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Nothing, Some, Or All

Gathering Up the Fragments
Preaching As Spiritual Practice
The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
-- Matthew 22:15-22

I'd like to begin with a series of quotes, and then a story.

The first comes from the novel, Four Souls, by Louise Erdrich, and is a meditation on time:

Time is the water in which we live, and we breathe it like fish. It's hard to swim against the current. Time is an element no human has mastered; we are all bound to go where we are sent. There is only time. For what are we all but bits of time caught for a moment in a tangle of blood, bones, skin, and brain? We are time's containers. Time pours into us and then pours out again. In between the two pourings, we live our destiny.1

The second is a word of wisdom from the monk/writer Thomas Merton on the difference between pleasure and joy:

Do not look for any rest in pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for joy. And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and joy, you have not begun to live.2

The third is from the opening chapter of Rick Warren's book, The Purpose-Driven Life:

It's not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It's far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God.3

Those are the quotes: In between time pouring in and out of us, we live our destiny; we were created not for pleasure, but for joy; the purpose of our lives rests in God. Now the story:

There once was a man who collected fine pearls. Pearls were both his passion and his profession, as he searched the world over for the finest pearls and made his fortune selling them to others. One day he heard of an exquisite pearl for sale in a pawn shop on the other side of town and he jumped in his car to investigate. Sure enough, beneath the dust and debris of a dilapidated store, he found the pearl, more beautiful than any he had ever seen or been privileged to own. "What do you want for this pearl?" he asked the shop owner. "Oh, I don't know," the owner replied. "What do you got?" The man opened his wallet: "I have $223," he said. "All right, I'll take it," the owner said. "What else do you got?" "I have a credit card with a $1,000 spending limit," he said. "Okay, I'll take that, too. What else?" As if bewitched by this pearl, the man began to barter everything he owned: his car, his house. In his delusion he thought he could give away his wife and two kids. And the shopkeeper kept on saying, "Okay. I'll take that. What else you got?" Until there was nothing left.

The man took the pearl and was about to leave. The shopkeeper stopped him and said, "You know the last thing I need is another wife and two kids. You take yours back. But remember, they don't belong to you. And I don't need another house. You take yours. But remember, it doesn't belong to you." And so it went -- the shop owner gave him everything back -- his car, his credit card, even the $223 in his wallet. "But remember: your life doesn't belong to you."

When Jesus said, in response to the Pharisees' baiting him on the question of taxes, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's," he wasn't being flip. He meant it: Give the world its due; but give to God the things that are God's. But he left us to answer the question for ourselves: What belongs to God?

I can think of three possible answers: The first: nothing. Nothing of who we are, have been given, or have earned belongs to God. The second: Some portion of who we are, what we have been given, or have earned belongs to God. Or, the third: everything. Everything we are, have been given, or have earned belongs not to us, but to God.

We hear the first answer loud and clear in the predominant voices of our culture. God. Instead of Rick Warren's assertion: "It's not about you," our culture cries out, "It's all about you. You take it all; you need it all; you deserve it all." Not only is it all about us, it's all up to us, too. We're essentially on our own. Our destiny is ours to figure out or to give away to the most urgent pressure, nagging anxiety, or tantalizing pleasure that overtakes us.

Fortunately, "Nothing belongs to God" isn't an answer that satisfies for long. For those of us who feel or hunger for the presence of God in our lives, it rings hollow even as we find ourselves periodically seduced by it. Somehow we know that we were not created for nothing, that there is a greater purpose to life than consumption, a larger canvas on which to work than simply the backdrop of what we can figure out or make happen on our own. We have this need, this desire to give, and not only to give but to give back something of all that is entrusted to us.

That would lead us to consider the second answer to the question, "What belongs to God?" Some portion of who we are, what we've been given, or have earned belongs to God. Some portion -- there's significant spiritual energy around this idea of giving back some portion of our lives to God. In scripture there are the ancient stories of the Israelites giving the firstfruits of their harvest to the temple and the spiritual practice of not reaping to the very edges of their fields, so that there was always some left over for those not fortunate enough to own a field. There is the idea of a tithe: giving 10% of one's earnings, one's time, one's creative energies away to the glory of God and in service to others.

