Sunday, October 19, 2014

Give to God What Belongs to God: A Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Trinity Church in Shrewsbury is a congregation in transition, and currently without regular clergy leadership. It has been my privilege this fall to be with them twice each month - a practice that will continue through the end of the year. As the schedule has worked out, this Sunday is the first of three-in-a-row that I'll be there. One of the themes congregations put on the table in the fall across the diocese and across the church is that of financial stewardship, a theme addressed here.

The readings for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost can be found here. The sermon is focused on the Gospel for the day, Matthew 22:15-22. 

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If you look at a dollar bill, and I ask you ‘whose face is on it?’ the answer of course is that it’s George Washington’s. So you can begin to interpret today’s gospel reading by saying: “give to Washington what belongs to Washington.”

But like all Biblical interpretation, moving from a first-century middle eastern context to a twenty-first century technological society is quite a leap. Context really does matter and re-telling the gospel that way doesn’t get to the whole truth, or even most of the truth, because interpretation is always about more than what a Biblical text says; it’s about what the text means. And meaning requires a deeper understanding of both that world and ours.

In Jesus’ own lifetime, the Roman Empire had instituted a census text on all adults.  The coin in today’s gospel reading is the one used to pay that tax, the one that has the head of the Roman emperor on it. Keep in mind that no one around Jesus had any say in “electing” Caesar, nor did they have any say in removing him from the job. The Roman Empire is an occupying power in first-century Palestine, and the tax in question is more like the tax the British put on tea some 230 years ago that led to a little party some distance east of us, or the one they put on salt in Ghandi’s time in India. It is a huge case of “taxation without representation.” And that’s important. We may not like it that our tax dollars go to Washington or Beacon Hill but at least we have some voice in how those dollars get spent. The Roman Empire was very different, and residents of occupied first-century Palestine had neither voice nor vote.

It’s also important to remember the parables that we have been hearing over the past three weeks while Jesus has been in the temple. He has come to Jerusalem to challenge the religious leaders there because he feels they are in cahoots with those Roman occupiers. It’s always scary when powerful religious leaders and powerful political leaders collude together, but that seems to be precisely what was going on in first-century occupied Palestine. So Jesus told this series of parables that have such a prophetic edge.
  • There was the one about the two sons who were asked by their dad to go into the vineyard to work. Tthe eldest says “sure dad,” but then forgets to go, while the second son challenges his father’s authority and says “why me?”—but later reconsiders and does go.
  • And the one about the watchtower in the vineyard and how the owner keeps sending people and eventually sends his son, but the tenants ignore them all and ultimately kill the son.
  • And the one about the wedding banquet and how the people who were invited were all were too busy to attend so they are dis-invited and others are gathered in to take their place at the Table.

What is going on here is that an outsider from Galilee is challenging the authority of the religious insiders in Jerusalem. He thinks they’ve sold out to “The Man.” And that is part of the reason for his popularity among the crowds. If you try to hear it without that political edge—without that context—then you just miss the point. The gospel of Jesus Christ always has a political and social context; it’s not just about spiritual things. And in Jesus day that context itself is politically charged—at least as politically charged and polarized as Washington, DC is today.

Jesus has been speaking truth to power. He’s been pushing buttons and rocking the boat and whatever other cliche you might add here. And in the process, he’s gotten some people pretty ticked off at him. And so that is why they go, as we heard today, “to plot against him and to entrap him in what he said.”  Imagine these words to him as those of a special prosecutor who has been appointed to get Jesus to commit himself “on the record.” If you do that you get a sense of the energy around what might at first hearing sound polite, but in fact is rather smug and sarcastic: “rabbi, we know you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth, and show deference to no one (yada yada yada)…so tell us: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

This is a trap! It is a lose-lose question. It’s a gotcha question, because if Jesus says “no,” then they can arrest him on the spot for treason because a no would be a direct challenge to Roman authority. People get crucified for saying such things.  But all these people following Jesus are hoping that he is the kind of messiah who is going to lead the people toward freedom from this foreign occupying power. Not just spiritual freedom but freedom from Roman imperialism. That is a very real part of his appeal, at least part of what is projected onto him. So if Jesus says “yes” then he is in the eyes of some of his most zealous followers no better than the Pharisees and scribes. He will have “sold out.”

