A month or so ago, I got my marching orders from the Stewardship Committee, and, being the dutiful and obedient soul that all of you know me to be, I am following their instructions to the letter. Today my sermon will be about Stewardship, and it will be in two parts. The first will address a few aspects of the finances of this parish. In the second part we will think together about the implications of this morning’s Gospel for Stewardship and for the Christian’s spiritual life.
As all of you know, the Church of the Advent is fortunate enough to have a sizable endowment. This is a boon for any institution, but for a large church with venerable buildings in an expensive city it is a blessing and – let’s face it – it is also a necessity.
The endowment has come to us over the years from a number of people. Some have added to it during their lifetime; others have remembered us in their wills. There have been some large sums of money and there have been many small sums. It is very important to note, however, that they have come to us not out of the largesse of the rich and powerful, but rather out of gratitude for what the Church of the Advent has meant in various people’s lives. They gave, they remembered the Church of the Advent, because they had received from the Church of the Advent. They gave because they had received. The major part of our endowment came to us some years ago from a woman who was a doctor – one of the first woman doctors in Boston – and a regular Sunday by Sunday communicant for decades. During my time here we have received several remarkable legacies. Nearly a half million dollars from a man who was a janitor. A sizable sum from a woman who ran a dress shop. And quite recently, more than three-quarters of a million dollars from a man who can only be described as odd. Likable, lovable, but funny and odd. And so, you see, again what has come to us has not come from the grand and glorious, the rich and the powerful, but rather from fairly inconspicuous people who had in common this one thing: their devotion to and their gratitude for the Church of the Advent. They gave because they had received.
That’s a first point. Here comes a second. Without the endowment the Church of the Advent would not exist, and so we should give thanks for the generosity and the gratitude of the dead. Income from the endowment allows us to maintain and repair the buildings. It covers certain unvarying expenses – heat, light, cleaning, office expenses, insurance and so on – and these are expenses over which we have absolutely no control. They must be met and they must be paid for simply to keep us open and operating. But that’s as far as it goes – simply to keep us open and operating. Nothing more.
Everything else depends upon the disciplined giving of those who are members of the Church of the Advent. You have heard me say this before and you may well hear me say it again, for it cannot be overstated. Those things which make a church, a community, a living family of believers depend on the disciplined giving of us all – our programs – our projects, teaching for children and adults, the pastoral availability of the clergy, financial aid in emergencies, various activities – like Theology on Tap, the Prayer and Care Team, our outreach like the Community Dinner and other projects to aid the poor and needy. These things which – again – make us a church, not just a group of buildings on Beacon Hill, but a living, involved community of believers – these are made possible by the disciplined giving of that community of believers. Your pledge to this Parish is very important. It is, in fact, essential. What we do and what we are is determined by what we give.
Now let’s turn to Scripture: Caesar’s tax and whether to pay it. I’ve seen one of the coins mentioned in the Gospel this morning. Even today authentic ones are very common in the Holy Land, and you can buy one from a reputable merchant or you can buy a fake one from a guy in the street. They’re not very big – about twice the size of one’s thumbnail – and they weren’t worth very much – about a day’s wages for a laborer. And so the tax about which Jesus was questioned by his opponents was not necessarily burdensome. Most people could pay it without much of a problem. And this means, of course, that the question put to Jesus was about much more than money. It was about politics and it was about power, for the tax was a tax levied by the Roman oppressor. A tax upon God’s chosen people – His nation – by their Gentile conquerors. Some Jews saw paying the tax as an act of treason. It was, then, partly for this group that his opponents posed the question. If Jesus said, “God ahead. Pay up,” he was a traitor and a fraud. But not to pay was to defy the authority of Rome, and so if Jesus declared the tax not to be lawful, he was a rebel and a danger to the prevailing order. And so, you see, his opponents were playing both sides of the game; it was also for the Romans that his opponents posed the question. If Jesus said, “Don’t pay” – well, the Romans knew how to deal with people who defied them.
Hypocrites indeed, these people. Playing both sides of the game and trying to trap Jesus. What a pitiful scene: the religious and political authorities threatened by a wandering rabbi.
But there is a bit more going on in this story from St. Matthew. It is somewhat less obvious, so let me explain. The tax was levied on every man, woman, child – slave or free – in the Empire. It was called the κέντος, census, and that’s what it was – a head tax, a yearly and rather simple method of taking stock of the population. This may sound fairly innocent and insignificant, but it’s not. It is a method of control. To know how many people there are and where they are is a first step in controlling them. And so, you see, to pay the tax, the κέντος, was for a Jew not only to recognize the oppressor, but also to make possible the oppression.
One more thing. The tax had to be paid in Roman coinage – no local currency. That is how Jesus knew what he was going to see when his opponents showed him the coin, and what he did see was this: the head, image of Tiberius the Emperor and an inscription which declared Tiberius to be divine. The coin, itself, was then both a blasphemy and a forbidden graven image. Some Jews would not even touch one; they got others to pay the tax for them. But such scruples were of no interest to Jesus’ opponents. They just wanted to get him. But they failed. They lost the game.
And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away. (Matt. 22:19-22)
There is a great deal to be said about Jesus’ very quick and brilliant reply. I want to leave that for another time. More apropos today is to notice that the story we heard is based upon the relationship between money and power. In this instance, a small amount of money had wide-ranging implications for power. The two, of course, are always related. Sometimes they are even equivalent: money is power and power is money. Both are necessary for life in the world. Both are capable of bringing about great good, but they are equally capable of bringing about great evil and horror and destruction and death.
Money and power can make intelligent people foolish and stupid. Money and power can make good people turn bad and bad people get worse. Money and power can make us betray our families, our friends, our country, our faith. Money and power can blind us to our station in the created world, seducing us into thinking, like that Emperor on the Roman coin, that we are god. Money and power are necessary, but they are also extraordinarily dangerous. Dangerous.
And that is why, good people, there must be a discipline about money and power in each of our lives. We must keep these in control and not let them take us over. Not let them lead us astray or blind us to reality. And that is one of the things that stewardship and pledging is all about: not being taken over. Living out the acknowledgement that all we are and all we have, we have received from God. (It is not ours. We have it in trust.) A pledge is a disciplined – weekly, monthly, whatever – acknowledgement of that truth by returning to God a portion of what we have received from Him. That truth can only live in us if we live it out, if we adopt it as a discipline and a commitment.
And so, here we are. Today we begin together to think about this commitment and this discipline. Let us pray God that we may hear this truth and that, as Jesus said, that truth may make us free.