St. John's, Centreville
October 22, 2017
Proper 24 A
Exodus 33:12-23; Matt. 22:15-22
Take my lips, O Lord and speak with them; take our minds and think with them; take our hearts and set them on fire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
As we continue our reading from the Old Testament book of Exodus, we find the Israelites still wandering in the wilderness. Even though God has brought them out of slavery in Egypt, guided them safely through the Red Sea, provided them with food and water, the Israelites are still anxious about whether God is still with them. When Moses goes up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, the Israelites who are waiting for him to return become anxious and think that God and Moses have abandoned them in the desert. So they make a molten calf to be their god. They want something tangible, something they can see, something they can control.
When God sees what the Israelites have done, God is furious and wants to wipe the Israelites off the face of the earth. But Moses intercedes for them and God promises not to do that.
In today's reading, Moses once again is interceding for the Israelites and challenges God. Moses says to God, "You have said to me, "Bring up this people" but you have not let me know whom you will send with me." In other words, Moses says to God, "Hang on, I'm going to need some help with this, what are you going to do?" How can we be your people if you do not go with us? God assures Moses that God's presence will be with them as they continue their journey in the wilderness.
Moses and the Israelites needed God. They needed God's presence and guidance. Their dependence was on God to lead them through the wilderness to the promised land. It was a matter of life and death.
Moses, too, as the leader of the Israelites, needed assurance that God was with them. Moses asks to see the glory of God. God cannot show Moses God's face but will put him in the cleft of a rock, cover Moses with his hand until God has passed by, and Moses will see the back of God.
Moses request to see God's glory is a reminder to us that the most precious gift we are given is the gift of God's very self, and the gift of God's Son Jesus Christ. God gives us Godself. What more could we ask for?
Let's now look for a moment at today's gospel lesson. The religious establishment is trying to trap Jesus, to make him say something that will turn people against him. First they try to butter him up with compliments. "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality." Then they ask him a question. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?" If Jesus says yes, then his Jewish followers will be upset and perhaps turn against him, as they did not want to pay the Romans who ruled over them and used their tax money to pay for the pagan temples. If Jesus says no, then he could be arrested for sedition, for refusing to follow the Roman law of taxation.
Jesus can see right through this game. He knows exactly what the religious leaders are trying to do - to get him out of the way. So he asks them to show him a coin, which has the emperor's head and title on it. And Jesus replies, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's."
What a brilliant answer! What we need to give to the emperor, or in our case, the government, is pretty clear. The IRS tells us what we owe and we write a check. But how do we determine what belongs to God? The answer to that is everything we have and everything we are. All of us are made in the image of God. Each of us is stamped with the likeness of God. What we may be required to give the government is only money. Our total allegiance of heart, mind and soul belongs to God alone. There is nothing we have that isn't God's.
God has given us all that we have - our gifts and abilities, our intelligence, our personalities, all that makes us who we are - unique individuals and children of God. How we choose to use what God has given us is up to us. We can hoard our wealth, hide our talents, ignore those who are in need, not share ourselves with others. We have that choice.
But to live our lives as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to use what we have to the glory of God and the furthering of God's kingdom on earth. What we are talking about here is stewardship - using what God has given us to minister to others, of returning a portion of what God has so freely given to us. "Stewardship is what all of us do, individually and together, all of the time, with everything we have to give."*
Stewardship is what we do all year round - using God's gifts for God's glory. Our Annual Pledge Campaign, that we are in the midst of right now, gives us an opportunity to give back to God a portion of what God has given to us. It is the foundation of our ministry at St. John's. What we receive in the Annual Pledge Campaign will shape our presence in the community and our ministry to and for each other.
But the problem that we often encounter when we talk about our Annual Pledge Campaign is that we look at it backwards. We look at how much can I afford. How much will be left over after all the bills are paid.
What we need to do is to learn to trust in God's abundance, that God will provide for our needs. Deciding what percentage of our income we will give to God through the church needs to be a prayerful decision, not just an economic one. It is a spiritual practice, a prayerful response to God's generosity. I strongly encourage you to pray before you fill out your pledge card that you received in the mail last week. Give it some thought and prayerful consideration, rather than just writing down the same amount you gave last year. Challenge yourself to increase your pledge by a certain percentage each year as you become more and more aware of God's goodness and mercy.
Moses needed to know God was with them as the Israelites continued to wander in the wilderness. His faith and trust was in God. Jesus showed the Pharisees that everything we have and everything we are comes from God and we are to give back to God what belongs to God, through our lives, our ministries, our worship, our resources. Our faith and trust must be in God.
So what will we return to God in thanksgiving for all that God has given to us? "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's." Amen.