Sermon

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Matthew 22:15-22

Rev. Dr. Heather G. Shortlidge

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On a cold winter’s night in 1773,
a group of angry patriots in Boston
boarded three British ships.

Disguised as Mohawk Indians,
they snuck aboard some time after midnight
intent on making a point.

The group, led by Sam Adams,
was upset about a recent law passed by the British Parliament.
The controversy centered around tea.
A major tax break had been given to a floundering British company
essentially granting them a complete monopoly
on the tea trade in the American colonies.

By the end of that night,
the protestors had made their point—
telling Britain what they thought about this new tax deal.
Before it was all over,
the patriots had dumped 342 chests of tea into the Boston Harbor,
valued somewhere around $18,000.

In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew,
a similar tax controversy is brewing.

As a colony of the Roman Empire,
first century Jews were required to pay an annual tax
simply for being alive.
As you may imagine, many were not fans of paying money
to a government and military
that occupied and oppressed their country.

In today’s story, two different groups banded together,
forming a most interesting alliance,
to try and use this tax controversy against Jesus.

Ordinarily, Pharisees and Herodians
would not even step foot in the same room together.
Today, it might be like Bernie Sanders supporters
hanging out with members of the Tea Party.
Pharisees and Herodians structured their lives
in very different ways.

The Pharisees were devout Jews,
a group of laypeople who were popular, pious and devout.
By contrast, the Herodians were a priestly group—
people who supported Herod and the occupying Roman government.

For the Pharisees, compromise with the Romans was unthinkable;
for the Herodians, it was simply the price of doing business.

But this time around the Pharisees and the Herodians
have found a common agenda—
getting rid of the upstart Rabbi
who is making all of their lives difficult.

In today’s text, these strange bedfellows work together
to try and back Jesus into a corner.
Their approach is almost comical,
filled with buttery compliments and slick layers of praise.
“We know you are a man of integrity,” they say to Jesus.
“that you tell the truth about God
and aren’t swayed by popular opinion.
We know that your teaching is sound
and that you don’t pander to anyone.
“So settle something for us,” they ask him,
“should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Of course, Jesus knew they were up to no good
“Why are you playing these games with me?” he asks.
“Why do you show up here with such a transparent trick?

Seeing right through their antics,
he then requests a coin that would be used to pay the tax in question.
Part of the reason the Pharisees objected to the tax
was because they had to use Roman money to pay it—
coins that had the image of Caesar on them
and the inscription, “noble son of God.”
For a devout Pharisee, having to proclaim another “son of God”
was about the highest form of blasphemy that you could get.

And yet, at least one in the group
carries around and probably uses such a coin
because after ruffling around in their pockets,
the group produces a denarius
for Jesus to use as his object lesson.
There were other types of money used in the market,
but only a Roman coin could pay the Roman tax.

Jesus invites them to take a good look
and inspect the image and inscription on the coin.

They answer rightly, telling their teacher
that they see the face of the Emperor
and his divine title engraved on the coin in question.

It’s a loaded question—
this question about religious law
and government taxes.
And the answer is not what either party expects.

After all, if Jesus said yes,
he would be collaborating with the Roman Empire
and contradicting everything he had previously said about the Kingdom of God.
He would lose his base—
the people who hated the Empire and were ready for a new kind of king.

And if Jesus said no, don’t pay the tax,
he was putting a target on his back
and giving the Roman Empire more than enough cause
to charge him with sedition.

The Pharisees and Herodians
are expecting a political response to their political question.
They can’t wait for Jesus to answer them
because they’re pretty sure
that they have him between a rock and a hard place.

But always a few steps ahead,
Jesus doesn’t give them a clear yes or no answer.
In fact, he widens the question,
making it little to do with taxes
and everything to do with living one’s life.

Jesus answers his questioners by saying,
“Give Caesar what is Caesar’s
and give God what is God’s.”

The co-conspirators slink away shaking their heads,
not knowing what to make of Jesus’ reply.

What exactly is Caesar’s and what exactly is God’s?
Jesus answered their question,
without really answering their question.
He does not give them the tax advice they were seeking.
Instead, he leaves them, and us, with a conundrum,
inviting us to chew on it
to discern and decide
what we give to God
and what we give to the Emperor.

The coin, which bears the image of the Emperor, plainly belongs to Caesar.
That seems somewhat clear.
And Jesus seemed to be saying, though he never does say it explicitly,
that  even the devoutly religious are not to dodge or skimp on their taxes.
Jesus doesn’t seem to be giving anyone permission
to withhold their tribute to the governing authorities.

But the second part of his answer,
the part about giving to God what belongs to God
is a bit harder to untangle.
To answer that, we must return to the very beginning—
to the book of Genesis
where we read that God created human beings in God’s image—
that God’s image in imprinted upon every single human being,
which means the last time I checked,
there are about six billion of us scattered across the globe
who belong to God.

The coin and the currency may belong to Caesar,
but human lives belong completely to God.

