Plan of Giving

It is the custom in Jewish communities to read a weekly portion of the Torah. The Torah, which are the first five books of the Christian bible, are divided up into equal portions so that the entire text of those books is read each year. The cycle begins and ends each year on the Jewish Holiday of Simchat Torah. This tradition is ancient, at least dating back to the time of the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE. The Book of Nehemiah reports that Ezra the Scribe establishes a pattern so that the people of Israel will not go astray again.

This pattern of reading scripture was firmly established when Christianity began to emerge from Jewish communities following the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, it took some time before Christian scriptures were formed and finalized and even more time before any system of organized readings emerged. In Roman times, however, after Christianity was declared to be a legal religion by Constantine, there was an influx of people who wanted to become Christian. This rapid expansion of Christianity as a distinct religion from Judaism resulted in the development of a pattern of readings. The readings were distributed around the calendar so that the story of Christianity was explored each year, beginning with the events that led up to the birth of Jesus during Advent and the birth narrative at Christmas. The life of Jesus was explored through the seasons of Epiphany and Lent concluding with the narratives of the crucifixion during Holy Week and the resurrection at Easter. Stories of resurrection appearances continue for 50 days until Pentecost. At Pentecost the calendar enters what is sometimes called “ordinary time” when the readings continue through the development of the early church and general themes of Christian theology.

Whereas Judaism has a well-established and consistent pattern of readings, Christianity has has many different patterns, which are constantly evolving. The cycle of readings in the church is known as the lectionary. There have been many times when different parts of the church observed different lectionaries and since the Protestant Reformation, there have been Christian congregations that do not follow a lectionary at all. In the 1970’s the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) had a commission on common texts that produced a common lectionary. This cycle of readings was compared with the Roman Catholic lectionary and in 1983 the Revised Common Lectionary was adopted by many mainline denominations.

Because the COCU lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary correspond to the beginning of my career as a minister, I embraced them and used them as guides for my preaching for my career. Preaching from the lectionary most weeks over a span of decades affected my approach to worship and my way of life. As a young preacher, it was very helpful to be given the texts for worship as opposed to coming up with a sermon idea and then searching the scriptures for a text to support my point of view. As a lectionary preacher, I was led by the scripture and not the other way around. There were plenty of weeks when I would scratch my head and wonder how to make a connection between a particular text and the life of the community I was serving. This forced me to be diligent about Bible Study and to look to the scriptures in all of the tasks of leading a church.

Following the lectionary also gave me a pattern for my life. The flow of the seasons of the church gives definition to the flow of my life. As autumn sets in and we begin to think of winter, I am anticipating the end of Pentecost, Reign of Christ Sunday and the beginning of Advent. It is a bit more complex because the Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings. As opposed to the Jewish custom, where the entire Torah is read each year, the Christian lectionary takes three years to complete the cycle and the cycle does not include every portion of scripture. Christian readings are much shorter than those in Jewish Shabbat services, where multiple chapters are read. As a result, I have invested a lot of time and energy in reading and studying scriptures in depth, exploring the Bible in other ways than just the readings of the lectionary. The lectionary portions leave out significant biblical concepts and stories. If the cycle of worship is the only contact a believer has with the Bible, they miss many portions and also fail to gain a full, “big picture” view of our sacred texts.

Still, after the years of discipline in study and in worship leadership, I have become accustomed to following the readings and expect to think of particular texts in particular seasons. This week’s Gospel reading is the story of the rich man who ran up to Jesus and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This story from Mark’s Gospel is read in the autumn, a time when many congregations are holding their annual pledge drives. As we consider our giving plans for the year to come, we are encouraged to think of Jesus’ statement: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus’ teaching was shocking to the man who asked Jesus the question and it was astounding to the disciples. The advice to sell everything that he owned and give the money to the poor left the man grieving, “for he had many possessions.” It left the disciples perplexed, wondering if it was possible for anyone at all to enter God’s realm. Jesus acknowledged the challenge, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

For me, it is an invitation to think seriously about my choices and my giving to support the work of the church. This is not an easy decision. And it is a decision in which I need to be guided by prayer. I know that there are many ways in which we give to those who are less fortunate than ourselves. I know that supporting the church is only one venue of giving, but for me it is a central and important part of my patterns of giving. It is not a decision to be made lightly. So, even though I have the letter from the church and know how to register my plan of giving, I am pausing. I won’t be rushing to that decision, even if it takes me several weeks to make it. After all, it is a difficult choice - for mortals impossible. Fortunately, the scriptures guide my deliberations.

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