Sunday, November 10, 2013

What Is Mine (11/10/13)

What Is Mine
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 10, 2013
They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him, "The Roman emperor's people demand taxes from us."
He said to them, "Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God, and give me what is mine."
Gospel of Thomas 100

Today is stewardship Sunday.  For the past four weeks we have had minutes for mission on the topic of stewardship.  There have been articles in the White Spire and announcements in the bulletin.  Everyone by now should have received in the mail a pledge card.  If not, there is one for your convenience in this morning’s bulletin. 

Next Sunday during worship we will have a time to dedicate our pledges.  After church today, everyone is invited to attend our annual Gratitude Dinner.  During this dinner we will take time to celebrate our community.   There is a great deal to celebrate.

Today’s sermon, liturgy and hymns are about stewardship and giving.  The theme for this year is “Giving as Spiritual Growth.”   Giving is good for us.  Giving is what makes us human beings.   Giving is a path toward self-discovery.  Giving helps us detach from our attachments.   Giving allows us to do collectively what we cannot do individually.  Giving brings happiness to ourselves and to others.   If you wish to be happy, give.  Giving people are happy people.  

Of course, I am not saying anything new.  This is ancient wisdom.   These truths are made evident in the lives of those who have sought to live them. 

Albert Schweitzer wrote  The Quest for the Historical Jesus in 1906 and following that practiced medicine as a medical missionary in Africa.  He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work in 1953.  He once told a graduating class of students:

“I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
I believe he was right. I have worked in the church for over twenty years now.  The reason I was attracted to it is because of the church’s emphasis on giving and service.   The church invites us to be our best selves.

I know it is cool to be cynical about the church.   The church is accused of being greedy, small-minded, backward, superstitious, and hypocritical.   Well, sure. What institution or individual at times isn’t?   Cynicism ultimately is a shallow path.    If cynicism is used as an excuse not to give or to serve then that is its fruit. It is another excuse.   Another wise person once said, “If you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.” I don’t spend too much time worrying over the cynics. 

The reason is that I have seen people give and serve.    I have seen givers and servers and I have been honored to work alongside them in my years of ministry.  

I have seen people give up Saturday after Saturday to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. 

I have seen people bring meals and comfort to those who are sick. 

I have seen people volunteer in the nursery and teach Sunday School to children and to work with our youth without knowing the impact this giving and serving has and will have in encouraging minds and hearts.     

I have seen people give of their time to sing in church choirs, clean up after church dinners, share what they have learned with others, weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh, week in week out, day in day out, givers and servers in small things and large.   

The value of that, if we are not careful, can be overlooked.  It is no small thing to give and to serve.  It is what makes us human beings. 

I have seen people discover and find their passion within the life of faith communities and give themselves to it. 

I know for me it was in the context of church that I discovered the movement for equality for LGBT people. 

It was in the context of church that I found my voice to speak on behalf of peace.

It was the context of church that the word stewardship expanded to be about care for Earth.  

It was in the context of church that I was encouraged to learn about ways to make life meaningful.  

I have seen this be true for others, perhaps you as well.

I know many in this congregation who have found information, wisdom, encouragement, and inspiration to advocate on issues of importance for our local community and for the world at large.   Whether it is peacemaking, or domestic violence, or the environment, or science literacy or hunger, I cannot name them all.  I would offer a friendly challenge to anyone to make an exhaustive list of things in which this congregation has been involved.   You can make a list and then someone will look at it and say, “You forgot this,” and another will say, “And you forgot that.”

It is important regularly to take stock of what we have and who we are as a congregation.  To give thanks.  To say, “Let’s keep this going.  This is important.”

It was in the context of church that I learned about giving.  I saw people give not only of their time and their skills and their passion but also of their hard earned money to something larger than their individual lives.  It was from the example of people in church, that I learned the discipline of giving,

whether by tithing,
or by making a pledge and filling it throughout the year,
or by making a commitment to give a percentage of each paycheck. 

Whatever the method, I learned disciplined giving by watching others do it in church.  The person from whom I learned this first was my own mother.  She just celebrated her 90th birthday.  To this day, she is most certainly a saint who gives and serves.  

“I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

When I recall all of these givers that I have known in my life I feel gratitude and pride.   I am thankful and proud to have known them and to have served with them. They have inspired me to discover my better self.  I also realize that I am but a novice and I have a long way to go and much to learn about giving and serving.  

Giving and serving isn’t easy.  Church isn’t easy.  Being a member of a faith community is not about consuming church goods.  Being in community is a challenge.  It is a challenge to each of us to be our better selves.  It is a challenge to receive and to offer forgiveness, to work collaboratively with others, to make decisions, to negotiate differences, to respect different styles, to understand various viewpoints, to honor our differences, to draw from these differences to create something unified and beautiful.  To make it work, each of us must seek and find a way to give and to serve.  

Of my many teachers, I have found those in Alcoholics Anonymous to be especially wise.   Following the recital of the twelve steps, the text in the Big Book reads:

“Many of us exclaimed, "What an order! I can't go through with it." Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is that we were willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.”

That is wise advice for faith communities.  It is sage advice for those who wish to become givers and servers.  Disciplined giving is a tall order.   But the point isn’t to compare ourselves with others or to judge ourselves or to praise ourselves.   The point is not to think we have arrived or to despair that we will never arrive.  The point is the journey.  The point is progress not perfection. 

One of the reasons I enjoy the Gospel of Thomas is because I find it to be an especially helpful resource for the journey.   There are many ways to read this gospel and I read it as wisdom for the road.   Jesus even says in Thomas to “Be passersby.”  

This life journey to discover our core, our joy, our rest, our meaning is an adventure and best travelled lightly and without too many attachments to those things that keep us anxious over what we will eat, where we will sleep, what we will wear and so forth.  

The discipline of giving and the life devoted to serving helps us to loosen those attachments.   When we are less attached to our own needs and desires we are able to be present to life as it is.   We are able to be present to ourselves as we are.   We are not defined by our attachments but by something far more beautiful and important. This is a possible meaning of this exchange between Jesus and his disciples:

They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him, "The Roman emperor's people demand taxes from us."
He said to them, "Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God, and give me what is mine."
Gospel of Thomas 100

Versions of this exchange are found in the synoptic gospels.  The last line, “give to me what is mine” is unique to Thomas.   What does that mean?  

At the beginning of Thomas, the promise is made that those who discover the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.   “Discover the meaning of life” in other words.   What is that truth?   What is that meaning?   Hints are given throughout.   It is stated explicitly I think in saying 108:

Jesus said, "Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him."

When Jesus speaks of himself in Thomas I interpret him to be speaking of the authentic human.   That human is also you and me, beyond the trappings of ego.  Jesus in Thomas is your real self.   Give to that. 
“Give to me what is mine” could mean, “Give your life to authenticity.”  Beyond our duty as citizens, beyond our concepts even of God, give them their due, but give to what is life-giving.     That is not defined explicitly.   That is for you to discover.  

I think this particular community is a Thomas community in that regard.   Each of us is on our own journey, our own sacred path.  We aren’t here to interfere with that or to control that.   We aren’t here to tell you how to get to heaven or to avoid hell if there are such places in the first place.     We are here to share our wisdom and to hear the wisdom of the ancients and to test it to see if it works for us.  

That freedom is a precious and valuable gift.   If faith communities have their own personalities and gifts, that freedom to discover and follow your path may be a gift of this community.    

That is a rare and precious gift.   

It is worthy of our gifts.


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