Stewardship Sunday

Stewardship Sunday

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

October 23, 2022

Stewardship Sunday
Sermon by Tim Strayer

Proper 25, Year C, RCL

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

* * *

When I was in fourth grade, my parents enrolled me in the local Catholic school. The funny thing was that I wasn’t Catholic. But the parochial system offered a better education than the public schools. If I had any doubt about that, it was made abundantly clear on my first day when I simply couldn’t keep up with all of the other kids shouting “I, Sister! I, Sister!” so fast to every question asked.

So, there I was at a Catholic school but I was not Catholic. I was Presbyterian. Presbyterians, as far as I could see, were pretty laid back when it came to the Sunday services. There were some songs, the Apostle’s Creed, a sermon, and maybe, very occasionally, there was Welch’s juice and stale wafers. It was all pretty informal. Mostly we stayed seated the whole time if we weren’t singing.

The Catholics, by contrast, had a thick paperback booklet in the pews with very specific instructions about when to stand, when to sit, and—quite foreign to me—when to kneel. They said the same long prayers every service, and every service they had communion. With real wine.

Being a non-Catholic, I was different than almost all of my classmates, not just academically, which I could fix, but also in traditions and customs, most which I had really never seen before. Solace came from my favorite nun, Sister Bridie, who took me aside and told me that I had as much to teach my classmates about being Presbyterian as they did me about being Catholic. Yes, I was different, she told me, but the trick was to make difference work for me. Challenge accepted.

“Different”, it could be argued, is Jesus’ bread and butter. Parable after parable, Jesus holds up one example, then contrasts that against the qualities of another example in such a way that exposes the flaws in our linear way of thinking. The case in point today is the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

Let’s quickly recall the setting. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector are both in the temple in prayer. The Pharisee physically and rhetorically prays by setting himself apart. He elevates himself by highlighting the gulf between himself and “other people”, people who break the Ten Commandments—those who steal, those who roguishly lie and covet, those who commit adultery. Oh, and those who collect taxes. “I fast twice a week,” says the Pharisee. “I give a tenth of all my income.” Aren’t I pious?

We don’t know if the Tax Collector overhears the prayers of the Pharisee, but I guess I’ve always assumed he did. In my imagining of the scene, the Pharisee is loud and impressive, and the Tax Collector is hidden away and very small.

Today, we are conditioned to hear “Pharisee” and know that this man is the foil of the parable. But in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees formed a sophisticated school of thought around the interpretation of the Torah and what it meant to be Jewish in the time of the Second Temple. They, like us today, were trying to figure out how to worship God using the tools they had at hand: tradition, reason, and the scripture.

We are also conditioned to hear “Tax Collector” and know that this was coded language for a sinner. Tax collectors worked for the Romans. They were treasonous and deeply hated. They were an affront to God.

A pious man and a sinner. Perfect as the subjects for one of Jesus’ parables.

On the surface, this parable has a pretty straightforward meaning. The Pharisee is haughty, prideful, boasting. The Tax Collector is reticent, cowering, self-loathing. The morale of the story? “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Yet, like so many of Jesus’ parables, there are more layers to the onion. Why is the Pharisee the foil? Really, by fasting and tithing, and likely doing much more, he was acting exactly as a person of piety should. There were rules and customs, and he was meeting them. He was adhering to the Levitical law—admonitions that were handed down as the Word of God. He was doing everything right. Why is he the butt of the parable?

Jesus doesn’t argue that the Pharisee is or isn’t doing the right thing by fasting or tithing. It’s not what the Pharisee is doing that’s at the heart of the matter; it’s why the Pharisee is doing it. Where the Pharisee is getting it wrong is in failing to understand the relationship between acts of piety, and the reasons for those acts.

Twice a week, my parochial school classmates and I would file into St. Patrick’s church, genuflect before entering the pew, cross ourselves, sit, stand, and kneel at appointed times. All of this was done under the squinted eyes of the Sisters, and one false move could ruin your day. It didn’t take long, even for a Presbyterian, to learn the rules for exactly how to act at Mass.


Not why.

We fill our liturgy with wonderful moments designed to glorify God. We put in place symbols and gestures and age-old prayers and customs to remind us who has given us the early rain for our vindication, who has poured down for us abundant rain. We stand and sit and kneel in thanksgiving that the threshing floors are full of grain, and the vats overflow with wine and oil. We eat in plenty and are satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord our God, who has dealt wondrously with us.

You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem.

Amen and Alleluia!

But here’s the thing. We miss the mark when we go to Jerusalem and perform those vows, yet fail to remember why we are there in the first place.

I serve on the Stewardship Committee over at St. John’s. I design the Stewardship packet, and try to fill it with scripture and testimonials that hopefully serve to bridge the gap between giving money and truly living into the meaning of Stewardship.

Every year I try to think of ways to make Stewardship a meaningful time, not just an annual chore. Yet I know that most people are going to receive the pledge card, and fill it out with last year’s number—two minutes of thinking, and little of it on what that number means and why.

The Pharisee thinks that, by fasting and tithing, he is somehow pleasing God. I’m pretty sure that God could care less. What Jesus is teaching us, through the Tax Collector, is that it is not the act of piety that is pleasing to God, but the sincerity in the act. It is the deep, soul-touching understanding of what it means to be grateful for God’s gifts, even if that gift is humility, and consciously, actively, with thought and deliberation, offer all of who we are, and all of what we have, back to God.
Deliberately living into Stewardship. This is what God wants from us.

During Stewardship season, we spend a lot of time talking about the gifts that God has given us, and how we are supposed to use them to God’s glory. This is true. God has entrusted in us our abilities, our talents, our good fortune. What had God asked in return? This is not a transaction. God’s gifts have been given free and clear. We are who we are.

But God has given us an even greater gift, and that gift is the gift of opportunity. We are gifted the opportunity to live deliberately and thoughtfully into a life of constantly giving of ourselves. In this way, we are literally stewards of God’s presence in this world. What greater gift could possibly be entrusted to us?

Every encounter we have, every task we undertake, every gesture of worship we make gives us a chance to reflect God through ourselves. This we cannot do this if we only focus on the act itself. The act is the conduit. Anyone, even a Pharisee, can figure out how to act in temple.

We cannot stop at how. We can only truly live into a life of Stewardship by actively, deliberately seeking the why. We find God in the why.

Somewhere in the two minutes it takes to fill in a pledge card, take the time to seek the why within this act, this simple pen-to-paper act. As you do, you may find that this is one among many ways that you have the opportunity to be a steward of God’s presence in this world.


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