Sermon preached by Anne M. Watkins, Associate for Member Incorporation
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 19, 2014
+In the Name of God, who creates us; Jesus, who befriends us; and the Holy Spirit who empowers and sustains us. Amen.
Ask Gil Watkins if I’m a baseball fan and he would probably reply with a “not so much”. He’d be right in that. Now, I do enjoy a nice summer’s day at the stadium once every 3-5 years, especially if it comes along with a good potato knish and a cold brew, but, evenings or week-ends spent watching TV baseball games are not my first choice of entertainment or background noise. Still, this season – I’ve learned something new about the game from both Derek Jeter’s at Yankee Stadium as his career came to a close and from Travis Ishikawa in last Thursday’s game where the San Francisco Giants clinched the pennant and advanced to the World Series.
The term “walk-off hit” was not part of my vocabulary up until those two moments. For those of you who, like me, might not be familiar with this term a “walk-off” occurs when the home team in the bottom of the final inning – 9th or extra innings – hits into a play resulting in their go-ahead, winning run and the team “walks-off” the field as victors no matter how many outs have been played. By the way, that much I knew already – 3 strikes and you’re out and 3 outs ends the top or bottom of an inning.
Today’s gospel encounter between Jesus and his rivals is the first of three strikes doled out to the religious and civic authority’s sides. Two more follow in rapid succession in Matthew’s gospel as next the Sadduccees and then the Pharisees once again try unsuccessfully to best him. Three strikes and the religious authorities are “out”. Jesus hands them his three successive walk-offs. Never mind that the walk-offs lead him to a hill outside Jerusalem – for we know that that ends in victory also.
Let’s set this scene a bit more, though. We’re near the end of Jesus’s earthly life. He has entered Jerusalem on a donkey amid cheering crowds and palm branches, he’s confronted corruption by turning over the money changers’ tables in the temple and he’s continuing to attract followers through his teaching in the temple.
American essayist, Charles Dudley Warner, a contemporary and friend of Mark Twain and editor of the Hartford Courant is coined with the saying that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” A good example of that lies in today’s gospel as we find the unlikely alliance between the Pharisees and the Herodians. The politics have to do with Rome and with each group seeing Jesus increasingly as a threat to the social order. And so their trap is set with a seemingly simple “yes” or “no” question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
We could spend a fair amount of time unpacking that question just by looking at the use of the word lawful. Does it refer to Jewish law – the Laws of Moses – or does it refer to Imperial law – the Laws of Rome. I’m not going to spend much of our time delving into that question except to say it may not really matter in the long run. Jesus’ point goes far beyond legalities.
Suffice it to say – whichever law they mean – their intent is to place Jesus in a no-win grip when it comes to his answer. For the Jewish nation, Imperial rule was harsh; the taxation was oppressive. They’d prefer that Jesus answer ‘No, it isn’t lawful, as Jews, don’t pay the tax.”
Under the occupation, Jewish self-rule reported to local Roman rule. Thus, King Herod operates only with the permission of Rome. In turn, his aim is to keep the peace according to Rome’s desires and he has a vested interest in doing so. The Herodians – Herod’s followers – don’t share the same kind of contempt for the Imperial tax. They expect Jesus’s answer to be “Yes.”
And herein lies the trap. If Jesus replies “no, it is not lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar”, the Herodians could well report this as an act of treason up the chain of command to Rome. If Jesus replies “yes, it is lawful for us to pay the tax” he loses credibility with the masses of oppressed Jews who crowd around him hoping against hope that he is indeed some military savior come to rescue them from occupation and oppression. Even more importantly, though, answering yes is tantamount to acknowledging the authority and sovereignty of Caesar … an authority and sovereignty Jesus’s teaching has reserved for God and only God alone. Either way, these strange bedfellows reason, Jesus loses. And so what to do; how to respond?
We could also spend a fair amount of time unpacking the hypocrisy Jesus unearths as he asks for someone to show him the coin that would pay such a tax. The hypocrisy exposed because this roman coin with its graven image of Caesar’s face has no place in the temple or in a faithful Jew’s possession. The story reveals that it was quite easy to come by. But even that isn’t the crux of Jesus’ pointed reply.
