Proper 24 (October 16-22)
Texts: Matthew 22:15-22;
Ex. 33; 1 Thess. 1
IMAGED TO IMITATE CHRIST
This is an ideal text for the traditional stewardship sermon, isn’t it? And it is that time of the year when we talk about stewardship in terms of your pledge to church. We know well the old King James version of Jesus’ words: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” At this time of year it is easy to take Jesus’ words to talk about our pledge to church: “Render unto God the things that are God’s.” Yes, this is a ready-made text for the traditional stewardship sermon.
But I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to give the standard stewardship sermon on this text. Partly, that is because I’ve come to feel more and more over the years that our standard approach to stewardship is deficient, in the first place. Stewardship should be about so much more than what we pledge during the fall. And it should, ideally, feel like an experience of God’s grace, rather than like the experience of yet another organization asking us to part with some of our money.
And, in fact, if that is how we end up doing stewardship, then this text is not a good fit, after all. If Emmaus presents itself as simply another good organization, like the United Way, or any other host of institutions deserving of our monetary support, then I think these words from Jesus don’t really hit the mark for that brand of stewardship. For if stewardship is simply a matter of money, then it is simply a matter of rendering unto Caesar. Caesar is the one who makes money. Caesar is the one who gets us into the money game. So, if stewardship is simply a matter of deciding what money to give to which worthy institution, then your giving to church is simply a money matter; it is simply a rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
No, I think that these words from Jesus mean to help us see that proper stewardship — that rendering unto God what is God’s — is so much more than a money matter. Caesar makes money. But God makes…what? Well, God has made everything, right? God has made this whole world, this whole universe, including the materials that Caesar uses to make money. But God isn’t in the money game. God doesn’t necessarily want our money. So what is it that we need to render unto God. What is it that God has made that we want to render back unto God?
Us. God has made us. We are God’s coins, so to speak. This is why I think these words of Jesus’ help us to see that stewardship means so much more than what we pledge to church. And there is a strong clue in the text here, though our New RSV translation is not a good one. Jesus’ response to his questioners begins by having them take out a coin and then asking them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” But the old King James is better: “Whose is this image and superscription?” “Image” is the better word here, because it clues us in to the connection that I think Jesus wants us to make. For there is that very important statement from the creation story: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image.'” Yes, that coin may have bore Caesar’s image, but we ourselves bear God’s image. In other words, Jesus has his questioners get out some money and, in effect, says: “Caesar made this; give it back to Caesar. But God made you; give yourself back to God.” Give yourself to God. I think that’s what stewardship means, at the most basic level.
I need to back up for just a moment. I’ve probably been too hard on traditional stewardship programs. I think that they generally try hard to get across precisely this point we’ve arrived at here: namely, that stewardship is about the giving of our whole lives to God. That’s why we have favorite stewardship hymns like, “Take My Life and Let It Be Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” Perhaps the question should be: Why do we usually experience stewardship programs as basically about giving money to church? [The last several years, for example, the theme of our “Consecration Sunday” approach to stewardship has tried very hard to get the point across. The motto of “Consecration Sunday” is to focus not on the church’s need to receive but on the giver’s need to give. But why does it still come down for us in terms of the church’s need to receive?] Why do we still tend to minimize stewardship to a matter of giving money to church?
Let me suggest a possible answer: I think it’s because, when it comes down to it, giving up a bit of our money seems less of a sacrifice than giving ourselves. The truth is we don’t really want to hear that we need to give up ourselves. We’d rather only part with a few dollars. Let’s face it: Giving ourselves just does not feel very gracious! It feels scary; it feels oppressive. But it doesn’t feel very freeing or gracious, does it?
And this is truly the crux of the matter. Which feels more freeing to us, what the world has to offer or what God has to offer? This is the choice that has existed since the beginning of time. As the story of the first man and woman goes, God essentially gave them free reign of the garden, with only one exception: one little tree in the middle of the garden. That was it! The only limit on their freedom. But, somehow, the serpent, one of God’s creatures, convinced the man and woman that that was unacceptable. This crafty creature convinced them that they could be in rivalry with God and that that would make them truly free. Yes, from the beginning of time, the choice has been the same: do we listen to the creature or to the Creator? Do we follow the desires of the world or God’s desires in order to have real freedom? Do we respond to Caesar or to God? Yes, in holding out that coin to his questioners, Jesus was laying out that most basic of choices: are you going to follow the world or God? Which will truly set you free?
And how do we answer that question? If we are honest with ourselves, I think we would need, first, not to underestimate the craftiness of that voice of temptation which we face everyday, as surely as that first man and woman did. Let me share for a moment how that goes for me, and see if you can recognize a similar ‘voice’ for you. Oh, it will involve different people and different desires, to be sure, but see if you recognize a similarity. For me, the voices I probably hear most in my head are my own brother and sister, even if I’m not conscious of it. Now, I’m not necessarily talking about what my brother and sister have actually said to me, but it is what they represent to me: they are models of my own choosing. In our family we were fortunate enough to go to college and get on the professional track. So that’s my model of comparison. I have gone to college as much or more than either my brother or sister. I work hard like them. So in my head, I play the comparison game. Do I have as nice a home or car? Can I take nice trips or outings? Can I buy lots of nice toys and things for my kids and wife? But there’s one problem. For the most part, pastors don’t make as much money. For college graduates, professional types, pastors are near the bottom of the pay scale. So I when I compare myself to what others do or don’t have, I come up short. And I can tend to resent it. I have to often times fight the resentment.
How often, how much in your life do you find yourself playing a similar game? How often do you battle the same kind of resentments? I use myself as an example, with the risk of sounding resentful of being a pastor, but that’s just my particular case. I’m sure that if I had my brother’s or sister’s job I’d be looking at someone else and envying them. That’s the way of the world and its money games, isn’t it? No matter where we are on the economic strata, there’s always someone above us, and that broods resentment.
Now, we can ask ourselves again: which makes us truly free, the world’s money games, or God’s commission to serve. Because that’s what it is that God asks us to do. Ever since that first man and woman, God has made us in the divine image so that we could imitate God’s desire to care for the creation. God gives each of us talent and resources with which to serve one another and this world. And, when we are serving, then there is no chance to play those games of one-upmanship. We are free from the resentments, the anger and the bitterness. We are not free to do what ever we want, mind you; that’s not true freedom. But we are free to do what God wants. We are free to use our talents and resources to be the stewards of creation that God created us to be. That’s freedom!
Now, admittedly, that also easier said than done. Once again, we have to take seriously the strength of those voices of temptation which lure us in other directions. They are strong. And they still cause so much suffering. But, in the forgiveness of Christ Jesus, we begin to know the healing of resentments and bitterness and anger. And we begin to feel instead the hope and joy of true freedom, in spite of the continued moments of suffering and even persecution. That is what St. Paul is praising the Thessalonians for in our second lesson this morning. They have kept on track of their true freedom in the gospel, even in the face of persecutions. Above all, they have been imitators of the apostles and of the Lord himself. That’s the key, folks! If we are going to compare ourselves to someone, let’s compare ourselves to those who serve God. Let’s be imitators of the saints and of our Lord and not of those who make lots of money. Let us render unto God rather than onto Caesar, for that is where true freedom lay! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, October 19-20, 1996