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SHOW ME THE COIN

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock 2023.1022.A.Pr24.God&Caesar Exodus 33:12-23; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22


"Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students. So tell us honestly: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”1 Amidst the manipulative attempt to set Jesus up with this “gotcha” question, Matthew reports that the Lord responded to his enemies by requesting a denarius from that deceitful group. (By the way, a denarius was the Roman Empire’s legal tender by which the tax was paid. It had the bust of Caesar on its face, with the statement, “Son of God” ringing its edge.) So it was that from their own, ostensibly pure religious pockets came the coin in question. As if the coin’s simple appearance was its own indicting answer, Jesus pivots the entire situation completely around and makes his point with these words: Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.2 On this day, throughout the entire church, preachers like me, seeing this gospel lesson in the very heart of the fund-raising season, smile. Jesus’ refrain surely appears as a slow, softball pitch, down the heart of the plate. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.” Whack!! “Going, going, gone!” Or perhaps it’s not that easy. In our liturgical tradition there is a truth that says this: “Prayer shapes believing”. More broadly put, how you and I worship shapes what we let into our hearts. And giving our hearts to God lies at the very heart and purpose of our worship and our faith-life. Heart to heart: We say our prayers and more poignantly we worship together in order to practice our ability and our willingness to “believe”: that is, to “give our hearts [and lives] to” God, who has given us his life-in-Christ from the beginning. Lex orandi; lex credendi. “The law of prayer shapes the law of belief.” Or as we say more plainly around here: “Be careful: If you come here, you will grow.” Now, you may wonder where am I going with this little reference to the liturgy’s impact on our lives and in shaping our beliefs, that is, our practicing our “heart-giving and taking” with God and with our neighbors? Where am I headed? I am glad you asked! – because you also might recall that as the offerings of the congregation are lifted up to God and in front of the people, I choose to say the following: “All things come of Thee, O Lord”; and you respond, “and of thine own have we given Thee.” This offertory sentence is not found in the Prayer Book per se. The line actually comes from the Bible’s account of King David speaking to God near the end of his reign, a sort of last will and testimony to God before the people. David says, But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from thee, and of thy own have we given thee. [1 Chronicles 29:14]. And now from this to the gospel lesson’s “coin”. "All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.” Give…to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. So, what’s your answer to the question posed in this gospel lesson? More to the point, where do faithful folks like us discern the line between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s? Is there, in fact, such a line? In our biblical and spiritual traditions, we have guidelines toward such shaping discernment. The traditional guideline is the tithe, that is, setting aside 10% of our income to return to God as a token of what is God’s. Some people have been spiritually able to accomplish this position and freedom. Personally, I have not, but I nonetheless continue to work on moving toward what the tithe and the “Offertory Sentence” behold, as a way of answering Jesus’ question about what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. And, for the sake of their souls, some people should give everything away so that they may finally know their inner heart disease and its distorted shaping of their lives and the lives of those around them. "All things come of Thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given Thee.” Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Damon Road belongs to Caesar; and so does Union Street and the electrical grid and dealing with the water and our sewage. We pay “Caesar” to take care of these logistics of our common life. But there is something different about returning to God what is due God. Unfortunately, there are some among us who regard making a financial pledge to places and communities like St. Philip’s, its life, mission, and ministry in terms of paying their “religion” dues or worse yet their “church taxes”. Others among us give to God what is God’s in terms of “doing our fair share”. I know about these responses to Jesus’ question about giving and God. I have used them all myself; but there are two things missing from this “goods and services” perspective. One is a matter of defining ourselves in terms of being consumers. As one member of the Vestry from a former parish said to me, “I make a little deposit so that I can make a withdrawal.” In a very real sense, none of us is immune from this consumer mentality because we have been exposed to it ceaselessly since the womb. In particular, we have been constantly trained to be customers; and the fact is that customers always look for a good deal. Yet, here’s the rub. While customers look for a good deal (“What’s my discount?”), baptism into Christ makes us partners with Christ. And the thing about partners is that partners invest. And rightly so, investors expect a return on their investment. The question this gospel lesson raises is this” What is our return on our investment? Do we answer the question about what is God’s as customers or partners? The other thing a “goods and services”, dues paying perspective misses is that supporting St. Philip’s mission and ministry is quite literally the “heart” of the matter of being God’s partner. Is pledging our time, our talent, and our treasure offered as another transaction; or is our offering given as a means by which we invest – invest in our own transformation? Can our giving be for us an engagement with the steady process of being changed – changed (as the Prayer Book’s prayer at a burial says) “from strength to strength in the life of perfect service and freedom”? This pledging to support what we say is important as followers of Jesus is a matter of a sprint; nor is our willingness and ability to give God what is God’s a competition. It is, however, about our transformation, about the process of being changed into capable, grateful, effective partners with God, with God’s Christ, and with one another. May our pledges be the way we show Jesus our response to that coin’s challenge, our proclamation about what is Caesar’s and what is God’s and what shapes our hearts and lives. Amen.

 

1. Matthew 22:16-17 [The Message] 2. Matthew 22:21

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