It's a good start to think in these terms. We all have to start somewhere in learning how to give in a world that overwhelmingly encourages us to take. We have to start somewhere in making conscious choices of generosity and commitment, rather than relying on our impulses to dictate where we invest ourselves. We all have to start somewhere in determining how we're going to make room for God -- or practicing the awareness of God -- in a society that values busyness above all. Thinking in proportional terms is a good start. Some of the time, some of the talent, some of the riches that seemingly belongs to us, in fact, belongs to God.

Once set aside, we have to decide where to give that proportion that belongs to God. But that's a secondary matter and far less important than the first. The first is to say: I will decide in advance of other pressures that some portion of my life belongs to God -- be it Sunday morning in church, Thursday afternoons in ministry at a hospital or homeless shelter, the painstaking work of justice, the first ten minutes of the day or my final thoughts before falling asleep, or the time in my car when I would normally listen to the radio. Likewise, some portion of the talent I have been given belongs to God and some portion of my wealth belongs to God, and I will spend it accordingly.

The problem with this proportional way of thinking is that it can lead to compartmentalization in our understanding of spirituality, as if the part of us that goes to church on some Sunday mornings is our spiritual side -- the part of us God cares about -- and what we do at every other time isn't spiritual and isn't God's concern. It's as if the money we give to the church or to another charity is the money God has some authority over, and the rest is ours to spend as we like. It's as if our prayer time is enough to compensate for whatever we do when we're not, in fact, praying.

I'm sensitive to dangers of compartmentalizing faith, keeping God in a box of manageable commitments and reasonable expectations, in part because I'm often guilty of it. It is the sin of religious people. Proportional giving is a step up from living as if nothing belongs to God, and we're very proud of that fact, but frankly, it can lead to some of the worst forms of hypocrisy, the kind Jesus railed against when he saw it in the religious leaders of his day.

It's not true that God only cares about the side of our lives we choose to lift up or dedicate as religious. It's never been true. If the biblical prophets are right, God cares more about what we do Monday through Saturday than whether or not we show up in church on Sunday mornings. If the prophets are right, God cares more about how we spend the money we keep than the money we give away. If the prophets are right, God cares about everything, this God to whom our hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid. In God's eyes we aren't divided up into neat categories, one of which, for those of us who choose it, is religious. God cares about and has a claim on it all.

Here's the thing. While everything about us belongs to God, what does God do? Like the shopkeeper, God gives it all back. God gives everything back to us and in essence, says, "I love you. I created you for joy and meaning and your own unique destiny. Go and spend yourself lavishly and freely; claim your life and make of it what you will in the joys and tribulations of living. I'm here to help, but only if you ask. I'm here to receive, but only what you choose to give."

One of my first teachers of generosity taught me to set aside 10% of what I earn for the work of God in the world. He said, "Much good will come from your giving, and you will have the satisfaction of learning generosity. But what matters most to God is how the 10% you give informs the 90% you keep."

A long time ago, I decided to give a proportion of my life away; I need to be reminded daily that everything I have belongs to God. Starting with some portion helps. It's a practice I began long before I became a priest and it will carry me far beyond the days when the largest percentage of the 10% I give to God goes to the church.

We are in the season of stewardship, during which we ask you to consider your gifts, so let me say this: I am grateful to be your rector. I'm grateful to be part of a plucky, courageous, generous, risk-taking congregation, one that challenges me on a daily basis to grow in love. I am inspired by this parish's lay leadership, the many people who dedicate significant portions of their own life and hard-earned resources to the glory of God in this place, and who ensure that every dollar invested here is spent transparently, prudently, and at times lavishly for the gospel's sake. I am delighted to be in a place in my life that I am able to give to a capital campaign that will strengthen and enhance this congregation's ministry long after I am no longer your rector. I'm awed by those who call us to set our sights high and to have pledged far more than what is comfortable in faithfulness to a vision of what our church can be. I'm proud to take my place to be among them. I pray that you are equally grateful, inspired, and proud to give here. If not, then perhaps you shouldn't give, for God wants our gifts to be freely and joyfully given.

We have but a short time on this earth. We were not created for pleasure, but for joy. Our life's purpose is far bigger than we will ever know. Nothing we think we own really belongs to us. But God gives everything to us -- for a time -- to enjoy, to steward, to share, and to give back with gratitude. "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's."


1. Louise Erdrich, Four Souls (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), p. 28.

2. Thomas Merton, source unknown. Quoted by Greg Rickel in "Joy or Pleasure? Stewardship as a Transformed Life."

3. Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), p. 17.

4. As told by Greg Rickel in a workshop on stewardship in the Diocese of Minnesota, September 2005.
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