Our translation does a bit of a disservice to this text. The word give shows up as render in other translations, meaning to give back as a payment of money, in kind goods, or service as a tenant might to a superior. And what is read as head in “whose head is on the coin …” would better read as “whose image is on the coin ….” Image is the key word here because if we heard that translation we might well be reminded of the creation story in Genesis where God says of humankind “let us create [them], male and female, in our image …”
And here, brothers and sisters, we come to Jesus’ real answer to the question. It lies as much in what he doesn’t say as in what he does. Yet, we can almost hear the unspoken point and feel it as these strange bedfellows take their leave. Give – give back – to Caesar what is Caesar’s – his coin — and give back to God what is God’s.
Well, what is God’s? Better still, the unspoken question might well be heard as…Caesar’s image is on the denarius coin; whose image is stamped on us?
We are taught that we are made in God’s image … and with that, given the extreme privilege and responsibility of carrying that image to the world. When we distort it through fear, prejudice, envy, hatred, stinginess, blame, shame, or greed what we give to the world is a distortion of who and what God is.
Thankfully, by encountering Jesus and paying attention to the lessons he would have us learn, we see more clearly what the very image of God looks like. And our life as Christians is to do our very best to conform ourselves to that image without distortion.
Thankfully, too, as we look carefully around we see the generosity, the abundance, the love of God. And since we are made in God’s image, our goal is to reveal as much of that abundance, that love, that generosity through our lives. Jesus’s real point in the unspoken question “whose image is stamped on you…” is that what we might question is how we can offer our whole selves for it all belongs to God, including Caesar.
We render to God that which is God’s each week as we come here to worship – to offer prayer in words, in song, in actions. And there is a funny thing that happens because of it. C. S. Lewis wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
We render to God that which is God’s and we are changed for the better because of it. And we give back to God that which is already God’s through the choices we make in how we interact with the rest of God’s creation as we leave this place of prayer. We see examples of that all around us – in stories shared of the ways in which people around the world make small and large differences in the lives they touch.
There is a video gone viral some months ago that gathers the friends of Gerdi McKenna, a South African woman diagnosed with breast cancer. Photographer Albert Bredenhann shot a video as these women came together to shave their heads as a show of solidarity for what their friend was going through and donated all the hair to the Cancer Association of South Africa to make wigs for other victims. The video’s backdrop music is a popular song called “I would do anything for love”. The image of God is stamped upon these women and rendered unto God as they let go of pride in the name of friendship, compassion and love.
Two crosstown colleges in Northfield, Minnesota, have taken the image of God stamped upon themselves and shown that community means more than rivalry. Back in March when three students from Carleton College bound for an ultimate Frisbee tournament were killed in a car crash just a mile from their campus, the students and parents of nearby St. Olaf College delivered flowers to the campus mailboxes of each and every Carleton student. Just eleven days ago, a St. Olaf student died suddenly in her dorm room. St. Olaf’s community is understandably shaken and the Carleton College student body knew exactly what they needed to do when they heard of the tragedy. They, in turn, have filled the mailboxes of those students with flowers. The image of God is stamped upon their lives and offered back to God in gestures of beauty, companionship, and hope as rivalries fade away.
In Mississippi where Friday night lights is its own kind of sabbath, the coach of a JV Football team took his starting quarterback (not his backup) and sent him to play for the opposing team in its 2nd half because they had no backup and their quarterback had been sidelined in a previous play. The quarterback took his rival teammates to near victory with only the clock running out on his efforts. The image of God stamped on each of them in a spirit of fairness and integrity of their craft.
And in 1992 in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, the image of God in the form of generosity and care for God’s creation came in an anonymous gift given to Zoo Miami owner, Ron McGill. McGill reported that following a presentation about the zoo’s plight, he was approached by a gentleman who, by McGill’s description appeared to have few means. In fact, the man and his wife lived quite modestly. They had no flat screen televisions, no designer clothing or furniture, functional but certainly not state-of-the-art appliances. The man handed McGill an envelope containing a check for $90,000 with one stipulation – don’t tell anyone about the gift or who gave it to him. Over the years, the check gave way to others. Only after the man died in 2006 and his widow just this last June, could the rest of the story be told. All totaled over the years, the coupled had rendered to God for the care of God’s creation more than $5 million dollars. The image of God was stamped upon them as faithful stewards of whatever God had entrusted to them in the way of worldly goods and the worldly decisions they made.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Do your little bit of good where you are. It is those bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” We might do well to take those words and apply them to Jesus’s answer to the Pharisees that day in the temple so long ago. Do what is required of you and give to the emperor that which is the emperor’s. Do so, though, by giving to God that which is God’s … our whole selves, remembering whose image is stamped upon us. Amen.