The audio of this sermon is available on the Christ Church website.
Today marks the beginning of three pretty awesome weeks here at Christ Church. Alongside the other great stuff we are always doing, we get to add a commissioning of our music ministries, a fall festival for our Sunday school, the English Country dancers meet next week, our Youth and Campus Ministries are joining forces for an All Saint’s Day service, and we will rejoice in a successful stewardship campaign on November 5th. To top it all off, we get to celebrate a baptism each of the next three Sundays.
I am of the belief that baptismal celebration should encompass the entire Sunday. So, whether we are splashing water at 8, like we are this week, or 10, like the next two weeks, all the signs and symbols will be present at both services. The Paschal Candle is lit, reminding us that through our baptism, we all share in the light of Christ. The font is in the crossing as a visual reminder that each of us comes through the font, to the table, and out into the world. The altar hangings are white, symbolizing the washing away of our sins that occurs in baptism and was secured in the resurrection. And, no matter which service you attend over the next three weeks, we will all have the chance to renew our baptismal covenant. In so doing, we are reminded of the basics of discipleship, the minimum requirements of those who claim a stake in the Kingdom of God.
Episcopalians often focus on the second half of the covenant. We talk a lot about “respecting the dignity of every human being” and “seeking and serving Christ in all persons.” These are good and noble actions, but we ought not forget that they follow a statement of our faith in and reliance on God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as well as three other questions about the life of faith. The primary question in that list of five is “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?” This question is first in line because if we fail to fulfill these basic practices of discipleship, none of the others is possible. Without regular study of scripture, the mutual support of other Christians, nourishment at the Table, and an ongoing life of prayer, there is no foundation from which we can persevere in resisting evil, share the Good News, love our neighbor, or work for justice and peace.
I could be biased in suggesting this. After all, I did spend the first half of this week at the Discipleship Matters Conference, but I don’t think so. Instead, I think that the very real need that Christians have for study, fellowship, worship, and prayer are in the mind of Jesus as he goes toe-to-toe with the Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson. Lest we forget, this story takes place in Holy Week. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna. He has already flipped the tables and run out the money changers from the Temple court. Things are getting increasingly hostile between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be. The Pharisees are intent on ridding themselves of this meddlesome Rabbi, but they know that they have to be sneaky about it, because they fear how much the crowd loves Jesus. Again and again, they come to him with topics for debate, hoping to trap him in his own words. Again and again, Jesus outwits them, offering a vision of God’s Kingdom that is grace beyond their wildest imaginations.
In our today’s lesson, we hear of one particularly devious attempt wherein the Pharisees, a group of devout Jewish rabbis intent on restoring the purity of Israel team up with the Herodians, a group of Jews who were friendly to the Greek culture and loyal to the Roman government, to trap Jesus between a rock and a hard place. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” It may seem like a straightforward question, but it is not. The tax in question is the census tax. Every year, every occupied person in the Roman Empire was required to pay a denarius, approximately one day’s wage, to Rome to support the occupation forces. Essentially, the oppressed had to pay for their ongoing oppression. If Jesus were to say “yes, it is lawful,” he would become wildly unpopular, and the Pharisees would have the opening they needed to get rid of him. If he were to say “no, it is not lawful,” then the Herodians could turn him in for sedition. Somehow, Jesus avoided both possible outcomes by asking to see the coin required to pay the tax, noting that it bore the image of Caesar, and answering, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”
In the ongoing chess match between Jesus and the religious authorities, this is nearly check mate. They leave him amazed. His rhetorical skill is unmatched. In asking to see the coin used to pay the census tax, Jesus turns the question on its ear. No longer is it about the tax, but it is about the role one’s religion plays in their life. The coin bore the image of Caesar as well as an inscription that called the emperor the son of god. Not only was paying this particular tax financially onerous, but the very act of carrying that coin meant you were guilty of violating the first two of the Ten Commandments: thou shalt have no other gods but me, and thou shalt not make a graven image. A faithful Jew would take delight in getting rid of that coin as quickly as possible. “Give it to Caesar because it certainly doesn’t belong to God,” Jesus insinuates, “and give to God that which belongs to God.”
The coin bears the image of Caesar, but human beings, Genesis tells us, bear the image of God. Everything we are, everything we will become, and everything we have belongs to God. Our very lives, every breath we take, comes from God. If we are going to take seriously these words for Jesus, then we must be willing to give our whole lives back to God, which in the end, isn’t a bad definition of discipleship. We give our minds back to God through studying scripture and theology. We give our hearts back to God by using the compassion that comes from them to motivate us to loving service and by opening them up to God in prayer. We give our hands back to God by reaching out in care to those in need. We give our feet back to God by walking into work, school, grocery stores, and hospital rooms radiating the love of God. We give our wealth back to God by tithing for the upbuilding of the Kingdom.
In Baptism, we offer our lives back to God. For little ones like Jocelyn, her parents do so on her behalf, promising to do their best, with the help of God and the body of the faithful to help her grow in study, fellowship, worship, and prayer. What about you? As you renew these promises, are you doing all in your power to grow in the knowledge and love of God? Are you reading the Bible? Are you praying? Are you giving? Are you serving? Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you? Are you giving back to God everything that is God’s? What might you be holding back? What is God asking you to offer him today? If discipleship is about being a good steward of the gifts that God has given us, then maybe these next three weeks are an opportunity for a personal stewardship campaign: an invitation to give back to God everything that he has so graciously given you, your heart, your mind, your gifts, and your worship. Jesus invites us to give to God the things that are God’s. by giving God our whole life. Amen.