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Thanksgiving and Offering Our Lives
November 22, 2020
Matthew 22:15-22; Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Multiple Academy Award winning actress Katharine Hepburn told a story about a time when she was a teenager and she was standing in line with her father to buy tickets for the circus. The family in front of them consisted of two parents and their eight children, all of whom were under the age of 12.
She writes, “The way they were dressed, you could tell they didn’t have a lot of money, but their clothes were neat and clean. The children were well-behaved, all of them standing in line, two-by-two behind their parents, holding hands. They were excitedly jabbering about the clowns, animals, and all the acts they would be seeing that night. By their excitement you could sense they had never been to the circus before. It would be a highlight of their lives.
“The father and mother were at the head of the pack standing proud as could be. The mother was holding her husband’s hand, looking up at him as if to say, ‘You’re my knight in shining armor.’ He was smiling and enjoying seeing his family happy.” But when he heard the cost of the ten tickets, it was clear he couldn’t afford that.
Hepburn adds, “How was he supposed to turn and tell his eight kids that he didn’t have enough money to take them to the circus? Seeing what was going on, my dad reached into his pocket, pulled out a $20 bill, and then dropped it on the ground. (We were not wealthy in any sense of the word!) My father bent down, picked up the $20 bill, tapped the man on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, this fell out of your pocket.’
“The man understood what was going on. He wasn’t begging for a handout but certainly appreciated the help in a desperate, heartbreaking and embarrassing situation. He looked straight into my dad’s eyes, took my dad’s hand in both of his, squeezed tightly onto the $20 bill, and with his lip quivering and a tear streaming down his cheek, he replied: ‘Thank you, thank you, sir. This really means a lot to me and my family.'
“My father and I went back to our car and drove home. The $20 that my dad gave away is what we were going to buy our own tickets with. Although we didn’t get to see the circus that night, we both felt a joy inside us that was far greater than seeing the circus could ever provide. That day I learnt the value [of giving].
Hepburn ends her story by saying, “The importance of giving, blessing others can never be over emphasized because there’s always joy in giving. Learn to make someone happy by acts of giving.” What a great lesson to learn early in life! That allowed her to make generosity a focus for her life. I can’t be sure she followed through with that, but the fact that she remembered that incident from her teenaged years so clearly indicates she probably did.
Today we have come to the end of our six-week stewardship campaign. For the past five weeks, we’ve been talking about the variety of issues that come under the umbrella of stewardship. We will climax our Season of Thanksgiving campaign today when we dedicate our financial pledges near the end of this service.
But our focus today is on more than just financial generosity — as important that is to our own spiritual health and that of our community. Today’s focus is on dedicating our entire lives to God. And that’s really the emphasis of all three of our scripture readings today. However, I want to direct our attention just to the last two.
Our Old Testament lesson begins immediately after the conquest of the Promised Land. The children of the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt are about to disband their army and settle in their new home. But before they do, Joshua calls them to gather at Shechem to hold a formal ceremony during which they would recommit to God.
Once their need to depend on God for their food — the manna and quails — and for their very lives in the desert was gone, Joshua was concerned that the people of Israel would drift away from what is really important in life as they settled into the mundane routines of everyday life.
So he reviewed the history of God’s care for the people and then he placed a stark decision before them, “[…] choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served […] or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” The phrase “the gods of the Amorites” refers to the idols worshiped by those people who had just been displaced from the Promised Land. So Joshua is asking, “Will you switch back to the gods of your parents or those of your neighbors or will you remain loyal to the only true God?”
Isn’t that a great question to ask ourselves every so often as well? Oh, sure, we have many centuries of belief in monotheism in this country. So we don’t think we worship other gods and certainly not idols, because we believe idols are statues of various gods or goddesses. However, those statues were actually symbols of a divine power over the sun, the wind, the rain or whatever. So the statue was an attempt to gain a bit of power over the specific god.
But don’t we actually find ourselves focussing too intently on our jobs or ambitions or our money or leisure time? None of those things are necessarily bad in and of themselves. Yet don’t any of those things become an idol to us when we concentrate on them to the detriment of our commitment to God?
What if, instead of that, we listened to Sydney Jackson’s advice? He once wrote, “What would it be like if we were to live as if God is really present everywhere and in everything? As if every happening and every other person involves us in an encounter with the divine? Life would be very different, to be sure.
“There’d be a lot more mutual respect in the world. Political campaigns wouldn’t be so ugly. Bullying […] would be no more. Individuals and corporations might stop trashing the environment.
