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Sunday, October 16, 2011

What Belongs to God

We are the living “coin” of God in the world. We bear the likeness and inscription of a God who suffered and died for the sake of the world – it is to that God whom we give our lives.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Ordinary Time, Sunday 29, year A; texts: Matthew 22:15–22; 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10; Psalm 96; Isaiah 45:1–7

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems. Here we are, AD 2011, just over a year from a national election for the office of President of the United States, and one of the chief issues seems to be about taxes. At least some would argue that. And in our Gospel, 1,980 or so years earlier, opponents of Jesus ask him about taxes. They’re trying to trap him into saying something incriminating that they can use against him. As I said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

What’s wonderful about this story is that Jesus sees the trap and turns the question away from taxes (which it was never about in the first place) to questions of sovereignty itself. Who is your god? Who is worthy of honor and praise? To whom does what belong? Questions raised in our first and second readings and the psalm today as well, questions of idols and the true God, and what it means that God is ruler of the world, ruler of our lives. These questions move us into the heart of what it is to be a human being in relationship with God.

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus says.

Clearly the Pharisees and Herodians are not really interested in Jesus’ position on taxes. They know that there are only two answers to the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Either answer will get Jesus into trouble.

Jesus could answer, “No.” If he does that, then he’s a revolutionary and engaged in sedition against the government. Or, Jesus could answer, “Yes.” If he does that, then he’s completely lost credibility with the people who await God’s promise of their own land and a ruler from their own people. Taxes to Rome are a form of blasphemy to them. Either way, Jesus is killed, by the Romans or by the crowd.

But Jesus eludes the trap by pointing out that the truth of the question comes down to this: what belongs to whom? Who really is god? If the emperor pays for the roads, defends the country, and you’ve allowed him to have lordship over you, then you owe him his taxes, Jesus says.
But then he adds: give to God the things that are God’s. That’s the brilliant stroke that eliminates the trap, but also changes completely the nature of the discussion. We’re no longer talking about taxes. Now we’re talking about our life with God in our world. About the kingdom of God, and what Jesus has been teaching all along.

Jesus has in one statement cut to the heart of the issue between God and people. This entire section often has been used to describe our Christian life. First, we pay our taxes as citizens of our nation, and it’s an important and good thing. Paul says the same thing elsewhere. And second, we give of our wealth back to God, since God has given it to us. So this text becomes a text that can be used on a Sunday when a congregation begins its stewardship emphasis, as we are, since starting this week members of Mount Olive will be invited to pledge our commitment to our mission together next year.

There’s only one problem. This isn’t a simple text on giving to the Church. It’s not a simple text at all.

Whose head and whose title, Jesus asked? (In other words, to start with, how can we know what things are God’s?)

Jesus identified the things that are the emperor’s in a specific way. He asked, whose head, whose picture, whose image is on this coin? The answer: the emperor’s. Every coin minted by the emperor would bear his likeness. And Jesus asked, whose title? Again, the answer: the emperor’s. Each coin minted by the emperor had his name, and divine attributes on it. So, it’s very simple, says Jesus. It’s the emperor’s coin, it is owed to him.

So how do we know what is God’s? Jesus’ question leads us to start with the Biblical claim that we in fact are created in the image of God, that we bear that image in our lives. So this means, in a sense, we are God’s coin, minted in God’s image. And what inscription, what title is on us? At our baptism, we were washed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The very name of God was imprinted on our lives, and we were adopted as God’s own beloved children. Whose title is on us? God’s very name.

But we are no inanimate coin, no piece of metal stamped without a will. We are created and given minds to come to know the God in whose image we were made, and in whose name we were claimed. We were given the ability to learn to follow God, to live as God calls us to live. To be seen in the world as people who bear the image and name of our Lord God.

The implications are staggering. We’re not talking about a tiny thing like how much money we give to the church, or to the government, anymore. We’re talking about ownership.

What happens when we realize that God is the owner of us, of all things?

Clearly, it does affect our stewardship of our wealth and possessions. It’s funny how children will sometimes become very possessive of their money, even when it was given them, not earned. It’s a habit we keep for our whole lives. Once we have money, possessions, we believe they’re ours to spend, and ours to do with what we will.

Jesus would argue that not only is it not ours to decide, it isn’t ours. So even our self-righteousness at giving a tiny portion of our income back to God has no place.

What would it mean if we realized fully that all our wealth – small or great as it may be – is God’s? That it isn’t about giving back to God, or even owing God. It is about being a steward of God’s wealth, that is, a caretaker.

It means that the real task of money management and living with possessions is about listening to God’s will for the use of the wealth that belongs to God. No manager would use the owner’s money on their own, as if it were their own. They would know they were accountable, and follow the owner’s instructions.

So what would it mean for you and for me if we finally recognized that about our stewardship of wealth?

But it goes even deeper than that. What would it mean for our lives if we realized they were God’s and not ours? What would it mean for our lives that our selfishness and self-centeredness have no place, for we belong to God? What would it mean for us that our doling out piece by piece certain gifts of our time and talents to God as if they were great gestures of generosity on our part only pointed to our misunderstanding of those gifts?

How would we live our lives differently if we recognized they were not our lives, but God’s?
Giving to God the things that are God’s – that is, literally everything – changes literally everything. What it comes down to is sovereignty: who really is in charge of the world, of us? And do our lives reflect that reality?

And I’ve been thinking about this all week, that what we do here each week is so critical to keeping us centered where we ought to be centered. The act of worship – coming into the presence of almighty God for prayer and praise – by its very nature reminds us that we do not belong to ourselves.

We value our worship so much here not because we “like” it or it’s beautiful. Though both are true. I suggest that we value it because at our core we know that here we are re-oriented to knowing who’s really sovereign over our lives and over the world.

We are constantly reminded in this place, as we bow to honor God’s presence, as we see in each other the eyes of Christ, as we are fed by the meal of life and grace, as we hear God’s Word, as we sing and pray and kneel, that we belong to the God of the universe, and that God loves us. And that we are not the most important things in our lives, God is.

And it is here that we learn again and again just what God it is who, as Paul says today, is the “true and living God.” A very real problem believers have is even a reality when they recognize the sovereignty, the rule of God. And that is that we tend to want to assume that God is on our side, we believe we can claim God for our own purposes, that we are right and others wrong, and we can use our sense of the power and majesty of God to dominate or stand over others.

But here each week we gather under the cross of Jesus Christ and are reminded that the true God does not rule in power and might but through suffering and death for our sake. The cross is the throne of the true and living God, and here we are reminded of that week after week.

And we are shaped in our worship into the true image of God. So when we worship week after week a Triune God who so identifies with the pain and suffering of the world that the Son of God entered it and transformed it, we are shaped into that image. The image of God on the cross, entering the suffering of the world with a love that will not die. And that self-giving love becomes ours as we worship, becomes us, so that we can give it, share it, live it in the world for the sake of the world.

A great teacher of the Church, Tertullian, reflected on Jesus’ words in this way 1,800 years ago: “You give money to Caesar, but to God, give yourself.”

We do this because God is our Sovereign, our Lord, and everything we are and have belongs to God. And since we have been made into the likeness of our Lord and have been inscribed with the name of God in baptism, the Holy Spirit will work in our hearts to shape us more and more into this image and title. To shape us more and more into the real image of God, that self-giving love which will save the world. In effect, we’re being newly minted every day as God’s coin for the sake of the world. “To God, give yourself:” God give us strength and courage so to live in the image and name of our true and living Sovereign and God, for the sake of the world.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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