Proper 24, Year A, 2014

When Pharisees and the Herodians gang up on you, you are in serious trouble. The Herodians were political figures aligned with Herod Antipas, who was the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.   While Jewish, he was a puppet of the Roman emperor. Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day. Pharisees and Herodians despised each other.

Imagine how disruptive Jesus must have been for the political and religious leaders of the day to conspire against him!

The Pharisees and Herodians come to Jesus and ask him a question that is almost impossible to answer in a way that will please both groups: 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

Can you hear how smarmy that question is? Jesus has gained a reputation for being a real truth teller and they are trying their hardest to show Jesus up.

Jesus, however, is no fool.

The first thing he does is ask for a coin used for the tax. Now, this is telling, because Jesus did not have any cash on him. Jesus did not walk around with pockets full of coins. Jesus didn’t have a single coin in his pocket. Jesus trusted God to provide for him. He knows both the Herodians and the Pharisees profited plenty off the backs of the people of God, so he turns to them for a coin. And sure enough they have one.

He flips the coin around and around in his hand and asks them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

When they tell him it is the head of the emperor, he dismissively says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus escapes their trap, leaving them bewildered.

We don’t know exactly why Jesus said what he said. We don’t know if he was unbothered because he realized that everything on earth is God’s dominion, even the empire, so giving money to the empire isn’t taking anything away from God. Or whether Jesus was just being pragmatic—no one can escape the political system they are in forever. We live in the real world, where taxes are due, and there isn’t a religious reason not to respect government authority.

But it certainly evokes questions for us—what are our responsibilities toward God and toward our government?

I’m sure our family is not the only one who weighs every mile driven, every work related receipt, every day care exemption when filing taxes. We do our best to keep every penny that belongs to us in our pocket! We not alone! Burger King is trying to move to Canada to pay fewer taxes. Ireland was in the news this week, since it is closing a tax loophole that has allowed companies like Apple and Barclays to set up shop there and lower their tax rates.

The instinct is understandable—government spending can seem so abstract and often ridiculous. And sometimes you have serious ethical problems with how money is spent. You can be a pacifist and be furious at all the money going to bombing in the Middle East. You can be fiscally conservative and furious at the money spent bailing out banks in 2008. Yet, whether we belong to the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Tea or Green Party, every April 15th, our taxes are due. And Jesus does not give us an out!

Following Jesus is not about isolating ourselves from our world. We aren’t called to move to an island and form a commune in which we are responsible only to God. For this entire world is God’s. And so we’re called to stay in the world and do our best to make it as much like the Kingdom of God as we can. With our relationships, our actions and yes, our money.

Being a steward of our time, talent, and treasure may mean running for the school board, agreeing to be on a board of directions for an organization you care about, going to really boring community meetings, even running for office.

When I served at Emmanuel Church one of our parishioners was a woman named Katherine Mehrige. Many of you may know her. She and a friend of hers thought the after school program at Brownsville Elementary could be improved. There were so many gifted people in the community, they thought it would be terrific if the after school program was a time when community members could enrich the lives of children through music, art, sport and other classes. The PTO looked at them and said, that sounds great! Now, go and do it! I think Katherine had intended for the PTO to run this hypothetical program, but she and her friend got to work and created an amazing program that has enriched the lives of students in our community and inspired schools around the country. Children stay after school, which makes it easier for working parents, and the kids have a great time learning about African drumming or jewelry making or basketball or any of the other hundred classes that are offered. Scholarships are available for low income students.

Katherine and her friend weren’t doing this as an arm of the church, but they are Christians. And one hopes that any of us who follow Jesus would also seek to make the world around us a little better. We belong to the Kingdom of God, but we live in the world. So let’s do a little renovations to the world around us to make a world Jesus would be proud of.

Amen.

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Proper 22, Year A, 2014

What kind of tenant are you?

Do you punch holes in walls and let your dog mess freely on the wall to wall carpet? Or do you do your best to keep your rental property clean and without obvious damage?

The relationship between renter and tenant is a fraught one. I have had more than one friend rent out a house they’ve owned. They have trusted their property to a stranger and if that trust was betrayed by a renter ruining their home or refusing to pay rent on time, the situation got incredibly tense.

Our scripture reading today has Jesus telling the Pharisees that they were tenants who were entrusted with God’s world and they have betrayed that trust.

Jesus uses the metaphor of a vineyard here. In the life of this parable, God has planted a vineyard and entrusted it to tenants. The tenants do a fine job of taking care of the grapes, but when it comes time to give back to the landowner what he is owed, they just keep killing the messenger. They want to keep what belongs to the landowner. Jesus is making a pointed dig at the Pharisees here. The Pharisees are happy to profit from and control God’s people, but they are horrified when the people want to turn to Jesus—God himself. They don’t want to lose their positions of power. They don’t want to share.

