Sermon October 19, 2014
Exodus 33:12-23 Matthew 22:15-22
Some of you may remember that famous theologian Archie Bunker, from the television series All in the Family, who said, “There are three great things that happen to a man in his lifetime. Buying a house…a car…and a new color TV. That is what America is all about.” I’m guessing your list might look a little different than Archie’s list. We live in an era when some believe that being an American and being a Christian are one and the same. There are others for whom there is no connection whatsoever – they are two completely different realities. The scripture today moves us in the direction of asking what it means to be a citizen who pays taxes to one’s country and what it means to be a child of God who is devoted to God. Jesus, knowing that the Pharisees are trying to trap him again, says that they have to sort through both realities – they are citizens and they are children of God. Knowing that both are true, how will they live? I don’t know how many of us really think those pieces through. We pay our taxes and grumble about them. We write checks to the church. Do we think about what those have to do with us? It can almost be something we do from an emotional distance. I don’t even write checks to the church. I have it set up to auto pay from my bank. I love the convenience of it, but it is easy for me to remove myself from the process of giving.
Both texts call us to examine our relationship with God. In Exodus, Moses is asking to see God, to know God. I love his boldness. He isn’t satisfied with a distant relationship with God and so he brazenly asks for more. It is almost as if he is saying, “I know my survival depends on your presence.” While he is never given a full on face to face with God, God shows up for him and passes by giving him a glimpse that satisfies his hunger. This could be one of those situations where he thought he wanted more from God, but God knew he couldn’t handle more and so God gave him what he could handle. The whole exit from slavery and journey through the wilderness was closely connected to God’s presence. They did survive because God made sure they had food and water. They survived because God brought them out and showed them the way forward. They survived because they knew it wasn’t all up to them.
I have been thinking about the wilderness and the need for God to show us the way forward as a congregation. We have been through some difficult years financially and we are not through the wilderness yet. We have a finance committee that is helping to look strategically at our situation and people are stepping up, but we are facing more difficulty in the near future. Two large issues in front of us are good news/bad news issues. We received a lease offer for the Vassar property after a year of no rental income, but the offer is not good for us financially. The preschool is off to a good start with happy children and wonderful staff, but they are struggling financially and that impacts the church budget.
I can look down the road and see where we are going and it feels a bit like the Promised Land. You may hear this and think I’m being a drama queen, but I’m telling you what I see: people of all ages who are growing spiritually and reaching out to the world in powerful ways, a building where mission happens every day in concrete ways and people walk out of here changed, a place where people find refuge and healing, a community that cares deeply for one another and the larger world, and a people who are open to the new things God calls us to do and be. Yes, we are already in the Promised Land in some ways: people are growing, mission is happening, lives are being changed, and healing is real here. I am grateful every day to be serving this congregation.
In the midst of the struggle, I am grateful for all the ways God is at work here. You may have noticed the sign in the Fellowship Hall that asks, “Where do you see God?” I hope you will add your answer to that question. There is space and markers for you to do so. God is doing wonderful things in this church and God is calling us into the future. It is important for us to name the ways we see God at work in the world, in the church, and in our lives. It makes us bold to realize that we are not alone.
At the same time, we are struggling through this financial wilderness. We have found manna and will continue to do so. We can be sure that God is with us in this time. Today we begin the Stewardship Campaign. Nothing makes church people grumble like talking about money and yet, Jesus talked about it more than any other topic. He knew that it was something we need to attend to. He knew how much we struggle with this issue. Many of us live in our own personal financial wilderness. There never seems to be enough money. The credit card debt grows each month. We can’t imagine how we will pay for the next home repair, our children’s education, another health scare, etc. Money has a great hold in our lives and we wish it didn’t. We want to come to church and find comfort. Talking about money makes us far from comfortable, but we need to address it. Jesus didn’t respond to the Pharisee’s question by patting them on the head and saying, “Here are the answers. Do it this way and you will feel better.” Instead, like any good teacher, he turned the question back to them and said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
That’s where we get hung up sometimes. We know what Caesar gets. Our taxes are determined for us so that is a no brainer. We know we have bills to pay. Then we hope we have something left for God. It is not common to think that things belong to God. We think that things belong to us. You often hear a young child grab something and yell, “Mine!” While as adults, we may be a bit more subtle; we carry that mentality with us without even realizing it. When pledge time comes around, we ask, “how much of my money will I give to God?” instead of asking, “how much of God’s money will I keep for myself?” It’s a bit like a grownup version of “Mine!”
How ironic that this week, the post office and banks closed for Columbus Day. There are cities and states that celebrate Native American or Indigenous Peoples Day. I have always wished that the Native American idea that one cannot own land could have more influence in our culture. Instead we put up fences and gates and stake our claim whenever we can. I hear Jesus saying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
I’m not pretending to have the logistics of this figured out, but I do think we get awfully possessive and fail to see that everything, everything is a gift to be shared. It is true for us as individuals and it is true for us as a congregation. When pledge time come around, there are always questions about tithing and is that gross or net income? I will tell you that I don’t think God cares. I do think God cares that we give generously. I do think that God wants us to use resources to make the world a better place for everyone else around us. I think God wants us to live knowing that we bear God’s image and it is that image that should determine how we spend our time and money. We belong to God. Let us give to God the things that belong to God.