Giving our Lives to God – a sermon

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.

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Marvel, Wonder, Awe

Do you remember what it feels like to experience something you couldn’t quite grasp?  An experience so powerful that it left you speechless, smiling from ear to ear?  Can you remember that feeling of wonder, amazement, and awe?  Sometimes it happens to you.  Maybe it was meeting your favorite author, seeing a close magic trick, or the joy of good worship.  Maybe you felt it through the eyes of someone else.  Two weeks ago, I saw that sense of wonder again and again through the eyes of FBC and SBC during our Fall Break trip to Disney World.  It is a truly magical feeling, and it is often totally unexpected

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SBC meets Olaf

It may seem odd to think about these positive experiences of wonder and awe in light of the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  This is a story of fear, entrapment, and power, what does it have to do with the profoundly good feeling of joy and wonder: the stuff we pray for at Baptism?  Well, it seems as though an encounter meant to trap Jesus into either blasphemy or treason ended up having a profound impact on his would be nemeses.

“When they heard this, they were amazed.” Mt. 22:22a

The Greek word translated as “amazed” can also mean “marvel” or “wonder.”  Jesus’ brilliant response to their trap left even those who saw him as an enemy in a state of sheer wonderment.  Perhaps they were disappointed or frustrated, but I think it is more likely that they were beginning to realize that Jesus was something more than a thorn in their side.  This Jesus character was the real deal.  As Tuesday in Holy Week wears on, there are two more encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees.  First, a lawyer asks him about the greatest commandment.  Second, Jesus schools them on the Messiah.  By the end of the day, Matthew tells us, they wouldn’t ask Jesus another question.  They so marveled at his wisdom, that they had to know he was someone or something special.

So, if even the Pharisees marveled at Jesus, what is stopping you?  Episcopalians tend to be heady people.  They want to know a lot about Jesus, but end up not knowing Jesus very well at all.  Ask God for a personal encounter with Christ.  Create space and silence to welcome Jesus in.  Feel the wonder and marvel at his love.

Discipleship as giving my life back to God

I’m writing this blogpost somewhere in the air between Philadelphia, PA and Nashville, TN.  I’m too cheap to pay for inflight wifi, so it’ll be posted from the ground somewhere, but that sentence just felt cool to write.  I’ve spent the last three days at the Discipleship Matters Conference at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh or Port Washington or some such place.  It seems nothing in the Philadelphia suburbs is actually located in the town in which it claims to be.  For three days, I’ve been immersed in the deep end of God’s work in calling the Episcopal Church to deeper relationship with God and with one another.  The plenary sessions were live streamed and the recordings can be viewed on the Diocese of Pennsylvania Facebook page.  I especially encourage you to check out the opening panel discussion (starting at about 16:30), not because I was on it (at least not only for that reason), but because of the depth of passion and engagement present in my three co-panelists and the closing panel discussion because of the deeply practical ways in which St. James’ Madison Avenue, a resourced New York congregation, has created a culture of discipleship that doesn’t require resources.

With the last three days swirling in my mind, my attention is beginning to turn to a sermon for Sunday.  It seems logical to me that these two things would be blurry as I breathe recycled air at 36,000 feet.  It may fall into the category of eisegesis, but I can’t help but read Jesus’ answer to the trick question of the Pharisees as a call to something deeper than the separation of church and state.  Instead, I think it is a call to a life of discipleship.

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Photo by the Rev. Cn. Stephanie Spellers

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

As I consider this passage, I can’t help but realize that everything belongs to God.  My very life, every breath I take, comes from God.  If I am going to take seriously these words for Jesus, then I have to be willing to give my whole life back to God, which isn’t a bad definition of discipleship.  I give my mind back to God through studying scripture and theology.  I give my heart back to God by using the compassion that comes from it to motivate the loving service of others and by opening it up to God in prayer.  I give my hands back to God by writing this blog, sermons, and notes of thanks, concern, and welcome.  I give my feet back to God by walking into hospital rooms, dining rooms, and standing behind the altar.  I give my wealth back to God by tithing for the upbuilding of the Kingdom.  I give my spiritual gift of administration back to God by effectively leading Christ Church into the future that God dreams for it.

What does discipleship look like for you?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving? Are you studying? Are you working at building the church?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  How are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?  What are you holding back?  What is God asking you to offer him today?  If discipleship is being a good steward of the things that God has given us, then maybe this week is an opportunity for a personal stewardship campaign: an invitation to give back to God everything that he has so graciously given us.

