A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on October 16, 2011
Year A, Proper 24
Christ Church Andover
October 16, 2011
Exodus 33: 12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
May the words of my mouth and meditations of our hearts together be always acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer, AMEN.
Our bullying Pharisees have gained an unlikely set of accomplices in this week’s gospel reading. In our previous gospel passages, we find the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the time, baiting Jesus with a series of questions and attacks. Jesus’ continued responses to them and to the scribes (who were the experts in the Torah law) mystified them and left them looking the fools in front of the crowds. However, this week, we find the Pharisees gaining unlikely bedfellows in their quest to humiliate and discredit Jesus.
The Herodians were a group of Jews in Jerusalem, who believed in upholding the status of Herod, the puppet-ruler assigned to the area by Rome. The role of Rome and the Emperor was varied between the Jewish sects at the time: the Pharisees were against incorporating the widening grip of Rome and Hellenism into their lives, mainly because adherence to the Emperor included assenting to his divinity—something they theologically could not do. They were no best friend of the Emperor, but as we see this week, they knew where they could find some friends of the Emperor when they needed them. The Herodians were of a different camp. They, even though Jews, were friendly to the establishment of Rome and Roman rule. They didn’t see a problem with hailing the Emperor as a God. Perhaps they didn’t want to roil feathers, or set too far out of political line. In any case, the two groups sought out Jesus and offered him an impossible dichotomy.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” This is the time when there was no right answer. Either Jesus said yes, and effectively denied the primacy and sovereignty of the one Living God (and bringing the wrath of the Pharisees on him), or Jesus would say no, and be considered a traitor to the empire (and bringing the wrath of the Herodians). Even though Jesus did not answer ‘no’, one of the claims against him at his trial was, ironically, ‘atheism’, which meant that he did not worship the Emperor as a god, which was a punishable, indeed, a capital offense.
Instead of being caught in this particular web of implication, Jesus responds with a request for a coin. On it is the head of the emperor, with the title, ‘Son of God’. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s, is his response.
No, Jesus did not answer the impossible question offered to him by the Pharisees and the Herodians. And no, it doesn’t seem like this exchange between them (and reported to us by Matthew’s community years later) is about tax reform or our vision of a state-church dichotomy. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be about the yes-no, black-white, right-wrong vision of religion that Jesus’ questioners imply it should be about. They wish to have a clean cut version of belief—that you have a fairly good chance of being wrong, and they would be happy to hang you out to dry for that.
It’s an addictive stance in religious, and recently political, commentary. We are the right way. You are the wrong way. You are sinful if you believe/ say/ love/ vote/ support XYZ. It would be so so easy to think that way, to believe that things are that defined. To be honest, the Pharisees get a bad rap in our readings through the New Testament, as they were somewhat liberal for their times—they believed that the writings of Moses, the Torah, should be interpreted for the times—that the scripture was not meant to be taken literally (as the Sadducees did). However, their inclination was also to limit that interpretation. But they get the point when Jesus turns their question around back on them: Give to God what is God’s. They know their Torah. They know the very first chapter of it, and they know the scripture that Jesus is referencing here: that we were created in the image of God; in the image of God we were created.
If we give to God, what is God’s, what does that mean? The coin used in Jesus’ example was mass produced, flat, with the image of a distant overlord who no one knew except through the might and threat of the Roman Empire. The coin was not just a coin, it was a statement of ownership—of the Emperor over ‘his’ people, ‘his’ land. There is no such image of God lying around in our pockets. It is instead all around us, indeed, it IS us. We are each the image of God, created in our own way to reflect the divine in us and around us.
These were uneasy words for a culture in which money meant power and influence, and meant that the Pharisees and the Herodians had nowhere left to go with Jesus. And so they left. But perhaps that isn’t as far away from our realities as we might wish it to be. We tend to identify ourselves with the place we have in society, about the clubs we belong to, interests, hobbies, professions, you name it, we identify as such. But to say that we belong to God—to offer ourselves to God because we ARE God’s own— seems overly radical for us. Can’t we just say that we are Episcopal or members of Christ Church? I mean, it sounds so much simpler!
But it isn’t. Perhaps we don’t like the vision of us belonging to God because we don’t care for the feeling that we have to surrender—to be entirely part of someone else. That might be because we believe that we are capable of doing it all, of being an entire world in ourselves—that to admit that we are not capable of doing and being all things to all people would be tantamount to heresy in today’s culture. Or perhaps saying that we belong to God would be admitting that it was possible that God got a bum deal in ‘having’ us. That to admit to being God’s own would be like offering a three-day old stale donut to a king. We disappoint ourselves again and again, and because of those disappointments, those rough edges, we deem ourselves unlovable and unlovable by God. How can we belong to a creator when we fall so far from his and our own vision of who should be in? It’s possible that if we were God, we would never love ourselves, not when there were so many ‘better’ people around!
Thankfully for us, God does not work that way. Give to God what is God’s.
Moses discovers this in his interaction with God this morning. Moses does what we all secretly want to do, but theologically think we can’t (although we can, because Moses himself did it!): he challenges God after leading a stiffnecked and sinful crowd to water. Moses reminds God of God’s covenant to these people, the same people who just a few days ago made a golden calf to keep them company while Moses was receiving the Commandments from Sinai. He reminds God that he has said to them: “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest…. For you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” My presence shall go with you and I will give you rest, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name. Even as his very own chosen were looking the other way, trying on their own gods, and disbelieving in his power and mercy, God still goes with his people, still sends signs of his presence, still calls them his own. And it is the same with us.
We are God’s own. Not just God’s people, but God’s beloved images of Godself in all the many ways we can show it. We are Spirit-people, animated by the breath of God, shepherded by the love of God, regardless of how much we run from that designation, regardless of how little we believe that it applies to us. And that designation asks us to live and love and serve in ways which reflect that relationship, which tell others that we know that God is with us, God was for a time, among us, and that God continues to speak through the Holy Spirit, encouraging us to discover that voice in our own selves.
The coin that Jesus picked up was a sign of power, of temporal things, of things that would change upon the death of the Emperor and start anew with the next one. It was a finite power. God’s power however, is the power of humble love, and belonging to God does not just meaning repaying what you think you owe God; it means allowing yourself to rest in God’s presence, to know that you are loved, and to know that you will never be alone. God will be with you, the Body of Christ will be with you. And it demands nothing less than your whole imperfect self. God wishes to show you God’s glory, and wants to be with you, for God has created you out of an abundance of love.
Next week is our Annual Ingathering of pledges, and I’m not going to make this an obviously stewardship sermon, because we have Carol Tringali to tell us a bit more in her Community, Connection and Commitment moment. However, I do ask this of you. We want all of you. We want every part of you to be here with us, the good, the bad, the restless, the daydreaming, the curious, the old hats, the too busy, the not busy at all—we want all of you to find in this place a place to rest; to let go of the power that all that that denarius had on you, to find in here a place you can discover who God created you to be. You hold the image of God inside you. You reflect God’s glory and goodness in creation whether you know it or not. We at Christ Church, and as members of a worldwide communion, invite you to explore what that reflection means by starting here, in prayer, in community and in service.
But where to start? Give to God what is God’s. You belong to God. You are God’s own beloved. Start with that.