Monday, October 13, 2014

SERMON: "What's God's?"

What Is God’s?
Matthew 22:15-22

A wealthy member of a congregation stood up at a meeting to share with the others some things about his journey of faith. He began with: “I’m a millionaire and I attribute my wealth to the blessings of God in my life.” He went on to describe an event that he considered a turning point in his relationship with God. It happened on the day he earned his first dollar. There was a meeting at the church that night. The speaker talked about his work as a missionary. The wealthy man shared that near the end of the evening the pastor of his church got up to receive the offering and announced that everything given that night would go to the missionary to fund the work he was doing.

The man continued to explain the dilemma he felt he had.  On the one hand he wanted to support the mission work, but on the other he wasn’t sure he wanted to put the whole first dollar he had just earned in.  He noted that he knew he couldn’t make change from the offering plate when it went by him.  He knew that his choices were either to give all of that dollar he had just earned or nothing.  He shared with those who were at the meeting that he decided that he had to give all that he had to God.  He closed by observing that he believed that God had blessed his decision and that was why he was wealthy.

You could have heard a pin drop when he finished and returned to his pew.  When he sat down, an elderly lady behind him leaned forward and said, “I dare you to do it again.” (1)

I started basing my sermons on the membership vows ("to uphold the ministries of the church with my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness") during the annual Stewardship Campaign in the last two churches I pastored - two churches that were organized for ministry around the Every Member in Ministry model. I found it wonderfully fulfilling as well as challenging. Oh, it didn't entirely remove the awkwardness of mentioning money in a sermon but it helped. Rewriting a sermon on finances to no particular church is even more freeing!!  (Sidebar: I heard a really fine sermon this past Sunday at Maple Grove UMC by Pastor Glenn Schwerdtfeger. Part of it dealt with this uneasiness that usually accompanies the preparation to present and listen about money. Good effort, Glenn!)

Before I offer a word about the text, I'd like to share a basic belief I think is essential for us to buy into if we are ever going to have a proper understanding of stewardship.

The word itself comes from an Old English expression, “sty ward” – ward of the sty – a keeper of the pigs.  There came a time when the word referred “to anyone who had responsibility for the estates or properties of another.” (2)

Later the word became a proper name of a royal British family, the Stuarts.  When we use the word “stewardship” in the life of the church we usually have in mind the money that we give to support the ministries of the church.  And, there’s no question that that is a part of it.  But the biblical concept actually goes beyond our financial gifts to the church.  The concept of stewardship that we glean from the scriptures and which we should remember whenever we are making decisions about what we are going to do with what we have and who we are; the concept that we glean is that every aspect of creation is God’s.  God made everything and then gave us the responsibility of caring for the day-to-day operation of it all.  We were made stewards of all of God’s creation – keepers of all of God’s creation, not just the pig pens - but everything God created and provides for us.  This simply means that we are responsible for how we use the planet, the environment, our talents - personally and corporately - our time, our ability to think and to feel, our very physical bodies.  We are keepers of our bodies, minds, spirits, the earth and all that is on it and around it.

It is out of the gratitude we have for God’s gifts that we care for, use, what God provides us.  Stewardship involves not just the portion of money we give to the church – not just the portion of our time when we do something for or through the church – but rather how we spend all of our time – all of our money – all of the skills and interests and intellect and passion that makes us who we are. (3)

A well-known phrase that is often heard when we are discussing these matters is: “Where a person’s treasure is, there is his (or her) heart also.”  The saying is often followed with the observation that if we really want to know what it is we value, all we really have to do is take a close look at our check book and our calendar.

Martin Luther once noted that we are in need of three conversions: our hearts, our minds and our purses. Billy Graham phrased it this way: “If a person gets his attitude toward money right, it will straighten out almost every other area in his life.” Sir Winston Churchill once noted: “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” John Updike wrote: “In America, it is hard to achieve a sense of enough!” And, Maya Angelou noted: “The New Testament informs the reader that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the believer.”

And so these two strange bedfellows approach Jesus in the temple one day in an attempt to make Jesus look bad. The Herodians and the Pharisees are indeed a strange tag-team. The Pharisees were devout Jews whose primary role was to interpret the Torah. They didn’t have much use for the Romans and especially the Roman government.

Although not much is known about the Herodians most biblical scholars describe them as a secular political party supportive of the government – supportive of the Roman occupation and the taxes necessary to support it. The exchange involves the first of four “controversy stories” – stories seen as attempts on the part of religious authorities to discredit Jesus.  It’s noted that all three of “the synoptic gospels record this intellectual wrestling match between Jesus and the strange tag-team of Pharisees and Herodians.” (4)

What brought them together was their mutual concern about the influence and popularity they sensed Jesus gathering.  They assumed that Jesus had to have some sort of political agenda: “Why else would he be touring the countryside, making speeches, and hugging all those children?” (5)  And so they went to Jesus to try and trap him into making a political misstep.

The Jews (you remember) resented the Roman occupation.  They particularly didn’t like the idea of having to pay taxes to this despised government on their own land.  The tax they were supposed to pay in this case amounted to about the amount a common laborer made working one day.  The tax could only be paid with the denarius which was a coin that had Caesar’s image on one side and his title and divine status on the other.  The very coin itself was offensive to the Jews.  They considered it to be a breaking of one of the Ten Commandments which prohibited graven images.  Because of their attitude about the Roman coin most Jews refused to use them.  After all, they had their own temple currency.