Approaching Jesus with good intentions

This Sunday is one of those weeks where preachers can do a lot of unintentional damage.  I’ve done some, over the years.  I’d be willing to be most of us have because when it comes to the dichotomy setup between Jesus and the Pharisees, it all seems so easy.  The Gospels often use the Pharisees as a foil against Jesus the hero.  They are the theological straw men upon which the Gospel writer builds their theology of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Pharisees play interlocutor to teacher Jesus so that he can expound a deep piece of wisdom.  And we, 21st century preachers, don’t know enough about the Pharisees/inherit two millenia of anti-Judiasm/succumb to the temptation of supersessionism and we put them before out congregations as sacrificial lambs for our sermon’s narrative arc.  We can do better, if, for on other reason than we are the modern day Pharisees and we ought to be careful.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus can read the intentions of the Pharisees.  As a reminder, it is Holy Week, and tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day is about to boil over.  He’s come to town riding a donkey to cries of “Hosanna” and “Son of David.”  He has flipped the tables of the money changers in the Temple.  He has engaged in theological debate.  He has threatened their understanding of the way in which God works.  That Jesus perceives malice in their question about paying taxes makes perfect sense.  This up and coming Rabbi is threatening not just their piety, but the foundation of the Pax Romana, and when one upsets Rome, the collateral damage is extensive.

It would be easy to say, “those Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, don’t be like them,” but how often do we approach the throne of grace with 100% pure intentions?  What percentage of the time are our prayers self-serving?  How often does fear of losing the comfort of the status quo motivate us to pray?  When do we not come before our Lord hoping to get something from him?  If Jesus was able to discern the motivations of the Pharisees, he is able to do the same with us.  As you say your prayers today, come with a clean heart and a settled spirit.  Come not looking for anything in return.  Don’t expect good feelings, comfort, or joy.  Before we look down our noses at the Pharisees, we ought check ourselves.

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How will I know?

I may be alone in this. It could be the result of my recent change in geography.  I’m hoping it isn’t a sign of the times.  In the past month, for the first time in my ordained life, I’ve become aware of two instances in which the efficacy of one’s baptism was questioned.  Both were baptized in the Dominical form: with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which, at least according to my read of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, is all that is needed for a baptism to be considered valid in our tradition.  Of course, those who are suggesting that age and mode matter above all else, don’t care much about William Reed Huntington’s attempt at church unity or what some papist rag wearing guys in purple shirts (probably a historical anachronism) voted on in Lambeth in 1888.  Realizing that, I turned to an old friend, Maxwell E. Johnson’s The Rites of Christian Initiation, which every clergy person should have on their bookshelves.

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As you can see, I’ve been hard at work, crafting a good argument for why infant baptism by affusion should be considered just as valid as a “believer’s baptism” by submersion.  I do so, fully admitting that I am a fan of and would much prefer to see the latter become normative over the former which is how I was baptized as well as both of my children.  The crux of the question comes down to, as it always should in theological debate, the Bible.  What does our foundational document say about baptism?

The full argument is beyond the scope of what I can handle in a blog post, but suffice it to say that like most things that end up in a Scriptural debate, the waters are murky.  If you want to argue that only adults can be baptized and it should be done in clean, flowing water, the Baptism of John will get you pretty close (ignoring that the waters of the Jordan were considered ritually unclean (Johnson, 11)).  If you think that maybe younger children should be welcomed and the means of water is open to debate, the stories of entire households being baptized in Acts can be used to support your argument (ignoring the reality that just because something is not said to have not happened, doesn’t mean it did).  So, how are we to know for sure that a baptism in efficacious?

Turning again generally to the Bible, and more specifically Sunday’s NT lesson, my ongoing side in these debates is that we will know that God was present in Baptism because we see the signs of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the baptized.  In the story of Jesus’ baptism, every account makes sure to mention the Holy Spirit descending upon him.  In various stories in Acts, we hear that the newly baptized are filled with the Spirit in the same way the 120 were on Pentecost.  In the prologue to 1 Thessalonians, again we are reminded that the surest sign of salvation is God’s Spirit at work.

For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…

Those who argue that there is only one way for a baptism to be valid won’t be swayed by fancy arguments from a giant textbook, just as I won’t be swayed away from my belief that God is much bigger than any box we want to put God in based on “the Bible says it, so I believe it.”  I’m not sure that matters though.  What matters in the end is that when the signs of the Spirit are there, no one can deny God at work.  How do I know?  I’ve seen it in those baptized at 1 day, 1 month, 1 year, 10 years, 20 years, and beyond.

