Our church has several of the ATM-like machines for donations and offerings very discreetly placed in high traffic areas. There are no lighted signs flashing an update in giving like we have in Texas announcing the latest lottery payout. In fact, years ago when surveys revealed visitors and members alike were intimidated by taking collections during the service, many congregations eliminated the practice completely. It was just another instance of micro-aggression making it necessary to keep worship a safe space. While I don’t have up to date accounts for what percentage of the church’s giving comes through these kiosks, I do know there was a time when they were not generally accepted but then the electronic contributions spiked. One pastor told me recently that 85% of the giving is now digital through automatic bank deductions, credit cards, Venmo, PayPal and the kiosks.
In fact, studies comparing average individual weekly donations given online and by check or cash show online gifts now are larger. They are convenient, private and simply added to the monthly bills. Yes, there are still older folks resistant to the internet and machine giving as I suppose there were people years ago who felt the same about giving with checks instead of cash while passing offering plates. We saw a few raised eyebrows when moving from plates to bags for making the offering quieter and even more private. That seems to be the trend – more and more private, soundless, automatic and secure.
Walking by one of the church’s ATM kiosks on Sunday, I heard a user complain, “This thing ate my offering!”
I didn’t think about it at the time but later I realized we had come full circle from ancient practices to modern convenience for there was a time when he would have meant that literally.
Smoke and Blood
The Israelites didn’t send checks, make automatic deductions or accept gifts of appreciated assets. Several times a year they would load up carts with wheat, barley, grapes and livestock to make the trip to Jerusalem for the offerings. It was noisy and public. It was a celebration mixed with dense smoke, seared fat and blood. Lots of blood. But whatever was not consumed by fire was, by law, eaten by the priests and the people. The offerings were literally consumed one way or another.
Moreover, in some instances the Law made provision for people who were unable to bring everything to the Temple. They could exchange their produce and animals for silver and take that to buy “whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine and other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.” I’m trying to imagine what that would be like today. So public. So noisy. So rank with overpowering smells.
I read years ago that Boston was scandalized briefly when a family friend saw Alice Saltonstall, a confirmed Unitarian and widow of Senator Leverett Saltonstall, entering a Catholic church. When asked if it was true she explained, “My dear, when you reach my age and are losing your sight and your hearing you need a religion you can smell!”
While I am certainly not proposing we go back to carting herds and crops to town on Sunday there is something we miss when everything has become digitized, private and merely symbolic. Even the Lord’s Supper is not so much a supper with real courses of food as it is the silent passing of a thin wafer and a thimble of juice. All we hear is the quiet clicking of the drained plastic thimbles in the racks.
This week I was with Sarah Harmeyer, the founder of Neighbor’s Table, who has used her skills as a chef and hostess with her father’s carpentry prowess to gather friends and neighbors in her backyard around a table built to serve 20 people at a time. As she described what happens at those meals (now having served over 5,000 people) I recalled the noisy, public and filled with smells it must have been like at the family celebrations in Israel. No thimbles and wafers. Not a digital experience but people loudly enjoying each other in the flesh. People eating their offerings.
I’m not a Luddite by any means. Still, maybe there is a strong whiff of truth in what Alice Saltonstall was saying. Yes, offerings and sometimes even our entire religious experiences are convenient, private and noiseless but we do need a religion we can smell…and eat…and celebrate with others.
By the way, you can get your own hand-crafted Neighbor’s Table delivered personally by Sarah. Just send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art by Pieter Bruegel the Elder