Sirach 35:12-17 Psalms 84:1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 Luke 18:9-14
A torn and ragged one-dollar bill discovered that it was about to be retired from circulation. As it slowly moved along the conveyor belt to the shredder, it became acquainted and struck up a conversation with a fifty-dollar bill that was meeting the same fate. The fifty began reminiscing about its travels all over the country. Life has been good,” the fifty exclaimed. “Why, I’ve been to Las Vegas, the finest restaurants in New York, political fund raisers, and just returned from a cruise on the Caribbean.” Gee,” said the one-dollar bill, “you’re fortunate to have been able to visit all those places.” So where all have you been in your lifetime, my little friend,” says the fifty?” “Well, I’ve been to … the Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Assembly of God Church, the Brethren Church, the Quaker Church, the Pentecostal Church, the Charismatic Church, the Mennonite Church, the Church of Christ...” “Excuse me,” says the fifty, “but what’s a church?”
Talk about getting a message. Don’t you love how the Lord works? The reading from Sirach – “Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford. For the Lord is the one who repays, and he will repay you sevenfold.” Now if that is not an introduction to a stewardship sermon, I don’t know what is. Sirach describes God in terms of the good and righteous judge, who desires justice for the vulnerable. The first two verses, whose original context refers to Temple offerings, reminds readers that their gifts and offerings pale in comparison to all that the Lord gives. Consequently, their gifts, which include tithes and offerings for the work of the Lord, as well as alms for the sake of the poor, ought to be as generous as possible.
The remaining verses describe the court of the divine Judge. There is no benefit to being wealthy or powerful (or, we might add, highly educated, or beautiful, or well –placed, or settled in the right neighborhood) when we stand in this court, as this Judge “takes no bribes” and shows “no partiality.” But, the one who has been wronged will have the Judge’s ear – orphans and widows, and all of those who have been oppressed in a society that benefits the powerful – all will be heard by the Lord. The passage builds an ethic of concern toward those who cry out to God in distress. As people attend to these cries, they “give to the Most High as he has given to you.”
The giving of our time, talents and treasures shapes who we are and whose we are. Growing in faith together! In relation to Stewardship, the giving of time is such a valuable component. At one point or another we have all been on the receiving end of someone’s generosity when they shared their time with us. We experience it in times of grief, times of despair, times of celebration, times of gathering together to be of one heart. We spent some time cleaning up after the New to You sale on Friday evening because there was a Cursillo meeting in the parish hall on Saturday. The tired but willing workers became the hands and feet and heart of Christ as we packed, sweated and loaded the left-overs. Piece by piece we loaded the U-Haul while others sweep up the remains. We rode to Goodwill in a caravan of love. Jesus gave countless hours to help make the world a better place and so did we by contributing to the lives that Goodwill impacts.
Many of us are blessed to have been raised by or mentored by responsible people. The giving of time is so important in creating a society that is fiscally responsible and that people can learn to grow into being givers in society instead of takers. In so doing, we ensure the success of many generations of children that will be raised with God’s blessings in a nurturing and spiritually blessed world.
Time, and talent, some of us seem to have more available than others. The giving of our time and talents helps us keep a sense of perspective and it helps others by lifting their burden. The experts say that one of the best ways to get out of depression, is to do something for someone else. In our doing, in our giving, we step outside of ourselves and welcome the needs of others into our lives, into our hearts. We all have talents, strengths to offer and here, at Grace there are lots of ways to help – volunteer to deliver the Sacks for Saturday to the children at Ruskin Elementary, help pack the snacks, make a meal for the Tuesday night GriefShare group, come to help make sandwiches for the Mary Street Misson folks on the second and fourth Tuesdays, join the choir, join the Altar Guild, become a Lay Eucharistic Minister, be a reader on Sunday, be an Usher, join in the Men’s Group or the ECW activities, come and help with our seasonal church clean-up days. There are lots of opportunities, but sometimes we may want to give money for a special project instead of physically helping. It all helps, it all moves us closer to God when we get out to the way, when we listen to our hearts and let God equip us and guide us.
In Luke, we hear about the Pharisee and the tax collector. The first words of the parable sound like the beginning of one of my jokes, “A priest, a rabbi and the Pope walk into a bar” or “A doctor and a lawyer went out to play a round of golf.” Even before revealing the punch line, these opening lines set up a particular kind of story, one that has a twist at the end. In Jesus’ parable today, “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Already, we expect a story that will play upon our expectations, with a “good” character and a “bad” one. But, who will we identify with?
