The Sunday Sermon: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 20, 2019
Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22
The Things That Are God’s
I shared a couple of stories with you last month about my childhood. My family moved from Michigan to Pennsylvania the summer before I started the fifth grade. I was nine, ten that October. You met Matt, the friend who “gathered me in” as school started and you heard about my raft ride on the Juniata River where I “ordered up” my life in a more conscious way to the way and will of God in Jesus, the Christ. Well, something else happened in-between those events that correlates with the season that is our focus this month as a congregation.
It happened one Sunday morning in the Sunday school classroom at Trinity United Church of Christ on the corner of Stratton and High Streets in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was in the Fall, too, and the congregation was, I suppose, in the midst of their stewardship, as well because in the fifth grade Sunday school class that morning, our teacher Mr. Howe asked the four students gathered (Ron Nicodemus, Amy Filsinger, Howard Viersma, and me) if we’d give a thousand dollars to the church. We all looked at each other, nodding our heads.
“Yea. Yea, we’d give the church a thousand dollars. The church is a good thing, a good place. Good people. Yep,” we nodded
“Would you give the church a hundred dollars to the church?” Mr. Howe asked us.
This was easier. “Yes,” we all said pretty quickly. I mean if we’d give the church a thousand dollars, we’d give the church a hundred dollars. “Of course, the church is a good thing, good place, good people.”
Then Mr. Howe pulled out the fifth grade class offering plate and he asked, “Would you give the church a dollar?”
And we all hesitated a moment. I remember reaching for my pocket. Ron and Howard did the same and Amy clutched her Winnie-the-pooh purse. You see, this was a different question altogether. I mean, we had a dollar to give.
Hmm? I’m not sure how this story will tie into our scripture lesson, but maybe we’ll make a connection or two before it’s all done.
Pray with me …
So let’s see: Our scripture reading this morning, as I trust you’ve noticed is from Matthew 22. It’s one of the quintessential stewardship texts, I suppose. In fact, when I told Ashia last week what the reading was so she could prepare for her worship leadership and the Young Disciples, I said, “Matthew 22, you know – “Render unto Caesar what is Caesars …” And she said, “Oh, yeah. Stewardship.” So …
Listen for the Word of God … (Read Matthew 22:15-22). The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
From the fifth grade Sunday school room to the Passover gathering in Jerusalem. Things got serious pretty fast this morning. With good reason – the Pharisees and the Herodians aren’t joking around.
Interesting pairing in this gospel narrative, the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees were committed to every detail of Jewish law, opposed to paying the tax to Caesar for religious reasons, mostly because the coin that had to be used to pay it carried the image of Caesar and read “Son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” Those words spoke of both oppression and blasphemy to the Jews. The use of this coin was a violation of the first and second commandments. (Look them up. You’ll see.)
Now, we know a fair amount about the Pharisees from our own scripture and from other Jewish writers. They were members of a Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance to the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity. But we know very little about the Herodians. Their name suggests that they were a secular political party that supported Herod the Great’s successors in ruling Palestine, something that couldn’t be done without Rome’s approval. So, given their divided loyalties, it is unlikely that anything could have caused the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate except … their mutual desire to remove Jesus from the scene.
So they descend on Jesus in this scripture, in this scene, so familiar to all of us. A scene that, unbeknownst to Matthew so long ago, bequeaths to us one of the most powerful calls to stewardship in all of scripture. But, we’ll get to that in a moment.
First, let’s consider (again) the complicated relationship between our faith and our money. Take out a coin of your own, if you have one and the ushers are coming around with quarters for those who need one. Share one, if you have more. I have a quarter here, but any coin will do. I just talked a little bit about the denarius, the coin of Jesus day, with the image of Caesar on it. What does a coin of our own tell us about who we are?
We have a theological statement on our own coins, don’t we? It’s a bit more “moderate” than the one on the coin handed to Jesus, but … “In God we Trust,” it says. And also, “Liberty.” Take a second to find those two, that phrase and that word. They’re in different places, but both those things are on all of our coins. It’s an interesting pairing, kind of like the Pharisees and Herodians of yore. What is this paring all about?
Liberty may be there to give us some degree of freedom to interpret “In God we Trust.” Maybe it’s a statement of our highest aspirations. Maybe it’s an appeal to the better angels of our nature. Maybe it’s an expression of our deep ambivalence about our own civic creed regarding freedom of religion and the separation of it from “the state.” Surely these two inscriptions – “Liberty” and “In God we Trust” – describe the attitude of some who consider their own wealth evidence of divine favor. The point is, we face the question of the Pharisees and Herodians every time our pockets jingle or our piggy banks rattle.
