October 16, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22 Psalm 96:1-13
1st Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7 2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Really all of October has been Stewardship Month. We snuck it in on you, without you really knowing it. On the 2nd, we blessed the pets and thanked God for all of God’s creation. We talked and prayed about taking care of the earth and the animals that are gifts from God to borrow for a little while. Last week, we used the word “Rejoice” a lot and thought more about what it means to give thanks to God as a way of life. Today is commitment Sunday where we make out our estimate of giving cards and let the church know about how much we each intend to give in the coming year so we can make a realistic budget.
Stewardship has to do with God being in charge and us being stewards. It is about how we use what God has made and let us borrow. It is about God entrusting so much to us, and how we use and share and manage all that.
Let me go through the readings one by one and see what they each have to say about Stewardship. The first reading from Isaiah has the novel concept that God is the only God. The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” It kind of sounds like there could be other gods, but Yahweh is the supreme. Here, God is saying that’s it—there is only one God.
Some scholars believe that the devil or Satan represents another god. It can be hard to answer the question about why bad things happen if you only have one God who is good. Some people answer that by explaining evil forces with the concept of the devil. Here in Isaiah, God claims responsibility for both the good and the bad, the light and the darkness, the prosperity and the woe. It can all be attributed to God.
I usually attribute all the good to God and all the bad to humankind. But who is to say what is good or bad since almost everything has some good and bad. And God can make good out of a bad situation. Even a victim of molestation can come through life as a survivor and help others in a similar situation. Joseph in the Old Testament said to his brothers, “What you intended for bad (selling him into slavery) God intended for good.” God used the evil hatred of the brothers to save a whole generation of people from starvation. It is no good to tell someone in the midst of a horrible situation that God intends it for good. However, looking for the good in any situation, or understanding that something good may come out of it later can be a helpful way to get yourself through something horrific. I also don’t believe that just because God makes something good out of it that God caused it in the first place. God gives free will and we choose evil sometimes, but God can make something good out of it.
So if there is only one God, who created everything, then everything belongs to God. That is our stewardship implication here. It is all God’s.
In the second lesson the major stewardship implication has to do with turning “to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” Of course one of the major idols we serve can be our money. It is a false god and we put our trust in our money more than anything else. We think it can make us secure. We rely on it. We try to get more of it. We are nice to people who have more of it. We use it to get people to do what we want. And we put a lot of trust in our possessions. The more money we have the more possessions we can get. We gather more junk around us than we can possibly use and we get caught up in storing it and keeping it up and acquiring new and better stuff and we get distracted. But also the more disposable money we have, the more people we can help and the more good we can do in our neighborhood and around the world. We can’t use it as an idol that we worship because then it controls us. Instead if we see it as a tool we can use for good, then we control it and hopefully make a better world from it.
Now we come to the Gospel. This is right after Jesus cleansed the temple and got everyone all worked up and determined to arrest him. The Pharisees and Herodians are trying to catch him in a trap. They ask him if they should pay taxes or not. This is sure to get him! If he says pay taxes, he is telling them to honor Caesar who is oppressing the Israelites and claiming to be god. If he says don’t pay taxes, he is telling them all to commit treason and rebel against Rome which will then attack Israel and destroy it.
Instead, Jesus puts them on the spot. He asks them to show him a coin of the empire. By doing so, they reveal that they are breaking the rule against graven images in the temple. They also show that they are profiteers of this temple system and that it is corrupt and they are part of the problem. This temple system, where they change the graven image money into temple money and sold animals for the sacrifices kept the Pharisees and Herodians in power and all the little people had to pay the fee to have any access to God.
Then Jesus tells them a riddle. He’s going to let them figure it out for themselves. He says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s.” So what does that mean? God made everything, everything is God’s. Give God everything. So what is the emperor’s? He needs his image stamped all over everything—that’s how insecure he is. And the coin had the words in scripted on it saying that Caesar is god. He’s saying to give Caesar meaningless words and images and titles and give him a boost to his ego if that’s what the inferior guy needs. God is above all that. God has already left God’s mark on absolutely everything by giving it life, creativity, power, etc.
So that leaves the question for us about where our loyalty lies. Can we be good Christians and good citizens, at the same time? Can we be loyal to our country and God? It is a question that I’m not going to answer for you—I’d rather imitate Jesus on this one than stick my neck out. But also, God gave you a brain to decide.
It is clear that we should be loyal to God first. God gave us everything—didn’t withhold even his own Son. God made everything and shares with us. We can trust God completely so that’s where our loyalty goes first. That doesn’t mean we can’t also be loyal to our country. But we have to remember that our country is fallible. It is human-made and has flaws and we can’t always rely on it to protect us or look out for our best interests or to be loving and just. There are many times we can rely on it to do that, but at times it will fail to do that. So we have to be ready to ask the hard questions of our country and our citizens and understand our motivations and use our voice and our vote to try to make this country better, more just and fair and compassionate. We can also give to God what is God’s—everything, and still have something to give to our country, our service, our hope, our vote, our protest, our critique. And in the places our God and our country are on the same page we can rejoice.
The same is true of our church. Giving to our church may not necessarily be giving to God. Yet, just as we make up our country, we are the church. We have a say here to be more loving and compassionate and generous and to make decisions about where our financial gifts go. Sometimes I’m surprised that God only asks for 10% back from each of us. In our congregation we give more than 10% of your gifts to help others here and around the world between the benevolence we give to the Oregon Synod and King’s Cupboard, Backpack Buddies, Pastor’s Discretionary Fund and various other people and groups that you support in your giving when you write that on the memo line of your check or on your envelope. We also know that many of you give outside the church to places like Habitat for Humanity, The Sierra Club, The Heiffer Project and on and on, as well as volunteering your time to help others. We can also honor God when we use our money to support local businesses, buy American and/or sustainable products. We get to try to use everything for God’s glory. God has given us everything we have, let us share and use those gifts of God in ways that would please God and help our neighbor and give life to those around us.
My grandma used to give us $20 each year when we started school. That was a lot of money to us and we could really make it stretch. When we went as a family to spend that money on school clothes mom always reminded us to use it in a way that Grandma would have appreciated. Even though she had given it as a gift, we recognized how special a gift that was, and wanted to use it in the way she would have wanted us to. In the same way, God gives us many gifts, everything we have. And we can remember to use it in ways that please God and make our whole lives a “thank-you” note to God for all he has given us.