Sermon for October 22, 2017
Proper 24A – RCL – Track 1
The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
When I read the Gospel for today I had multiple reactions that ranged from great! This is a gift to a preacher during this time that our church is focusing on stewardship and the theological practice of giving from our time, talent and treasures to the church. To dread! What can I do with this text that will break it open anew. If not for you all then for me. One of the joys I have in preaching is that I frequently gain new insights or see new facets of the lessons as I approach them with the intent of using them for preaching. And I always hope that the Holy Spirit will enrich the texts for all of us.
So what is going on in this text? The Herodians – think of them as the secular group – and the Pharisees – the religious group - have created an unlikely alliance to rid them of this meddlesome and tiresome itinerate rabbi, preacher, and healer. Jesus is making waves and they want him gone.
This lesson takes place during what we now call Holy Week – that period of time between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion. So the alliance decide to set a clever trap that will either make Jesus loose his followers or get him in trouble with the Roman authorities. If he upholds the unpopular poll tax that funds the Roman occupation he will certainly loose his street cred and the alliance will see Jesus’ followers melt away effectively silencing him. Or if he speaks against the unpopular tax Jesus will be accused of inciting revolution and be in trouble with the authorities – which will likely get him arrested and crucified since the Roman’s did not have much patience with potential insurrection.
It is a no win situation. It is a trap. How often do we run into such traps? How often do we worship an idol of absolutism? I certainly read it in the papers and in social media – from both sides of the aisle. If a politician is not adhering to the various litmus tests – and we can all name a whole slew of them from all sides be it tax cuts and cuts to social safety net programs or universal health care and increasing funding for social services.
I am not without political opinion so the temptation would be to tell you that my way is God’s way. After all I have the collar and had a bishop and a whole bunch of other priests lay hands on me. But I am willing to admit that there are problems with all sides of these debates and that no political stance is really perfect.
Jesus’ response is clever. A response that managed to condemn both sides – because the observant Pharisee was quick to bring out a coin that not only bore the image of the emperor but also the inscription proclaiming the emperor as God – and thus on a strict reading breaking a couple of commandments about worshiping idols. And for the secularists not endorsing an unpopular tax but in a reading the could actually be read as a condemnation of their secularism too.
One could also read Jesus response to his accusers as a perfect separation of church and state comment. Give to the state that which belongs to the state and give to God that which belongs to God. But the problem with that is we say that all things have been given to us from God and all things belong to God.
All things belong to God and that includes us. Jesus has spent the last several chapters of Matthew trying to tell the people about God using parables. Parables that purport to tell us what the kingdom of God is like. Parables that never seem to end the way we think they should – because how can the kingdom of God be like the vineyard owner? Unless Jesus is telling us that we are tending to God’s kingdom and then we can hear how we dash the God’s dream of mercy by our actions.
If Jesus is telling us to give to God the things that are God’s it means that we need to give ourselves to God because we are of God. As we can read in Genesis we are created in God’s image. Which means that we need to look at all of our actions as flowing from our god-likeness. And that entails looking at both our actions in church and in the public square through a lens of striving for mercy and justice not striving for judgment and condemnation.
In the heated rhetoric all around us it is all too easy to descend into judgment. It is easy to disparage those who disagree with us. It is easy to put people into bins with labels of our own making. Left, right, center. Gay, Lesbian, bisexual, Transgendered, Straight. Homeless, addict, slacker. We want to categorize everything and everyone as good or bad. But what if, just what if, we stopped for a moment and asked ourselves how does being created in the image of the creator influence our actions?
I have come to hate the hashtag (which I think predates hashtags) of WWJD – what would Jesus do? I hate it not for the sentiment but because it seems that some who espouse such hashtags then want to tell me what Jesus would do. And I am afraid that in many cases I can’t see those actions squaring with the gospels. Instead I sometimes see those actions squaring with a reading of the parable from last Sunday where we play God and throw the one with the wrong clothes into that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So how do we give to God our whole selves. I think Jesus gave us a big clue back in Matthew chapter 9 when Jesus said … “go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” And since that Chapter Jesus has been telling his disciples, the crowds- and us - just what it means to desire mercy. Jesus has been telling how God works on a different economy then us. That God will pay the workers a living wage no matter how long they work. That God’s economy is like the crazy farmer that spreads seed everywhere instead of only on the good ground. That God’s economy is upside down from what we think much of the time because we, as a general rule, seem to be a people that require judgment.
Giving to God what is God’s requires us to look and act through a different lens. To seek mercy. To see the people around us as also being created in God’s image. And then to treat them that way. Not as labels but as beloved children of God. If we are made in the image of the creator then we need to extend our vision outward as well as inward. It means that when we look at our environment we need to take actions as a creator and not as a destructor of the environment.
When we see ourselves and others in the image of God then perhaps we will truly work to bring God’s dream of mercy and love to our hurting earth. If we give our whole selves perhaps we can help find ways to provide to those who much of society has discarded.
It is not a question of choosing God’s way or man’s way. It is not a question of separating our actions into secular actions and sacred actions. Because all of our actions are accountable to our God. All of our actions are really sacred in nature – even when we act in the public square.
Karolyn Lewis from Luther seminary said, “… at the heart of Jesus’ response to those who would test his loyalties is a rather simple but subversive sermon -- God’s sovereignty is not a choice but a truth. It is not a question of loyalty, but a statement of reality.”
As we approach the end of our church year – and as we head at what seems like breakneck speed to me into the new calendar year we need to ask ourselves how do we give back to God. How do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those is prison? How do we as a church and as individuals build up and value those who society would ignore or worse would, like last week’s parable, bind hand and foot and relegate to that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
There are no easy answers. But one way is to give our time talent and treasures to those things that desire mercy. To support institutions like St. Paul’s that strives to be a haven of peace and comfort to those who have no peace or comfort. (and I bet some of you were just waiting to see when the stewardship part of the sermon would happen – after all it is a perfect setup.)
All you have to do is hang around this corner of 15th and J streets to see both the need and the incredible treasure that passes by everyday. And I pray that this place will continue to strive and desire mercy and not sacrifice. I pray that we will continue to strive to see all of God’s creation as good. That we will work to create a society that is right side up when so much of it seems to be upside down. And I pray that we will work to see all of our fellow travelers on this planet as also being created in the likeness of the creator and as such worthy of respect and to be seen as beloved children of God – without labels.
Oh… and one little warning. Creation is messy and being co-creators is likely to mean that ministry will likely entail messiness. But many times it is joy and beauty that is born of the messiness. The joy of seeing a young homeless person at ease in sitting in the church. The joy of feeding people who are hungry – hungry both for food but also for companionship and spiritual food. The Joy of doing God’s work in this space.