“One of the ancient names for the Messiah, the Christ, is Emmanuel — a Hebrew name that means ‘God with us.’ If we could only live in the awareness of ‘God with us,’ of God’s deep and abiding presence in everything and everybody around us, we would find ourselves transformed.” I would add that we might also be willing to do more than just dedicating our financial pledges to God; we might understand the value of dedicating our whole lives to God.
Isn’t that the ultimate point of our Gospel lesson? Jesus is challenged by his enemies about the legality of paying taxes to the occupying Roman army. So Jesus asks them to show him the coin used to pay those taxes. A strictly observant Jew would never carry that coin, both because the image itself broke the second commandment against making “graven images” and because the inscription on the coin read “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus,” which breaks the first commandment about having no other gods but the Lord of Heaven.
Clearly, Jesus’ enemies weren’t concerned about such restrictions or they would have been unable to produce the coin. But the key moment in the passage comes with Jesus’ famous pronouncement, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Genesis 1:26 clearly identifies what it is that bears the image of God — that is, you and me. Therefore, Jesus’ statement is his way of saying that “what belongs to God” is none other than our entire self. We owe God quite literally everything.
God has created each of us with a unique combination of skills and interests and God has given each of us a purpose for our lives. We have the freedom to develop or to overlook those skills and even to ignore the purpose God has given us. But the truth is that when we do nothing with God’s gifts, we impose limits our lives and unknowingly miss out on the abundant life has planned for us.
In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson writes a section about DNA, that is, about the genetic code for life.
According to Bryson, the probability that someone would be born who is exactly like you in every possible way is one in 10 to the 2,400,000,000th power. He says that if you were to write that number out, with each zero in the number being exactly one inch wide, you’d need a strip of paper 37,000 miles long!
In contrast, scientists estimate that the total number of particles in the entire universe is 10 to the 76th power, which — using the same rules — could be written on a piece of paper shorter than most of the players in the National Basketball Association. [Thanks to Claire Clyburn]
Those numbers are staggering, but they serve to point up the fact that there literally is no one quite like you. There never has been nor will there ever be again. And with just a little imagination, you can almost picture God as an artist, carefully and lovingly mixing the elements of your DNA by hand, to create the perfect you.
God has fashioned you for a purpose that is locked deep into makeup of your DNA. It is a larger meaning for your existence that matches your skills and your personality in a way that it matches no one else. You have the right to deny that purpose. If you do, God will still achieve his purpose by other means.
But if you deny your purpose, you’ll be rejecting a significant part of who you are. On the other hand, if you accept God’s plan for you — if you accept invitation to become a genuine steward of the whole of your life — you will find that the world will be enriched for you and blessed by you. You will also find God’s power flowing through you in ways that are beyond imagination.
I believe that is especially important during these darkened days of rising COVID infections even as we all tire of the restrictions placed on our lives and worry about the economic damage caused inflicted on us or others. Isn’t one of the tasks God has called us to perform as Christians is to serve as a bearers of hope for a world that desperately needs good news?
After all, Jesus called us to be the “light of the world.” But that means, of course, that we have to find that light for ourselves before we can begin to share it with anyone else. However, if you look for God’s light even in the midst of the darkest of the world’s shadows, you’ll find that that light is always there.
It is the peace of God which allows us to fulfill our call to be stewards of our lives by serving as signs of hope for a world that is tormented by random disease and death. It is the peace of God which reminds us that we can be thankful to God every moment of our lives regardless of our outward circumstances.
Anne Le Bas reminds us, “If we don’t make our choices deliberately, we will find in the end that we have made them by default, swept along by the tides of life. Resisting commitment is just as much a choice as choosing it […]. So however far we’ve come through life, we still have choices to make. Today we will have choices about the way we spend our time or our money, the way we treat those around us, the way we think about ourselves and others, the words we speak — words that build up or tear down. […] Which will be the right ones?
“There are no easy answers, but it seems to me that the key to making those choices well is […w]hich of the paths leads us towards a life in which we, and others, can find their dignity and true identity as beloved children of God? Which choice takes us beyond ourselves and our own narrow interests to a world in which there is justice for all? These are the paths which Jesus took and if we choose them, we will find ourselves walking in the footsteps of the Holy One of God, the Word whose life was so strong, so eternal that even the cross couldn’t snuff it out.”
Since that is the case, why not dedicate yourself to God and join Joshua in pledging, “as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD”? Amen.
by Jim McCrea
Rev. Jim McCrea
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