Sermon, October 22

Today is the day we kick off our fall Giving Campaign – the four weeks when we invite members and friends of St. Dunstan’s to make a pledge, a statement of your planned financial support for the church in the coming calendar year. That allows us to form a budget and plan our mission and ministries. 

And the lectionary gives us this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. In the language of the King James Bible, Jesus says famously, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” 

Let’s make sure we understand the story. The Roman Empire is the occupying power in Judea and Jerusalem. They demand high taxes from the populace – after all, the main reason to have an empire is to take wealth from the territories you occupy! 

People have to pay the taxes with Roman coins, bearing the image of the Emperor – just like the dead presidents on our coins. This is a problem for pious Jews because it breaks the Ten Commandments. We heard them couple of weeks ago: You shall not make for yourself any idol. Meaning: Don’t make images of living things – animals or people – and then treat them as gods. Which is exactly what Rome does with the Emperor. 

This question about taxes is intended as a trap for Jesus. If he says yes, pay your taxes, he loses credibility as a prophetic teacher. If he says no, he makes himself even more of a target for the Romans.

But he sidesteps the trap so cleverly here! He says, Hey, looks like there’s a picture of the Emperor on this coin, so it must belong to him. So give the Emperor what is his; and give God what belongs to God. 

And what belongs to God? For the faithful Jews of Jesus’ time, for us today, the answer is: well, everything. 

I do love this story, and the trickster Jesus we see here. 

And I can’t help thinking that the people who designed our lectionary were really pleased with themselves for giving us this story in late October. 

Lots of churches do giving campaigns or pledge drives at this time of year. And the lectionary tees us up for a sermon about how since everything is God’s, you owe back whatever portion of your income or wealth your church leaders may ask of you. 

But obvious as it is, I find I can’t quite preach that sermon. 

For one thing: I just don’t think one persuasive or demanding sermon is going to dramatically change how or how much people give. Either this church has earned your loyalty, your support, your investment, by who we are and what we’re doing together or what we have the capacity to become, or it hasn’t. I can’t say anything in the next five minutes to shift that. 

I think being honest about how we use our shared resources, and what we need to do what we do, can be helpful and impactful. But those kinds of nuts and bolts don’t fit well in a sermon. 

The second reason I have a hard time preaching the give everything to your church sermon that the lectionary seems to be suggesting is that I don’t believe that church is the only way you can give back to God.

I do, actually, believe that we owe God pretty much everything. But there are many ways we can use our resources, time, and skill to honor God and respond to God’s call in our lives. 

There’s lots of good work in the world that doesn’t happen through churches. 

And caring for yourself and your loved ones is also holy work. 

Now, there are ways to use our money that are not offering it back to God. Every Instagram ad or glossy catalogue in your mailbox would like to show you a few. It’s easy to use our resources in ways that are selfish or just pointless. Wrestling with that, finding our enough, can be tough this culture and economy. 

Discerning how to use our time, talent, and treasure in ways that please God, and serve God’s purposes of justice, mercy, peace and flourishing, is ongoing work for all of us. 

Giving to the church isn’t better or holier or more important than anything else. There are certainly many churches where we might have big questions about how they use their resources. 

And yet I am inviting us into generosity, in supporting this church and our shared life here. I do believe we’re doing good work together here that we couldn’t do on our own. And that some of that good work is not unique, but at least distinctive; that God has particular work for St. Dunstan’s, and that we’re striving to do it. 

I believe that St. Dunstan’s is worth our support and our investment, in the many forms that can take. 

I am encouraged and inspired on a daily basis by so many aspects of our life together here, as a church community. 

When I read today’s Epistle, I immediately resonated with Paul’s words of gratitude about this church’s “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in Christ Jesus.” 

I thought, that sounds like the loving, lively, curious, engaged group of folks that I have the privilege of pastoring!

And then of course I got into the weeds of interpreting the text. “Work of faith and labor of love” – I got curious about work and labor. In English those words can be used the same way in some contexts, but they have some different meanings too. I wondered: What’s the difference in Greek, the language in which this letter was first written?

So I looked it up! Work is ergon, like in the word “ergonomic.” It just means, a thing you do. A deed; a project.

Some of our works of faith this year included our Kindness Fair and Creation Care Fairs; grocery shopping for refugees; putting up signs for Pride Month; helping care for the Native American mounds at Governor Nelson Park; having solar panels installed. 

We’ve done a lot of big stuff this year, in response to the areas where we have felt God’s call together. 

So if that’s work, what is labor? The Greek word is kopos. It seems to imply something more ongoing – and frankly, more demanding – than the word for work.  It suggests struggle and weariness and some amount of inconvenience. 

Paul’s phrase “labor of love” here, then, points to the bigger and deeper work of being people of love. 

The part of it all that’s not just doing but becoming. 

I can see that work of becoming people of love, underlying a lot of the projects I just named, and lots of other things too. 

I can see it in our care for the kids and youth among us – and those not among us. In a recent conversation about why youth group matters, one of the kids said, “Youth group is a space where you can be safe and be yourself, and be as wild as you need to be at the end of the week, or as tired as you need to be at the end of the week, and it doesn’t matter, because you will feel safe and accepted no matter what.” 

What a holy thing to be able to offer. 

I can see our labor of love in our efforts to build connection, listen to one another’s needs and struggles, and hold each other in faithful prayer. 

I see it in the ongoing work of seeking ways to respond together to climate change and climate grief; to loneliness; to those marginalized and targeted by hateful language or laws. 

I can see it in our efforts to care for our elders, and to lay our beloved dead to rest with love and dignity – something we’ve had too much practice with this past year, frankly. 

So I want to join Paul in naming with gratitude what I see in this church: your works of faith and your labor of love.

What about steadfastness of hope in Jesus Christ? 

I know hope can be hard work at times – though it can be easier to hold hope in community than on our own. 

What Paul names here isn’t just abstract or generalized hope. It’s hope in Jesus Christ. Which means: Hope that God is with us, in the struggle, the mess, the pain; and that Love will ultimately win, even if hatred and death seem triumphant for a season. 

Let’s turn here briefly towards poor Moses, still struggling with the burden of leading God’s recalcitrant people through the wilderness. The somewhat formal language of our Bible translation can hide the fact that Moses is complaining bitterly, here. The Message Bible paraphrase has Moses saying, “Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. And remember: this is your people, your responsibility.”

This text follows closely on last week’s story: While Moses was on the holy mountain meeting with God and receiving the Ten Commandments, the people got restless and demanded that Aaron – Moses’ brother and second in command – make them some gods. So Aaron takes all their gold jewelry, makes it into a golden calf, and tells the people, “This is the god who brought you out of Egypt!” And the people have a big party, eating and drinking and who knows what else. 

God is NOT HAPPY with any of this; and neither is Moses. But Moses pleads with God to have mercy on the people – not to abandon them. 

What Moses is really asking in today’s passage is, Are you still with us, God?  In spite of everything?  In spite of the people choosing a cow statue over your power and glory – and otherwise complaining, misbehaving, and acting out in every possible way? 

Moses pleads – and God relents, and commits to traveling on with the people. And then Moses asks for something big: a glimpse of God’s glory. I love the Hebrew word for glory: kavod. It means, most literally, weight. I have felt that holy weight, now and then.

God gives Moses a limited glimpse – of God’s goodness, not God’s glory; and only a look at God’s back, as God passes by, not the full glory of God’s face, the Divine countenance. Old Testament scholar Robert Alter says that while it may seem odd to us, it was natural for these “ancient monotheists” to “imagine [God] in… physical terms”, as having a face, a hand, a back. 

But, Alter says, the text is saying something bigger here:  “The Hebrew writer suggests… that God’s intrinsic nature is inaccessible, and perhaps also intolerable, to the finite mind of [humanity], but that something of [God’s] attributes— [God’s] ‘goodness,’ the directional pitch of [God’s] ethical intentions, the afterglow of the effulgence of [God’s] presence – can be glimpsed by humankind.” [Read that again.]

THIS is what we are about, as people of faith. Seeking glimpses of God’s goodness, God’s intentions for the world, God’s glory. Striving to mirror back that goodness, and share it with others. 

And maybe what Paul calls “steadfastness of hope in Jesus Christ” just means sticking with a community that’s doing that seeking and striving together. 

I have to remind myself every year that the Giving Campaign season is, ultimately, a time of turning towards the Holy to guide us. It’s not about us; and we can’t sustain any of this on our own. 

There’s a quote from Christian ethicist and writer Stanley Hauerwas up next to my desk: “The church is a prophetic community necessary for the world to know that God refuses to abandon us. We are God’s hope for the world; you are a servant of that hope.”

May our work together in these weeks be a sign and an instrument of God’s hope for the world, manifest among and through us. Amen.