Life’s Certainties – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon is now available for your listening pleasure on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

We’ve all heard the old saying that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  Benjamin Franklin wrote these words to his friend Jean-Baptiste Le Roy in November of 1789.  The American Constitution had just come into effect in January 1789, so Franklin was able to speak with some personal wisdom about taxes, and at 83 years of age and rapidly losing weight and energy, he was keenly aware of death.[1]  Though it really was little more than an aside in a personal letter to a friend overseas, this pithy phrase has taken on a life of its own.  Of course, it comes to mind every third year when we find ourselves back in the Temple as Matthew tells us the story of Jesus’ “taxing” conversation with the Pharisees and Herodians.

Our story begins, as most of our recent Gospel lessons have, with the understanding that Jesus was a wanted man.  You’ve heard me talk about it several times over the past month.  By now it should be clear that the religious powers-that-be wanted Jesus out of their hair for good.  His disciples had openly taunted Rome by comparing Jesus to Caesar during the parade on Palm Sunday.  He had cost them a day’s income by flipping the tables and running out the sacrifice sellers.  When they tried to challenge him on theological grounds, he humiliated them at every turn.  He was too annoying and had to go.  Which leads me to another pithy quote.

In 1870, Charles Dudley Warner wrote that “Politics makes strange bedfellows.[2]” He probably adapted the phrase from Shakespeare’s line, “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.[3]”  Both seem to apply in this case.  When Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple, he upended the political system that allowed for a relatively calm relationship between Israel and Rome.  The Romans loved and respected all things old, so when they took control of Israel in 63 BCE, they made several concessions for the ancient place, its people, and their religion.  Rather than require their new subjects to bow down to the Roman pantheon of gods, they allowed the Jews to continue to worship their God in their Temple, their way.  As long as the proper taxes were paid on time, the Romans didn’t interfere with how things got done in Jerusalem and most everyone was happy, except the poor, the outcast, widows, orphans, and, of course, Jesus.

Two groups stood to lose out big time if Jesus’ rebellion was allowed to take hold: the Pharisees and the Herodians.  The Pharisees, those who ensured that Temple worship went on properly despite all outside influences, hated Rome and everything it stood for, but they knew that Rome could take it all away if the people stopped paying their taxes.  The Herodians, those who argued that Roman occupation and the relative peace that came with it was actually good for Israel, knew that peace would not last if the people stopped paying taxes.  Despite their polar opposite political leanings, the fear of misery at the hand of Rome caused the Pharisees and the Herodians to join forces to trap Jesus.

“Tell us, what do you think, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  That’s their question: as simple as it is cunning.  If Jesus answers no, then the Herodians can turn him over to Pilate on charges of treason against the emperor.  If he answers yes, then the Pharisees can stir up the crowds against him for suggesting subservience to a pagan worshipping, foreign power.  The trap is set.

Like I said a month ago, Jesus isn’t dumb.  When two groups as opposite as Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner join forces to shower you with praise and then ask you a question dripping with political implications, it isn’t hard to see that they are trying to trip you up.  Jesus, after railing against them for their hypocrisy, defers in answering their question for a just a minute.  “Let me see the coin used for the tax,” he says.  The average Jew paid lots of different taxes to Rome and to the Temple.  There were taxes on land, taxes on purchases, taxes on imports, and taxes due on the various feast days of the year.  The tax in question here is the Census Tax, a one penny per person tax owed to the Roman’s to help pay for the occupying forces in Israel.  The Romans were very kind to Israel on most things, but this Census Tax was pretty much a punch in the gut.  Not only were you required to pay a tax to pay for the soldier who made sure you paid your other taxes, but this tax had to be paid in Roman currency.  One Denarius Tiberius per person in your household.  Jesus didn’t have one of these coins.  Presumably the Pharisees didn’t either, since the coin itself was a violation of the first two commandments: “You shall worship no other god but me” and “make no icons or graven images.”

The front of the coin showed the image of the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and declared him as “The August Tiberius Caesar, Son of the god Augustus.”  The reverse carried the image of Pax, the goddess of peace, whose cult was headed by the Emperor as high priest.  Everything about this coin was an abomination to a good Jew, and yet someone in the crowd was quick to produce one when Jesus asked.  He followed up with two questions, “Whose image is this?  Whose title does it bear?”  The answer is as obvious as it is condemning, “the Emperor’s.”

