Inspired to give? Donate to St. John's

Render Unto God

Posted on 24 Oct 2017

Render Unto God
The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey
Zabriskie Memorial Church
Year A, Proper 24, 20 Pentecost
Matthew 22:15-22
22 October 2017

Imagine the tension around Jesus in the Temple when the crowd heard the Pharisees’ disciples ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Part of what would have charged the atmosphere was the presence of the Herodians, a political party that supported the regime of Herod the Great, the puppet-king of the Roman occupiers. The Herodians would have been particularly interested in Jesus’ reply to this question, since if he answered in the negative—taxes, shmaxes—he could be arrested for inciting rebellion against Herod and Rome. Yet the Pharisees also knew that if Jesus answered in the affirmative—yes, pay your taxes—the people listening in on this public examination would view him as a collaborator (at worst), or a wimp (at best). This is why they butter him up at the beginning, saying in essence, “We know that you don’t give a fig for what others think of you.”) It’s all a way of setting the trap, because then however Jesus answers, he would lose his reputation, and quite probably his life.

But Jesus plays it cool. I get a kick out of the way Jesus handles his opponents, for two reasons. First, there’s the simple beauty of the way he escapes entrapment by the Pharisees and Herodians, while simultaneously coining a pithy aphorism: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” But second, his response, while clear-cut on one level, is deceptively open-ended, for it begs the question, aside from the concrete case of the temple tax, of what is Caesar’s and what is God’s.

Of course, the easy, pious answer is, “Everything belongs to God.” Sure it does. That’s a no-brainer. But how do we live out that truth? For when I look at my own life, it seems to me that I all too often render much more to Caesar than I do to God—“Caesar” being shorthand for the proportion of time, talent, and treasure I expend in pursuits that distract me from the pursuit of God and service to God’s people. Maybe that’s just the way of the world. Still, it leaves me feeling uneasy, wondering whether God might be calling me through this text to re-evaluate my stewardship, and to challenge us to do so as a community. After all, if we are to focus on what God is doing and can continue to do through our own generosity, this Stewardship Season will be about a lot more than simply how we give. It will be about how we live. And isn’t that the real reason we come to church in the first place? To gain some insight into how we might live more loving lives by following Jesus?

Or, to put it another way, we come here hoping to hear, whether in the sermon or in the text of a hymn or anthem, some word of truth that makes a difference in our lives. We hope to carry that word of truth with us, to meditate on it, and to allow it to sink in and transform us. And we hope that if that word of truth has the power to transform us, perhaps it will give us a little power to help transform the world around us for the better, too.

This is the usual point in my sermon where I trot out the “sales pitch,” kind of like NPR: If you believe in what we’re doing (and I don’t mean just in terms of our liturgy and music, outreach and pastoral care, but in the greater mission of restoring all people to God and to each other through sacramental worship and Christ-like living), then I do hope you won’t hold yourself back from giving yourself, body and soul, to God. And I do believe in this sales pitch.

But let me be abundantly clear: I’m not asking you to volunteer only inevitably to burn out; to give to the church but never receive from the church what the church is supposed to give you: new and abundant life. No, I’m asking you to commit to finding that life here, and to become co-workers with me in sharing that life with others.

Having said that, I often wonder whether I am complicit in a sort of “bait and switch” racket: My job is to lure people in through promises of deeper and more authentic relationships with each other and with God through Christ. That’s the bait. And then I ask you to volunteer for a committee or a reception or some other “job.” When I stop and think, I wonder: “When I do this to you, am I really challenging you to render to God that which is God’s, or is this sales pitch really just another variation of the same worldly ‘Caesar’ stuff?” After all, if the case for support you hear from the church is indistinguishable from the case you hear from NPR, or your Alma Mater, or any other non-profit, are we even worth supporting in the first place?

Now, obviously I think we are, otherwise I’d be planning on packing up the rectory and moving out. And I’m not planning on going anywhere anytime soon. (Sorry to disappoint some of you.) But if I’m honest, I think that making good on the promises of the church’s own sales pitch isn’t entirely up to me, as if I’m the one who sells what you all buy. Nor is it even entirely up to God, at least if you believe that God requires our cooperation to get things done. No, the truth is that whether the church delivers on its promises in large part depends upon how you respond to the invitation to “get involved” and to “give sacrificially.” To the extent that your response is life-giving, or “serious fun,” as I like to say, everything’s good.

But we all know it doesn’t always work out that way, and when it doesn’t, that indicates to me that the church isn’t living up to its mission. At such times, I’m reminded of the final monologue in James Baldwin’s classic play, “Amen Corner” in which Sister Margaret Alexander tells the congregation, “I’m just finding out what it means to love the Lord. It ain’t all in the singing and the shouting. It ain’t all in the reading of the Bible…To love the Lord is to love all his children—all of them—everyone!—and to suffer with them and rejoice with them and never count the cost!

“To never count the cost” doesn’t mean to allow yourself to get used up and burned out; it means to get lost in the purpose and meaning of the work you undertake for the church itself, because it really is in loving each other, suffering with each other, and rejoicing with each other faithfully that we discover what it means to love the Lord.

What this all means to me personally is that first and foremost, I want to be your priest, not your fundraiser in chief. So fill out your pledge cards, please, and if you see something that needs doing, please volunteer. But know that I really am more interested in your spiritual growth than in your bank account, and I really am just as grateful for the fact that you are here, as I am that you choose to do anything in addition to coming here and enduring my sermons. I really do love this community, you, the people—not to mention our gorgeous, dusty buildings and everything else. And what I long and yearn for more than anything else is that you blossom, and grow, and flourish, that you learn to love the Lord and not count the cost. And when we fail, as we will from time to time, because, we are, after all, only human, I hope we will find the grace to give each other a helping hand, and permission to do whatever it takes to be healthy. Because, again, if we don’t, there’s not much point in being here.

When Jesus asked to see the coin for the temple tax, he asked whose image it bore and was told that it bore the image of Caesar. But we must remember that we bear the Image of God, and are called to live into that Image in our stewardship every day. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”