Here is another excerpt from a sermon—this one is from our most recent Sunday at our church in West Groton, Mass.
In all likelihood, this will be a common trend on this blog for the foreseeable future— to either reflect on readings from my doctoral study, or to post excerpts from recent sermons. So, it will be a combination of me trying to make sense of faith, and of me trying to explain faith to others. Either way, I hope to continue receiving feedback from others in the blogosphere.
This is the middle portion of the sermon, part of a series of sermons teaching on the Kingdom/Reign of God, using the lectionary passages. This Sunday, the passage was Matthew 22:15-22:
(NRSV) 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius.20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They 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.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
One of the reasons why I might wonder if any of these followers of the Pharisees might have had some misgivings… is because I imagine that they were young– probably between the ages of 16 and 25. I’ve worked with young people. (I know some of you are thinking, it wasn’t so long ago when I WAS a young person, by that standard!) But I’ve worked w/ youth and young adults and in my experience, they have a strong aversion to anything that smells FAKE. Insincere.
Nearly every time I see an interview or research study done that surveys people’s religious opinions, they often ask those who used to, but no longer, practice a Christian faith, “Why did you stop practicing your faith?” In every one, You can count on one answer usually being near or at the top of the list: “Because Christians are a bunch of…..HYPOCRITES.”
Now if a study pushes further, we’ll see a range of reasons why people have this opinion— ranging from televangelists taking people’s money, to scandals and abuses committed by Catholic and Protestant church leaders,….Oftentimes it’s a personal experience, like my aunt telling me just this past weekend about how when her husband was a child, he was told by his teacher at his Christian school that he was a terrible, sinful child, just for being late to school one day. Just that one experience, with one angry Christian, shaped the way he looked at Christianity for the rest of his life.
“Just how far does this reign of God-thing go?” It seems like even young people, young adults, even those who have abandoned faith, know inherently the answer.
It’s that your faith… has got to show itself in EVERY corner of our lives… and make a difference.
And the fact is, I’ve found, people will find someone very commendable, respectable, about that kind of faith, like I imagine those young apprentices would be of Jesus– as the text says after Jesus responds to them, they were amazed! … After all, everyone wants a life that matters. A life that stands for something. And in a world of dual allegiances, triple, allegiances, or more… where we’ll wear eight different hats in the scope of a week, it’s sometimes difficult to see the point, or to have focus, even about ourselves. We claim to be a religion of love, but so easily put ourselves first and forget the other people all around us. Hypocrisy can come all too easily, naturally, for all of us. Myself included. And our media, our politics, the news, are all rife with examples of wishy-washiness, and of failing to stand up on others who can’t stand up for themselves. In such a world, it’s incredibly compelling, I think, to speak about life, as whole, as purposeful. A life that matters, that gives back, that gives itself away. That maybe even pushes beyond what is comfortable or easy, in order to save the life, or end the suffering, of another human being.
And so the young apprentices and Herodians ask, Pay the tax, or not? How far does this Reign of God go? Or are you as duplicitous as our teachers and bosses say you are? And Jesus responds: “Who’s head? Who’s title… is on the coin for the tax? …. They show him a Roman denarius coin, stamped with the head of the emperor. Marked with the words: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus, Augustus.” (The one the world called, “the Son of God!”)… And Jesus responds…literally he says, “So, give the Caesarly things to Caesar….
…And give the Godly things to God.”
It’s a very hard statement. Basically he says…
Money is the object, the desire, of Caesar who claims to be God. So let him take it from you. He wants it. It is His god. What does it matter to you? Caesar has no hold over the Reign of the True, Living God! What God wants…. is ‘GODLY THINGS….’ and nothing is more GODLY …. than YOU! You are valuable, precious to Him! He wants YOU…. and so He wants, EVERY part of our lives… to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God. For us radiate God’s love…. in every corner, crevice, and cranny.
It’s a very hard statement Jesus makes. The “godly things” we give to God…. and give to others…… is ourselves. And as I imagine those apprentices walking away, maybe they were shocked, or even acted offended, but at least a few of them were muttering to each as they walked off: “Hey, he might be crazy, but at least that rabbi isn’t a fake….”