Sermon, Oct. 22

Let me tell you that story again, with a few details filled in. Because it’s a terrific story. The Pharisees are increasingly fed up with Jesus. Their movement taught that the Jewish people should return to to the traditional practices of their faith, following all the commandments, as a way to separate themselves from the unclean pagan ways of the Roman Empire and to earn God’s favor. Sometimes they’re on the same page with Jesus, who also wants ordinary people to feel they can approach God in faith, and has a healthy disdain for Rome and its ways. But Jesus is disturbingly irreverent about the Law and the Commandments. He seems to think that many of them don’t matter at all.

Meanwhile, the Herodians don’t think much of Jesus either. The Herodians would have been folks who were cozy with Herod, the king of Judea – a puppet king, supported by the Roman army, and allowed to have power on condition that he keep his people in line and make sure money keeps flowing from Judea to Rome. These are the people who are managing to get richer under Roman rule, while the rest of Judea gets poorer. Now Jesus has been saying some pretty disrespectful things about leaders who are only concerned with themselves, and he’s stirring up trouble.

The Pharisees and the Herodians don’t get along. The Herodians think the Pharisees are weird fanatics. The Pharisees think the Herodians are self-indulgent sell-outs. But sometimes the enemy of your enemy is your friend. They’d all like to take Jesus down a peg, and they stumble on a way to do it. They’re going to ask him about a hot-button issue: paying taxes to Rome.

The people of Judea were struggling under the burden of these taxes; they were wildly unpopular. And for the Pharisees and other observant Jews,  there was another problem: Paying taxes meant using Roman coins, which had an image of the Roman Emperor’s head on them, and text that named the Emperor as a god. The Emperor was very definitely NOT a god in the eyes of Jewish people, and these coins were tainted by idolatry. The question the Herodians and Pharisees pose to Jesus is a trap because either answer will get him in trouble with somebody. If he says, NO, we are God’s people and owe nothing to the Emperor, then he’s in trouble with the Romans – and maybe they’ll deal with him. If he says, YES, be a good citizen, pay your taxes, then the common people may turn against him, and the disruptive movement he’s started might lose steam.

Don’t you love their double-edged flattery? “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and you’ll always say what you believe is true no matter what the consequences might be…So tell us, IS IT LAWFUL TO PAY TAXES TO THE EMPEROR, OR NOT?”

Jesus is no fool. He sees the trap clearly, and calls them out: ‘You hypocrites! Show me one of the coins used for the tax.’ Somebody has one in their pocket, and they show him: Look, there’s the Roman emperor, probably Tiberius, with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” Jesus says, So…. Whose head is this, here on the coin? And they say, Um. The Emperor’s. And Jesus says, Okay, well, then, give the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and give God what belongs to God.

It’s such a good answer. He evades their trap by saying in one breath, Sure, pay your taxes, but the Emperor is a fraud. Because a crowd of Jews, no matter how religious they are, all know the answer to what belongs to God: Everything. Everything. Let the Emperor have his little bits of metal. Your lives, your souls, Judea, Rome, the whole wide earth: All God’s. And don’t you forget it.

One of the issues at the heart of this story is what money stands for.Money in itself is just a tool. It’s a way to trade one thing for another thing, at a distance of time or space. For example, money is what allows us to trade a portion of your work for electricity to heat this building. People often misquote Scripture – specifically, the first letter to Timothy – and say, Money is the root of all evil. But what that text actually says is, The love of money is the root, or source, of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from faith and gotten themselves into all kinds of trouble and suffering because they made money their goal and focus.  (1 Tim 6:9-10, Common English Bible, alt.)

Money in and of itself – if such a thing were possible – is pretty straightforward. It’s what money means to us that gets complicated. In this Gospel story, money is tied up with politics, with faith, with social status. That’s all true for us today, too, in various ways. How we feel about wealth, taxes, our community, our nation – all of that is bundled up with how we feel and think and talk about money. Moral assumptions about money, wealth, and poverty are at the root of our national debates over taxes, health care, and so much more. Money is also closely bound to our fears and anxieties. In uncertain times, money stands for security – and lack of money means vulnerability and struggle.