So, what kind of tenant are we?

God has given us so much. We are surrounded by beauty. We are relatively safe. We are rich in community and property and money. We have some of the finest facilities of any church in the area.

All of this is on loan to us.

All we have belongs to God. We are on this earth for a few decades, maybe a century if we are really, really lucky and while we are on this earth God expects quite a lot from us. He expects us to tend to these gifts. He expects us to plow and plant and reap in our little corner of the kingdom of God.

You might have guessed by now that today kicks off our stewardship season this fall. We think about stewardship in terms of giving money to the church so we can pay our staff and keep our doors open, but I’d like to expand our vision.

God has given us this beautiful corner of the kingdom. As you are thinking about how can you give of your finances, your time, and your heart, I’d like you to day dream and pray about how God might be calling us to tend our vineyard.

We are so blessed that we have strong, creative, loving, hard working leaders in this church. They lead our vestry, food pantry, scholarship committee, altar guild, stewardship committee, choir, education programs, pastoral care.   Many of these leaders are feeling a call to transition out of leading these areas of ministry, feeling ready to train whoever is going to follow in their footsteps.

This can feel frightening, but this is an incredible opportunity for us to walk out in faith and follow where God leads us.

With change of leadership, comes an opportunity for God to work in new ways. We cannot predict what those ways might be. I imagine when the people of St. Paul’s got the idea to do a food pantry years ago, they could not have anticipated that one day they would serve over a hundred people a month and have an entire suite of the church dedicated to its supplies. I’m sure the very first stewardship committee, never dreamed there would be well over two hundred people in the pews every Sunday here at St. Paul’s. The first choir could not have imagined our fabulous organ or that one day the Episcopal Church would have multiple hymnals from various cultural influences. And even Audi probably could not have predicted that one day treasure time would have dozens of children gathered to hear the word of God.

God is calling several of you to step up to leadership in some of our ongoing ministries. You probably don’t even know it yet. But you are going to lead our ministries into their next decade. And leading those ministries is going to change your life. You will learn more about our community and yourself and about God’s abundance than you can imagine right now.

Of course, our vineyard doesn’t stop at Owensville Rd.

Your vineyard extends to wherever you spend your time: at Meriwether Lewis or Western. At UVA or Martha Jeff Hospital. In an office or cubicle. Your home. God tasks you to tending his grapes there, too. The people around you have been entrusted to you, whether you like them or not. Your patients, your clients, your coworkers, even your boss. Your friends, children and family. Your corner of the kingdom of God is as unique as you are. But your job is the same: to extend the loving, reconciling work of God into the world. We are the peacemakers, we are the justice bringers, we are the healers. We treat people with kindness and respect, we elevate the low and are honest to the powerful.

When I think about what it means to tend our vineyard, I think about Christian Bucks. He got some media attention last winter, so you might remember this story. Christian was a second grader who noticed some kids were left out of games at recess. Now, most kids would have just glanced at them and kept on playing. But Christian really believed everyone should belong. So Christian started what he called a “buddy bench”. If a child is feeling left out, they go sit on the buddy bench. That is the signal to other students that the child wants to play.

Christian looked around his corner of the kingdom of God and realized there were people not fully connected, not fully able to be themselves. Once he realized the problem, he came up with a creative solution and the adults around him empowered him to enact it.

I hope as we think about stewardship this year, as we think about giving back to God what is his, we may have eyes as open and minds as creative as Christian. Stewardship is not dull. Stewardship should not be painful. Stewardship is living into the radical promises God has made for us. Stewardship is participating in the building of God’s kingdom, one bench, one vineyard at a time.

Amen.

Proper 23, Year C, 2010

To listen to this sermon, click here.

I had this habit as a kid that drove my sister crazy.  During the ritual opening of Christmas presents I would over emote about each gift.  “An etch-a-sketch!  That’s so great!”, “A cabbage patch doll!  I’ve always WANTED a cabbage patch doll!”, “Blue socks?  They’ll go great with my blue shoes!”, We found an old video recently from when I’m about eight years old, and my reactions are incredibly cloying.  I actually profusely thanked Santa, who because of his busy Christmas morning schedule, was not in the room.   And while I’m sure part of my enthusiasm was about me being a first born suck-up, I would argue that there was a core of genuine, spontaneous thanksgiving in my little performance.

Real gratitude is tricky when you live in a society where you are used to getting exactly what you want.  As adults, my immediate family gives each other lists of Christmas presents we would like and then we receive those presents.  It’s fantastic, and we’re grateful to each other, but the spontaneous joy of gratitude is missing.

That spontaneous thanksgiving is missing from much of my life.  I don’t enthusiastically thank you all twice a month when I receive my paycheck.  I don’t thank God every day for my amazing husband or my sweet dog.  I don’t thank my parents weekly for the hard work that went in raising me or my sister for putting up with my annoying first-born habits.