Which begs the question—
if our entire life belongs to God
and not to the Empire,
how will we live it?
How do we spend the one and only life
that we are gifted with?

That’s the question—
the rather daunting question—
that Jesus tosses back into the laps
of the Pharisees and Herodians.

And it is the question,
the rather daunting question,
that we ask when we begin a new stewardship campaign.
What do you give to God?

Now many hear the word stewardship
and think it’s all about money, money, money.
And it is, don’t get me wrong,
I would be remiss in my duties as one of your pastors
if I didn’t encourage you to make a financial pledge to the church.
The ministries that you rave about need funding.
The church does need your money.

However, stewardship is a lot more than money.
It’s also about your time.
God cares about how we acquire, regard, manage, and spend our money.
But God also cares deeply about
how we regard, manage, and spend our time.

I like to think of stewardship
as a season of spiritual readjustment.
A time to reevaluate what we give to God
and what we give to Caesar.

Just like going to the chiropractor to have your body adjusted,
we enter into this fall stewardship season,
with the intention of realigning our priorities
and making more conscious choices.

It’s a time of adjustments.
Time to take a closer look at not just our bank accounts,
but also our calendars, our blood pressures, and the well-being of our neighbors.

The author of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for everything.
A time to hold on and a time to let go.
A time to embrace and a time to part.
A time to plant and a time to procure.

And this season of stewardship, I think,
is the time to make some spiritual adjustments.
What have we been giving to God
and what have we been giving to Caesar?

It’s almost a badge of honor these days
to be overscheduled and stressed out.
Know anyone in that category?
I’m guilty of this myself.
I was here last night for the incredible show tunes concert
that your chancel choir performed
raising money for their spring tour.

If you weren’t here, you missed out.
Marilyn Winter was dressed as a nun.
Brenda Duvall was quite the diva.
The Hancock’s danced cheek to cheek
and the Derby’s couldn’t take their eyes off one another.
There was a puppet in the pulpit,
feather boas and fedoras,
a mother daughter duet
and even music from Hamilton.

It was a spectacular evening.
But it was a Saturday night,
and the to do list for Sunday was still actively percolating in my brain.
And the demons of multitasking descended.

So at the intermission,
I decided that I should do a little work while enjoying the show tunes.
I went upstairs, gathered a stack of confirmation bibles,
and brought them down to the pew
so that I could do the inscription and sign them
while also attending the concert.

And truth be told,
I also had the bible open to Matthew 22,
taking a sneak peak at this morning’s scripture
that still needed memorizing.

I had convinced myself that there were too many things to do
to simply sit there and enjoy the concert.
The Empire was telling me that there wasn’t enough time
and there was too much work to be done.
But I’m pretty sure if Jesus had been sitting in the pew behind me,
he might have leaned over and whispered,
“You’re not that important.
Put away your work and pay attention to the music.”

Our schedules are theological documents.
How we spend our time matters to God.
What do you give your time to?

Is there room for spiritual practices
or do you simply hope they will happen?
Are you minding your margins,
or multitasking like me at a choral showcase?
Do you pack your calendars full,
or provide some space in your schedule for the holy interruptions?

I keep hearing about the looming November 1 deadline
for high school seniors and their college applications.
One parent I talked to
anticipated a huge collective sigh on November 2
once all these applications had been submitted—
that the stress around getting into the right college
was turning many of our teenagers inside out.

Dr. Robert Leahy, an anxiety specialist,
estimates that today’s average high school student
carries as much anxiety as the average psychiatric patient did in the 1950’s.
Look at some of our youth and you can see it.

There is a time for everything, the writer of Ecclesiastes says.
But I wonder if some of us are so overscheduled,
that there’s little time for anything else that God desires for us.

In this season of spiritual readjustment,
what needs adjusting in your life?
What are you giving to God?
What are you not giving to God, but wish you were?

The American author and former business exec, Seth Godin,
invites us to take a good look at our lives
by asking a great question.
He asks, “What will you do with your surplus?

He says, “If you have a safe place to sleep,
reasonable health and food in the fridge,
you are probably living with surplus.
You have enough breathing room
to devote an hour to watching TV,
or having an argument you don't need to have,
or simply messing around online.
You have time and leverage and technology and trust.
For many people, this surplus is bigger than any human on Earth
could have imagined just a hundred years ago.

So what will you spend it on?”[1] He wonders.

In this season of stewardship,
I invite you to think about how you will spend your money
but also about how you will spend your time—
how you will spend your life.

Because in the end, paying taxes is pretty cut and dry.
The state and government tell us what we owe
and with varied amounts of grumbling, we pay up.

At least I hope you do.
Civilization is expensive, and taxes pay the tab.

But giving our whole lives to God,
that’s a much bigger ask.

How will you spend your life?
It’s not the question the Pharisees and Herodians came with,
but it certainly is the one they left with.

 

[1] I’ve omitted his last line of this post, which is, “If you are not drowning, then you are a lifeguard.” http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2017/10/what-will-you-do-with-your-surplus.html