Charles LaFond, an Episcopal priest, writer, and stewardship consultant, says that despite our buying habits and reputation, it’s not true that Americans are greedy. The fact is that we’re overwhelmed and afraid, and consumerism is how we scream. I think he has a point; I know how it feels to read the news, feel my heart sink and my stomach clench, and then see an online ad for a children’s clothing company I like and think, Oh, that sounds like relief….! Let me go look at appliquéd hedgehogs for a while…

We’re coming into the heaviest shopping season of the year – when we all strive for balance between the momentary catharsis of buying a thing, and the longer-term security of clinging to our dollars –  just as St. Dunstan’s and other churches are asking their members to make financial commitments to the church for the year ahead. To give money away, getting little that is tangible in return.

Today we hand out our giving campaign packets. For those who are new to this system: during the fall giving campaign, we ask those who make St. Dunstan’s their faith community to look ahead to the next calendar year, decide how much they’d like to give to the church, and report that number to us. Those numbers – your pledges – are private; only our parish treasurers see them. But we add up all those pledges to give us an estimate of our expected income for the year ahead, which allows us to budget and plan. Nearly 90% of St. Dunstan’s annual budget comes from our members’ pledged giving.

There’s sort of an “Insert inspiring paragraph about where our church is going” slot in my sermon here. But I’m finding that this is a funny year for that kind of thing. In looking ahead to 2018, it feels like there’s simultaneously more and less to talk about, than in other years. More, because we are looking at so many possibilities. We may undertake a capital campaign, to raise funds to improve our main building and more, to better accommodate our ministries and everything else that happens here – or could happen here if we had a bit more elbow room! We will undertake a sabbatical together, using a substantial grant from the Clergy Renewal program to enable me to learn more about including children in worship, and you all to work on building intergenerational friendships. And even aside from those big, special projects, our full seats and full classrooms mean that in the year ahead, we may have to start getting creative about how to accommodate our overflowing life together as a community of faith…!

So there is a lot in the works for 2018. And yet most of it is still unfolding, still subject to our shared discernment and exploration. I can’t draw you a map; this is brand-new territory, friends. It’s not that I and your Vestry and other leaders aren’t thinking about it – we could scatter a handful of ideas and possibilities around, but other possibilities will emerge as we all walk the road together, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance. There’s so much that is simply still TBD – To Be Discerned, “discerned,” that churchy word for the shared work of wondering together, exploring possibilities, listening to each other and to God, and allowing clarity and direction to emerge.

So while there’s more to say about 2018 than an ordinary year at St. Dunstan’s – it will assuredly not be an ordinary year – there’s also less to say because we still have a lot of discerning to do. (Beginning, in a few weeks, with whether to follow this capital campaign idea another few steps along the road…!)

Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God… We actually do need some of the stuff with dead presidents on it, to pay the bills and keep this place running. That’s why we ask for your pledges and gifts. But the reason there’s a church here – a loving, lively, seeking, serving, growing church – is because people are giving God what is God’s.  If we had twice the money but nobody was giving their heart, there’d be nothing here. You are giving yourselves, your time and labor, your skills and gifts, your hearts and spirits, to this church, and to the work God is doing among us and through us here.

In today’s Epistle, Paul names the three great gifts of faith, hope, and love, but he turns them from abstractions into actions – praising the people of the church in Thessaloniki for their acts of faith, their labor of love, and their persistence in hope. Your actions of faith, friends – your work of love – your persistence in hope – that’s why new things are becoming possible here; and indeed why we’re able to keep doing some of the old things with care and faithfulness. That’s why in the face of uncertainties about the season ahead – wonderful, exciting uncertainties, but uncertainties nonetheless – I am not afraid. I’m excited, curious, and joyful, so joyful, about the people with whom I have the privilege to share this journey into God’s future for St. Dunstan’s.