Friday, November 4, 2011

This is Stewardship: Proper 24 Year A

I’m a huge WUKY listener. Before that, I listened to KERA and KXT.  And there’s always WWNO.  Now, with the internet, I can listen to any of them whenever I want, depending on my mood. Sometimes, I even listen to KSKA. These are all public radio stations and each one is different. I’m currently in love with WUKY because I love the music. 

There’s only one problem: pledge drives. I yearn for a button on my radio that allows me to skip the pledge drive. Y’know, one that says, “I’m excused because I already made my pledge.” There is no button, however. Instead, twice a year, I faithfully listen (or sometimes I don’t).

I can almost hear the conversation:
I love church. Right now, I attend Trinity. Before that, I was a member of Christ Church.  I grew up, though, at Christ the King. And sometimes I attend The Presbyterian Church. I like them all for different reasons and, most Sundays, I always feel uplifted, ready to take on the week.  There’s only one problem: Stewardship. It’s so uncomfortable talking about money. I always put something in the plate. I know churches have to raise money and we should all give. It’s just not why I go to church.
Now, maybe I’m just being a cynic. Or maybe I’m projecting my own frustration onto congregations.  Maybe some people really enjoy talking about stewardship (if so, I’d love for you to be next year’s Stewardship Chair; let’s talk).  My cynicism is my own frustration that stewardship and money have become so mixed up: Annual Giving campaigns synonymous with Stewardship campaigns. 

Like you, I’ve heard many stewardship sermons. Most of them were inspiring. Even if uninspiring, they were always right; it is our responsibility to care for the church.  Today, I add my voice to the mix. Perhaps my words will be inspiring; at least, I hope you agree with me that we are stewards of the church. Today, I offer my first stewardship sermon.

I find it ironic, that, of all days in the lectionary, today is the day Jesus is confronted about taxes. The Pharisees and scribes are upset. Jesus has just told three parables that essentially describe all of their negative character traits. In the parable of the two sons, they are the unrighteous son who forsakes his commitment to his father. In the parable of the wicked tenants, they are the tenants who deny the authority of the landowner. Then, in the wedding banquet parable, they are unprepared for the coming of God’s kingdom. Each description has one root problem: the Pharisees and Scribes are corrupted by their authority and power. This critique does not make them happy. More than that, Jesus threatens them: the crowds give him authority and he claims this as the authority of God.  They respond to Jesus’ critique with trickery. Rather than confront him themselves, they send in their disciples and some Herodians (political friends of Herod).  There are so many levels of trickery here, I can’t keep track of them all. What it comes down to is this: whatever Jesus says is wrong and, therefore, a rebel.  If the Pharisees and scribes can entrap him as a rebel, then they can easily get rid of him. 

Only, in typical Jesus fashion, he turns everything around. He asks to see a coin. Here’s the thing: the coin bore the image of Caesar. In the Roman Empire, Caesar was divine. The Pharisees, then, felt that carrying the coin and paying taxes was idolatrous. The Herodians, meanwhile, were pro-tax, pro-Roman.   The simple fact that they carry the coins makes them idolaters in the minds of the Pharisees. Except, now they are their allies. And, when the coin is revealed, Jesus, once again, exposes the corruption of the Pharisees.

The point of the Gospel is not really about taxes; it’s not why the disciples and Herodians ask the question and it’s not why Jesus answers. The Pharisees and scribes find their authority in telling people what it means to be faithful to Yahweh. This way, their way, centers on the law: the Torah’s 613 commandments. Jesus’ way follows one law, one commandment: love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and your soul. He responds to the question about taxes in the same vein: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Now, I cannot pretend to fully understand Jesus’ words here. Indeed, I believe I am only beginning to understand them. And, I understand enough to know that if we believe God is the creator, then all of creation is God’s. It doesn’t matter, then, what we give to the emperor.  What matters is how we return our lives to God. The point of the Gospel is how we live a life of faith, a life that follows God’s way.

This is how I understand it. My life is not my own. God gave me the gift of this life and my faith, my belief, requires me to give this life back to God. There is no correct percentage or amount.  Instead, my purpose, my vocation is to serve God with my whole life. This is path of discipleship; it is also stewardship: caring for something that does not belong to us.

Church is one of the places where we go to experience God. We experience God in our families, in our community and in our worship. Maybe one of the readings suddenly speaks wisdom and discernment in our lives. Maybe a smile, handshake or hug during the peace reminds us we’re not alone.  Maybe when we receive the bread and wine, we experience God’s grace and mercy in our lives. We may claim these things (wisdom, community, mercy) as our own. Or we may understand them as gifts from God. If we understand that they are gifts, then we know that they are God’s and we are stewards of them. As stewards of God’s gifts in our lives, we must offer them back to God. How do we return these to God?  We offer our lives as a vehicle for others to experience God’s gifts in their lives.

Over the next few weeks, you will receive several pleas to support Trinity financially. I hope you will make a pledge to our operating budget for 2012. I hope you make a pledge not because you “should” or always have. I hope you pledge because somewhere or sometime along the way, you experienced God’s grace here.   I hope you make your pledge with the confidence that Trinity will offer that experience to someone else. It may sometimes feel that Stewardship is like an annual giving campaign: give in order to receive. This is not an annual giving campaign. This is Stewardship: giving as an offering to God with hope that the gifts we receive here will grow for the sake of God’s kingdom.

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