And so these two groups – the Pharisees, represented by their disciples, and the Herodians square off with Jesus.  They start with a compliment, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth.”  They didn’t really believe it, but they wanted the people standing around listening to think they were giving Jesus a fair chance.  “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

They thought they had him.  If he said that the tax should not be paid to the Roman government, he would have been in trouble with the Roman government represented by the Herodians.  He would have been perceived as siding with the revolutionaries trying to overthrow the Roman government.

On the other hand, if he said yes he would have been in trouble with most of his following.  He would have lost face with his constituency.

Knowing the real motivation behind the question, Jesus asked to be shown the coin used for the tax.  Jesus held up the coin and asked them whose head was on it.  It’s helpful to know at this point that the Greek word which we translate as “head” is a word from which we get our English word icon.  Some have suggested that perhaps “a better translation of Jesus’ question would be, ‘Whose image is this on the coin?’”

The word “image” allows this text to reveal to us a deeper fundamental truth of our faith.  If we give the coin to the emperor because it is his image on it, then what is it that we give to God because God’s image is on it?. . .

“In other words, we give to the emperor the coin because his image is on it, and we give to God ourselves because you and I are created in the image of God, both male and female.  Jesus is not only refusing to play the win-lose games of the Pharisees, but he is backing it up with a more profound truth: we owe the one who made us our very lives – not just money, but everything of who we are.” (6)

We are God’s coin.  We are what is God’s!  We give to God what is God’s when we take seriously what we do with all that God has entrusted to us: our possessions, our skills, our resources, our minds, our bodies, our decisions, our motivations, our time, our feet, our mouths, our eyes, our prayers, our hands, and yes, our money.  Stewardship is based on the belief that all that we have is God’s and we are responsible to God for what we do with it – not just the portion of our time and resources that we give to the church.  The first step to being a steward of God’s is to buy into this understanding – to get our minds around what it means for the choices we make.  Once someone does, it changes every decision they make.

Susie Scott was a Playboy centerfold back in the early ‘80s.  After her appearance in the magazine she spent the next ten years modeling, acting, and doing promotional work for the magazine.

She made a good living and enjoyed the life that is often attached to the lifestyle of celebrities.  After a failed marriage, she married an Aspen, Colorado attorney and settled down with him to enjoy the comfortable lifestyle that their wealth offered them.  She was a partner in an antique store and a sushi bar for a time.

Her life changed though the day she watched a documentary on Mongolian orphans.  She just felt that she had to do something.  A friend suggested that she take a look at the situation in Haiti because of how poor it was and how close it was to the United States.  She did and that resulted in her selling her businesses and traveling to Haiti.

When she arrived she told the taxi driver to take her to where “the poor people are.”  He dropped her off in a shantytown and quickly sped away.  A family of 17 took her in for the night.  With their help she learned how really bad it was in Haiti.

Susie later shared with a reporter, “I knew I had been born that day.”  She also said in the article that she completely committed herself to Christ once she began to work in Haiti.  With her husband as a partner, Susie launched the Foundation for Worldwide Mercy and Sharing, an organization dedicated to serving the children of Haiti.  It now operates six schools, five orphanages and a hospital ward for abandoned children. Susie’s group feeds, clothes, educates and nurses close to 2,000 children.

She isn’t a hands-off administrator.  She spends a great deal of time there nursing sick children and helping any way she can.  It’s not been easy.  She contracted lice, scabies, mange, and was treated for encephalitis.  She has also had some run-ins with gangs and bureaucrats.  But, sticking with it has won for her the respect of the people of Haiti and the Haitian government.

Susie’s story is a story about stewardship.  Susie and Joe fund the foundation’s expenses – administration, publicity and travel expenses - with their own money.  They believe in what they are doing – it shows in where they put their time and money – it shows on their calendar and in their checkbook.   Donations, including some which come because of Susie’s unique personal story and the Playboy background - which shows that in God’s economy, nothing is wasted – donations cover the operating budget of the foundation.

“But, it’s also a story about stewardship because Susie was able to see that not only her money, but her position of privilege, her celebrity status, and her life experience itself were treasures on loan from God, and she put them to use in a way that honors Christ.” (7)

There’s no question that not very many of us have the resources at our disposal that she does.  But all of us do have our own unique set of gifts that God has given us.  “The worst error we can make is to think (that those gifts) are only for our personal use.  But it is a correctable situation, and one we can start in motion by acknowledging that everything we have comes from God’s hand.” (8)

In this stewardship season I'd like to simply invite us to prayerfully consider the difference believing that all we are and have are God’s might make in what we do with the resources God has entrusted to us.  What would it mean to our giving effort if we really believed we were accountable to God for all that we have and what we do with it?

What is God’s?  Everything.  I believe that most churches have not scratched the surface of what is possible through the ministries of our churches if we all give out of the gratitude we feel for what God has gifted us.
What were they thinking when they asked Jesus that question in the temple? What were they thinking after he responded? More importantly, what are we thinking about how we should use the resources God has made us stewards of? The worship of money is a deadly spiritual problem. Why is it the more we have the less we seem able to give? Why is it that the more things we own, the greater is the temptation for our things to own us? What indeed are we thinking?

Brett Blair,
Homiletics, “Mint Errors,” September – October 2005, p. 54.
HomileticsOnline, “Paying Dues to God,” October, 1996.
Johnny Dean, “Another Tricky Question,”, 1999.
Paul J. Nechterlien, “A win-win answer to a lose-lose question,” October 20, 2002, Girardian Reflections Web Site,
“Mint Errors,” p. 54 – 55.

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