Here’s where Jesus finally answers their question, but not in the way we tend to think about it.  Most translations have Jesus saying something like, “Well then, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  That’s a nice pithy quote from Jesus: kind of like death and taxes and strange bedfellows, but it doesn’t actually capture what Jesus is saying.  The Greek verb Jesus uses actually means to give back.  It is a subtle difference, but one worth paying attention to because it applies not just to the things of Caesar, but more importantly, to the things of God.  Jesus uses only one verb in this sentence.  “Give back to Caesar the stuff that belongs to him and to God what belongs to God.”  In both cases, Jesus notes that nothing we have is our own.  The coin used to pay the Census Tax was manufactured by and received its value from the Empire.  Money, be it a Roman coin or an American bill stamped with “In God we Trust” may seem like the result of our own hard work, but in reality, it only exists because we are a part of an economic system that declares it to be worth something.  If the Empire asks for it back in the way of taxes, Jesus says, then by all means give it back.

On the other hand, everything else, from the air we breathe to the lungs that transition it into our blood streams, is a gift from God.  Specifically, in his choice of language Jesus seems to point especially to the very gift of life itself.  With a nod to the first Creation story, Jesus reminds us that as humans we carry the imprint of God, having been made in his image.  Everything we have belongs to God and so our whole lives should be lived as a gift offered back to him, in thanksgiving for the blessings that we have received.  Giving back to God the things that belong to him doesn’t mean giving 10% to the Church, it means living a life of discipleship each and every moment.  It means thinking about our divine image when we shop, when we vote, when we eat, and yes, when we give to charity.  It means asking, in everything we do, is this bringing the giver of all good gifts honor and glory?  It means that death and taxes, while certain, do not have the last claim on our lives.  Instead, all of our certainty, all our hope, all our lives rest in God’s great gift of love.  A love which we are to offer back to God every moment of every day.  Amen.

[1] Albert Henry Smith, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin Vol X, 1789-1790 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1907), p. 68-69.

[2] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Charles_Dudley_Warner

[3] http://www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/strange-bedfellows

On Rendering

Did you know that if you type in a single word to the Google search engine, it will give you a full definition?  It comes in handy for a guy like me who likes to use fifty-cent words, but didn’t read much in high school or college or, well, life in general, and so I have to look them up.  I used it this morning to look up the word “render” because I knew of at least two meanings.  In fact, there are six for the verb form of the word.  My favorite definition ranks fifth on Google, “to melt down fat.”  Grilling and bacon cooking are made infinitely better because of rendering, but that isn’t what Jesus had in mind when he answered the question about paying taxes from the Pharisees and Herodians by saying, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (KJV)

More modern translations tell us that Jesus said to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” (NIV) which is a good translation of render, but not so much of what Matthew has Jesus actually saying.  The Greek verb which is translated as “render” or “give” is actually apodidomai,

give back

which means “to give back.”  It is a subtle difference, but one worth paying attention to because it applies not just to the things of Caesar, but more importantly, to the things of God since Jesus uses only one verb in the sentence.  “Give back to Caesar the stuff that belongs to him and give back to God what belongs to God.”  In both cases, Jesus notes that nothing we have is our own.  The coin, a Denarius Tiberius, used to pay the Census Tax was manufactured by and received it value from the Empire.  Money, be it a Roman coin or an American bill stamped with “In God we Trust” may seem like it comes by way of our own hard work, but in reality, it only exists because we are a part of an economic system that renders (definition #2) it worth something.  If the Empire asks for it back in the way of taxes, Jesus says, then give it back.

On the other hand, everything else, from the air we breathe to the lungs that transition it into our blood streams, is a gift from God.  Specifically, in his language Jesus seems to point especially to the very gift of life itself.  In what seems like an obvious reference to Genesis 1:26, Jesus reminds us that as humans we carry the image or icon of God.  We belong to God and so our whole lives should be lived as a gift offered back to God, in thanksgiving for the blessings that we have received.  This, of course, has huge ramifications.  It means that every decision we make: from what shoes to buy to what career path to follow to how much bacon to consume; is done with God’s gift of life and grace in mind.  Giving back to God the things that belong to him doesn’t mean giving 10% to the Church, it means living a life of discipleship each and every moment.