Back in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold and to have major impacts in the United States and as our own parish responded with modified worship services being hosted online, I, along with our wardens and vestry, shared in the concern of what the crisis was going to mean for our parish. Would we be able to weather the storm enough to come through the other side? How will we need to respond to the pandemic in order to maintain financial health within our parish without negating the spiritual health? The questions we held in our hearts are important questions. The financial health of our parish is part of how we go about doing the ministry of our parish in our community. The leadership of the parish was not simply asking what folks might be tempted to color as “temporal” in nature. The questions were deeply spiritual questions that demand tending in the life of the church. The questions were deeply spiritual in that the question of parish giving is a pastoral question: what would parishioners be facing if the pandemic drew out for many more months than initially thought (which of course has come true in large part)?
For eons now, the Church has taught that giving of our financial gifts is part of the life of discipleship. When we are baptized (and later confirmed through Confirmation), we commit the whole of our being to living in relationship with God. In both baptism and confirmation, we affirm our baptismal promises to live in a covenant relationship by giving the whole of the self to God. We commit ourselves to living a life that is modeled after the preaching and teaching of our Savior Jesus Christ, and we commit ourselves to learning and growing in the faith over the course of our lifetimes. The way that we steward our lives is a reflection of the relationship that we have with God, with each other, and with the world. The stewarding of our lives is very much about the choices that we make and how we live out our lives beyond the confines of our worship. Indeed, the hope is that our liturgical practices will inform how we inhabit the world: with walk that is humble and with a reverence for the beauty of God in the mundanity of the everyday. We, as disciples of Christ, are shaped by the liturgy and have a slightly different understanding of the world – both of how it is and the vision of God’s kingdom that we pray to come to earth as it is in heaven in the Lord’s Prayer.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the Pharisees send their disciples and the Herodians to set a trap for Jesus. The trap is to get Jesus to make some kind of comment on the head tax that was charged of all persons living within the empire, and according to Matthew 22, the tax amounted to a laborer’s pay for a single day of work. (Matt. 22:19b NRSV) The question that proceeded the production of a denarius is whether or not it is lawful to pay the tax. Of course, the disciples of the Pharisees are not asking if it is lawful according to Roman law; instead, they are asking if it is lawful to pay it according to Jewish law – to the Torah. The trap that is set for Jesus is a clever one. If Jesus answers affirming the head tax, he will lose face with followers and ardent nationalists that oppose the tax. If Jesus answers denying the lawfulness of the tax, he will find himself in trouble with the Roman authorities (Harrington, 311).
And of course, Jesus finds an even more clever way out of the trap. Jesus, after asking for and receiving the coin, says to give what is the emperor’s to the emperor and to give to God the things that are God’s. Jesus takes a question that is first only seen as a matter of political debate and turn it into one that focuses the attention on spiritual health and faithfulness to God. In Matthew’s account of the story, Jesus is attempting to get people to pay even greater attention to God than they do to the emperor. Jesus continues to point us back towards our relationship with God and towards the recognition that all blessings flow from the goodness of God’s being – including the financial assets that we have at our disposal (Harrington, 311).
At the beginning of the pandemic, the leaders of our parish asked questions about the giving patterns and trends of our parish. They were certainly asking questions about the financial health of the parish as an institution, but it is also a question about God. The leaders were asking questions that reflected concern about the people that worship at Epiphany and call Epiphany home. They were asking deeply pastoral questions about the wellbeing of our church family members, and they were asking questions about those things that belong to God, which, of course, includes everything.
I join our wardens and our vestry in being immensely faithful for the saints that call Church of the Epiphany home and that have continued to support our parish financially and spiritually throughout the pandemic. The faithfulness of the saints that gather here – including in online worship services – is a faithfulness that should be celebrated. We continue to attend worship even when we are not able to gather in person. We continue to participate in the ministries of the Invite, Connect, Disciple, and Serve councils. We continue to show up in surprising ways, and we are all continuing to grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ. And, we continue to support the life of our parish by faithfully stewarding our financial gifts and sharing them with God through the church.
The pandemic is far from over, but I know that our parish will come through this season of life stronger. We will do so because of the faithfulness of the saints that gather here week in and week out, and we will do so because each member of our parish is doing her or his best to share the love of God as liberally as the sower that we will hear about on Sunday.
- “58. Taxes to Caesar.” The Gospel of Matthew, by Daniel J. Harrington, Liturgical Press, 2007, pp. 310–311.