Becoming God’s People: The Gifts We Bring

Scripture: Exodus 25:1-9; 35:21-29

To open with a question today: Where is a place where you most closely encounter God?

Well, we’re at the point in our story where the Israelites need one of those places.  They have, of course, already encountered God on their journey: they have encountered God in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that led them out of Egypt, across the Red Sea and into the wilderness; they’ve encountered God in the manna and the water they’ve found in the desert just when they thought there was none; they’ve heard God’s voice delivering the Ten Commandments from a shaking Mount Sinai.

Each one of those experiences has been powerful and each one has taught the Israelites something about who God is and what it means to be God’s people.  But the thing is that at some point in your journey, you need a place where you can reliably go to encounter God.  God might be found anywhere, but it helps to have that place where you know you can find God when you happen to be looking.  It’s part of what makes the journey sustainable over the long term.

That brings us to today.

We’ve been traveling with the Israelites in the wilderness for a while now, and last week, we heard the story of how this newfound relationship between God and people almost fell apart as soon as it was made official, with this little indiscretion involving a golden calf.  Today I want to back up a bit to just before that incident.  As I mentioned last week, while the people are getting antsy down in the Sinai desert wondering where their leader has gone, Moses is up on the mountain receiving instructions from God on how to build the tabernacle.  Remember, there is no Temple to YHWH at this point in time – obviously, you can’t bring a Temple with you across the Red Sea – and in fact there won’t be one for hundreds of years still.  But the tabernacle is its predecessor.  But God needs a place where God can dwell in the midst of the Israelites.  The tabernacle is a kind of mobile Temple that can be picked up and carried as the people move from camp to camp in the wilderness, and finally into the Promised Land.

Now, of course you can’t make any old tent and call it God’s dwelling.  This tabernacle has to be built according to very specific divine instructions.  I mean chapters and chapters of instructions.  When we talked before about the Red Sea crossing and the Ten Commandments, I called those the most Exodus-y parts of Exodus – the parts that come readily to mind from your Sunday School days or from the movies.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and call building the tabernacle the least Exodus-y part of Exodus, in the sense that I’ve read Exodus a number of times and still sometimes forget that it’s there.

But the instructions for and account of building the tabernacle actually make up almost half of the book of Exodus.  This isn’t just something tacked on the end of a story of slavery and liberation.  This is the whole point.

Because becoming God’s people means living in community centered on God.

Before God gets into all the details of how this tabernacle should be built – how many cubits on each side, and all that good stuff – God tells Moses to tell the people to bring offerings.  They should bring their gold and silver, their colored yarns and fine linens, their leather, their goat hair.  They should bring their acacia wood, their oil, their precious gems.  (For some ex-slaves on a 40-year journey in the wilderness, they don’t pack light.)  And those who have a skill – anyone who works with wood or metal or spins yarn or sets gemstones – they should come ready to be put to work.  The tabernacle, you see, doesn’t rise up out of thin air.  If you want a place for God to dwell in the midst of the community, you’re going to have to be a part of building it.

God tells Moses to make a chest to hold the covenant tablets, with rings on each side to fit poles through so it can be carried. God tells him to make a table, for offerings, and a lampstand of pure gold to go in front of it.  God tells him to make the dwelling itself, with curtains of yarn and linen surrounding the sanctuary, and more curtains fencing off the courtyard around it.  God gives instructions for the clothing the priests should wear, instructions for burnt offerings, instructions for incense offerings.

Becoming God’s people means becoming God’s people in worship.  The holy spaces and rituals of our lives matter, because they are what help us intentionally encounter God in our midst and live as God’s people the rest of the time.

It’s true that by the time Moses gets back down that mountain, things have already gone terribly awry.  We also know that that part of the story ends with a second chance and a new covenant.  With that resolved, it is time to start building.

So as instructed, Moses tells the people to bring their gifts – their gold and their silver, their colored yarn and fine linen, their leather and goat hair and acacia wood and oil and gemstones.  And he tells the people to bring their crafts and bring their skills. This is a project that takes everyone.

The people go, and they come back, bearing gifts.  They bring their gold and their silver, yarn and linen, leather and goat hair and wood and oil and gems.  In fact, they bring so much of it that the workers start to complain, and Moses has to tell them to stop.

Spoiler alert: This is stewardship season and I’m not here to tell you to stop bringing gifts.

But I do like to think about what it was that inspired the people to give so generously.  Because if you’re anything like me, this is not always your response when people ask for your gold and wool and precious gems – or your money. Instead I see the mail piling up on the dining room table full of opportunities to donate, and the GoFundMe requests on Facebook, and maybe I even see that Commitment to Giving card in my bulletin and I’m like, “Ugh, I just gave to you, what do you people think I am, made of money?”  Confession: no one has ever had to tell me to stop giving.

But my second confession is this: I do, truly, want to be someone who gives.  I believe that God has given me plenty to share.  And I believe that Jesus invites me into the kind of life where I’m sharing more and hoarding less, because that’s part of what abundant life means.

