Thursday, October 27, 2005

16 October: Giving what belongs to God

Years ago, when I was living I Brisbane, every now and then I used to be up early on a Sunday morning and switch on the TV.  It might have been something to do with having twin babies and it being my turn to get up.  And so I’d switch on and see the televangelists.  Smooth talkers!  Have you ever noticed they all seem to have these luxuriant heads of hair?  And that’s just the men!  But they’d talk, and they’d tell you how you were really empty inside but that Jesus could fill you up – one of the better ones was Oral Roberts, maybe it was just being up at 5.00 o’clock on a Sunday morning but often he seemed to make a lot of sense.  But inevitably the talk would get around to how you needed to give some money, and they’d tell you that as soon as you started really giving, you’d start to get more prosperous yourself – that God wants Christians to be successful and well off, so the more you give the more you’re going to get.

It’s not Christianity, is it?  Because underneath the veneer of fine words it’s an appeal to greed and self-interest.  Invest some money with us and I promise – God promises – that you’ll get a whole heap more.  It’s a lifestyle TV show brand of Christianity that’s a long way removed from the homeless preacher from Galillee who so often offends the rich and powerful.

So today we’re talking about money.  One of the words you’d hear fairly often if you went say to the Assemblies of God or the Baptist church is tithing.  It means giving one tenth of your income, which, if you take the time to work it out, is actually a pretty big whack.  In some Christian circles that’s the expected thing – and certainly it shows a serious level of commitment, because there’s a priority to giving so that it’s not just what happens at the end of the week when you see what you’ve got left over after everything else.  So really, I don’t discourage it.  But at the same time, it’s easy to see there might be some difficulties – for example, if you’re on a pension then a tenth of your income probably makes a bigger hole than if you’ve got a high paid job.  Which of course is exactly what Jesus is getting at in the story about the widow’s gift of two small copper coins.  Giving is relative, and only God can see the true cost and the true value of a person’s gift.

In our gospel reading today, we see the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus on the question of paying taxes.  Now, this is the last week of Jesus’ life, and he has arrived in Jerusalem and is spending most of his time teaching in the temple, and the chief priests and Pharisees are getting crankier and crankier at him.  So this question is intended to trap him – if he agrees with the zealots and revolutionaries that it’s OK not to pay taxes to the Romans, that’s going to get him into trouble with Herod, and if he says it is OK, then he’s not going to be very popular with the common folk who hate the Romans.  So it’s a trick question, but it’s one that’s still relevant whenever we find ourselves living in a situation where there is official injustice - is it right or wrong to engage in civil disobedience?  But as he does so often, Jesus gets out of the trap with a very clever one-liner: give the government what belongs to the government - and give God what belongs to God.

It’s an answer that gets Jesus out of trouble – for the time being – but it’s an answer that maybe causes headaches for the rest of us because it’s ambiguous.  On the surface it looks straightforward enough – it looks like Jesus is dividing reality up into compartments – this is where you’ve got your loyalty to God, everywhere else you’ve got your other loyalties -  and just so long as God gets his share.  Put your money into the collection plate on Sunday and then you can do what you want with the rest.  It’s one of the sayings that gets called on from time to time to tell the church to butt out – for example when politicians tell archbishops off for putting in their two cents worth about problems with the new industrial relations legislation – ‘you just stick to your praying, leave the business of running the country to us’.

But Jesus is not giving us a straight answer here!  He’s refusing to do our thinking for us – because it all depends on what Jesus means when he says, ‘just give to God what belongs to God’ – no wonder the Pharisees go away shaking their heads - because what have you got that doesn’t belong to God? 

Jesus is not telling us we shouldn’t pay our taxes – he and his disciples paid theirs – but he is pointing out that you just can’t divide the world into God’s bit and the rest that belongs to the boss, to the government, or to the family or the football club.  Or to yourself.  It all belongs to God.  Jesus is demanding is a bit more than a tithe, when it comes down to it.  According to Jesus, God expects the whole lot.

And I think the very ambiguity of Jesus’ answer means he is also demanding that we need to work out for ourselves how we balance the competing priorities and demands, knowing that absolutely everything we do – spending time with our family, contributing to our community, paying our taxes, as well as the offerings we bring to church – that all these activities are variations on how we see God and serve God in our day to day lives - and so there’s no hard and fast formula like a tenth – but Jesus is demanding something a lot harder which is continual self-examination and willingness to put God first in our lives.

Which is where St Paul comes in – in our reading today Paul is writing to the Corinthian Christians about the offering he is planning to collect for the support of the church in Jerusalem – and he makes two very important points

The first one is this.  You can only give as you are able – you can’t give more than you’ve got, because it doesn’t serve God if you ignore the other responsibilities you’ve got in your life – so again, St Paul is refusing to do our thinking for us, and he’s reminding us that we serve God in every part of our lives – that means hard and fast formulas aren’t appropriate – and the most important ingredient of al is prayer.

And the second very important point is this – the giver is blessed by the gift – but this isn’t just the shallow promise of a 1st century televangelist that the more money you put money in the collection plate the more prosperous you get – instead, St Paul believes that the more generously we give of ourselves the more we become the people God created us to be – the more we become a blessing to the world we live in.  The more we give of ourselves, the more we learn to think of ourselves as a church in mission to the world around us.  Which means we will be blessed, and the world we live in will be blessed through us.

Right now our church here at All Saints is not in good shape financially.  Most of the time the ‘nuts and bolts’ of running the parish, paying bills and sending our monthly contribution to Diocese are just things that the Treasurer does, more or less in the background.  So that often means people in the congregation never get to hear about the parish finances unless things aren’t going so well.  Over the last few months we’ve started putting copies of the monthly finances up on the noticeboard, and I’ve asked Steve, our parish Treasurer, to give a special report next week in our service.  But it’s also something I need to talk about today because what the finances are telling us is over the last five months our income from offerings is down by $4,000, that’s almost a quarter less than this time last year.  There’s been extra money that we’ve got from special grants, for example to do the paving and to buy some new kitchen equipment for the Open Door Café – so those things don’t cost us anything, they don’t come out of the offerings, but what the offerings do cover is the cost of having a priest, the cost of keeping the church building running, and that’s where we’re not doing so well.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been saying that the church we end up with is the church we choose – the church that reflects the level of our energy and commitment – and the offerings of money we are prepared to give for God’s work in our community.  And over the last 12 months or so I think we have seen a new energy and a new sense of purpose in our church.  We have new programs, we have a new congregation, we again have young adults and children worshipping in our church.  So today I want to thank to say thank you, because it’s through the generosity and the vision of all the people of All Saints Belmont that we have been able to find some new directions for ministry and outreach.  And I think what that says is that this parish believes in the future – that we believe God has a future for All Saints and that we are prepared to work for it and to take risks for it.