Bringing Ourselves to the Altar: The Offertory

October 3, 2011

One of my favorite things about our monthly Youth Sundays is watching some of the congregation’s children bring the gifts to the altar. Some of them carry the cruet of wine with fierce concentration. Others grin with impish delight as they pass offering plates through the congregation. All of them seem conscious that they are doing something really important. And in that moment, I become truly conscious that the offertory may be the most important thing we do all week. Not just because the bread and wine become the real presence of Christ that feeds us. And not just because every check and every dime is essential to support the ministry of the congregation. But because when we bring our offerings to the altar, we bring ourselves.

It’s sacramental: the outward and visible sign of the incredible grace that comes together at the altar. The symbol of our work and of our commitment is embodied in cash and checks, and the symbol of God’s unlimited commitment to us is embodied in the bread and wine and made by human labor from God’s gifts of grain and grape (and purchased with those same cash and checks).

The children seem to know that, though it’s easy for me to forget. That concentrated focus on the hands that hold the cruet is a sacrament – a visible sign – of the effort that makes those resources available in our widely scattered work and family lives. The delighted smile of being invited to participate, to lead, to be important is the sacrament of God’s invitation to each one of us.

In fact, that’s what the offertory is – our response to the invitation to participate, to lead, to be essential in the reign of God. It’s our response to the invitation to step out of the invisibility of the ordinary, and become visible bearers of Christ, vital signs of the kingdom of God. That invitation often comes hidden in an appeal for money, or for “time and talent” as Sunday School teachers, Vestry members, and outreach volunteers. But whatever we’re asked to “give” in cash or hours is simply the raw material of the sacrament: the sacrament of our income, hours, and skills transformed into God’s love for the world.

That raw material is transformed – by the sacrament of holy community – into the place where a child discovers that she is special, and holy, and important, because God has placed our offering into her hands and welcomes her into the holiest of places. Transformed into the grace of discovering that welcome for ourselves, we bring to the altar whatever God has placed in our hands.

What would it be like if we gave ourselves over to that fierce attention to the holiness of the resources God has put into our hands? To the sheer delight of being invited to participate in God’s work? We get the opportunity every Sunday as the plate passes by. With a little focus, the holiness and delight shine through – God’s invitation to each of us, and God’s joy in receiving what we offer.

 

-- The Rev. Emily A. Mellott is Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, in Lombard Illinois, The Episcopal Diocese of Chicago