presenting that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Malachi 1:6-8 (NRSV) – November 21, 2012)
Several years ago I served in a small parish which had a very tight budget. Among its many cost-saving efforts was the reuse of altar flowers. Arrangements would be purchased and used on one Sunday, then quickly put away in the refrigerator in the basement kitchen to be used again the next week. Of course, they didn’t last as well as they might have been wished to (and some varieties of flower fared worse than others), so it was noticeable that they’d been around for awhile. In addition, if there’d been any sort of parish dinner in the interim so that food had been stored in the same refrigerator, they would often have taken on a bit of the odor of fried chicken or garlic or cheesy tuna surprise.
After holding my peace about this my first few weeks, I suggested to one of the older altar guild members, a woman about my mother’s age, a child of the depression, that it seemed to me that putting reused flowers at the altar was rather like offering a blemished cow. She looked at me with an expression that was both dumbfounded and angry – an interesting look to be sure. I explained the proscription of Jewish law against the offering for sacrifice of an animal that was defective in any way (see, e.g., Leviticus Ch. 3-5). She didn’t see the parallel but, because (as it turned out) she was the one who had come up with this money-saving scheme, she was fairly convinced the new priest in the parish was defective. Nonetheless, I held my ground and exercised my role as chief liturgist and insisted that if we were going to have flowers, they were going to be fresh. Better to have no flowers than a floral offering that was second-rate (and much better than flowers that smelled of cheesy tuna surprise).
We often run into this in the church, the giving of the less-than-good. Church youth group rooms and lounges are furnished with hand-me-down, out-of-fashion, and often badly worn furniture from someone’s recently redecorated home (or from someone’s recently deceased parent’s home). Clothing-for-the-poor drives amass large piles of worn out sport coats, scuffed shoes, and long out-of-date bell-bottom trousers. Recently, a box of food donated to our church’s food pantry ministry included a box of cereal that had been opened and partially consumed; I guess the donor had decided he or she didn’t like blueberry crunch whole grain healthfood breakfast food. We seem to have forgotten that the Bible commends the giving of unblemished offerings.
I’ve learned that if one challenges these less-than-perfect gifts the nearly universal justification for giving them is “Beggars can’t be choosers.” That may be true, but givers certainly can be! We who give can choose to give the very best, not our worn-out, cast-off hand-me-downs. The laws of the Old Testament, including these rules about blemished gifts, are meant to teach us to choose to do and to give that which is our best. The several Jewish laws, it is said, are where faithfulness to God is translated into action. When we strive to do our best to follow the ways revealed in Scripture, God’s words and God’s Word are etched into our hearts and become an intimate part of our identity, whether we are Jewish or Christian.
Since 1944, Hallmark Cards has used the sales pitch and slogan, “When you care enough to send the very best . . . . ” That’s what the rules concerning sacrifice of unblemished offerings are all about. They ask us whether we care enough to give the very best. What we give is a reflection of who we are. Are we people on whose hearts the Word of God is indellibly etched? Are we people for whom the Word of God is an intimate part of our identity? Do we stand, as our offering should stand, unblemished before God?
Or are we defective, or sick, or lame, or polluted . . . like last week’s flowers smelling of cheesy tuna surprise?
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.