Sunday, October 22, 2017

Pentecost 20, 2017: Stewardship, St.Thomas, Burnsville

I have had the privilege of serving St. Thomas, Burnsville, NC as a consultant for the last year as part of The Partnership for Renewal. This is my stewardship sermon for this amazing congregation!

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Lectionary: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

A popular discussion online and in the news nowadays is the line between religion and politics. Should religion be involved in politics and vice versa…? It’s an issue with a long history and varied outcomes.

In the gospel reading today, some Pharisees, that is, members of a sect who practiced strict adherence to traditional and written law, kind of the religious alt-right of their time, joined up with some unlikely allies, Herodians, who were presumably members of a political party supporting the Roman occupiers. Their purpose in this unholy alliance, which continued through Jesus’ capture and trial, was to entrap and discredit Jesus; in this instance, using the issue of paying the Roman poll tax.

Here are some complications that are helpful to know.

1) The Roman poll tax was an annual head tax. Basically, this was Caesar taking money on a per-person basis and in return, he didn’t hurt or kill them. It was rather like a mob payoff.

2) It was required that the tax be paid with the denarius a Roman coin with a value akin to a day’s pay, about $100 today – not an exorbitant amount for each person, but cumulatively it generated a healthy haul for Caesar.

3) Jews held the coin to be a graven image, and therefore, idolatrous. They also held the inscription on the coin to be blasphemous. Since it was also the currency of the land, many Jews used the denarius anyway. A few, like the alt-right Pharisees, refused to use them at all, which put them in a bind: break the law of God and use an idolatrous, blasphemous coin or break the law of the land and get punished by the Roman occupiers.

This is the conundrum they brought to Jesus. Would he advise them to break God’s law or Caesar’s? Either way, he would be toast.

But this is Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the Messiah. He knows what they’re up to and he tells them so.

Bring a coin, he says. Whose face is on it? The emperor’s, they reply. Then Jesus gives his answer and it’s theological and political genius: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Give Caesar the coin, he says. He thinks it’s his. That’s the political genius: Know the truth of your moment in history.

Here’s the theological genius: Jesus is the 2nd person of the Trinity. As we proclaim in our Creed, he is the one through whom all things are made. ALL THINGS. What things, then, are not God’s? All things, all people, all time, all activities, all of creation, all resources – everything belongs to God. Genius!

Recognizing this and living accordingly, that is, faithfully, is the very definition of stewardship. If all people belong to God, then who can we allow to be hungry, or homeless, or un-shoed in winter?

Whose physical and mental health needs can be overlooked or underfunded? If all people are God’s, who is our enemy?

We can only exclude today those whom Jesus excluded as he died on the cross – oh right, he died once for ALL as St. Paul said (Ro 6.10), so we can exclude no one.

If all time belongs to God, then isn’t it important for us to establish a harmony of rhythms of our time at work, with family, and with God in prayer?

Do our activities speak love? Are they serving the welfare of God’s people, including ourselves, and thereby bringing God glory? Do we hold the precious gifts of our earth in trust for future generations?

What about our finances? Ah, that’s the sticky one, as we saw in our gospel today. Do we hold our wealth as a gift given to us for the accomplishment of God’s purposes or do we, like Caesar, think it belongs to us for our own purposes? Jesus made the answer pretty clear, I think.

The world is a difficult place and life is so hard for so many. We don’t have to look far to find someone who is hungry, unwell physically or mentally, lonely, unemployed, or trapped in fear or anger.

We have Good News to share and the privilege and responsibility to share it – by our words and our actions. The world is desperate for the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Just listen to the news (only a little – it’ll make you crazy!)

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said, Episcopalians need to get busy “committing to making a practical, tangible difference…helping the world look more like God’s dream and less like our nightmare… It’s sacred work” he said.

To do that, he recommends we make these five things a priority:

1) Formation: ++Michael asks, how do we form disciples? That is our work.

2) Evangelism: that “E –word” Episcopalians cherish. ++Michael suggests that we practice a kind of evangelism “that is as much listening as sharing…an invitation, a welcome” to the church where persons can discover and develop a relationship with God and one another.

3) Witnessing: but don’t take your Bibles and go hit anybody on the head with them. We don’t do it that way. ++Michael says we need to “get out in the public sphere [and] be a voice for those who have no voice.” That’s our witness.

4) Relationship: ++Michael points to ecumenical relationships – all faiths participating in ways that bring about God’s dream; he also talks about relationships within the worldwide Anglican Communion. I would add that we need to consider our relationships within our particular church and within our diocese. Those are also vital to this.

5) ++Michael says (you’re gonna love this) we need to create structures that serve our mission. He’s talking here about institutional structures that help the church be “vessels of the Jesus movement.” (Source: The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry on Vimeo)

The reason I said you’d love that one: isn’t that exactly what you’ve done here with the Abbey? It’s important, faithful work you do here – sacred work.

The resurrection you have known within your community is already leaking out into the world through the Abbey at St. Thomas, and thank God for that! I look forward to the leak becoming a river of living waters.

The Church has traditionally supported its sacred work through an annual stewardship campaign calling on people to ‘give sacrificially’ like Jesus did for us. Over time, this has come to feel more like a Roman poll tax than a joyful offering, so let’s faithfully re-frame it.

Jesus said, “Give… to God the things that are God’s.” It’s pretty simple: we are God’s. Our bodies, our relationships, our activities, our finances, our resources, our church, our prayer – all God’s!

So don’t give sacrificially – Jesus already did that – once for all! Give until it feels really good! Give joyfully, generously, faithfully, knowing that each of you was chosen by God to be here in this time and this place, to activate resources entrusted to you to make the world here more like the dream of God.

Annual campaigns remain important. Each church needs the financial resources to fulfill its divine purpose. As you bring your annual campaign to its conclusion, Nov 1, All Saints Day, hear what St. Paul says to the Corinthians about stewardship: “it is appropriate for you who began last year… [to] finish… For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable… I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need...” (2Cor 8. 9, 11, 13-14)

We are called to participate in making a tangible difference in our world. We who have enough to eat are called to share food with those who are hungry. We who are accepted according to societal preferences of skin color, gender, sexual orientation and identity, educational or economic standing are called to build bridges of friendship and inclusion with those who are marginalized – modeling Jesus who visited with Gentiles, dined with tax collectors and women, healed the sick, the unclean, the insane, and all those judged to be unworthy.

Those who have financial means are called to take up their responsibility and support the church’s mission and ministries so that St Thomas can fulfill its divine purpose: being a living, activating vessel of the Jesus movement.

You are already witnessing how very important your sacred work is here. As St. Paul said, “the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you…” You are living proof that there is no nightmare that the dream of God isn’t already overcoming and the people in your area are seeing the truth of that embodied in this parish.

There is much you are being entrusted to do and Good News you are called to share. Give to St. Thomas generously as God has given to you. Give until it feels really good! For all things, all people, all time, all activities, all of creation, all resources – everything belongs to God.


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