Sermon: October 22, 2017

Pentecost 20A2017
Matthew 22:15-22

by Pastor Sarah Stadler

Imagine this scene. Jesus. The Pharisees and Herodians. This is not a quiet, sit-down meeting in Jesus’ office. This is not a polite exchange after church in the fellowship hall over coffee.

This is Jesus versus the Pharisees and Herodians, one wise but illiterate peasant against likely a couple dozen learned, powerful men, come to entrap him. Think less Downton Abbey and more Game of Thrones. (Well, at least, I hear. I don’t own a TV.) The point is that the Pharisees and Herodians don’t come to Jesus with a deep, theological quandary. They don’t come to Jesus with wide open hearts yearning to understand. They come to Jesus to entrap him. There is no good answer to their question, and they know it. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” If Jesus says, yes, it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor who is oppressing the Jewish people, he risks alienating himself from his people, risks his very ministry. If Jesus says, no, it’s not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he risks being arrested for trouble-making, risks being put to death even earlier. In the Roman Empire, you do not stand up against the emperor. But Jesus, Jesus is clever. Instead of answering their question, in response, he asks one of his own. Looking at a Roman coin, he asks: “Whose head is this and whose title?” When they identify the emperor as the image on the coin, Jesus commands: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Suddenly, in this Game of Thrones scenario, everyone dejectedly puts away their weapons, hangs their heads, and trudges home. Bested once again by the illiterate peasant.

He doesn’t say pay your taxes.

He doesn’t say don’t pay your taxes.

Because Jesus says: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s, you may be sorting resources in your head. This is the government’s. That is God’s. That is the government’s. This is God’s.

But Jesus does not call the Pharisees, the Herodians, or us to sort monetary resources, talents and skills, time and energy into categories: ours, the government’s, God’s. The real question is: what doesn’t belong to God?

Jesus doesn’t play the game of the Pharisees and Herodians, and we don’t have to either. In this game, the Pharisees and Herodians determine what belongs to who. In this game, the Pharisees and Herodians determine the proper place of the government in the lives of religious people. In this game, the Pharisees and Herodians determine who has authority in their lives. But we don’t have to play this game because Jesus doesn’t. He gives the Pharisees and Herodians the opportunity to decide for themselves what is the emperor’s and what is God’s, but the joke is on them because it’s all God’s. All monetary resources, all gifts and skills, all time and energy are God’s, intended for God’s purposes.

Because everything belongs to God, Jesus’ words make me call into question any and every use of especially the monetary resources God has given us. There is not a self-evident good way to deal with money. If this story shows us anything about money, it’s that the creation of money, money’s entire existence, a way of buying and selling anything is something to be questioned. For really, what is emperor’s? Nothing. And nothing is ours.

When I consider that nothing is emperor’s, nothing is ours, and everything is God’s, I squirm with uncomfortability at what seems an inevitable question: Did God really intend for us to buy and sell any of creation, meaning using the resources of Earth to make all of the various products we use in our daily lives? Did God really intend for us to commodify the gifts of Earth that were created for the enjoyment of all? Did God really intend to limit the use of Earth’s resources to those who could afford them? These questions make me uncomfortable as I imagine they do most of us. We can hardly imagine a world without money, without seeing different products of God’s creation as commodities to be bought and sold. As uncomfortable as these questions make us, to ignore them is, I think, to ignore Jesus’ words.  

And while I think we must ask the questions, I’m not sure what the answers are. But it occurred while thinking about the church that we already embody one answer to the question: What is the alternative to buying and selling? And the answer is: Sharing. In the church, we offer up our monetary resources, our gifts and skills, our time and energy for the sake of all of us in the community. We share who we are, what we possess, what we’re good at just because we want to. Nobody pays us to show up and do what we love. We just do. It’s hard to overestimate the great value of sharing in church community and not just sharing our monetary resources which are of important and essential—and thank you—but sharing our gifts and skills, time and energy. On just one Sunday morning, people share the following gifts: singing, playing instruments, baking bread for communion, setting up Holy Communion, changing the paraments on the altar, pulpit, and lectern when necessary, filling candles with oil, working with sound equipment and powerpoint, ushering and greeting, reading aloud publicly, counting and recording the offering, cooking or preparing food, such as those who provide fellowship, serving Holy Communion, cleaning tables, cleaning restrooms, showing hospitality to strangers, flipping pancakes, washing dishes, filling syrup bottles, leading Bible study, praying for others, guiding other volunteers at the pancake breakfast. And this is just Sunday morning! Much of the care of the property happens throughout the week as well as things like putting up bulletin boards, practicing the music that is sung and played during worship, cooking for GLOW and cleaning the kitchen, buying GLOW and pancake breakfast groceries, putting in motion all of our faith formation and outreach activities, like the Reformation Open House happening this Saturday or the Christmas program each December, not to mention all of the dry administrative tasks that the council and others work on, like ministry reviews of staff each November, interviewing staff when necessary, signing checks, depositing the offering at the bank, assisting with the financial review of our books, preparing annual meeting reports, writing Christmas cards to all of our ministry partners. I assume that what happens each Sunday is that, by the time you leave here, you have shared yourself, your time and energy, not just with the community at large but with individuals in particular, whether that is encouraging someone, mentoring someone, praying for someone, or even on a more practical level, offering to pick up someone for an event or help dig their garden, drop off food at their house or walk their dog. You share your hearts, your time, your gifts, your monetary resources for the sake of all of us! Not one of these aforementioned pieces of ministry is done by someone who gets paid to do it. You are there because you want to be. You are giving to God what is God’s.

There are many and various ways to give God what is God’s. It’s not just in the church. And I’m practical. At least at this point, in this place, money is necessary to access resources like food and clean water and shelter. I get it. But Jesus’ words this week and the witness of the church make me wonder: how might I give to God what is God’s in all the various aspects of my life? How might I share? Because whatever it is that I “have,” it’s not really mine anyway. In the words of an old hymn, words directed as prayer to God: We give thee but thine own, what’er the gift may be. All that we have is thine alone, a trust, oh Lord, from thee.

Thanks be to God! Amen.