Our gospel lesson today really challenges us and our attitudes about thanksgiving.  In the story, Jesus heals ten lepers.  He tells them to show themselves to the priest and off they go, getting cleansed from their leprosy in the meantime.  Now, they are all obedient to Jesus.  They all do exactly what he asks them to do.  Well, all but one.  One of the lepers is a Samaritan.  He is an outsider.  He’s unclean.  He’s different.  But that Samaritan is so excited he is cleansed, he runs back to Jesus, praises God and throws himself at Jesus’ feet thanking him.  What a reaction!  The other nine lepers were obedient, but the Samaritan leper had a genuine moment of intense gratitude that he can’t help but express.

We are a guarded, cautious people here at Trinity Church..  We aren’t prone to big emotional outbursts.  We don’t clap when we sing.  We don’t raise our arms and shout when Paul makes a good point in a sermon.  We don’t stand up during announcements to praise God and share what God has done in our lives.  But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t reach out to us and heal us and work in our lives in such a way that we should be thankful.  We don’t have to be loud to be thankful.

When I was a parishioner at St. James’, Richmond, during stewardship season they had a tradition of parishioners speaking each week about what stewardship meant to them.  One Sunday, a young couple with small children stood up.  They told us that during the previous year, as they got more involved with church and developed a closer relationship with God, they had a transformative moment together. They decided that since God had given them so many gifts, they wanted to give him a big gift in return.  They decided that their pledge check to the church should be the biggest check they wrote every month.  Bigger than their mortgage, bigger than car payments, bigger than tuition payments.

I remember my jaw dropping.  The freedom and joy they felt was so manifest.  Their money did not control them.  Fear did not control them.  They made a decision based purely out of the kind of wild-eyed gratitude that the tenth leper showed Jesus.

I’ll be honest with you, I’m not there yet.  Our monthly pledge payments to the two churches we support are about a third of our monthly rent.  And our rent is cheap!  But whenever I think about stewardship, I think about that couple.  I think about what it would mean to have such deep gratitude for God’s work in my life and deep confidence that God will provide for me, that I could just throw caution to the wind and give away a giant chunk of money every month.

Giving money to the church is a financial decision.  You’ll sit down with Quicken or your budget and figure out just how much you’ll give.  You’ll come to a rational choice.   But the decision to give money to the church is also a spiritual one.  Giving money back to God is an act of thanksgiving.  As a person who is paid because of your generosity, of course I want you to give to the church!  But what I really pray for is that God might grant you a tenth leper experience.

I pray that you have experiences of healing and God’s intervention in your life.  I pray that you feel cleansed of anything that haunts you.  I pray that God grants you such deep gratitude, that you feel compelled to throw yourself at the feet of Jesus.  I pray that Jesus makes you well.

The text tells us that when the leper came back to Jesus in thanksgiving, that the leper was made well.  The leper was cleansed from leprosy by Jesus’ healing, but something in his thankful response inspired Jesus to give him an even fuller healing.  Jesus says that the leper’s faith made him well.  The leper’s thanksgiving was more than gratitude, it was a statement of faith.  We, too, can make a statement of faith by expressing our thanksgiving to God.

When we give to God through gifts to the Church, we claim the tenth leper’s thanksgiving as our own.  We claim the tenth leper’s faith as our own.  We claim the tenth leper’s healing as our own.

When we stand up for Stewardship, we claim our place in the line of saints who have been blessed by God and want to return the blessing.

Amen.

Proper 27, Year B, 2009

Whenever I start thinking about money, I start hearing lots of voices.

I hear my Grandmother Kinney’s voice.  She grew up in the coal mining town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania during the Depression.  She never overcame her fear of not having enough.

I hear my father’s voice.  He is a big saver and nearly every car he’s ever owned was purchased with cash.

I hear my mother’s voice.  I think she’d be a little appalled that I was telling you these personal details about my family’s relationship with money.  Money is not something one discusses in polite company.

I hear Suze Orman’s voice as she tells her audience over and over again to have a six-month emergency fund saved.

On the other hand, I hear Carrie Bradshaw’s voice, too, making $400 high heels seem like a reasonable investment.

I hear the voices of my husband, my friends, priests, stewardship directors, financial advisors, pundits, celebrities-and I am a total sucker for the voices of marketers. Yes, that $12 bottle of shampoo does make my hair shinier than a $3 bottle! Yes, that $70 pencil skirt would make me look just like a character on Mad Men!  Yes, a roomba would make housekeeping easier! Yes, a right hand diamond ring would symbolize that I respect myself!  (You can relax, I did not buy myself the ring or the roomba.)

We all have voices that run through our head when we think about our own relationship with money.  Whether we are tight fisted, extremely responsible, don’t know how to balance a checkbook, or compulsively shop-those behaviors have come from those voices and how we interpret them.  We can’t escape the voices, but we don’t have to be enslaved by them.

