(A sermon preached on October 16th, 2011 at All Saints' Littleton)
This morning's gospel story (Matthew 22:15:22) features a brilliant attack on Jesus: is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? It is another publicly unanswerable question. If Jesus says "yes", he will enrage the crowds who want to hear movement towards an end to Roman rule. If he says "no", well, you can imagine that the Romans will have a problem with that, and Jesus is certain to be branded a rebel, and likely will be arrested. Jesus, wise to what they are doing, says "show me the coin used for the tax", leading to the great words of returning to the emperor's what is the emperor's, and to God what is God's. A fantastic reading all around.
It is, however, a rather dicey way to begin a stewardship season...
I certainly want to avoid the idea that the giving of Time, Talent, and Treasure to All Saints is like paying taxes to Caesar...
My hunch is that most stewardship sermons (likely, this time of year) will focus on the “giving to God what is God’s”part, and will implicitly or explicitly say that the way you do this is by giving more money to the church.
The finance committee will be pleased to know that I don’t object to people giving more money to the church, but I do think that there is a deeper message here.
I want to begin, however, not with the gospel text, but with Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, and specifically the opening. Paul’s first words to the church there are “Grace to you and peace.”
There is more to this opening than we in the 21st century now hear. Paul is playing on a political slogan that would have been as familiar to his audience as “Yes we can!” or “Drill, baby drill” is to our ears today.
The Romans used the slogan “peace and security” over and over again. It is what the Romans promised those who lived under them: enforced by their power and dominance. Our might, (and your doing what we think is right), will protect you from the dangers of the world.
Paul intentionally contrasts the Roman household slogan of “peace and security” with his Christian counter-slogan: “grace and peace”. He rightly casts the vision of Jesus:
the desire that grace and peace should be longed for and lived out in life, not a “security” that insulates people from fears and the bad things encountered.
Isn’t it true that we too often today seek security more than anything? Money is the obvious one: our first line of defense against problems and insecurities. But there are many things we do to secure ourselves from life’s difficulties. Charles LaFond, Canon for Congregational Life, observes that our tendency as Americans is to self-anesthetize our fears with overwork, materialism, and other drugs of choice with which we dull our pain rather than face it. Grace, in contrast, calls on God’s and each other’s presence to a communal life of prayer, support, and service. With God and the community, grace helps us face life’s fears together, and healing is possible.
This brings us back to the Gospel’s message this morning: to “give to God what is God’s”. In this community, we do this by giving our time, talent, and treasure. The gift we give is actually to God, given through All Saints’, and we give it here because we believe that this community reflects the grace of God. We believe that through liturgy and prayer we reconnect with God and refresh the soul. In our communal questioning and exploration of life, we develop as human beings and Christians. By our fun events, our laughter and our play, we see and experience the joy that is promised. By our listening presence and concern, we care for each other. And by our service to our greater community, from the North Country to the world, we sooth the wounds caused by hurt and neglect, as we work to make God’s vision for the world a reality.
All Saints’ is a place where the message of the Gospel shines brightly: living out the call to return everything to God...loving God with everything that we are, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Our pledge to this community reflects our understanding that everything we are and have comes from God.
Grace to you, and peace.
(Much of this sermon comes from notes provided to NH Diocesan clergy by The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond for stewardship preaching on the lectionary)