Saturday, October 21, 2017

Year A, Proper 24, Matthew 22.15-25, “To God the things that are God’s”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jake was the husband of the matriarch of my congregation in Thompson Falls.
Though Elsie never missed something at church, Jake never darkened the door of the Church.
He did, however, like pastors.  He would take us fishing.  He would enjoy having us out to the place along the Clark Fork River for dinner.
In short, Jake was a good guy, just not a church goer.
But Jake taught me  something about generosity that I’ll never forget. 
“Pastor,” Jake said, “Pastor, there’s one thing I’ll never understand about people.  They’re constantly complaining about having to pay taxes.  I just don’t understand it.”
“You know, one year I had to pay $25,000 in taxes.  Imagine that, just me and my Cat building roads in the forest, and I had to pay $25,000 in taxes.”
“There were other years that I didn’t have to pay any taxes at all.”
“Pastor, the years I had to pay a lot in taxes were a whole lot better years than when I didn’t.  People should be grateful to pay taxes, because it means they had a good year.  They shouldn’t complain.”
That’s what Jake’s comments were all about.
Whether it’s paying taxes, or making our offerings, we should do so with a grateful heart.
What a blessing it is to have received enough to be taxed, or to be able to make an offering.
One more word about taxes.
One theologian remarked once that if we consider all that is God’s, there is little left for the Emporer.

How much should we give as an offering to God?
That’s the question for today.
And why should we give?
That’s another good question.

Giving has an interesting history, and the Church has done a variety of things throughout the ages to meet its financial obligations.
In the Old Testament times, God’s people were expected to bring their tithes, the first fruits of the harvest and offer them in gratitude to God.  It was straight forward.  10% up front.
Since then, many Christians have adopted this as a mandate for their own giving.
My mother and father-in-law told their story from when they were first married.  They were going to Church one Sunday morning, and between them they had only $1.  Could they give anything?
They prayed about it, and came to the conclusion that they’d give a dime.  10%.  And that they did throughout the rest of their lives. 
Many Christians have found this to be a rich discipline, and have reported many blessings from doing so.
One of the best pieces of advice  I’ve ever heard, and one that unfortunately I’ve not been able to adopt, was to give 10%, save 10%, and live off the rest.  If I had my life to live over, I’d like to do that.
At any rate, many Christians have answered those two questions of how much we should give and why, by saying that we are to give 10% of all we have received, and do so both out of gratitude and obedience.
One of the problems with these answers is that they can become a legalistic burden.  Sometimes, 10% is too much, and at other times 10% is far too little.
Pastor Herb Knutson, whom I knew in Montana, was deeply concerned about viewing our giving from such a legalistic point of view. 
His father experienced all sorts of guilt because he didn’t feel he was able to give as much as he was required to give.
Herb studied the scripture in depth, and realized that the Old Testament tithe, actually funded BOTH the Church and the State. 
It was a flat rate that covered everything, both giving and taxation.  Actually, when you think about it, submitting to a flat tax of 10% that supported the entire government and the Church would be quite desirable to many in our age.  Wouldn’t it.
But before we go there, there is another part of the Biblical witness to bear in mind.
In the New Testament, specifically in Acts, the early Christians were expect to give, not 10%, but 100% to the Lord. 
In Acts 2.44 & 45 it is written:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common;  they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
And again in Chapter 4 it is written:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.
This was a radical concept.
It was radical in its day, and especially radical for us today as our entire culture is built around private ownership of things, from the land we live on to the money we have in the bank.
Many will say, “Well, that’s communism, and it’s been proven it just doesn’t work.  It didn’t work for the early Christians, and it won’t work now.”
Maybe so, but there is a truth that this points to, and that is this.
Our whole lives are lived as Stewards, caretakers of all that God has given to  us.
What we do with our lives, and with all that we have, determines whether we are good stewards or bad.
Yes, it is our responsibility to provide for ourselves and our families, food and clothing, home and shelter, transportation, health care, and all that is part of living today.
But support for the mission of the Church is also part of that responsibility that we as Christians have.
And, to put it bluntly, if one owns a $500,000 dollar home, two $50,000 cars, an RV or two, and countless other things, yet only gives as much to the Church as they might as a tip to a waiter following a fine meal out—well, that says something.
This brings up another point, about why we give and how much we should give.
Our giving is a witness to what we believe in, and who or what is truly our God.
Giving is an act of worship, with it we are acknowledging that the Lord is our God, and the Lord alone.
There’s a good news, bad news, joke about this.
The good news is that Jesus has returned to the earth.
The bad news is that he’s mad and has brought his accountants.
The point being, that there is probably no truer indicator of what we value in life, than our checkbooks.  And if our giving is merely an afterthought, well, that says something about us and what we believe.
Having said all that, I go back to Jake and Herb.
Jake’s observation is that we should be delighted to be able to pay taxes, and give generously, because it indicates that we have been blessed with a very good year.  Wise Words.
But Herb’s point is also well taken, it is wrong to approach giving legalistically.  The truth is that there are times in our lives when we will be able to give a lot, and at other times, only a little.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:
“Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
That last line, is another point about why we give.
“That you may share abundantly in every good work.”
When we give, we participate in the mission of the Church.  It’s an act of Christian service.
And our gifts make ministry possible.
The Church wasn’t always dependent on free will offerings.
During the Middle Ages the Church owned massive amounts of land and profited off of it, supporting itself.
In Europe, even to this day, taxation supports the Church.
And I remember reading about the first Pastor of one of the congregations my Dad served.
His compensation was $200 annually, plus two offerings of his choice, and, we might add, all of his living expenses were basically covered.  If a farmer butchered an animal, part of it went to the pastor.  Pastors were given free medical care by doctors.  This even continued into my Dad’s ministry.  He paid a total of $35 to have six children, and that only because the obstetrician for one of the kids was Jewish, not Christian.
Today, though, our ministry is dependent on our charitable giving.  Buildings need to be heated.  Pastors need to be paid a salary.  And the wider mission of the Church is dependent on our giving.
The bottom line is that it is through the generosity of our members that our congregation is able to continue its ministry.  That’s simply a fact.
Why do we give?
Because Jesus said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
In order to do that in today’s world, and today’s economy, the Church needs cash. 
One final story.
There was a wealthy man who had a sense of calling to the ministry.  He was capable of making a lot of money, but felt the need to be a pastor, instead.
As he evaluated his gifts for ministry, though, he realized that what he really was gifted at was making money.  He wasn’t particularly suited for the ministry at all.
After much prayer and consideration he decided that the best thing he could do, was to make as much money as he could, and then give generously to support the ministry of those who were truly gifted as pastors and evangelists.
He decided he would live on just a small portion of his annual income, and give the rest to support the ministry of the Church.
It was a wonderful and faithful response.
We give, in order to support those who have the gift of ministry.
“Why do you give?” and “How much will you give?”
These are two questions each of us must answer for ourselves. 
And however you answer those questions, just remember this:
That whether we are able to  give a lot, or a little, we are always simply giving back to God what he has first given us.
That’s what the hymn we will sing next makes clear.
We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be.
All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from Thee.


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