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.

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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What goes in

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In the realm of “there’s nothing new under the sun,” middle-class America has become obsessed with what they put in the body of late.  There was time when it was just about whether or not one could eat eggs and maintain basic health,

but now a days, there are open, ongoing, and often long-winded conversations about the merits of gluten, meat, lactose, soy, paleo, and Whole30 related dietary needs, just to name a few.  We are, of course, not the first generation of human beings to worry about such things, though ours probably stems more from luxury than it did in bygone eras.

One such time when the conversation about what one ate raged loudly was in and around the time of Jesus and the rise of the Pharisaical sect of Jewish priests.  Their main theological goal was to return Judaism to ritual purity as described in the Torah.  As such, they placed a high value on the purity code that included avoiding certain foods, cooked in certain way, in certain pots, and, given their Roman occupied context, offered as sacrifice to certain gods.  While today they are an easy punching bag, especially in interpreting Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees had good intentions at heart.  In their promised land, occupied by a foreign, pagan, empire, the only way that the Jews could really maintain their identity was to live by the strict code that God had given them through the 10 Commandments and the Levitical law.

Whether it is to the privileged white dude ordering his non-fat, half-caf, organic, soy, three-pump, sugar free, locally-sourced vanilla, latte or the Pharisee who might be overly concerned with whether or not one’s mixing spoon was used in two different pots, Jesus offers a counter-point in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Not as a matter of health or even as a point in the conversation about the ethics of food sourcing, but rather as part of the ongoing human question about what does or does not make someone clean in the eyes of God, Jesus offers this advice, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  In modern idiom, it might be, it’s not how fair trade your coffee is, but how you treat your barista.

Jesus is much more concerned with our relationships with other human beings than he is with how fussy we are about the rules.  This isn’t to say that buying coffee from responsible growers isn’t a good thing, but that even there, it is about concentric circles of relationships.  How we treat one another, whether it is face-to-face or three thousand miles apart, is what matters in the Kingdom, and how we treat each other comes forth from the heart rather than the other way ’round.  So, the next time you feel like patting yourself on the back for that organic head of lettuce, stop and give thanks for the growers who have chosen to use earth friendly farming techniques, pray for the laborers who do the hard work of harvesting, the scientists who are making trucks more eco-friendly through the discover of DEF, and the grocer, who, one hopes, has paid a just sum for the product.  And, as always, don’t forget to smile at your cashier, tip your waiter, and thank your barista.  These are the things that come from the heart.

The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend

Hatred makes for interesting bed fellows.  After a couple of days of being outsmarted by Jesus, the religious powers-that-be have retreated and regrouped.  If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the names have changed.  The Chief Priests and the Elders, Jesus’ original sparring partners, have been replaced by the Pharisees and the Herodians.  The first item of note is that while the Pharisees were around during the time of Jesus, their rise to power came well after his death as their system of personal piety and ethnic purity from outside influence came to prominence after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  Another issue is that we have no historical record, outside of a few brief mentions in the Gospels of a group called the Herodians.  Their name implies enough to give us some information about them, but we actually know almost nothing about them.  Their name, rather obviously, comes from the name Herod, the puppet king of Israel of getting drunk and riled up by his step-daughter’s dancing and giving her JBap’s head on a platter fame.  We can reasonably assume that they were pro-Hellenist Jews, strongly in favor of the Roman occupation and the support that Rome gave to the Temple system.

Here’s where things get interesting as the Pharisees, a group founded on a suspicion of outside influences on Judaism, team up with the Herodians, a group staunchly in favor of Rome’s influence in Jerusalem, in order to “entrap Jesus in what he said.”  Both sides stand to lose from Jesus’ rise to power, and so they join forces to ask him yet another question for which there is no right answer.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”  Either side can charge Jesus with a crime based on his answer.  If he say “no” then the Herodians have him on treason against Rome.  If he says “yes” then the Pharisees have him on collusion with Rome.  Charges which both sides could levy on each other, but they’re not interested in that at this point.

As Holy Week ramps up, it seems as if everyone has a reason to see Jesus brought low, but Matthew continues to make it clear that it is Jesus and not these professional theologians who is in control.  Trap after trick after loaded question, Jesus sees it coming and has the perfect answer.  More on that tomorrow.