That’s why I like this image of people giving until they have to be told to stop.

During stewardship season I always try to make two points: the first is that giving is a matter of discipleship. From Old Testament to New Testament, giving is something that’s expected of God’s people.  It doesn’t always look the same: in the Old Testament people are commanded to tithe, 10%.  By the time we get to Acts we’re talking about all property being held in common.  I’m going to go easy here and suggest that 10% is a good start – or even 5% if you’re not quite there. And while I’m all for spontaneous generosity when the Spirit moves us, I think that living into this call to share and to give takes some intentionality and commitment. I know for sure that if I only give when I really feel the Spirit telling me to give, I’m going to give less than if I thought about it beforehand.

This commitment card in your bulletin is here to help with that intentionality and commitment!

The caveat here is that I don’t believe that God wants you to not be able to pay your rent.  The call to give is an invitation to rethink our priorities and share our abundance, and not a means of oppression.  We all have something to give; it may not be money.  That said, some of the most generous people I have known are people who have much less than I do.

This call to give also goes beyond just putting money in the plate at church.  I think sometimes we conflate stewardship with fundraising.  Stewardship is being faithful with your money and other gifts.  Fundraising is how we meet a church budget.

But! The second point is that this church does need your money.  This is our church, and it’s only as good as the investment that each of us makes in it – our investment of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  Money is only one part of that investment, but it is a necessary part.

That’s why I’m inviting you, as part of your discipleship, to fill out this card and bring it back next week so we can celebrate the commitments we are making and pray over them.

I’ll tell you a secret, and that’s that I don’t like preaching stewardship sermons.  (It’s not that big a secret, I think I say it every year.)  Yet over the past couple years I’ve been surprised at some of the responses I’ve gotten.  There was the first-time visitor, a young adult, who asked if it would be OK if he turned in his commitment card a week late.  There was the mother visiting the area with her son who told me later that that sermon was just what they needed to hear.

I decided that maybe you all already get it more than I do: giving may be something we have to be intentional about, but there is joy in that commitment, too.

So let me ask you this: As the Israelites are building the tabernacle in the wilderness, what made them so eager to give?

As I said before, this is what the whole story is leading up to: God taking God’s place among the Israelites.  No longer are they slaves, no longer do they have to ask the question of whether God is really there or really cares, no longer are they a people without an identity, because now their identity is found in their relationship to God.  God is with them. They give to this project because they want to celebrate that fact and make sure others know it.  They invest in their community because it’s only in this community that they know and remember who they are: God’s people.

When I first got to Arlington Temple, I was told that our name is Arlington Temple because the people who first started the church envisioned it as a community center – the center of a community – just like the Temple in Jerusalem was back in the day. It wasn’t just a place of worship, but a place where people came together to honor God in lots of ways.  I think we have stayed true to that vision: we are a place where people come not just for worship, but for food and friendship during the week, for twelve-step meetings and work conferences, to pray in the middle of the work day, to practice the piano.  Even as we think about a new building in place of this one, we are keeping that vision in mind – this place isn’t just for us.

But the Jerusalem Temple wasn’t just a space to do things, it was the place where God’s presence was especially encountered in the midst of the larger community.  Just like the tabernacle that preceded it.  And I think we can say that about our church, too.

If you read that letter that got sent out with our Commitment to Giving cards, you know that I talked about the Community Thanksgiving meal we had last November as one of my favorite memories of this past year – coming up again next week! – and that’s because it encapsulated so well what I love about this place.  For two years now we’ve had this meal and intentionally invited those who frequent our church during the week but not necessarily always on Sundays, many of whom are experiencing hunger and homelessness.  It’s not about doing something for someone else, as though “we” have something to give and “they” don’t.  It’s about eating with each other, getting to know each other, joining two congregations into one.  And I saw that happening last year.  I didn’t see rich people feeding poor people.  I saw people bringing what they had and sitting at the same tables and sharing a delicious meal and conversation together.

And you know what?  I think there are actually not that many places where that happens.  But it does here.  And in fact I see it to a small extent almost every week when I look around the fellowship hall after worship.  And that is a witness to God’s love and inclusion, a witness to the welcome that Jesus embodied, right here in Rosslyn.  That is God’s kingdom, here, in the middle of our everyday lives and world.

This commitment card is an invitation to bring your gifts to help make God’s presence tangible in our community.

And the good news is we’re still building. I don’t mean that literally, even though we are talking redevelopment of this physical space.  Our building, our Temple, is a resource, but it’s not why we’re here.  This is just home base.  It’s our starting point for bearing witness to God’s presence and the love of Jesus in this world around us.  Because the Israelites know who God is, the whole world can know who God is.  Because we meet God here, our whole community can meet God in us.  Here is where we remember who we are, here is where we are reminded of our story, here is where we hear our call, and here is where we are equipped to follow.

So bring your gold and your silver, your leather and linen, your wood and your oil and gems.  Bring your hands, ready to work. Bring your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness.

And don’t stop now.  God is doing something here.  And God needs all of you to make it happen.

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