Where are our loyalties? To church or to state? Do we need to choose? Surely, they both have our allegiance. But which comes first? Which should come first? Which one instills more fear? And which has our heart? What are our legal obligations? What are is our moral duties? Do we need to care about either? These are the questions that are being asked of Jesus two millennia ago. The same questions we ought to face today when we consider “stewardship” as it relates to giving money to the church. And they are charged, no less now than then.
We know Jesus is being tested. It says so right in the first verse. And we cheer when Jesus deftly dodges the trap, turns the tables on them (the Pharisees, especially) and sends them away grumbling even more loudly. We cheer, because when he says (using the familiar old words of the Revised Standard Version, not the New Revised Standard we just read) “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” we, too, feel justified. We hear him describing two “parallel” duties that we can take care of simultaneously. We can preserve our good standing as citizens of the “civic” and disciples of the “faith-based” communities. I mean, it says so right on our own money: Liberty and God.
The problem is (and you knew I was going to say that. There’s usually a problem with interpretations of Jesus’ words and teachings that so easily allows us to feel comfortable), the problem is Jesus is not sketching out “parallel responsibilities” here. The Herodians miss the message. Their life is much easier in that they get to sleep soundly knowing that the State will maintain certainty and stability for them through its ability to coerce and compel compliance. Power is security. Money is power. Give your money to Caesar – he is Divine, he is God. And do whatever you want with what’s left over.
But for those of us committed to our own faith’s teachings, it’s just not that simple. We profess that all good gifts come from God. Whether God is expressed in the infinite beyond or the infinite depths of creation, all that we have is a sacred gift to be used in expectation of the present and coming kingdom of God, not of Caesar – whoever Caesar is in any age. “The things that are God’s” for us… is everything.” Our time, our talent, and our money.
Now there’s no simple way to talk about this, no easy understanding of the practical implications of this statement “everything is God’s.” And there’s no apolitical way to explore this – the Kingdom of God is a profoundly political vision: The lion and the lamb together; war no more; all those who are captive, released; all those who are oppressed, freed. That is politics at its most basic level: The way people, living together, make decisions for the profit and promotion of all. Jesus knew it when he was cornered by two groups trying to trap him two thousand years ago. His “peace through justice” platform had everyone on edge. And we feel it today. If all we have is “God’s,” then all we offer should be for and toward the Kingdom of God, on earth.
You decide what worldly political parties are working toward the biblical visions of the Kingdom of God found in Isaiah, chapter nine or Luke chapter four, or Matthew, chapters five through seven. Discern for yourselves where in the world fear and the desire for power and control creep in, or storm in, and demand loyalty. Discern for yourself where in the world compassion and the desire for justice roll down. Give of your time, talents, and money in this world to the those who you feel provide the latter. And in this room, for this season, discern for yourselves an answer to this question: “What do you expect from and demand from the church, your church, to which you give? How do we, how will we, in the year and years ahead, reflect the Kingdom of God on earth? And how will we give to God all that is God’s?”
Now that’s a question that makes your Elders and me a bit nervous. Because we’re a diverse group, as a denomination, let alone as a worldwide institution. We’re a diverse denomination and a diverse congregation, believe it or not. “What do we expect from the church that is supported by our stewardship?” I’ll tell you what I expect. I expect that we don’t make empty promises with resources we don’t have, like I did in fifth grade with my imaginary one thousand and one hundred dollars. I do expect that we will offer the resources we have – that dollar in your pocket or that quarter in your hand. I expect that every thing we do here as a congregation together, through our Child Development Center, and with our property, be an expression of the peaceable Kingdom of God and the Love of Christ.
Such expectations don’t mean we won’t disagree with one another, and argue, and perhaps even get angry. But it does mean that we will accept one another, forgive one another and reconcile with one another.
Such expectations don’t mean we will not challenge each and every person who is a part of this community – preschool families and staff as well as congregation, volleyball teams and other outside groups. It does mean that we will more patiently and prayerfully meet one another where we are and work to transform our lives by renewing our minds and expanding our love.
Having such expectations doesn’t mean we’ll be stingy with our property and it’s use. It means we will let anyone who comes here know that all are accepted and welcomed regardless of creed, or culture, or gender, or orientation, or age, or color.
That is what being good stewards of “all that is God’s” looks like. This is the dollar bill we do have in our pockets.
The good news is that all that we need is here among us. The bad news is it’s still in our wallets and purses! So we have work to do and as we continue our prayerful discernment for the month ahead, I want you to take the coins we handed out and you looked at earlier and put them in the offering plate this morning, along with any other gift you were prepared to give or have been moved to give. I know we like silent offerings here, no rattling coins, just bills and envelopes, but we’ll make an exception this morning. (Ron: Who are our counters today? Do you know?) We are going to take all the coins in our offering plate this morning and put them aside. We’ll keep them in this sanctuary until Dedication Sunday as a reminder of today’s scripture lesson and of our call to give to God. Can we do that?
Let’s sing together as we prepare to respond to this morning’s call.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / October 20, 2019