Stewardship as loving and just living

By The Rev John Elledge

[October 19, 08, Matthew 22:15-22; St. John’s Church, Havre de Grace, MD]

This may seem like two different sermons, but there are two different aspects of the readings I need to deal with today. Today’s Gospel has one of those well-known phrases that has become a by-word, even to people who have never read the bible nor darkened the door of a church in their lives.

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” is the way most people say it. I’d say that the vast majority of stewardship sermons contain this phrase. The preacher will usually say that ten percent of your income belongs to God.

Does that sound familiar? It should. After all, the Episcopal Church officially says that the biblical standard for giving is the tithe — ten percent. Let’s deal with that before we go into what Jesus was dealing with in today’s lesson. Okay?

What is the tithe? In the first book of the bible, Genesis, we find Abram had defeated an overlord king who, in turn, had won a battle between his allies and him versus a group of rebel opposing kings. He recovered his brother, Lot, who had been carried off as a captive and then took all the booty that the overlords’ alliance had plundered from various defeated cities. Melchizedek, the king of Salem and a priest of God Most High, brought Abram some bread and wine. Melchizedek blessed Abram with this blessing: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who has defeated your enemies for you.” Then Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the goods he had recovered. From that, the tithe eventually became a biblical law.

A tenth of the produce from each harvest, both early and late, was given to the Lord. The purpose of the tithe, according to Deuteronomy, chapter 26, is to learn to put the Lord first in your life. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the tithe was LAW. It was a tax and men were designated to go and collect the tithes from the people.

As Christians, we are living under grace, not law. We see the tithe as a standard, not law. One aspect of a standard is that everyone can aim for it. However, there are those who, because of their circumstances, cannot give ten percent. Then, there are those who can. When they begin, they usually say that they are not sure how they are going to be able to do it, but they are willing to give it a try. And, of course, there are those for whom ten percent is easy to meet without raising any touch of perspiration. They could afford to give 20, 30 percent and maybe more.

That’s the sermon on tithing, stripped down to its essentials. I’d be happy to talk with you about it, if you are interested. However, “the rendering unto Caesar” and “rendering unto God” aspects in today’s Gospel are not primarily a stewardship teaching.

What Jesus was talking about is whether or not the secular authorities have any claim on our income and savings. We all know that secular authorities have had a hand in bringing our economy to its knees. Both political parties have taken their turn at the helm as this hidden, highly unpleasant surprise grew out of our sight like a tumor. Suddenly, “economic crisis” was on everyone’s lips.

Jesus told the ones who would trap him that despite one’s feelings about the ones who took the taxes away from them, we are supposed to pay them to civil authorities while maintaining our responsibilities to God.

Fair enough? Just how that shakes out is a matter of discussion. For example, there are several Christian denominations which refuse to serve in the military – Mennonites, Amish, Quakers for starters. Is no’t military service an obligation which we must fulfill? But, they say, “Thou shalt not kill.” The military forces, they reason, are all about killing when it comes down to the bottom line. Some people have contested the IRS’s authority to tax citizens. They lost. So, rendering to Caesar, or in our case, unto Washington, is not as cut and dried as it would seem, though I have little doubt about where I stand, having defended the U.S. for 40 years military service.

But, the more important question is: “What is God’s and, therefore, what are we to render to God?” We read the summary of the law and the prophets on a regular basis: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment than these.” [Mark 12:29-31.]

You know that by heart, I’’ll bet. Jesus said that this was the core of following him, “becoming a dedicated disciple, doing the work of Christ,” as our parish vision statement says.

Agapé! That is the work of Christ. In the Bible, this Greek word represents divine, unconditional, self-sacrificing, active, volitional, and thoughtful love. Hesed is the same in the Old Testament. Love, divine love, is the heart of God’s mission in the world.

A corollary can be found in the 3rd Chapter of the Book of the Prophet Micah: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” [Micah 6:8]

There you have it. Love and justice — these are the things we render unto God. The Christian faith took a strange path away from what Jesus was teaching his fellow countrymen and to the foreigners who came to him.

Way back in 313 A.D., the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, also known as the Edict of Toleration. This edict restored confiscated properties to Christian congregations and allowed Christianity to be professed in the Roman Empire. Soon afterward, Christianity became the official religion. Becoming a Christian was the right thing to do, politically speaking. After all, everyone except the Christians and the Jews was used to making the required sacrifice to Caesar as their God, whether they really believed it in their hearts or not. So, people took instruction and were baptized without being spiritually regenerated – without being truly converted. They took it with a grain of salt.

