Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Oct. 18, 2020

Posted by on Sun, Oct 18, 2020 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 20th Sunday after Pentecost

October 18, 2020

This familiar reading from Matthew is widely known even outside the church, though often mistakenly. What we did not hear? This is not about creating or clarifying ‘separation between church and state’. This is not about dividing the world of Jesus’ day, or our own world, into two dominions governed by two sovereigns; Caesar and his currency, versus God and all the rest of life. We need more context to get it, even if wrangling over power, taxes, religion, money and popularity sounds very 2020. At this point Jesus was increasingly popular, and this distressed the Pharisees. Any plot against him would need supporters and a proving incident. The Pharisees pull the Herodians into this because they’d have supported the tax since Herodians only kept their power through the support of the Romans. Being in occupied territory, if the Romans thought Jesus was stirring insurrection by discouraging paying of taxes, the Romans would agree to kill him. Alternatively, the Jews worshipped the one true God and resented the Roman domination, so if they thought Jesus was on the side of the Romans and supported the emperor’s claim to be a god, then the Jews would turn away from Jesus and even distain him. 

Jesus goes beyond the original question posed merely to trick him; he sagely sidesteps their trap and also gives a shrewd and practical answer. Then he offers additional wisdom which, if they can hear it, could give them pause to think and further develop their own way of seeing. He says not only to give to the emperor what bears his image so must be his, he adds that one should give to God the things which are God’s, meaning everything. There’s lots of undercurrents going on here too. If Jesus said yes, pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees could say he supported the Roman occupation and blasphemes against God because Caesar himself claimed to be a god, noted by the coin’s inscription “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” Presumably the Jews would turn against Jesus and stop following him for this too. If Jesus said no, don’t pay the emperor’s taxes, the Pharisees could have reported him to the Romans, subjecting Jesus to immediate arrest. In this high-tension moment Jesus walks a very narrow line, since an insurrection based on his words about taxes would compromise the real focus of his message and ministry. As a vehicle for his answer, we hear Jesus ask to see the coin used to pay the tax. Now Jesus and his listeners are inside the Temple grounds during all of this, where coins bearing the name and ‘graven image’ of the emperor were not allowed. His asking to see one indicates he’s obeying the Jewish law by having none with him. That one of the Pharisees does have such a coin handy, shows them as breaking the Temple rule. The trap was sprung but snapped at them instead of Jesus! 

We know how easy it is to focus more on the smaller world of what we control and earn and spend. Jesus is saying that’s just a drop in the ocean with all God has created and keeps giving. We are not the ones creating the world or the wealth, we are asked instead to be good and faithful caretakers of it, stewards of our planet, our communities, and all we hold dear. It doesn’t matter whose likeness is on our money, it matters how we see it, value it. 

Before becoming a priest I remember one year feeling especially tense during the annual giving drive at church, because money was tight for us. A young woman and her husband, whose growing family was struggling even more than we were, sat with us at a church dinner and shared how she dealt with their giving. She always said a little prayer of desperation when she sat down to pay bills each month, and the first check she wrote was their church pledge, so she’d feel both thankful and hopeful as she wrote checks for all the other bills, praying not to come up short. (I recall believing all such things were finite or ever-scarce, and I may not have hidden too well an inner eye-roll at how risky her method sounded.) She laughed, and to my surprise said it had never failed to come out okay by end of month! Amy was good with numbers and likely had it sorted in her mind, she didn’t expect God to drop money into their account to balance it each month. This was not magical thinking or carelessness, she was guided by a profound sense of thanksgiving, abiding faith and love which saw everything in her life as dwelling within God’s context. Everything. 

As we hear scripture, sing hymns, and pray, God’s presence rises up to catch our attention! From our psalm; 

Sing to the Lord, all the whole earth… and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation…
Declare his glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised…
As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; but it is the Lord who made the heavens.
Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!
… Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; bring offerings and come into his courts.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness…

From Isaiah; “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.”

In the Choir’s anthem today our hearts will swell with joy, hearing;

Earth and all stars, loud rushing planets, sing to the Lord a new song!
…Hail, wind, and rain, loud blowing snowstorms, sing to the Lord a new song! …
Trumpet and pipes, loud clashing cymbals, sing to the Lord a new song! 
…Knowledge and truth, loud sounding wisdom, sing to the Lord a new song! 
Daughter and son, loud praying members, sing to the Lord a new song! 
He has done marvelous things. I, too, will praise him with a new song! 

Amazing how much — and yet how little — has changed since Jesus’ time. Our currency is still government issue and it has images of numerous esteemed national male leaders (and one woman). But instead of two means of paying we have over a dozen. I’ve always used the most basic checks – decorative ones didn’t feel serious enough for money. Nowadays, few under 25 have even had a checkbook, and our bank cards can have any picture we want on them; pets, kids’ art work, vacation pictures, and the like, be it on plastic, or virtual Apple-wallet style. We design our own look for currency and I wonder if there’s a link with how an emperor saw it. What does money say to us? My cards and checks still have the boring bank logos on them. I may change that now because these are not two separate worlds which exclude each other; God is God of all creation. Nothing we encounter is outside God’s realm — though it’s easy to consider money and what it buys as ‘mine,’ or value it only as a context-limited entity, a distinct commodity. Does that change with whose image we see on various forms of it?

We have to pay bills, deposit income and so on, so all kinds of currency and funds have the mark of their issuer to authorize value. So do we. Each one of us and all of God’s creation bears the mark of The Maker, and spoiler alert, it isn’t us or our government. The value in money is not amassing it or getting more than someone else, or even in giving a certain percentage, but in how we use it, be it coming in or going out. So how do we keep mindful that all we value and know is given by this loving and generous God? Literally everything has God’s mark on it, from the impossibly tiny stamen in the smallest flower to the God-given minds of those who create great art, effective vaccines, or incredible feats of engineering. Who but God can effortlessly create an infinite variety of snowflakes, fingerprints, sunrises, and so on. That’s the mark of our Maker. That’s whose resources we enjoy and steward, give and work with. Perhaps my next debit card might have St. Michael’s window on it, a snowflake or a sunrise.

Many of us have found this year enormously difficult and the weeks ahead are making many people anxious and fearful. We worry about what we could lose, or that ways we cherish will cease to be. I believe God has created better things in us than our worst fears could ever extinguish, imbued us with imagination and creativity enough not to give up in the face of great challenge, but to seek The Maker’s light on our path forward. God’s grace isn’t magic, it is infinite and eternal. God’s generosity flows through each one of us to another, so perhaps we may think less about losses we fear and more about how many ways we have to raise up others and serve Christ. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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