A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 16, 2011 (Proper 24, Year A)
Every once in awhile I come up with the perfect response to a rude or hurtful comment. Someone says something obnoxious and I come back with a real zinger that puts them right in their place. Unfortunately, my brilliant response occurs to me about two hours too late or in the middle of the night. And that is so maddening!
Jesus doesn’t have this problem when responding to the Pharisees in this morning’s gospel. They’re trying to trick him into saying something that will either discredit him or get him into trouble in order to rid themselves of this pesky threat to their own authority. And they start with some serious flattery: “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.” Oh, please. We know, and Jesus knew, that they were just trying to sugarcoat their real motive which, as Matthew tells us, was to “entrap Jesus in what he said.”
And it’s a clever ploy. They ask him point blank, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus answers “yes” he’s breaking Jewish law since the coin contains the idolatrous image of Caesar with an inscription about the emperor’s divinity. If he answers “no” he is libel to be turned in as a traitor to the state. It appears they have caught Jesus in a verbal check mate – whichever way he answers he’ll either be discredited among his followers or brought up on charges of treason.
But, they’re messing with the wrong guy here. Jesus once again demonstrates that he’s playing an entirely different game. Thus his response: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” That’s the King James Version which I think is even more poignant. And it’s one of the best responses ever. It flips the entire equation upside down and offers a fresh perspective on the relationship between God and humanity. It’s no wonder that after Jesus spoke, these same Pharisees “were amazed and they left him and went away.”
But all of this is about more than a quick turn of a phrase. And it’s about more than the cultural context of paying taxes in Ancient Palestine. It’s about the placement of ultimate loyalties. When we worship God we offer ourselves wholly to God. We offer our “selves, our souls and bodies” to the one, true and living God as made manifest in Jesus Christ. The text isn’t meant to offer a clear distinction in our lives about what to offer to God and what to give to secular society – in reality there is no such thing as a separate “secular world” since it is all created by God; it is all sacred. But Jesus’ point is that as long as our ultimate loyalty is with God, everything else will find its appropriate place.
As long as we’re on the topic of money I want to say a few words about the upcoming stewardship campaign at St. John’s (and, yes, that was a very smooth segue). In about a week and a half you’ll be receiving a mailing with information about pledging at St. John’s. We have a lot of ministry going on around here, several major initiatives starting this fall, and it takes money to fuel all of this ministry. I realize that talking about money makes some of us uncomfortable. And I realize that talking about money in church ratchets up the anxiety level even further. Keep in mind, however, that Jesus, the master of drawing people out of their comfort zones, talked about money more than any other single topic. Of his 42 parables a whopping 16 focus on our right relationship with money. So it’s not a topic we can afford to avoid.
This morning’s gospel is yet another example of this. And Jesus’ point is never that money in and of itself is a bad thing or that’s it’s something to sweep under the rug or to keep in the realm of taboo subjects. Jesus is well aware that money is an integral part of the human existence and that our relationship with money often defines our actions and deeply impacts our spiritual choices. A healthy relationship with money can transform our relationship with God. Jesus invites us into a place of generosity while driving out the fear that so often defines our relationship with money.
One of the reasons we all gather here week after week is to be a community of transformation. We come to hear God’s word, share the Eucharist, be in communion with God and one another. But we don’t just do this to stay the same. We do this to be drawn ever deeper into relationship with God and to be transformed into people of gratitude. A parish community at its best creates a culture of gratitude – where we give thanks each and every day for the abundance we have been given – even as we live in a culture defined by scarcity and greed.
It should come as no surprise to hear me say that the bedrock of our prevailing culture is fear – scarcity and greed are mere symptoms of fear. The United States is the wealthiest nation in world and yet so many of us live in fear of getting hurt or running out of money or dying. We spend a lot of time and money to avoid thinking about such things. The reality, whether we admit it or not, is that we will all get hurt at some point and we will all die. No amount of money can protect us from this underlying fact of life. Some people are very wealthy yet miserable while some of the happiest people I know are the most generous – regardless of their financial position. The Gospel teaches us that we don’t have to be afraid. Jesus’ message drives out fear and creates for us a vision of abundance that brings us freedom through generosity. Being generous helps us to release the death grip of fear that makes us cling tightly to our wallets while at the same time unshackling our hearts. It feels good to give; the freedom gained through giving is transformative. And I will continue to encourage you to experience the joy of giving with reckless abandon.
Some of you know from my blog that there are now two ferrets living at the rectory. I have no idea how this happened except that the boys met a couple of them at a friend’s house, they spent a week begging and logging onto ferret adoption websites, and when I next woke up we had two ferrets named Mimi and Casper living in a giant cage in the family room. Now, they are very cute – I’ll give them that – and they’re a lot of fun to interact with. But as I’ve read up on ferrets – and learned that, no, they aren’t rodents but mammals – I’ve observed some hoarding behavior. They like to stash things away whether it’s food or socks or keys. And as I’ve thought about our relationship to money in this context, one thing has become clear. It’s hard to be in a fruitful relationship with God when we act like hoarders. Money is ultimately a gift to be shared rather than a resource to hoard. So I never thought I’d actually say this from the pulpit, but don’t approach stewardship like a ferret. Be generous rather than hiding all your money under your mattress. It feels good and it furthers the very kingdom of God.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011