When those who had endured the persecutions and still deeply believed in Christ saw their Church become so very watered down, some of them withdrew to the desert to become solitary monks and nuns, living lives of austerity and devotion. That was not so satisfying, so after a while, they came together as groups, religious communities of believing men and believing women – no coed monasteries allowed. The result was lay professional Christians. The clergy, under the direction of bishops, had to exercise a stronger leadership authority. Soon, hierarchy became more and more a feature of the Church. The Church increasingly became an institutionalized establishment, instead of the counter-culture movement it had been. It began to lay down more and more rules, just like the Jews had done with their 613 laws. Eventually, we got things like the notion that it was a sin to eat meat on Fridays or in Lent, except on a Sunday. To me, that strikes me as somehow analogous to the Jews prohibiting having dairy products and meat together, even in the same kitchen.

Today, the Reformation lives on, despite some who would like to clamp down on it. Thinking Christians around the world are exploring what the core of Christianity is all about – not what the peripheral does and don’ts we have received from the Church, but not from Christ. So, “rendering unto God,” distilled to its essence, is about love and justice, both rightly understood.

Love and justice. Render these to God consistently and whole-heartedly, and don’t worry about the minutiae. Got it? Render unto Caesar – or, again in our case, render unto Washington – the things that are Washington’s, but render unto God the things that are God’s.

God has a mission in the world – a mission centered on love and justice. And God has a Church. The mission is not the Church’s, at least not directly. The mission is God’s – to restore all things to him. We are his missionaries. Each one of us God calls.

I’ll say it the other way. God calls each one of us. God calls us to restore us, yes. To restore us, God offers free forgiveness of sins. But it does no’t end there. We are restored to be God’s agents in the world. The word we use for God’s agents is – you guessed it – missionaries. God calls St. John’s Church deeper, much deeper. God calls us to be companions, to be whole and holy, made so by the power of the Holy Spirit.

God calls us to apostleship. Yes, don’t blink – apostleship. An apostle is simply one who is sent. Each week, we are sent forth into the mission field, into the world, to love and serve the Lord. Our mission is not to go to farthest Africa or to Communist China. We are his missionaries into our families. We do his work with those we love, serving them, say, by cooking, doing laundry, making a living in the world to support them. We are missionaries in the world – our work, our schools, our social groups, our political alliances, everywhere and in every activity we have. We serve God as we serve neighbor, as we promote love and justice in our environment, even, perhaps especially in our community of faith the Church. We serve God and neighbor as we take care of our selves, our souls and bodies, to make us more healthy, cheerful, and loving members of God’s army in the world.

As you may or may not know, I just returned from upper state New York where I participated in continuing education led by Wayne Schwab, the former Evangelism Office for the National Church. During that training, we filled out worksheets which led us to reflect on what we doing right now to make the world a better place. There were six arenas of life to reflect upon: home, work, local community, wider world, leisure and recreation, and the church. It took some real work, but I found things in each area to list.

Then we dug into each area in more detail, reflecting on where God is calling in each area – what more could I do? We were bidden to consider each arena as a mission field. Through a series of worksheets, we came up with a comprehensive survey of all sorts of activities – or at least I did. Maybe I was playing Mister Over-Achiever. There was too much to tackle all at once, so we began to simplify it. By the end of the training, we were to choose two mission fields – or areas of life and activity – to concentrate upon as we went forth, knowing that there would be changes in approach as we became involved with each.

My personal reaction to this soup-to-nuts workshop is to give me new vision for life and ministry. Perhaps it would be better to say that I gained new focus for living, for the discoveries were not exactly new, simply much better defined and thought through. I think that everyone could use the approach and tools which Mission Ministry affords, even non-Christians. What are you going to do for God? For those you care about? How? There are so many possibilities. We shall explore them in the Lenten Study.

“Render unto Caesar” is pretty straightforward, I’d say, in comparison to the myriad of venues to serving God. As you go out those doors today, look up, see the reminder posted there over the doorway – “You are now entering the mission field.” That’s you, fellow missionary. Be blessed! Be a blessing – everywhere you go, 24/7.

Amen.

[The Rev John Elledge, 10/19/08, Matthew 22:15-22; St. John’s Church, Havre de Grace, MD]