By Rev. Raymond Hodgson
In one episode of The Big Bang Theory a character states, “I don’t object to the concept of a deity, but I’m baffled by the notion of one that takes attendance.”
This is obviously being used for laughs, but there’s an element of truth that underlies the best humour. We could also express bafflement at the idea that God keeps track of our tithes and offerings. The thought of a Heavenly Accountant is, quite frankly, rather terrifying (apologies to all the accountants reading this.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. (Luke 2:1, NRSV)
Everybody needed to be registered, counted, and taxed. That was the purpose of counting everyone in the Empire — to make sure that everyone paid their taxes.
We know this way of keeping count because the world around us uses this way of keeping count: this is what the world values.
Jesus also talks about counting, but he talks about it in a very different way. Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hun…where’s that last sheep? That other coin? The son who strayed?
And there are so many other stories that don’t fit our expectations as again, and again, and again we are told that counting in the Kingdom of God is different. And wonderful.
Wonderful, because a small seed becomes a large bush, a small amount of yeast leavens a whole batch of bread, and let’s not forget the impact of a candle burning in the darkness. Wonderful, because God takes what we gather and does more than we can ask or imagine. Wonderful, because this is God redeeming the world.
It is easy, especially when preparing budgets and financial statements and reports, to lose sight of this. It is easy to focus on deficits and declines. It is easy to focus on the ninety-nine and forget about the one who isn’t there: that is, after all, how the world works.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)
The author of Luke tells of the Emperor’s registration to show how God redeems even the most powerful forces of the world: using that registration to make sure that Jesus is born exactly where God intended. The Gospels tell of how God redeems the Emperor’s cross with an empty tomb — robbing it of its power of life and death. And in between these events we have the teaching and example of Jesus about that alternative Kingdom of God, how God counts, and who God values.
Our budgets, financial statements, and reports aren’t just numbers — they represent our values and they speak to our allegiance to the Kingdom of God. Connecting these numbers to the Marks of Mission, to lives being transformed, to mourners being comforted, and all the other things your parish does speaks to who we are and whose we are.
Yes, God does count. In a sense, God does take attendance. It is the ways in which God’s counting is so different from the Emperor’s, and the values that those differences demonstrate, that both redeem us and lead us into the Kingdom of God.
Rev. Raymond Hodgson is the rector of the Church of St. Bartholomew, Sarnia and a member of Diocesan Stewardship Committee