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Exodus 33:15-23; Psalm 99; 1Thessalonians 1:4-10; Matthew 22:15-22 Bigfork Community United Methodist Church October 18, 2020, – 20TH Sunday After Pentecost
The Pharisees send their disciples and some Herodians to trap Jesus today. We have been eavesdropping these last few weeks on their conversations, and it is not surprising that the powers that want to contain or confine or do away with our Jesus…for good.
They have a crafty question. Either way he answers, they’ve got him. If he says pay taxes to Caesar, he disappoints those who want Rome to leave.
If he tells them not to pay Roman taxes, he is stirring up the rabble and threatening Herod’s position.
They do not care how he answers the question. Either way he loses. But there is a third possibility. Jesus shows us that way this morning.
But wait a minute. Here we are, in the middle of a momentous Presidential election. And neither side is willing to believe that the other side is capable of telling the truth. To virtuously claim detachment from both sides, we cynically presume that they are both lying.
We are just like the Pharisees and their disciples, the Herodians and the Roman rulers. We fall into the trap that we see them in today.
The problem is not new, but it does seem to be getting more acute. When I was a freshman State Representative from Billings, I sat next to Francis Bardanouve, a rancher from Harlem and dean of the House.
He had been there since 1958. He was wise and honest. Even the Republicans said that. So one day as we listened to debate on a bill, I leaned forward and asked him very quietly, “How can they believe what they are saying?”
Francis didn’t have to think about it. He just said, “That’s what they are saying about us.”
But it is even older than that…as we read this morning. Presuming the worst of each other goes back at least to Bible times.
The trouble with it is this, in my humble opinion: If I assume everyone is crooked, two things happen. First, I encourage crooked people to get into the game. What do they have to lose?
Second, and more important, we are discouraging honest people with good intentions and noble ideals from getting into the game. Why would they want to subject themselves to that?
This dystopian view of public service can be a self-fulfilling prophecy if we do not learn to hold our tongues…and to hold people we don’t agree with…in our hearts.
“Hold your friends close, and hold your enemies even closer,” they say. Jesus can see the game they are playing with him and he sees that they have chosen a moment when he is in a crowd, teaching…where they can embarrass him in front of his supporters.
This is not a good will mission they send to him. Jesus knows it…and he also knows that they have completely missed the point…that their question is…in the large scheme of things…pointless.
They want to control their turf… their authority…their security…in this world. That is not what Jesus cares about. He is after a greater prize. He has come to save their souls.
He has dealt openly and honestly with them since he has come to town. He has had some critical thing to say…but they should not have turned their sanctuary into a marketplace where a cynical band of wealthy priests could oppress the faithful poor.
They questioned his authority but they will not say to the crowd where John the Baptist got his authority.
Now they try to drive a wedge between him and his followers…or the authorities. But he has come to save everyone…even the people who interrogate him now.
He goes about his task in a very interesting way. He does some factfinding at the outset…shows them some respect. He asks for the coin – a Roman denarius – that you had to pay your Roman taxes with.
They give him one. At this point, the crowd knows that the emissaries of the Pharisees are walking around with Roman money in their robes… which is like having Deutschmarks to spend in downtown London in 1941. They have outed themselves.
Next, he answers their question with a question. “Whose image is on the coin?” They tell him, “Caesar’s”
Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s …defying Caesar is not what I am here about …but I will tell you what I am here about: Give to God that which is God’s.”
When you are giving to God what is God’s, a good start would be… Live a life that shows your faith is true and your trust is in the Lord…instead of walking around with Roman coins in your purse.
Second, listen to what I am saying. I do not bring the message. I am the message.
I took a race sensitivity training class when I was in the Army. It was part of what we were all required to do, and for a boy from Montana it was very helpful.
They started with a recording of a man’s voice talking. We were to listen to it and tell our facilitator if it was a white man’s voice or a black man’s voice.
We couldn’t tell. It was one of those voices. It could be either. So we listened again…and again we were uncertain. But the third time we listened to it, someone immediately said, “He is a black man.”
The facilitator challenged him: “How can you tell?” The guy said, “Listen to what he is saying.” The facilitator played the tape again, and it was as obvious as a thunderstorm on the prairie. His story was the story of black people in America.
Maybe, if the Pharisees had listened to what Jesus had to say, they would have come out the better for it… certainly better than they did.
Maybe if we listened to what we have to say to each other…and genuinely tried to understand what it was they were saying…and why they were saying it…we would all be the better for it.
We are even more challenged today, because the places we get our information are no longer tied to a friend or an acquaintance or anyone we may know. Half of this year’s campaign is being run online…not events where you see the people… not on mainstream media where you know reliability and accuracy standards have been met…but online where you don’t know who said it or if it was even a human person who designed the message or spoke the words.
The Pharisees did not show up in our reading today, either. They sent disciples and some Herodians. But Jesus saw them in the midst of things and found a way to hold them accountable…while lovingly talking to them about what is important and what is detrimental to what is important.
If you want to know what I believe, Jesus tells us, ask and you will receive…knock and the door will be opened. Jesus has the importance of his mission to Jerusalem confirmed by the many ways the world…and these Pharisees…push back.
What I have said many times was true of Jesus, too. We don’t have power. Power has us. And when we demonstrate power… real power…the way he does…the world pushes back… with control measures.
But Jesus sees through them and beyond them…and challenges them to give to God what is God’s. “Well, what is God’s?” they wonder …and we wonder.
It is what you make of it…and what you give to God…the power of love and truth in your soul…you get back many times over.
One day, long before I even thought about preaching, I was sitting in the church at offering time and I had a lot more money in my checkbook than I remembered.
I quickly went back through the register and did not find an error. So I wrote a check for twice my usual amount.
The next week I had even more money in my checkbook, so I wrote a bigger check. Not daring God or playing chicken with God, but I was curious now.
When I got to a percentage of my take home pay that scared me. I quit going higher…but I am afraid to go lower. And then I found myself sent to a little church to lead worship and help out for a little while. And now here I am today, the pastor of one of the most surprising churches in the village … or the valley…or in United Methodism.
You, too, have found the secret of giving to God what is God’s. These are challenging times for your church and for you and for our friends and neighbors and enemies everywhere.
Jesus came into the world to show us what our lives could look like. That was the human part of him.
Jesus also came into the world to show us that there is so much more we can give to life…and get out of our lives…if we give to God what is God’s…without fear…without reservation…with joy…and love and faith.
So let us give to God that which is God’s…joyfully…hopefully…
O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us …and through me…this day? Amen.