Both men are at the Temple, a key location for Luke’s narrative. Both of the men are living out their covenant commitments to God. Both men are praying, a common practice for Jesus and those faithful people around him. Whatever else the parable teaches; it suggests that prayer and worship are key elements of a life of faith. It also suggests that we cannot immediately judge a “book by its cover.” Outward appearances do not reveal to us the one who is faithful and righteous - acceptable to God. God always looks at our hearts.
The first hearers of the parable already had their own preconceived ideas about the characters in the parable. Tax collectors, whether they worked for the priests of the Jerusalem Temple or for regional political leaders reporting to Roman authorities, were generally despised by the people. The tax collectors answered to Rome and some Jews considered them as collaborators with the oppressors. The Jews mistrusted them. Other Jews detested the fact that tax collectors frequently became rich off the backs of those they collected from. The people despised tax collectors and didn’t expect Jesus to use one as a model of faithfulness.
Tax collectors – whoever promised the most taxes to the authorities got the job, and they made a profit by collecting more than what they promised to pay the Romans. How much were the taxes in Jesus’ day? Between the taxes due the Romans and the tithes and offerings due to the Temple authorities, the tax rate was anywhere from 50 to 75 percent, and instead of being graduated, they were regressive, so that the less someone earned, the higher percentage they paid. This puts a new spin on it. Tax collectors were not popular people.
The Pharisees were devoted to God’s commandments, and they worked to discern how best to live their lives and to act faithfully in everyday matters. The Pharisee, in the parable, fasts twice a week and tithes, and demonstrates positive acts of his piety. To Jesus’ audience, Pharisees were widely admired religious leaders. So, it was not hard for them to choose a side in the parable. But what do we see? The Pharisee justifies himself before God by trying to exalt himself. He prayed about who he was, what he had done, and what he had not done to put himself in good standing with God.
One of my favorite sayings, “God don’t like cocky!” God does not honor our strong opinions of ourselves if they come from us and are not supported by the community of faith. God wants us to know and appreciate our gifts, talents and skills, but also to remember where they came from. All that we have, all that we are comes from God. When we use our gifts for the glory of God in the community of faith, we are blessed, we are valued, we become priceless.
The prayer offered by the Pharisee seems boastful, judgmental and self-assured. But the standard prayer of the faithful included thanksgiving for not being a long list of things – a sinner, a beggar, a thief. Are we supposed to hate this man because he keeps and exceeds the requirements of his religious tradition? Jesus says, “I tell you, the tax collector was justified before God, not the Pharisee.” Justified means “accepted by God,” “ right with God.” God receives those who repent and seek his mercy rather than those who brag about their supposed virtues.
The tax collector humbled himself, genuinely acknowledging his sinfulness and his desperate need for God’s mercy. In the end, the Pharisee was humbled, because of his self-exaltation, and the tax collector was exalted because of his humility. The Pharisee trusted in himself for his own righteousness. The tax collector trusted in God for righteousness. He did nothing to earn or deserve God’s mercy. God’s mercy was freely given to him. God’s mercy is new each day. Each day we can decide to live for ourselves or to live for God. So, the question remains from the reading from Sirach – who are we called to cry out for? Who in our community needs help since there is no one to plead their cause, except God?
Stewardship is not just about money. It is about giving of ourselves, giving from the heart, giving for the glory of God. Stewardship is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. When we accept our lives as gifts, the Holy Spirit can use us as instruments for spreading the Gospel. Where the Holy Spirit works, there is joy. Good stewards are always the joyful bearers of the Good News. Stewardship is about giving so that God may come alive for more people.
Stewardship is about seeing a need and standing up to meet that need. It is about connecting with others, about praying for others, listening to others, loving others. We are in this together as the body of Christ – the hands, feet, eyes, ears, heart of Christ. I ask that you pray about what God is calling you to do. Giving matters! If each of us gave a little more, not break-the-bank more, but just a little more so that when added together we could reach that vision God is giving us.
One of the hardest things to get across about stewardship is what it is not. It is not arm twisting and guilt laden. It is about celebrating God’s gifts to us, God’s presence, God’s love within us. It is about responding in love. God has given all of us so many wonderful gifts. When those gifts are used for the glory of God in the community of faith we are being good stewards of God’s resources. Augustine said, “Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.” I’m not much of a betting person, but I think the odds are better with God. Give so that much will be given to you!! Amen.