Monday, October 10, 2011

When Kingdoms Collide

Came across this stewardship sermon (on this Sunday's Propers) preached a few years ago at St. Helena's, Boerne.  My first sermon during a stewardship season.  Now in season #4, it's fun and instructive to look back.

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Some IRS agents come looking for Jesus: “Teacher,” they say, “Mmm, we don’t know quite how to put this, this may come out awkward, so we’ll just put it out there: are your boys gonna pay taxes come April or not?”

“Excuse me?”

But with a tax book in one hand, they hold out the Scriptures, “Tell us,” they say, “just point out the relevant verses, but what are the fiscal implications, exactly, as you understand them, of your being Messiah and the Kingdom you preach?”

Their questions are real, but they aren’t sincere.  The questioners, predictably, are Pharisees, but also Herodians, and Herodians are the ones who pledge allegiance to Herod, the puppet king aligned with Rome and the emperor.  Put another away, they talk nice and all, but these aren’t the folks looking to turn in their pledge cards, to give for God’s Kingdom.  These folks are federal.  These folks are fishing for treason.  “Just say it, rabbi--we dare you to say it: tell us your Kingdom can disregard Caesar.”

But that’s just one side of well, the coin, the other side says that if Jesus doesn’t bite at the bait, if he doesn’t even hint that the Kingdom of God might mean the end of Caesar as king and the subsequent oppression of Jews at the hands of the Romans, then the questioners will have exposed Jesus for the same impotent man in an occupied land that they know themselves too well to be.  Messiah, indeed.

Meanwhile, the crowds hear the question, come in close, gather around.  Perched on their seats and in pin-drop silence, their eyes plead with their Savior: they hang on his word.  How will he answer?

The Herodians grow impatient: “C’mon, God’s King, we can’t wait long.  We need to know just what your intentions are.  Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor--or not?”

Jesus asks for the coin, the denar, used for the tax. 

At this point, it may or may not be assuring, to you, to know that the coin he received looked a lot like our own.  Pull one out if you have it.  Go ahead, I don’t mind, fish for a coin.  Share with a friend.  Hold it up when you’ve got it.  What does it look like?  How does it feel?

“Forgive me,” Jesus says, “I don’t have a coin on me.  Maybe you can show me yours.  Thanks,” he says.

“Now,” he goes on, “whose face, whose head, whose graven image, is inscribed on your coin?”  Look at them close.

Like our own coins, the Roman coin used for the tax had the face of a ruler inscribed on it.  This was a serious problem for Jews, who believed that the depiction of any face on coin, in rock, or otherwise was strictly prohibited by the third of the ten commandments.  So when Jesus asks for the coin, he’s intentionally and painfully making his questioners squirm.  For a good Jew, and a Pharisee no less, it is not without embarrassment--perhaps some shame--that they pull out and hand to Jesus the newly minted idols that they carry.  The very presence of the Roman coin in their very Jewish hands, in their purses, it is an acquiescence to an unwanted, a foreign, power that occupies and oppresses them, even on and up to the level of their faith, and its compromise.   In an instant, the question once intended to trap Jesus has become the conviction of the ones who asked it.  Because they held the coin.

Jesus takes the coin. 

Now, what happens next is interesting.  Jesus doesn’t read them the coin; the folks around him undoubtedly know the words by heart; and so I wonder, without looking at your coin, without peeking, what are the words on it?  Do you know them by heart?  If you do, what are they?  Call them out!

The words around the money held in Jesus’ hand were equally well known, but in case your familiarity with 1st century Roman coins is even half as bad as mine, let me read it for you: written around the head inscribed on the coin handed to Jesus were these words: “Son of God...high priest”; not words of faith in Israel’s God, mind you, but words announcing the title of the emperor and the authority of another would-be god.  It seems their idol has a name.

Now before we go on, let us be clear: in the gospel this morning, Jesus addressing the Jews, the point for both sides is not money--this is far more than financial.  No, but balanced on the face of the coin in their hands is a social and political, religious, philosophical, Law of God tug-of-war for the worshipping heart of the Jew.  So Jesus’ message isn’t anti-capitalist; the admonition is not to tax evasion.  But only fools can hold the coins and not see the claims their idols make upon them.

But back to your coin.  I wonder: when we read, “In God we trust,” like “Son of God,” are we proclaiming the God of our faith, or are we announcing as god-like the authority of the one whose silver image stares at you from one side of the coin?  Does the coin you hold symbolize for you or call to mind the presence of a ruling power, one that occupies, consumes, even oppresses you--to the level of your faith, and its comprise? 

You would like me to believe, no doubt, that, in your life, the power is yours, that you are in control, that your debts are your own to choose; but the coin in your hand, it betrays you--you are not the all-powerful, even in your own life.  But who is?  Whose image lies on your coin?

“Jonathan!  Hold up!  Time out.  You’re going too far--I’m stoppin’ you short.  Rambling on about idols and coins, all the while our holding coins in our hand; did you really think we wouldn’t have the indignant courage to be insulted?  To call your slight of hand?  But look here, not one of us would say that George Bush--or George Washington for that matter--is the Son of God.  I hate to disappoint you, but belief in Roman deities died a long time ago indeed.  Images and idols and enemies of God--good Lord, it’s just spare change.  And just where did you hope this connection might lead us? 

Fair enough.  But before you write off this morning’s Gospel as out of touch, as not worth your hearing, as beneath your new coins, let me paraphrase a modern question all too commonplace this time of year:

“Good priests of the church, godly teachers, we understand that stewardship is important--did I mention I really liked last Sunday’s sermon on that very topic?  Really, David, you outdid yourself.  No, we understand stewardship, that God asks us to give, but still, we’re a little confused; when God asks for ten percent of what we earn, tell me, is that net or gross--you know, before or after taxes?”

Mmm.  Nevermind that the ones who ask the question seldom give ten percent off net OR gross, but do you see the competition of the gods? 

Do you feel the echo of Jesus’ words: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon”?

Sitting where you are, in your pew, on this Sunday, where does your worshipping heart finds its place in the tug of war of gods and idols?

When Jesus says, “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s; give to God that which is God’s,” you begin to get the feeling that Jesus isn’t talking equal shares and dual loyalties; but that he’s pushing us to a nearly impossible choice: to choose his Kingdom above all the others.

But does this renegade King understand what he’s asking?  It’s a more than fair question.
To choose his Kingdom over our political allegiances, personal privileges, and financial gains, surely, this choosing will cost us;

to choose the one Kingdom that will not bring us more than what we have, but that demands we share our lives with others, this kind of choosing will utterly undo us.

but to choose the only Kingdom whose blessing is gift, this choosing alone will redeem and transform us.

Make no mistake, to choose this strange Kingdom will cost you the life you would have otherwise had.  Let no one be fooled: to give to this God will be a lousy investment; there are no returns, because there is no greater call; or to what would you turn after beholding the King?  The whole world made yours, God’s life opened to you, what prize would you covet still?

And sisters and brothers, the Good News of His Kingdom is that you are an heir--not later, but now--that you and I are living heirs made one with the risen Christ.  His Kingdom is our calling.

So when giving to God the things that are God’s, we invoke a treason of sorts; we hold out for that which is our gift born of God; in a world of too many idols to count, we pray for their ending, we cry out, “Thy Kingdom come”; and so giving to God the things that are God’s we give like we can nowhere else: without expectation; without manipulation; without pride or self-absorbed satisfaction.  In short, we can give with a naked thanksgiving: you and I found alive in God’s Kingdom, lost to the abundance of Christ’s love for us.

Amen.

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