1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
“…I am the Lord, there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and I create woe; I am the Lord who do all these things.”
“…And you became imitators of us and of the Lord….”
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Given that today is Pledge Sunday, you may think that I, or the Staff, or the Council, or the Administration/Finance Committee, or the IRS chose today’s readings. They didn’t; nor did I. They’re simply appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary—the tri-annual series of readings appointed for seven participating Christian traditions. Nor did we (as we probably should have) choose this day as Pledge Sunday based upon the appointed readings; to my knowledge we didn’t even look at the Lectionary. It had more to do with the Fall schedule: Pig Roast, Confirmation Retreat, Reformation, All Saints, and the like. The Badger’s Football schedule may have come into it and, for that matter, the Packers as well. They usually do. So, miracle of miracles: here we have Jesus—on the Day we ritualize our Fall Stewardship emphasis—here we have Jesus saying, “Give to the Emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
I suppose stranger things have happened. For instance, last Thursday morning at 8:46 as I was driving to work on Dayton, approaching the intersection at Park, just as I was cresting the rise with Gordon Commons to my right, I saw a male student pick up a piece of trash, take a few steps, stoop, pick up a second larger piece of trash (an empty Natural Light case?), walk deliberately to the trash bin at the corner of Park and Dayton, place both items in the bin, and then continue down Park toward Johnson. I was stunned. It was the first time in six years at Luther Memorial that I could remember seeing a student pick up trash and not one pieces but two! I said out loud to myself, “Mark this day: a student put some trash in a garbage bin!” As I rolled to a stop at Park, pondering what I had just witnessed—another male student walked through the crosswalk taking the last bite from an apple. Baseball cap in reverse, ear buds pounding entertainment, Badger shirt- flip-flops flapping, he proceeded through the crossing, went out of his way, and (as though in routine) calmly dropped the apple core into a trash bin at the corner!
I was astonished. For the second time in less than a minute, I had observed two events I thought impossible. Two thoughts entered my mind. The first, and more obvious, was that I’m stupid: if all 43,000 students on this campus behave as I routinely imagine, there’d be so much garbage on the ground we couldn’t see streets, crosswalks or sidewalks. Judging by the trash room in the bottom floor of where I live, students behave no worse than people my age, and probably better.
As I reviewed the course of events, a second thought appeared: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord….” That’s Paul writing to the Thessalonians. Imitators. Was the second student imitating the first? Was the first imitating somebody else? A teacher? A parent? A custodian? A city employee? Another student? Of course, I realized he probably wasn’t imitating me, as I had (only a few yards back) tossed a used piece of chewing gum out the window of my ancient Volvo, the car I proudly drive as a not so subtle sign of my faux humility and pseudo environmental concern. The car probably gets fewer miles to the gallon than the late-model Audi for which I lust—the silver one past which I drive on my way to my parking place on the third floor of our condo garage.
Lest you think this is all about the latest issue of Car and Driver or merely an old man’s simplistic view of a complex world, I should probably come out of the closet and admit it’s all about stewardship—everything from the moment we are baptized until our funereal ashes are safely tucked away in the columbarium—is all about stewardship, our care (or lack thereof) for that which belongs to another.
And who is the “Other” to which all things belong? Isaiah the Prophet reminds us as he tells the ancient Persian emperor, Cyrus: “From the rising of the sun and from the west… there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.”
The LORD is the owner, and whether we put our trash in the bin or toss it from a moving car, we are his stewards—managers of that which belongs to another. We are answerable to him as we are to none other. Oh, the campus police might rightly cite me as the lazy slob I am, and some day they probably will, even as I look down my nose at the younger members of our community who occasionally either in a fit of youthful joy or drunken despair toss their cookies or an empty pizza container on the ground for someone else to clean up. But the truth is, like it or not, we are all stewards; whether faithful or unfaithful remains to be seen. Even Cyrus, the pagan emperor, is called to serve the one LORD, even though he does not know the God of Israel! Stewards do not choose their master, but their master chooses them.
“I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.” In the age of Ebola, and ISIS, drone strikes, starvation, global warming, droughts, earthquakes, and storms, this word of the LORD is a terrifying message. As it is now, so it was in the age of the Plague, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and countless crucifixions—of which our Lord’s was but one brief example. “I am the LORD, and there is no other.” What can it mean? Is it possible the LORD does all things? And, if so, why?
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Is anything not God’s? As Isaiah indicates, even the emperor belongs to God. Giving to the emperor is giving to God. Generosity’s the point—not ours, but God’s, the unmerited generosity of the God who gives his only Son for the salvation of the whole world. And generosity comes, of all things, not merely through information and knowledge, but by imitating the God of all who gives without end. Like a student who gives a little time picking up trash on the way to class. In such a world, even a pledge card imitates the one God who creates out of nothing. After all, there is none other, and we are his—everything is. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.