A sermon for October 22, 2017, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) , 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, and Matthew 22:15-22.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
One of my favorite stories from the Desert Tradition of early Christianity is about a younger monk who went to see his teacher because he had gotten stuck in his spiritual life. The younger one, asked his teacher, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” The old teacher remained silent for what seemed like an hour and then slowly stood up. He stretched out his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. Without looking at the young monk, keeping his focus on the flame, the teacher said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Stories from the Desert Tradition are sometimes a little baffling and like biblical parables, they can have various meanings and interpretations. But I think one of the points the older teacher is trying to convey has to do with the unity of all things. The young monk has tried a number of separate practices, trying to strike a perfect balance of this and that, but he has lost sense of the whole of things, the totality, the unity that is found with God. “Becoming all flame” is bringing all everything together and offering all to God who is All in All.
In life and in death we belong to God. Our minds are his. Our bodies are his. Our dreams are his. Even our nightmares are his. All that we ever were, all that we ever may be, has God as its source and creator.
Isaiah understands this clearly and we hear it today’s first reading:
I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.
The Right Reverend Richard Grein, the retired (fourteenth) Bishop of New York, used to say that we often ask God what we should do. But God responds by reminding us who we are.
We ask God what we should do. God reminds us who we are.
Jesus is saying something similar in today’s Gospel. The seriously and outwardly religious people in Jesus’ day- the Pharisees, pester Jesus with questions. Their questions are almost always about behavior: What should be done about this woman who sinned? Who gives you permission to preach the way that you do? Why are you eating and drinking with sinners? Should we pay our taxes to Caesar?
This last question gets our attention. It does so for obvious reasons: we spend so much of our time worrying about making money, spending it, saving it, who has more, how has less, whether we get what we deserve… on and on—money gets our attention.
This Gospel reading about “giving to the Emperor” or “rendering unto Caesar” in the old versions, is one that occurs in many churches during the fall. It often coincides handily with fall stewardship campaigns. The reading and preaching of the passage carries with it the not-so subtle request and reminder that pledge packets have been mailed, and please fill out your pledge card, so that the budget & finance committee and the vestry can get a clear idea of what our budget can look like next year.
But to focus only on money is to miss the point of the Gospel. The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the ruler who calls himself a god?” Jesus asks them whose inscription is on the coin? If it’s Caesar’s then it must belong to Caesar. If it’s God’s, then it must belong to God. But the question Jesus really asks is larger. Never mind about coins, “Whose inscription is upon you? To whom do you belong?”
The Pharisees brought their questions to Jesus and we bring ours. How much should we give to charities and of that, how much to our church? What if I support other cultural or arts organizations—doesn’t that count? What if I don’t have much? What if I’m on a fixed income? What if my church is only a small part of where I put my energy, faith, and resources?
Saint Augustine said “Our hearts are restless until they rest in [God],” and in our hearts, we know the truth of that saying. Taking seriously that we belong to God, that all we have and all we do belongs to God, the questions find their proper perspective, and the answers are allowed to rise up.
Remember again that quotation from Bishop Grein: “We ask God what we should do, and God answers by telling us who we are.” God says, “You are my beloved child.” You are the one for whom I have risked creation itself. You are the one for whom I have died and risen again. You are the one I love now and for ever.
Living in the strength of our identity, knowing we belong to God, all the other questions begin to find their proper perspective. Often they settle themselves.
Let us we render to God what is Gods: presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.