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Sermon preached at St. Christopher’s, Springfield, VA on October 22, 2017

20th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24) Year A, RCL: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-2

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.

I wonder if you’ve ever been asked a question that, if you stopped long enough to think about it, you realized there was no way you could answer without getting yourself into trouble?  That's what we call a “loaded question.”  A loaded question is one that is worded in such a way that a person cannot answer it without appearing to be wrong, or even guilty.

Here are a couple of examples of loaded questions:

• Have you quit cheating at cards?  If you answer Yes," you’re admitting that you have cheated.  If you answer "No," you admit that you’re still cheating.

Here’s another (and I’ll ask this because my big sister is here today):

• Do you still pick on your little brother?  See, it’s like the other question.  You’re either going to admit you USED TO pick on your brother, OR admit that you STILL pick on him. 

Our gospel today has a good example as it contains a question about paying taxes.  But Matthew tells us right up front that the question put to Jesus was to trap him in his own words.  Yes, it’s a “loaded question.” 

The question was posed by a coalition of two groups, the Pharisees and the Herodians, who could be branded as ‘strange bedfellows.’  Both were comprised of Jews, but their identity with separate groups tells us about their political agendas.  Herodians were secularists who supported the right of the Herods, a dynasty that ruled over Palestine, and made them supporters of the Roman taxation system.  The Pharisees were a religious group who resented Roman rule and Roman taxation and reportedly hated handling the Roman coins used to pay the taxes.  These were groups that would not normally work together, but this time, they found common ground in that both felt threatened by Jesus.  Jesus was gaining great popularity among the Israelites.  

It must have come as a surprise to Jesus to see both Pharisees and Herodians coming to him as a group and saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no one, for you do not regard the position of human beings.”

I don’t know about you, but you might sense trouble when your enemies begin to flatter you, so I imagine Jesus was quickly on his guard.  After those kinds words came the punch line: “Now, tell us, Jesus, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

Hmmm.  If Jesus argued against the tax, they could accuse him of activity against Rome.  If he endorsed the tax, his support among the common people who hated the tax and their Roman overlords would erode. 

Jesus, however, not only avoided the loaded question, but also used it as a teachable moment to challenge these two groups about their obligations toward God.  Calling for a coin, Jesus asked whose image is on it.  "The emperor’s," his challengers said.  Jesus then told them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Well, that settles the question, doesn’t it?  There are things that belong to Caesar, like the money with which we pay our taxes, and there are things that belong to God.  Such as??? And there’s the problem.

Jesus put the question back to the Pharisees and Herodians.  His statement raised some questions.  How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and things that belong to God?  What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God?

The modern Western mind likes to put things in compartments.  The icon of Western civilization might be the filing cabinet or the encyclopedia.  If you look in the filing cabinet under A, you might see “Annual Parish Meeting”; under C, you might find “Copy Machine”; under T, “Taxes”, of course.  Should this sermon be filed under T for taxes, C for Caesar, or G for God?

The filing cabinet frame of mind has led many Biblical scholars to misunderstand completely Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and Herodians. Our habit of compartmentalization leads us to believe that “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” means that some things belong to Caesar and others belong to God.  But think about what we say when the offering is brought forward on Sunday morning (I think you say this here): “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”

When clergy preach stewardship sermons on this text, they usually ask people to consider how much they should pledge to the church.  But the real question is not how much we should give to God or the church or how much belongs to Caesar, but how much belongs to God?  And if we ask that question, then the real issue of stewardship is not “How much should we pledge?” but “How much should we keep for ourselves?”

I know that your Stewardship Campaign here at St. Christopher’s is based on the diocesan theme, “All Hearts Open,” which comes from the Collect of Purity.  That Collect is the first prayer of the Liturgy of the Word said by the presider to ‘collect our hearts, minds, and bodies together’ as we begin our worship.  I’ll invite you now to take the Book of Common Prayer and turn to Page 355.  Let’s pray this together:

“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you   no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

For me, Stewardship is EVERYTHING that we do after we first say, “Yes, I Believe!”  You may consider your response to the call of stewardship as Time, Talent, and Treasure, but I have come to understand it differently as Self, Service, and Substance.  Self, Service, and Substance.  It sounds fresh and it feels different because of 1) What I give of myself, 2) any service I offer to the Church, God’s people, and the world, and Yes, 3) Substance … Money.  You are being invited to consider what your individual and collective mission and ministry will be as people of God working in the vineyard known to St. Christopher’s, Springfield. 

But as you prayerfully discern what that might be, please remember this: All that we are and all that we have belongs to God.  And we belong to God not as slaves, but as children.  Rendering to God what God has a claim on is not burdensome; it is liberation.  We cannot divide our lives between God and Caesar. Realizing that life is whole and not fragmented is an insight that can bring us freedom.  It teaches us that our first and foremost priority is the service of God.

Yet you might still have issues with money: who EARNS it, who SPENDS it, HOW and WHY.  I remember that Socrates was trained as a stonecutter who never spent a day cutting stone.  His wife worked to support them and their children so he could provide free lessons to his students.  That sounds much like Chrissie supporting us after I left my former career to discern what and where God would next lead me and us.  At first, I struggled with that, thinking I was not contributing so I had no say in the money.  I had to remember the power of our relationship over money to put THAT into perspective.

In his book, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Press, 1999), Thomas Merton wrote, "If what most people take for granted were really true -- if all you needed to be happy was to grab everything and see everything and investigate every experience and then talk about it -- I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle until now ... What a strange thing!  In filling myself, I had emptied myself.  In grasping things, I had lost everything.  In devouring pleasures and joys, I had found distress and anguish and fear."

Steady and adequate income IS a great plus in life, but is not the primary thing.  We all know, there are too many who have too little to make life good for themselves and those they love.  The need is so great.  Too many wonder where valued work can be found, where food enough is available for their next meal, or where they might lay their head in comfort.  Money would help, but money is not the root of this story's message.

If you, like many people, feel many claims upon your time and finances and energy, then it can be freeing to realize that there is only one claim upon our lives: to serve God in joyful freedom.

Typically, a coin is impressed with an image of the authority upon which the coin relies.  Here in the USA, coins and bills bear the picture of presidents who function as model representatives of the sovereign people.  But we, who are in the church through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, can be called the currency of God’s realm.  Each of us bears the image of our authority, our Creator.  We were received into the household of God with the sign of the Cross, and marked as Christ’s own forever. 

Standing before Pontius Pilate, Jesus proclaimed that his kingdom is not of this world.  In divisive times, it is vital to remember that the reign of God will not be ushered in by earthly means: one cannot vote the kingdom in or out.  Yet we are also called to participate in the affairs of the world, serving as light, salt, and yeast.  The exhortation to “render therefore unto Caesar” what is his and give to God that things that are God’s, if not carefully parsed, can lead either to a wholehearted engagement in political machinations—to where the gospel becomes inseparable from a party platform—or it can lead to quietism and dualism, in which the events of the church and of the state have little to do with one another.

When we gather for worship, we are reminded that our ultimate allegiance is to God rather than to any earthly authority.  Created in the image of God, we offer our entire selves in the service of God and for the sake of the world.

So, back to those “loaded questions” I mentioned earlier, I have one for you:  How will you increase your tithe to St. Christopher’s for the mission and ministry of God in this world?