For many years, I have heard about the benefit of crossword puzzles on mental flexibility and general mental well-being. I currently do not have a regular routine with these puzzles however I regularly hear from a friend about the level of complexity of the day’s puzzle and am always glad to help, as I am able, who that five-letter word with u as the fourth letter. And, there are so many other kinds of puzzles, jigsaw, rebus, mazes—growing up for long road trips we would usually have the kind of book with 500 or even more different kinds of puzzles.
The passage from Romans today, I find helpful to initially put into the puzzle category and try to make sense of it one piece at a time, sometimes stopping to ask for another opinion. You heard it, I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So who does it, what do I do? Is it the law, or sin or good or evil? It’s nice to think of it as a puzzle, in reality, for Paul this back and forth is more a conflict, even an inner war.
The passage talks about what motivates us, and, as is illustrated, our motivations are complicated. This jumble of good and bad and neutral and God, Paul seems to mix everything up, how are we meant to find our way out of what we do and do not want to do what is right?
Thank God for Christ Jesus, he says. Jesus makes sense of all our baffling motivations, even when in conflict—all of our questions, our shortcomings, our struggles—these are all conquered by God’s love in Christ Jesus. Paul’s letter to the Romans is a series of issues that are, in themselves perplexing—human sexuality, morality, circumcision, the law, what to eat, marriage, who’s in, who’s out that all require our thoughtfulness to discern what is right. There are many individual struggles to get caught up in but this letter has a bigger picture, it is about righteousness with God, and a simple definition of righteousness is right relationship. Despite, including, all these puzzles within Paul’s letter let us rest assured all of the separate pieces fit into a bigger picture of all people, all creation being in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. When we are in right relationship with God, subsequently that includes right relationship with the world around us, including others and ourselves.
This is the second Sunday of our four-week Stewardship season. For four Sundays we’ll focus on stewardship– in Sunday morning formation, in the sermon. This might be, for some, perhaps for all in some way, a complex time. Practically, this is the season when the church asks for pledges to be turned in and collected and hopefully raises questions like how much money do I or we give? How much is right for me to give.
This may seem like a detour, one of the puzzles in our church year, but, it is a clue to the bigger picture—it’s still about right relationship. With God, which manifests in the world around us, which manifests even to what we do with our money. All of us in the church, mind you the church is bigger than Good Shepherd, it is all Christians around the world, have different relationships to money, for some it is a source of constant conflict, some have lots, some have little, for some it is easy to give, for others it is much more comfortable to hold tight to what we have. This is a time where we can look at what it means for us to be in right relationship with money and in turn, with others, with ourselves, and with God. It requires personal discernment.
It used to, in some ways, be simpler. In the early church, everybody paid the tax. The temple had taxes so one knew what was expected of them to give to the church, one knew what was “right.” This still exists in parts of the world. In Switzerland, where my sister lives, they just check a box: Protestant or Catholic, and her church tax goes to that denomination. In the United States, it is not so straightforward and suddenly money becomes something we must discern, we must evaluate the value we give to it and then determine how much we want, need, desire to give to the church.
Money is, in today’s world, a source of conflict, clearly externally and for many internally. It is a source of bewilderment, often we do what we do not want to do with it, but we want to do what is good, but like many other pieces we bring this part of the puzzle to God and to our seeking right relationship and Christ Jesus guides us to what is right.
In Romans, Paul’s is trying to explain that the Gentiles—the non-Jewish followers of Christ, the law doesn’t exist. The Jews have over 600 laws but these Gentiles—are not free to do anything they want, that’s important for Paul, but are only subject to one law—the one written on their hearts by Christ. They are not driven by the law, they are driven by the Spirit—of love, patience, kindness, gentleness, justice.
Stewardship is a time we too can evaluate, check in with how we are listening to the Spirit that moves us and how God calls each one of us. Good Shepherd, the church, is only what each one of us make it to be. Our pledge is, I believe, an opportunity for us, as we consider our pledge, to check-back in with how we value the church—what and how we believe in its mission, it’s role in the world and our place in it. Each person makes up the body of Christ and each person’s answers to these questions is what builds the church into a source that is more loving, more hopeful, more of a light to the world, than if it was without any one of its members. Every pledge matters because everyone matters. The bigger picture is one whit the kind of relationships where no one is left out, we are in right relationship with all. The possibilities are endless if each one of us open ourselves more to how God call us.
At first, it can all seem like a puzzle, it can even seem like a conflict or war—but we give because of our faith, or even a faith we’d like to work towards. The church is the place that seeks for all people to live in right relationship with God in Christ Jesus and with one another, as recognizes the gap, that that is not the state of the world today. We work, we exist to help bridge this gap between what right relationship for all people should be and what it is now. It’s what we’re here for. That is what we are striving together for. We hope for what is far beyond what any one of us can do, we hope for what we can only do together, what we can only do with God.
As you pledge or consider your pledge I invite you to make it part of your prayer—Are you proud of your faith, are you committed to it? What do you want that to look like in your life? What can you give to this church that you are an essential part of. This is discernment for each one of us.
There are lots of different kinds of puzzles. Some you can finish in a few minutes, others take a longer bit of time. Some require the input of another, some you can do all by yourself. Our faith does not end with the puzzle of how much money we give. That’s not the big picture, the final story but it can be and often is an important step, a marker, like that u as fourth letter that is necessary to our figuring out what keeps us from or leads us to right relationship with the world around us, with others and ultimately, with God in Christ Jesus (1). And this is, for us, already written in our hearts, God has given this to us already and it is our hope as followers of Christ, our gift, and deepest joy to say yes to that which God has placed in each one of our hearts that makes the church today what it is and what it can be for a world that needs it.