“Give therefore to the emperor, the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s. Matthew 22:21
So, I had decided early on that I would not be giving one of the standard “stewardship” sermons that Episcopal priests tend to schedule for this time of year. But then I take a look at the lectionary for today and what do I find?….the “render unto Caesar” Gospel reading. So, what is a good priest to do?
Now, it is true that this lesson from Jesus arose out of a moment when the enemies of our Lord were trying to manipulate him into saying something that could be used in their efforts to permanently silence him. The Herodians were a political group loyal to Rome and who often took sides with the Sadducees in opposition to the Pharisees. They asked the question about the religious legality of taxes in hopes that Jesus would say something against the emperor, which would have been punishable under the law. Caesar was looked upon as a god and criticizing him openly would have been blasphemy or at least sedition.
Jesus’ thoughtful response to the question was a surprise. He did not question the necessity of financially supporting the government while placing the responsibility on the individual to decide how to prioritize one’s assets according to what was rightfully due to God and what should be given to the emperor.
Now of course when we take on this story in Church the comment will always be made that everything belongs to God. and while it is true that all that we have and all that we are were gifted to us by our Creator, I have found that those who usually make this argument don’t really want to give much or even any support to either the government or to those doing good works in the name of God. Folks can get a little uncomfortable….let’s rephrase that…folks get a lot uncomfortable when the conversation turns to wealth and how one should manage it in the public sphere.
To be perfectly honest I have my own difficulties with financial discussions… not because I mind if people know how much my salary is or even know how my funds are used. Mine is a visceral, emotional reaction that has little to do with the specifics of my bank account or anyone else’s for that matter. As I have often mentioned, I grew up in rural Kentucky. What I do not often mention is that we were to quote my mother “poor as Job’s turkey.”
My father was a farmer and a carpenter with 7 children, one who was drastically ill and by the time the last of us was born my mother was no longer working outside of the home. We had no health insurance and my father’s building work was always at the mercy of the weather and the economy. While we were never hungry, because we grew most of what we ate, and we were always clean and properly dressed because my mother was a wonderful seamstress and we had a good second-hand store in town, there was very little money for extras and my father lived with the ever-present worry that financial uncertainty brings.
From a very early age I knew that money was the great divider….the divide between the haves and the have-nots was very evident…in how we looked and in how we acted. Any school activity had to be evaluated on the basis of how much it cost. The rich kids had their own language…their own cars…and a mysterious series of social events of which the poor rural kids had no experience. The same was true for us. The city kids had no experience of outhouses in winter or getting up at dawn to set out tobacco plants or dig potatoes. They didn’t know about “making do” with what you had because there would be no more.
When my mother became very ill and had to have surgery my father had to take out a personal loan and paid off her medical care in installments. The American Heart Association paid the massive medical bills for my brother’s heart surgeries. I saw the anxious tension in my father’s face when one of his children had the sniffles or took a fall because he was worried about not being able to pay for medical care.
While my parents tried to always make sure we had what we needed we learned early on not to “want” for unnecessary things because everything came at a great cost of hours working or with worry attached. Money …or the lack of …was a constant source of anxiety. For me it came to represent obstruction and separation….it was the dark cloud that hovered over every decision. I spent a lot of time wondering what life would be like in a society without currency where everyone just shared what they had so everyone had enough and no one had too little….and no one needed to worry about what they did not have.
As an adult with several academic degrees, all of which were paid for by scholarship, grant or my own hard work…those childhood days faded into the distance of memory. I discovered that the more letters I had after my name the less people questioned my background but instead assumed that I came from the same social strata as they did. For many years I felt a bit like an imposter pretending to be something I wasn’t. No one knew my love of the ballet and opera came from watching public television with my mother…or that my knowledge of other countries and cultures came not from travel but from books. Even being an Episcopalian was uncomfortable for several years as I adjusted to being a part of the Church of rich, white people…a church that didn’t even have a congregation in the rural area where I was raised. As I found a home doing ministry with those who were most vulnerable and in need I found that I did belong …in this church and in my own life.
I don’t tell this story of my life to elicit sympathy but rather so you will know a bit about why I do the ministry I do and why I approach it the way I do. I know it may seem from some of my sermons that I have a problem with affluence and perhaps at some level I still do but the truth is I realize every day what a blessing it is to have resources available to do good work in this world. God does not measure our worth by what we have or do not have but counts us all as infinitely precious. The way we choose to use the financial gifts that we have gives us an opportunity to show that we too love and value those that society deems the least of Gods children.
While it is absolutely vital that we share our resources in outreach ministries to those in need we must not forget to tend to the needs of this worshipping community…its physical plant and the liturgy we do here. While to some this beautiful building with its glorious windows…our fine hangings and metalware…the countless candles that burn to light our services, our prayers and our spirits….to some this may seem like an unnecessary expense when there is so much need in the world for more practical things. But we must not forget that we are more than physical creatures…we are also spiritual ones. Yes, the body must be fed, but so too must the soul. The food of the soul is beauty….it is art and music…ritual and relationship. Together we create a space where our souls can commune with the Divine and with one another. Here in this holy place we can find the deep well of strength that rises from a community at prayer….here we find the transcendent experience of worship that has movements and words that reach back 2000 years into our Christian history. Here we have gathering places so we can study the scriptures and discuss the deep issues of faith and theology. Here we a library filled with the knowledge and inspiration of countless people of faith and thought. Here we have a parish hall where anyone no matter who they are or where they come from can come for a hot meal or shelter from the winter cold. Here we gather to grieve for our dead and to send them on to God with all of the beautiful words and flowers and music we can harness into a service. Here our dear ones rest in the garden among the green things, which remind us of their new lives in heaven.
Grace Church is a place filled with life… and hope…with faith and love….with creativity and inspiration. Here we create expressions of Christ’ love and from here we send them forth into the wider world. We give our time and our energy…our work and yes, our money to caring for this place and for the ministries it generates. God has blessed us with this wonderful place and generations of our brothers and sisters who came before us have cared for it and kept it alive so that we might reap the spiritual rewards. The honor has now been passed to us in this generation to make sure that those who come after us know that the people of God live and work and change the world from this place.
So, as you make your own decisions about what rightfully belongs to the Emperor and what is due to God think about what you want your resources to accomplish in this world and if you find something of value here in which you would like to invest, by all means be generous. We give thanks to God for all of those who have faithfully supported the work of this Church and her ministries down through her long and fruitful history. Thank you for giving of your means and for giving of yourselves to the building up of the kingdom. We have much good to do in this world and I believe that Grace Church will be an expression of Christ’s love in this place for many years to come.