The widow in our story today seems to have found away to move past the voices of anxiety and fear in order to hear the voice of God.

I have to be honest; this story makes me very uncomfortable.  The widow’s actions are antithetical to everything I’ve been taught about money.  I want her to put those two coins in her savings account!  I want her to accrue interest!  I want her to have security for her future!  I want the scribes to get off their high horses and take her under their wing.

But my attitudes about money stem from the very modern idea that my money is mine.  All those voices I hear-whether they advocate responsible saving or wasteful spending-assume the money is mine to spend.

The widow teaches us a different way.  The widow comes from a long tradition of assuming all that we have actually belongs to God.  The widow assumes that whatever money she has is just a gift from God, passing through her life for a little while.  The widow comes from a long tradition of thanking God by returning to God a portion of what he has given.

In the Old Testament, believers are asked to sacrifice to God the fruits of their agricultural lives-grain, pigeons, cattle.  This must have made deep sense to them.  Agricultural life is so dependent on outside circumstances-rain and sun and insects and soil-that raising healthy crops must really have felt like partnering with the divine.  Without soaking rains or bright sun, all of their labor would have been for naught.  They understood that their labor was connected to the earth, which was created by God.

Michael Pollan and others who think about food and health and ethics are happy to remind us that we Americans are far, far, far removed from that agricultural life.  Many of our children have never seen a farm.  I did not know that brussel sprouts grew on that funny stalk until last year!  Any of us who have read Food, Inc. or The Omnivore’s Dilemma know how disconnected we are to the very ground that sustains us.

The thing is, no matter how our income is generated, all of us can trace back the source of our income to Creation.  Mine is a pretty short line.  I get my income my ministering to human beings, who were created by God.  Even though very few of are directly connected to nature in our work, all of us owe our very existence, and the existence of our jobs, homes, spouses, friends, children and yes, even iPods, to God.  In fact, we owe our own existence to God.

We acknowledge this during the Rite I service, in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, when we say:

And here we present and offer to thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee. (BCP 336)

One of my seminary professors, The Rev. Dr. Edward Kryder, taught us to leave the monetary offering on the altar when we celebrated the Eucharist, because when the collection of your money is brought up to the altar, it’s not just cold hard cash.  That money is a symbolic representation of our very selves-our souls and bodies.  When we put money into the offering plate, we’re putting the time and energy and passion we spent making the money.  We put our faith and our values and our belief in the plate.   If we just needed to raise money to keep the heat on, we would not collect the money in the middle of a Eucharist.

The church needs money, yes, but we as people also have a spiritual need to give.  We need to be reminded that we are not alone.  We need to be reminded that we were created and that our life is pure gift.  We need to be reminded that every dime that crosses our threshold is the direct result of the incredible decision of God to create this planet and all the abundance it has to offer us.

The theologian Paul Tillich describes God as the “Ground of our Being.”   I love this image, because it evokes a picture of God literally holding us up-of undergirding all that we are and all that we do.  Experiencing God as the “Ground of our Being” can be incredibly liberating.  I don’t know about you, but I find it all too easy to fall prey to our culture’s spirit of anxiety.  Our culture’s voice says that we aren’t complete persons until we are married with 2.5 kids enrolled in Ivy League schools, a big house in the suburbs, a vacation home at the beach, and at least one Lexus.  Our culture’s voice tells us that we should not be satisfied; we should not feel complete until our life is completely saturated by the material things that bring true happiness.  Our culture can even punish giving.  I have a friend who was audited several times because he gave too MUCH money away to charity!  The IRS was sure he was up to no good because he gave away more than they thought was rational.

We all know that our culture’s version of happiness is empty and fleeting.  By contrast, when we root ourselves in God as the “Ground of our being”, when we listen to God’s voice, we will hear God telling us that we do not need to be anxious.  We do not need to prove anything to anyone.  If we listen to God’s voice, we will hear that God loves us and wants to give us what we need.  If we listen to God’s voice, we will be able to look at our lives with new eyes, able to see the abundance all around us. Listening to God’s voice gives us such a sense of deep security, that we can open our hands and trust that what we give away does not diminish us.

Listening to the voice of God is what frees us from being enslaved by the other voices in our minds.  When we listen to the voice of God, we can understand more clearly which of our voices are destructive, and which of our voices are life giving.  When we are making decisions about money, and the voices are swirling all around us, making us anxious, we can take a deep breath and a moment of silence and listen for what God is saying to us.

God is not an afterthought when it comes to our decisions about money.  God is the very source -not only of our wealth-but also of our life and breath.  We can follow the sound of God’s voice, like sheep follow the sound of a shepherd’s voice-knowing the shepherd will lead safely through even the most difficult places.

Amen.