I forgot to put this up when I preached it....but perhaps better late than never?
A few months ago, Gates and I had our first meeting with a financial advisor. We brought all of our tax and retirement information, and we left with a budget worksheet. We were supposed to fill out the worksheet with all of our expenses and bring it back. This was not the most exciting activity we had ever contemplated, so we put it off until the night before our second meeting. I put the amounts of our paychecks in the columns, and then Gates and I talked through amounts for our expense lines. The goal was to create a zero budget, and once we had accomplished that goal, I hit print and tried to think about it too much.
The next morning we sat with this very nice Presbyterian man, wondering if we had grossly under or over estimated any expenses. As we went down the column, I realized that there was a zero in the little box where I was supposed to list my pledge to my church. I immediately realized how awful that appeared. He knows that I am a priest, I have no pledge on paper….embarrassing right? I then started to explain, probably over-justifying the situation, considering that there’s a simple explanation. You see, my pledge to the Cathedral is a payroll deduction. My pledge gets taken out of my paycheck before it gets deposited in my bank account, just like my taxes and Social Security.
Luckily, my financial advisor seemed to believe me, and the awkwardness that I felt passed away pretty quickly. But later that day, when I had some time to think about it, I realized that the money that I give to the church had become a non-factor in my life. That amount of money never makes it to my checking account, so I don’t have to write a check or approve an automatic bank draft or really do anything at all. Paying my pledge is just like paying my taxes each month.
I winced a bit when I realized this, because who wants to equate a gift freely given to God with taxes? Not me. Taxes are mandatory. They are usually more than we want to pay. Most of us don’t really know where all of our tax-money goes. My donation to the church, on the other hand, is given out of gratitude, I got to choose the amount, and I know exactly where that money goes. I see the homeless men and women that eat breakfast here, the children that get scholarships to camp, the community groups that meet within our walls, and the employees that make it all happen. Taxes and pledges are not the same.
It would appear that our gospel reading this morning is making the same point, though in a different way. Jesus tells the disciples of the Pharisees to give to the emperor what is his and to give to God what is God’s. Now for us, this sounds like an endorsement of the separation of church and state. It sounds like Jesus is telling us to pay your taxes as well as your pledge. The problem though, is that the separation of church and state was not a familiar concept in Jesus’ day. The church and the state were inextricably intertwined. So if it’s not about the separation of church and state, then what’s the point of answering this question?
If you read any amount of commentaries on this section of Matthew’s gospel, you will find that Jesus is making the point that the world and all the things within it belong to God. Sure, they could give the emperor what is his….but what really is the emperor’s? Nothing. Everything we have now and will ever have comes from God.
We affirm this belief every week at the seven-thirty service when we raise the collection and say, “All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” It reminds me every time I celebrate Rite One that all things are God’s. We are only stewards here on earth. We are here to take care of the things we have while we are here, knowing that we will not be able to take them with us.
Every once in a while, we get a chance to hear from someone who truly lives a life of stewardship. This summer I watched as some of our youth participated in an open question and answer with a Catholic nun. She explained their vow of poverty and their understanding of possessions. She actually answered a few questions I have always had, by explaining that everything in her home is not hers, but the property of her order. The car she drives, the house she lives in, even her clothes and family photos belong to the Sisters of Mercy. It all, every single thing, belongs to her order.
I have got to say, that is a hard life for me to imagine. I have lots of things that I would not want to share with other people. Some for practical reasons - my shoes. Some for sentimental reasons, like the quilt my great-grandmother made. And then there are the things that I just like having. I like knowing that some items are in my house, should I ever need them or want to look at them again. My collection of Baby-Sitters Club books from childhood. My extensive collection of cake pans in fun shapes. Even if I never read those books or make a beehive shaped cake, those things are mine. There is some amount of pride in ownership.
But what if all of those things are really God’s? Well then, I may need to reconsider some items. It may be time to release some things out into the world, to let them find homes where someone needs them, instead of just liking to have them around.
The same goes for my money. As I continue to consider the ways to spend my money that will most glorify God, I am quite sure that certain priorities on my budget spreadsheet will shift. It is so easy to carry on without intentional thought about what resources I am tending for God. It is easy to just check the online bank statement here and there to make sure things look okay. But like so many other things in this Christian life, we are not called to do what is easy. We are called to do our very best with what we have. We are called to be intentional with our resources. We are called to give God what is God’s.