Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 29A)
Sunday, October 18, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Masschusetts

Watch Here (Minute 25:57)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Is there anything in the world that doesn’t belong to God? Is there any place in the world where God would say, “I can’t go there, because that doesn’t belong to me?” Is there any time God would say, “I shouldn’t be here, if the owner finds out I’m going to be in trouble?

I ask this in response to Jesus’s reply to the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 22:15-22). Once again, the Gospel of Matthew presents us with a story of religious leaders trying to trick and trap Jesus. Perhaps it’s fitting we read this story in the midst of election season when candidates try to draw out politically risky answers from their opponents. And, fitting for an election season, it seems appropriate that the politically dangerous question posed to Jesus was about taxes: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

While the relationship between Christian faith and civic duty is an important and complex relationship we should take time to consider, this was not an honest and genuine question. The question was a plot between the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, and the Herodians, Jewish agents of Caesar, who were normally at odds with the Pharisees because of their support of Caesar.

The question must have seemed to be the perfect way to trap Jesus.  If Jesus said taxes were unlawful, and advocated resistance to the tax, the Herodians could then charge the crowd-drawing popular preacher as a radical, a revolutionary, one who in his answer would make himself an enemy of the emperor. But, if Jesus said it was lawful to pay taxes – then the Pharisees could lead the populist charge against Jesus that he was a Caesar-lover, and he would make for himself an enemy of the crowds.

Now, if Jesus was a politician, he would have ducked and dodged the difficult question, avoiding it by launching into a favorite parable to shift the attention of his opponents onto more favorable grounds for himself.  But, Jesus was no candidate for political office.  Jesus, as the savior of the world, was the Son of God inviting people to faith, and into the truth of God’s love for the world. That being said, in his response, Jesus proved as cunning and wily as any politician today.

Jesus replied by asking for the coin to pay the tax. Seems like a simple enough request, and until I read commentators this week, I missed the profound significance of this simple ask. Some scholars suggest, that by producing the coin, the Pharisees, revealed that they themselves paid the tax!

The Pharisees were no heroes of the people, refusing to pay the tax in defiance to Caesar – they dutifully paid the taxes owed! When Jesus said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” this was not a groundbreaking new teaching, but rather, Jesus instructing the Pharisees to keep on keeping on … to keep paying the tax. Seminary Professor Shauna Hannon writes, this command “is of no major consequence since it simply confirms what his opponents have already been doing.”

Instead, the radical power in Jesus’s response, was the second half of Jesus’s answer, that the people give to God what belongs to God. This invited his hearers then, and invites us today, to the central question: Is there anything in the world that doesn’t belong to God? Is there anything, including the emperor himself, that doesn’t belong to God – that is outside of God’s reign, that doesn’t receive God’s invitation to faith, that is excused from God’s insistence on mercy and justice?

Lutheran pastor Javen Swanson suggests that though Jesus didn’t directly advocate withholding payment of the tax, he sent that message by implication. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s – in other words, give the emperor nothing, since everything belongs to God.” God’s Word supersedes the Emperor’s words. God’s will takes precedence over human will. God’s power must be recognized as supreme over any and all earthly power. 

Swanson writes: “This more radical interpretation … suggests resistance to civil authority when it is found to be complicit with violence, oppression, and domination … and where it is designed to protect the “haves” and keep down the “have-nots.” This reading of today’s gospel text affirms that God is indeed in control of all creation, and that civil authority will not go unchecked when it thwarts God’s intention to set the captive free and transform death into life.”

So, what does it mean to give to God that which belongs to God?

Giving to God that which belongs to God starts, by pledging our allegiance, professing our loyalty, and recognizing our faithfulness belongs to God – to God alone, to God first and foremost. With God as first and primary in our lives – then we give back to God what God has first given us. God has first given us justice, mercy, and love – having first received these things from God, we give them back to God, in the justice, mercy, and love we sow in the world.

God doesn’t want burnt offerings and sacrifices. God wants us to love one another. As God has first known our hurts, pain, and suffering in the broken body of Jesus Christ on the cross, God wants us to give this back to God by feeling the hurt, pain, and suffering of our neighbors, of the oppressed and exploited.  Giving to God that which belongs to God, is to give to the world all that God is – love, life, and resurrection.  

Here’s another example …

We are currently conducting our annual Stewardship Campaign. At the heart of this campaign is the invitation to each of us to consider our financial commitment to the congregation in 2021. As you consider your commitment, I invite you to do so recognizing that all that you have belongs, not to you, but to God. The money, possessions, property, that you have all belong to God. Christian stewardship invites us to consider the ways we are stewarding everything in our possession – for the sake of the kingdom.  

This is not an annual fundraiser such as you hear on NPR or experience with other organizations. Fundraisers only ask you to consider your donation to the organization. Sometimes fundraisers use an equivalency:  if you gave up a cup of coffee every day for a week that would be the same amount that would make you a sustaining member. And if you give that amount we’ll send you this new coffee mug in return for your pledge.

Christian stewardship is not about identifying the small amount of what you have that belongs to God, and that you will give to support the ministry of the church. Rather, Christian stewardship invites us to consider all that we have. That all that we have belongs to God, and all that we have is placed into serving God and loving the world.  

As you may have heard me share before, I do a personal budget on an excel spreadsheet. I know where every dollar I earn is spent or saved. At the risk of sounding like a nerd, I admit that one of my favorite activities on my day off, is to wake up with a cup of coffee, balance my checkbook, and enter items into my budget spreadsheet. This may not seem like a Sabbath day-off activity, but is has been said that budgets, whether personal, congregational, are governmental – are moral documents that guide behavior.  

Budgeting, is a spiritual discipline of responsible discipleship. Budgeting requires one to consider everything that one has – income, expenses, commitments, values, priorities, and then make real decisions that best reflect those commitments, values, and priorities. In this way, when we take the time to consider how it all fits together, and how all that we have is either being spent, saved, invested, donated, or given away, we are placing all that we have into God’s service.

Back to the question I started my sermon with: Is there anything we have that doesn’t belong to God? Christian stewardship answers:  everything belongs to God! As Christian stewards – our task of discipleship – is to make decisions that reflect that everything in the world belongs to God. To reflect this truth, is to make a generous, growing, and even sacrificial commitment to the mission of God in this place, in this congregation.

What’s the good news in this gospel story today?

The Good News, is that just as the world is not divided between that which belongs to God, and that which does not belong to God, neither is human community divided in that way. There are not those people who belong to God, and those other people who do not belong to God. The Good News is that the whole earth, and all its people, are God’s children.

The Pharisees belong to God. The emperor belongs to God. You and me belong to God. This belonging is not purchased by our offerings, it does not depend upon our financial commitment. Rather, our belonging is proclaimed through the grace and mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Our belonging is announced in water & word and bread & cup.  Each of us, and all people, are given the promise of God’s love and blessing. 

The Good News is that while we might divide our possessions, holding some back, God instead gives us everything. God withholds nothing from us. All that God is as Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, is poured out upon us in Jesus Christ as a gift of faith through the Holy Spirit.

Alive in this Good News, having received everything God is, may we give back to God that which belongs to God. In lives of generosity and justice, may we give back to God the love, grace, and life which God has first given us. May this generous giving proclaim the mercies of Jesus Christ to the world.

Indeed may it be so.