Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sermon: October 19

Humpty Dumpty sat on Wall Street…

As one person has put it:

THE financial world is a mess, both in the United States and abroad. Its problems, moreover, have been leaking into the general economy, and the leaks are now turning into a gusher. In the near term, unemployment will rise, business activity will falter and headlines will continue to be scary.

So ... I’ve been buying American stocks. Why?

A simple rule dictates my buying: Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful. And most certainly, fear is now widespread, gripping even seasoned investors, but fears regarding the long-term prosperity of the nation’s many sound companies make no sense.

These words are from the Billionaire investor Warren Buffett in an opinion column in the NY Times on Thursday. He is right. We are living in a time of fear. We are waiting for the other shoe to drop…

Already pension plans have lost much; having talked with my mom the other day who is retired, she is watching money evaporate from her 401(k), sitting on a house she wants to sell but there are no buyers and there is no credit for those who might want to buy. Some have called this the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; many of us are feeling the weight of anxiety.

Despite the grim financial news, with small businesses hurting, and everybody weary of the volatility and the crisis in home mortgages, there remains a hopefulness…

Buffett sees the hopeful signs in the sound companies that will ultimately help us get through these times. I agree with him, these businesses are good and helpful, and yet we as Christians, must place our hopefulness & faithfulness elsewhere…

The Israelites had experienced a crisis of faith when Moses went up the mountain. They had experienced moments of hunger and thirst and wondered what the days ahead would be like. There was much anxiety. After Moses went up the mountain and did not return, they began to lose their way and they created a golden calf to worship, to lead them; it was something tangible to hold on to as they had forgotten what God had done for them. They preferred the now, forgot the past and did not look forward to what God had promised.

After the calf was destroyed and those who had worshipped it were removed from the community, we hear Moses in today’s reading asking God directly to lead, asking what was next and to walk with the Israelites. And God responded to his faithful questions; each time Moses responded more boldly in his prayers and each time God responded.

It is Moses who embodies that hopefulness and faithfulness we are called to live. The reading reminds me that as we pray, we are called to pray boldly, that indeed God is with us and will answer. But it also reminds me that we must beware of the Golden Calves that exist all around us that make us “rich in things but poor in soul.”

And it is Jesus who reminds us what our priority needs to be. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus has moved the conversation of paying taxes to the emperor to a deeper level of truth. Yes, give to the emperor that which is the emperor's, in a sense give it back to the emperor. And give to God that which is God's. The emperor may collect his coin for taxes but we are made in the image of God and owe to God much, much more. What it means, is that we owe God, as Jesus implies, we owe God our life. How we live it, how we give it away.

Jesus calls us to live in this world by the values that God has given us. Jesus is not saying, "give to the Emperor those things that are the Emperor's, and the rest to God." Nor is Jesus saying, "give to the Emperor the worldly things and give to God the spiritual things."

Both of these statements put the Emperor equal to God. It is the second part of Jesus' answer that we need to examine, to give to God those things that are God's, for God created everything that is. And so it is the living out of our deepest held beliefs and convictions that connects us with the God who made us. We may give our money back to the government in the form of taxes, we pay bills with it, we spend it, we save it. But the almighty dollar isn’t almighty, and it belongs to God just as assuredly as we do.

Too often our hopes revolve around our money. It is a possession and too often it possesses us.

So in this time when we consider our stewardship of our money, how we spend it, we need to consider how we honor God, how we give to God the things that are God’s, and how our wealth is used for the glory of God. We live in these anxious times and in a culture that does not believe in generosity that sells things based not on our need, but on our insecurities so we’ll buy their products. We live in a scarcity culture where there is not enough and we have to hoard what we do have. The Emperor is not only government but is really anything that draws us away from giving to God fully…

And it is so easy in this economic downturn to hold on to everything we have, fearful of what is to come. But God has made us not so we will live in fear, in despair, in scarcity but so we will live in joy, in hope, in love.

I think of John Chrysostom, an early Church father who put it this way, “things themselves do not remain, but their effects do. Therefore we should not be mean and calculating with what we have but give with a generous hand. Look at how much people give to players and dancers – why not give just as much to Christ?”

Chrysostom words written some 1600 years ago, ring true today…look how much we give to watch a sporting event, go to a concert, go to the theater, look at how much we spend on entertainment (on players and dancers) than consider what we give to the Church, what we give to other charitable organizations.

We often give to our Emperors our first fruits and give what remains to God, but what would our spending look like if we gave to God first rather than last? What if we refused to buy into the scarcity way of thinking from the culture of the Emperor, and instead believed in the bounty and generosity that God has given us?

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” What if we dared to pray to God to give us a generous spirit, and a hopeful heart in the midst of these times?

Around the world today Christians from all walks of life are praying to God and asking their Emperors, their representatives in government to not only bail out the rich and mighty, but to remember the poor and needy, the neighbor nearby and far away.

Let us join in that prayer [Micah Challenge - see above post].

Jesus did not give us a blueprint on how to give to God, but he gave us a way to live: a loving heart, a generous hand, a faithful spirit.

May God bless us and guide us to do just that in our lives today. Amen.

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