A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 22, 2017 (Proper 24A)
Occasionally the weekly cycle of lectionary readings rains down upon the preacher a gift from above; like manna from heaven. Sometimes the synthesis between what’s happening in the world and the texts we’re dealt to preach on is so great, it feels like nothing short of divine intervention. Like, say, in the aftermath of a divisive election when the demonization of the other side reaches great heights and we come to church and hear Jesus’ call to “love our enemies.” Or like when we’re wrestling with a particularly thorny issue of inequality and we get that passage from Galatians that there is “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Or like this morning on Stewardship Sunday when Jesus talks about…money. Thank you, Jesus!
But before we get into that — and, yes, I’ve asked the ushers to bolt the doors — let’s take a look at this passage. It’s one of my favorites because Jesus just nails it. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night with the perfect retort to a sticky situation, but six hours too late, you have to admire what Jesus says here. The Pharisees, who have been desperately trying to entrap Jesus, are convinced they finally have him this time.
After sugarcoating their intentions with false flattery, they ask him point blank, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus answers “yes” he’s breaking Jewish law since the coin contains the idolatrous image of Caesar with an inscription about the emperor’s divinity. If he answers “no” he is libel to be turned in as a traitor to the state. They have caught Jesus in a verbal check mate – whichever way he answers he’ll either be discredited among his followers or brought up on charges of treason.
The problem is, they’re messing with the wrong guy. Jesus once again demonstrates that he’s playing an entirely different game. Thus his response: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Well, that’s the well-known King James Version. We get “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And it’s perfect. It flips the entire equation upside down and offers a fresh perspective on the relationship between God and humanity. After Jesus spoke, we hear that the Pharisees “were amazed and they left him and went away.” Foiled again.
But it also flips our entire relationship with money. It creates distance between our money and our identity. If we are to live faithful lives, money should not and cannot define us. Money in itself is not a bad thing, of course; it can be a wonderful thing. Last week Father Noah talked about the idols that can isolate us from God. And money is one of the big ones. When it’s used to build up, it can be a great gift. When it’s used to deny and destroy, it can be a great evil.
On Stewardship Sunday we encourage one another to give money to St. John’s. To render to God what is God’s. When we pledge to support the mission and ministry of this place, our identities become wrapped up in Jesus. We become “imitators of the Lord,” as Paul puts it in his letter to the early Christians in Thessalonika. We are proclaiming that love is what matters most in this world; we are trusting that God’s love for us will see us through any hardship; we are offering our own love to a sinful and broken world.
This time of year I often ask people the question, “Why do you give to St. John’s?” I ask because I’m genuinely curious and am often inspired by the answers. Yet while I talk a lot about the importance of pledging and why the church needs your money and how it’s spent, I’m not sure that I’ve ever answered this question directly myself.
So, why do I give to St. John’s? You may not even know that your clergy pledge to the church. I mean, it’s not like the ushers pass the collection plates our way in the middle of the service. We’re not reaching deep into our robes looking for our wallets (“I know it’s in here somewhere”). And at one level, it’s kind of odd, right? We get paid to be here, why would we give any of it back? That just seems rather…circular.
But I give for several reasons. I give because this is what Christians do to support the community in which they live out their faith. From the earliest days of the church, when being a Christian was illegal and punishable by death, they gave a portion of their income to support those in need. And I love feeling connected to the generations of Christians who have come before me. Faithful Christians who have generously given of themselves to build up the body of Christ. Of course the early church existed in an era before deferred maintenance and staff salaries and ever-rising insurance premiums. But they gave in proportion to their means to make sure people both within their community and beyond were taken care of. So giving to St. John’s reminds me that I am connected to something greater than what I can see with my own eyes. And I find deep meaning in that.
I give because I believe in the mission of St. John’s. I see first-hand the incredible ministry that takes place here and I feel compelled to support it financially. I see Sunday School rooms bursting with joy; I hear music that inspires and delights; I see sacred space that serves as holy ground in a world that desperately craves it; I watch people growing in their spiritual lives through liturgy and prayer and educational offerings; I see teenagers building houses in Appalachia and forging relationships with their peers in South Africa; I watch people opening their hearts to people in need here in America and throughout the world; I hear incredible preaching (just kidding).
I give because I love the people of St. John’s. This community brings me great joy because of all of you. I see the commitment you have to this place and it inspires me to pitch in and do my part. The ways in which you volunteer at events like the Holiday Boutique and our crazy haunted house; and in classrooms and around the altar and in building budgets and in planting bulbs and in bringing finger foods for coffee hour. I see you sharing Christ’s message and values and love with one another and the broader community in ways both seen and unseen. And I want to be a part of that. I want to continue to dream with you about where God is calling us as a community of faith; about where the Spirit may lead us in the years ahead; and this both inspires and excites me.
But mostly I give because it connects me to Jesus. It allows me to render to God what is God’s. And what is God’s is your very life. When you give generously you are giving a piece of yourself back to God. You are rendering to God your identity as a child of God. You are turning your life over to the one who loves you with reckless abandon, the one who is with you through all of life’s ups and downs, the one who never forsakes or abandons you whatever you have done or failed to do, the one whose loving kindness never ends.
I know giving money away can be hard. I’m paying college tuition. I worry about the future. There’s stuff I want. It can be a leap of faith when we so crave certainty and control. But there is such freedom in letting go of the death grip we use to cling to the idols of our lives and putting our trust in God. Freedom that truly is priceless.
This stewardship season, I invite you to join me in rendering your money unto God with joy and generosity. It feels good. It does good. And it is good.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck