The Rev. Jill Duffield, editor of the Christian Magazine The Outlook, tells the story of a man, many years older than she was in her mid-twenties at the time, who came into the affluent church where she pastored in the early years of her ministry, and asked for assistance. Certainly, in her experience, as well as mine and Rodger’s, asking for assistance is almost always indistinguishable from asking for money. She took him through the richly appointed hallways into her beautiful office laden with theological tomes and expensive furniture. She went to sit in her comfy chair behind the desk while he sat on the stiff, formal couch across the room from her desk.
Next she said a phrase she learned from her father, “Tell me what’s going on?” Well, that’s an opening if I ever heard one, and he proceeded to tell all of what was going on in his life which sadly included car trouble, late rent so that he was on the cusp of eviction, and a troubled son for which he was sole caregiver. He then paused, reached into his pocket and dejectedly stated “all I have is this.” He held up a quarter, with a look of pure defeat on his face.
When Jill looks back on that story, she cringes to remember that older man finding himself in a position where he had to ask her youthful self for help when he clearly did not want to ask. She explains, “He asked me to render him something of God’s, when all he had was (small currency) stamped with the face of the father of our country.” Rev. Duffield did lend him assistance but it wasn’t until quite a long while later that the full impact of the exchange rocked her world enough that she wrote about it in her letter-from-the-editor article. About the story she says, “Who was owed what in that instance?” “I handed over a small bit of Caesar’s coins when I should have responded in ways that showed that he- that we- belonged to God.” The man needed a sense of belonging and to know he was loved by God and cared for by God’s people.
I will continue this sermon with the reminder of our readings from Psalm 24 and I Thessalonians before I get to Jesus’ teaching for today of which our story was an illustration. It starts out with this important information: The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. How do we understand that today? It is not an easy concept for us to grasp today. Being in an individualistic, I’m-owed-everything society, we likely find God’s ownership over absolutely everything a difficult notion to wrap our heads around. We may think: I own my house; I own my car; I own my business; I own my boat; I own my money; and in some way or another even Christians think, I own myself. However, that way of thinking is totally foreign in God’s Word for “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.” Our Creator God has dominion over everything! God owns it all.
In Psalm 19 we read that “the heavens are telling the glory of God” in the sky and on the earth. In other words, God’s glory is all around us. Yes, definitely some of it is corrupted by human sin. Still, God’s glory abounds if we look closely enough and pay attention. In Psalm 24, we find out that God’s glory is in ownership of the world, all that is in it and all those who live in it. God’s ownership of all leads to our responsibility, and our accountability to the Almighty, for it. Our glorious God’s ownership of all, is a foundational concept especially, but far from only, when we seek to understand what it means to be good stewards with all that our creating God has blessed us.
Keep that fundamental truth of God’s ownership in mind as I move on to the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Many scholars believe that this is Paul’s very first letter, known as an epistle, perhaps written in the year 49 C.E. Remember that Paul persecuted Jesus’ followers. It isn’t until he encounters the risen Christ as he is traveling on the road to Damascus to persecute Jesus’ followers, that he becomes a believer himself. It is an encounter that forever changes Paul. Soon, the Book of Acts tells us, he learns that Jesus is the Christ, his Savior. He eventually goes out beyond Jerusalem to preach the Gospel news far and wide. Now, he is writing a letter to a church he established in Thessalonica in the province of Macedonia, under Roman rule.
You can read of the joy Paul has in the Thessalonians because they left behind their culture’s many idols to embrace the one, true God and to serve Jesus Christ. And, we read, they were greatly persecuted for that belief while still remaining steadfast in their faithfulness, even though quite young in the faith. Can you imagine a people new to a faith enduring persecution without giving up?
What distinguishes the Thessalonians’ living, true God from their former idols is the community of faith they build and the close relationship that community nurtures with God and God’s servant, Paul and his disciples Timothy and Silvanus. Essentially, Paul is a circuit-preacher traveling from place to place establishing churches but he starts to keep in touch with those churches, encouraging and nurturing them and answering their myriad questions. An important truth for us is our community of faith teaching us and keeping us accountable to the one, true, living God.
In the letter, God in Jesus Christ is central and Paul is the messenger of that Good News who takes great delight in the joy of faith these people hold through their early church. Paul’s, and after Paul leaves, the people’s formation of a faith community is the new revelation of God. This faith is intimate and relational, often very unique among the other religions of that time. We may be surprised that God actually chose a people, far from Jerusalem and worshiping idols in a foreign culture. That is the Lord’s way, is it not? The unexpected becomes the expected. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to imitate him as he imitates Jesus Christ. We too are to be imitators of Jesus Christ and supplant the idols we have in our lives.
In her book, “Finding Truth,” Nancy Pearcey explains, “If we are honest with ourselves, “idolatry” is a topic which many modern Christians see as antiquated and outdated. When we hear the word “idol” today, many of us automatically picture a golden statue of a bull or calf. We tend to skim over passages that include references to idolatry, because we see it as something” with which only the Old Testament struggled. “But,” she states, “that is not the case.” In verse 9 Paul emphatically states, “For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,” and there are many other places that mention idols. Paul and other New Testament writers are not afraid to call out idolatry. Nancy goes on to explain, “Scripture treats the topic of idolatry far more subtly (than that.) An idol is anything we want more than God, anything we rely on more that God, anything we look to for greater fulfillment than God. Idolatry is thus the hidden sin driving all other sins.” The sticking point for us is that, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we want a lot of things more than we want God or spending time serving God. We want to sleep in, to spend more time with our families, to go to the symphony, conferences, theater productions and movies, to go golfing, boating, fishing, skiing, to spend more time hanging out with anyone other than our church family, as we avoid church worship, meetings, luncheons and activities. Realistically, all of this is what we want more than God and or to be in service to God.
When the Nominating Committee asks if someone would serve as Deacon or Elder or on a committee, the groan is almost audible, instead of looking at it as an honor to serve the Lord, surely the way a Christian ought to prayerfully assess the request. Even though one may be tired of or dislike meetings, it is an important service to one’s Presbytery to serve as an Elder commissioner, as well as a helpful leadership learning experience. We are a connectional and relational denomination. I know, I know. I’m the minister so of course I’m going to say things like this however, why should I be the only one saying or thinking of it? When one is invited to a thank- you luncheon after worship, we could gratefully attend if only to spend more time with our faith community as we then learn more about what we actually do here to serve God through my Power Point presentation, telling the story of how your pledges and donations are utilized and spent? Eating together in gratitude and recognizing our stewardship is to God’s honor and glory as we are Christ’s hands and feet in the world. Perhaps you don’t think some of these examples mean that you don’t put God first. Still, the faith community gathering as often as possible, the honor of serving God, and the work that our committees put in for the benefit of our members and friends is in fact choosing God first.
As your Pastor, shame is not my goal here. Instead I am trying to encourage you to think about these examples and reflect in general on what it means to put God first. Paul is grateful that the Thessalonians put behind their idols to serve the one, true God. Would Paul be grateful to us in this congregation for the same things?
Remembering that God has ownership over all the earth and what is in it and recalling our need to put idols behind us and God first, we turn back to our Gospel story of which my opening story of Rev. Duffield and the older man asking for assistance was an illustration. The disciples of the Pharisees as well as the Herodians, a Jewish political group that supported Rome, asked Jesus a question. In the article Jill Duffield wrote about our passage from Matthew 22, she explains “What could be better than Jesus telling the Pharisees to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s… because, we all know that everything belongs to God”- right? Despite our budgeting process and our other attempts to control our pledges, donations, and memorial gifts, intellectually we know that God is the owner of all of it but our hearts and minds truly don’t quite understand that notion in our contemporary times.
The disciples of the Pharisees and Herodians set out to entrap Jesus, the Gospel of Matthew reads. Entrap is a hunting term the same as ensnare. The other gospel accounts use the words “catch” or “catch in the act” which I think are a little less insidious than the religious authorities trying to “ensnare” Jesus. Slyly they ask: “Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” They have prefaced this with false flattery of Jesus’ honesty and lack of partiality all in the attempt to entrap him, for they want him arrested and out of their hair. If Jesus answers that it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then the Herodians will likely tell the Roman authorities and Jesus will be arrested much sooner than planned for such rebellious notions. On the other hand, if he answers that it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman oppressor, then the common people, his most ardent followers, wouldn’t be at all pleased. Therefore, Jesus, being Jesus, artfully avoids the entrapment by asking for a coin. “Whose picture is on it?,” he asks. “Well, Caesar’s of course!” they reply. “Then give to Caesar what is Caesars and God what is God’s.” Jesus uses the image on the coin to give his somewhat indirect answer. No one can dispute that Caesar’s visage is on the coin.
When we look at that exchange further, we notice that it doesn’t mean those coins still aren’t God’s for God has ownership of everything, the Jews would definitely know. The coins we give to Caesar, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Stein Mart, Amazon, or Tuscany’s are still God’s. They would be a part of God’s larger economic purposes for an abundant life for all people and all of creation of which we are to be good stewards. Even though the image of Caesar goes to Caesar that doesn’t mean Caesar actually owns it.
The religious authorities were amazed at Jesus’ answer. We don’t know why they were amazed. What’s important to us this morning, is- are we amazed at what Jesus teaches us? Do we follow Christ’s image within us? Do we listen to Jesus’ teachings and live them or do we make excuses to turn away from them? Will we follow as good, caring overseers of the earth? As upright stewards, will we acknowledge that God owns all that we have and then more freely and generously give it back to God with our time, talent, and treasure? I will leave you with these questions to ponder today or sometime this week as you remember God’s great glory and ownership of all, how truly amazing Jesus Christ is and choosing God first as good stewards. Alleluia! Amen.