Rev. Ann Wood, Deacon
Proper 24; 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Exodus 33:12-33; Psalm 99; 1Thess.1:1-10; Matt. 22:15-22
May the Lord open our ears and our hearts to hear God’s word, as we continue on our themed Journey to Generosity. AMEN.
I’d spent some time looking at the readings for today and wondering what I might focus on for this homily. Nothing was jumping out at me – catching my eye. What did the Lord want me to talk about? Then this week, Dennis O’Rourke’s annual stewardship letter arrived. Aha! I thought – this ties in with Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s”. Obviously I’m supposed to talk about stewardship. Groan! Did everyone receive Dennis’ letter, by the way? Hands up if you did NOT – oh, several of you. Sorry, that means I have to continue. If you’d all received it, I could have sat down now! Seriously, though, isn’t it too bad that it’s only at this time of the year, the acknowledged “normal” time for pledge drives – that we hear about stewardship. Stewardship is, I believe, not solely about end-of-the year pledging, but a year-round way of life. It’s about how we use our time, our talents, our energy, and our knowledge, as well as our finances - our treasure. It’s about recognizing that everything comes from God and that we are simply stewards of all that God provides for us. No family or church community can thrive without healthy year-round generous giving of time, talent and treasure, by everyone in the community.
But first, let me take you back to Herod’s Temple, the scene of our gospel reading. Imagine, if you will, a group of serious and devout-looking men, clothed in flowing floor-length robes, and walking in the marketplace. Their robes are a sign of their importance and of their being leisured men of honor. Their dress draws your attention. They’re enjoying being greeted as “Rabbi” by the passers-by; rabbi means “my great one”, or “respected teacher”. Huddling with them is a group of Herodians, a political group supporting the royal family, Rome’s currently designated local rulers. The two groups have their heads together, whispering. I think they’re plotting something. Jesus is here also; he’s come to sit quietly, following his teaching and earlier discussions with the Scribes and Pharisees. He’s watching the people coming and going and he’s quite aware of the group of Herodians and Pharisees and their deceitful planning. Their relationship with Jesus has been going further downhill. They want to arrest him and kill him, but they’re afraid of the crowd with whom he’s so popular. They can’t afford to anger them. So they plot together to ask Jesus a question about taxes – one that they think will trap him whatever his response. If he should respond one way, it will be cause for his arrest and trial for treason. Should he respond the other, he’ll anger the crowd, who resent Rome’s occupation and rule. Either way, they think they’ve got him. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they ask. Jesus’ response “’Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’ amazed them”, we’re told “and they left him and went away.”
Taxes – taxes have always been a tricky subject – even in Jesus’ time. Back then, there were 3 regular taxes that the Roman government exacted – the ground, income and poll taxes. It’s this latter tax that’s the subject in our story. It had to be paid by every male between the ages of 14-65 and every female between the ages of 12-65. It amounted to a denarius, or the equivalent of the usual day’s wage. It’s the coin that Jesus asks the questioners to show him. The denarius was stamped with the emperor’s head. Coinage was the sign of kingship. When a king came to the throne, he struck his own coinage. It was held to be the property of the king whose image it bore. To the Jews, however, God was the only king. To pay tax to an earthly king was to admit the validity of his kingship and thereby to insult God. Any tax paid to a foreign king was necessarily wrong.
Then, as now, the Jews and we Christians, have dual citizenship - we’re citizens of the country in which we live here on earth, as well as being citizens of heaven. As citizens of this country, we need to contribute, for example, to public services such as education, the upkeep of infrastructure and to our safety. As citizens of heaven, we have a responsibility to be God’s stewards of this earth and of all that God provides for us, as well as being responsible to our church and to one another. No family or church community can thrive without healthy year-round stewardship and generous giving of our treasure, time and talents. Is there a biblical guideline for the giving of our treasure? - the answer is yes – it’s the tithe.