So what I want to make clear then is that this is not some neutral question in some college classroom or an op-ed on whether or not Christians ought to pay their taxes. Jesus is in the hot-seat, and not only is he as innocent as a dove here, but he is also as cunning as a serpent. What he does is brilliant. He doesn’t answer the question, but puts it back on the Pharisees—and ultimately back on the Church and back on us.  “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give God what belongs to God.”  And they were amazed!

I think what Jesus wants us to be amazed, too, and then to reflect on and ponder and wrestle with where our allegiance lies. How much of us belongs to Caesar (or to Wall Street or Madison Avenue or the Pentagon?) There are claims laid on us as citizens, as consumers, as soccer moms and little league dads. And after all those, is there anything left of us at all at the end of the week that belongs to God? Is there anything at all of our time, of our talent, or our cold hard cash? Is there anything left in terms of our energy and our passion for God?

Part of the challenge that we face is that we are pulled in a thousand different directions. It’s hard to know to whom we belong sometimes. And yet for two thousand years, Christians have claimed that through Holy Baptism we’ve been claimed and marked and sealed as Christ’s own. Forever. And if that is really true, then our lives need to be lived in response to that claim God has on us. Sealed by the Holy Spirit. Marked as Christ’s own. Forever.

The question is do we mean that? And do we have the courage to live like we believe that?

There is one part of this that I haven’t yet told you, and that is that on those Roman coins used to pay the census tax was not only the head of Caesar, but a phrase. Instead of saying “in God we trust” it said: “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine high priest Augustus.” That’s a lot of superlatives! For practicing Jews in the first-century it was not only the image of this man who claimed divinity on the coin but that overt claim that was found to be offensive—and a clear violation of the first and second commandments. But what’s a person to do? It’s not worth risking your life over, is it? The Pharisees and scribes are reasonable and sophisticated people who know that sometimes you just have to compromise. They know you can’t take on Roman power and essentially they have concluded that if you can’t beat ‘em, then join ‘em.

So notice then that Jesus asks them for the coin. They are the ones who have it in their pocket. In so doing, he exposes their hypocrisy. He exposes their plot to trap him rather than to engage in a serious discussion on the topic. They stand within the Temple, but even there they are unclear about where their true allegiance lies.

So if we render it all unto Caesar, then what is left of us to give to God? It seems to me that is the question that lingers and amazes – and Jesus gives an answer elsewhere: seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and then the rest. Put God first, and then figure out what is left for Caesar.

As we walk by that Font to come to the Table do we remember that Jesus is Lord? Do we really believe what we sometimes say when our gifts are brought forward: all things come of thee, oh Lord – and of thine own have we given thee? If what we are used to calling “ours” really belongs to God and we are entrusted to be stewards of it then what of us does belong to Caesar?

Like congregations across this diocese, you are in the midst of stewardship season. You are being asked to consider this very question even in the midst of uncertainty about what Trinity will look like a year from now. And so people rightly ask whether or not investing in Trinity is a prudent investment.

But here is what I see: I see a congregation that has gone through some tough times and is still standing. I see lay leaders who are trying to understand: leaders with compassionate hearts who believe that God the Holy Trinity isn’t finished with this parish yet. I see leaders who are willing to put their money where their hearts are, for where our hearts are there our treasure is also. 

And in that act of trust, and of love, are the seeds of the new Trinity – signs of the work that God is doing here toward renewal. There are never guarantees in the life of faith; only trust. But what we do with our money reflects more than any creed can what we really believe and who we trust. Show me your checkbook and I’ll tell you what you care about.

So let me end with this story. Recently I was in the south, at the University of the South in Sewanee, for a leadership conference. One of my colleagues was from Houston, Texas where football is even bigger than it is here in New England. So someone got up at a stewardship reflection in one of my colleague’s churches and admitted they were season ticket holders of Texan football tickets. At some level they admitted to almost worshiping the Texans on Sundays – and it cost them dearly.  But they decided that if they really did mean what they said on their lips about Jesus as Lord, then it was only right that they make sure their pledge to their parish was significantly higher than the amount they spent on football tickets. And then they added this: if the Texans make the playoffs and the Superbowl, we’ll go. But whatever that costs us, we need to make sure we put at least that much in the plate at church.

Now I don’t know if there are any season ticket holders with Patriots tickets in this congregation. I do know that my checkbook and yours really do tell the truth about what we believe, and who owns us. Maybe it’s Duncan Donuts or maybe it’s or maybe it’s the Red Sox or maybe it’s Northeastern University or a summer home, or...

Jesus’ amazing question hits us where we live – and then leaves us to act accordingly.