Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 19, 2014 (Proper 24, Year A)

canonad1“Image is everything.” That phrase has been around for a long time but in the early 90’s it was the wildly successful slogan for Canon cameras featuring ads with a young, long-haired Andre Agassi back when he was the number one tennis player in the world. Image is not everything, of course, unless you’re talking about photography, in which case I guess it actually is. Because when we talk about public personas or images we’re really talking about the superficial plane. Dig a little deeper and things aren’t always as they appear on the surface.

Take this moment in the life of St. John’s. If we took a snapshot of this parish today on October 19, 2014, the image wouldn’t be so crisp and clear. Deacon Geof just moved to New Hampshire where he took a new job; Mother Anne is moving to Oregon in a couple of weeks to become rector of her own church; Dr. Fred is moving to Illinois next month to become the director of music at a cathedral in Springfield; and, if that wasn’t enough, I just found out this week that we need a new boiler. Seriously.

Now these are all great opportunities for Geof, Anne, and Fred — and we can rejoice with them in their new callings. But let’s be honest. The timing is brutal! Several people have half-jokingly asked me recently, “Are you starting to take it personally?” And of course not — well, except for the boiler. I am pissed off at the boiler. But as a parish we truly are at a place of great transition and great opportunity. Which is really just a euphemism for “Oh my God, everybody’s leaving!”

But after the initial freak out — and thanks for letting me get that out of my system — we remember that nothing really changes. The snapshot is out of focus but when we zoom out and take the broad view, we see the many blessings that abound. St. John’s is unique in its stability — I mean, I’m just the fourth rector in a hundred years. Considering the median tenure for a rector these days is five years, St. John’s is doing something right.

We expect staff to come and go, of course, just as parishioners move in and out of this community. And this has been a terrific place of learning and ministry for generations of clergy and musicians and parishioners over the years. You need look no further than our current bishop who began his ordained ministry right here — in fact I think I’ll put that in the job description for Anne’s position: “Come to St. John’s and become the next Bishop of Massachusetts!”

But we also need to remember that the one constant at this parish and in our own lives, which can be fraught with transition and change, is Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone of our faith. Whatever image we’re trying to project, that’s one thing that never changes.

Because the Christian faith is not about image; it’s about hope. And so if on the surface of things the image we’re projecting at this moment doesn’t match the perfect, fully-staffed, Christmas card parish (with a working boiler), we just need to take a moment for some healthy introspection. And when we do that, we see the incredible joy and abundance and continuity at St. John’s.

But first, let’s talk a bit more about image. When it comes to this gospel passage, imageTiberian_denarius really is everything. Or at least the image of the emperor on that Roman coin Jesus asks to see. The Pharisees, with malice in their hearts, ask Jesus a seemingly very black and white question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Now the the tax in question was the annual tax to Rome and it was controversial among the Jews. Roman collaborators like the Temple authorities and tax collectors profited from it while those sympathetic to the cause of resistance against the Roman oppressors considered it anathema. Refusing to pay it was an act of treason.

So the question itself was a trap. If Jesus answered “yes” he would have been discredited with the masses wanting to throw off the Roman government. Yet answering “no” would have made him subject to arrest. It was the ultimate no-win situation and you can just imagine the anticipatory silence as everyone turned toward Jesus thinking, “How’s he going to get out of this one?”

The brilliant response is necessarily ambiguous: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Now, what this isn’t, is a rationale for the separation of church and state. Nor is it IRS-sponsored subliminal messaging to remind you to file your tax returns in a timely manner.

With his answer, Jesus offers us a choice. Are you going to put your trust in things temporal or things eternal? Are you going to place your faith in the things on the surface of life or in the things at the core? Are you going to cast your hope on the superficial things that fade away or on that which endures. Are you going to believe in the human authority of the emperor or in the divine authority of God?

That’s what Jesus is getting at here. And it’s a reminder that ultimately everything we see and everything we own and everything we are, belongs to God. Given the finite period of human existence, we are all merely temporary stewards of our resources.

So whether you earned it with blood, sweat, and tears or inherited it, it’s not yours. And when we start viewing the world through this lens, generosity flows organically. We want to give back and share the things that are God’s with the church and with others less fortunate than we are. Pledging to this congregation is a tangible way to praise the God from whom all blessings flow. And you know what? Once you let go of the fear and embrace a spirit of generosity, you will find incredible freedom. (Oh, did I mention today is Stewardship Sunday?).

And so even amid the change that is swirling around us, indeed because of the change swirling around us, I invite you to invest in this community, to invest in your faith, to invest in the ministries that draw us closer to God and one another. This is the perfect time for us to collectively drive our stake into the ground and proclaim for all to hear and know that we are people of faith and that it is a faith that matters and that it is a faith that transforms and that it is a faith that gives our lives meaning and that it is a faith that transcends the shifts and changes that life throws at us.

Image is everything. But not the image we may want to project to the world — images of strength and invulnerability and perfection. That is not a sustainable image, not because we’re weak or bad or hopeless but because we’re human. The good news in this is that we are made in the image of God. That’s the image that is everything. That’s the image that brings wholeness to the broken places in our lives. And when you are part of a faith community that is formed in the image of God, you can’t help but do your part to keep it healthy, vibrant, faithful, and thriving.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014

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