Mention the word “tithe” and many people cringe. Rather than having a sense of abundance, we can have a fear of scarcity and want to hold on to what we have. As a child, growing up in England during World War II and the years immediately afterwards, a time of ration books and food shortages, it’s been hard for me to throw off that sense of scarcity and to acknowledge the abundance of God’s blessings in my own life. However, when I reflect on these blessings and on God’s promises that have been evident in my life, it’s helped me to get past that sense of scarcity and to give generously to God’s kingdom on earth. God’s promises, mentioned in the Torah, also include the spiritual blessings that come from acknowledging God as being the source of all that’s important in life, as well as financial blessings or financial security.
I’m reminded of a widowed friend of mine – I’ll call her Shirley. For as long as I’ve known her, Shirley has chosen not to pledge to her church in the traditional way. Her income is unpredictable, but she loves Jesus and takes her responsibilities as a Christian seriously. Whenever she receives money, be it income from social security, a gift, or from some other source, she immediately deducts 10% for the church – her tithe. Sometimes it goes into the collection plate. At other times, she saves it up to buy a particular item that she sees the church needs. She willingly gives of her time and talents at church functions or where she sees a need. She gives sacrificially and generously. Some would say she gives recklessly, like the Biblical widow and her mite mentioned in Mark’s gospel, because to most eyes, she really can’t afford to give what she does. That said, Shirley tells me, it gives her great joy to give it to her Lord and to God’s work. Oddly, when she’s needed money to pay her bills or for some other reason, the money has always come from somewhere – ALWAYS. She trusts in our Lord’s promise to take care of her needs. She gives out of her love for God and out of a sense of abundance – generosity being one of the fruits of the Spirit described by Paul.
Jesus knows our hearts, our life experiences and our needs. There are many ways to be a steward. We’ve all been blessed with gifts and talents. God knows why we give; God cares why we give – whether it’s out of our love for God and our gratitude for our blessings and trust in God’s goodness and promise to provide, or whether we give like the scribes and Pharisees for recognition and admiration. The amount we give is not all that matters, but that we DO give does matter, whether it is of our treasure, our time or our talent. It’s very difficult for some of us to take the risks involved with stewardship. It’s difficult to trust when we cannot see the answers. It’s difficult to be kind when people are not. It’s difficult to give when we don’t know how the bills will be paid or how God will lead and bless us.
I’m not advocating here that you now go home, sell your possessions and give the proceeds to the church. “Thank goodness for that!” you might say, and I certainly don’t want to downplay or make light of the effects of being poor. Being poor can take its toll on lives. It takes time to be poor – think about it for a moment. If you don’t have a car, you have to organize your life around the availability of public transportation or of getting rides. If you don’t have a washing machine, you have to spend time taking your laundry to the Laundromat, and so on. Fortunately, rather than giving everything we have to live on, there are other ways of showing our love and commitment to God. We’ve all been blessed with gifts and talents – let’s share them and use them for God’s work. Recently, the parish had a fund-raising gourmet Italian dinner. Each Monday, we serve a hot meal to those in need. There are so many other ways in which the people of this community share their gifts and talents that require time and energy, as well as different organizational and leadership skills. It’s great that they’re being put to good use. May that continue to be so.
At this time of the year, we’re also thinking once more about the leadership of the parish – who’ll feel called to serve on the vestry for instance. Out of your love for Jesus and the love you have for this community, consider whether Jesus might be calling you to step out of your comfort zone, your safety net and give of your time and talents, either to serve on the vestry or to some other parish ministry that attracts you. Don’t wait to be asked. Take the initiative! God loves a cheerful giver!
With our giving, we receive so much more in the way of blessings – a sense of peace, energy and hope, as well as a deeper relationship with God. Somehow God expands our resources, as he does for Shirley, and our trust in God deepens. We have a better understanding of our place in God’s kingdom and of being the care-takers of our earthly home and of all that God provides for us. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples – and I quote: “--- give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” End quote. May that be our experience also. AMEN
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