St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, October 22, 2017
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost + Proper 24A
First Lesson: Isaiah 45:1-7
Second Lesson: I Thessalonians 1:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
At my last church, where I served as the Curate (which, as some of you know, is just a fancy word for “baby priest”), I sometimes ruffled people’s feathers a bit in my preaching. I was fresh out of seminary and convinced that it was my job as a preacher to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, regardless of who that might offend. Of course, it also didn’t hurt that I was the Curate and not the Rector, the one who is ultimately responsible for what is preached during church. It’s a lot easier to be controversial when you’re not the one in charge!
I had no problem bringing up stories from the news in my sermons, especially when I felt as though they needed to be addressed and talked about through a theological lens. Some people appreciated it, and some people didn’t. Some people thought that it was inappropriate for me to bring up certain topics in my preaching, especially when they thought that I was getting a little too political.
One day, as I was checking my e-mail, I received a message from a gentleman who expressed his frustration and disappointment about a sermon that I had recently preached. From what I recall, it was a sermon that I gave soon after the terrorist attack in Paris in November of 2015 that claimed the lives of 129 people. In my sermon, I talked about the effects of that terrible tragedy in our own country, and I expressed my concern with the fact that many politicians were responding to the attack by calling for restrictions on the resettlement of refugees from Syria. Well, this parishioner didn’t like that too much. I won’t go into any details about what he wrote, but in my response to his message, I told him that I appreciated his willingness to share his concerns. I also told him that part of my role as a preacher is to proclaim the Gospel with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. This is something that the twentieth century theologian, Karl Barth, once wrote about. Now, this doesn’t mean that we should consider the Bible and the newspaper as equally significant. After all, the newspaper (or any other news source for that matter) contains its own unique set of biases. But, it does mean that we should constantly be aware of what is going on in the world around us and how we, as Christians, are called to respond. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to stand with one foot in the Church and one in the world, but when we’re unwilling discuss the topics that affect us and other people, we run the risk of neglecting that call. We run the risk of leading double lives- one in the Church and one in the world- when we’re, in fact, called to do the exact opposite.
Well, not much has changed in my preaching since I served at my last parish. I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it as long as people will listen. The Gospel is offensive. It offends our views of the world and our preconceived ideas. The words of Jesus challenge us to reconsider everything that we think we know about our place in God’s Kingdom and our role as stewards of God’s creation. They force us to think beyond our own biases and prejudices and to consider the fact that God is much bigger and much more capable of mercy than we’re sometimes willing to admit. Yes, the Gospel is offensive, but it doesn’t exist in order to make us feel good about ourselves. It exists to help us think about how God is calling us to be transformed and how God is calling us to turn the world upside down, which is really “right side up,” in the words of our Presiding Bishop.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus encounters two groups of people- the Herodians, who support the Roman government and their presence in Palestine, and the disciples of the Pharisees, who oppose the Roman government and resent their taxes on the Jewish people. Both of these groups have something in common, though. They all want to do away with Jesus because his presence threatens their power and authority. So, they conspire against him and seek to have him arrested. In order to do this, they set a trap for him by asking a simple question. They say, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This is a simple enough question, isn’t it? But, Jesus is no fool; he is perfectly aware of their plan to trap him. He knows that if he responds to the question by saying, “yes” or “no,” he will be found guilty by one group or the other. If he says, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor,” the disciples of the Pharisees will find him guilty as a traitor to his own people, and if he says, “No, the Jews shouldn’t have to pay taxes to the emperor,” the Herodians will find him guilty of sedition against Rome. In other words, Jesus loses either way, but in his wisdom, he refuses to play their game. Rather, he “turns the tables” and uses this opportunity to teach them about moral responsibility and the obligations that they have as both citizens of the State and servants of God.
After questioning them about whose head is on the Roman coin, Jesus tells them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Some of us are more familiar with the Revised Standard Version of this verse from Matthew. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” After Jesus says this, the Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees are astounded, and they leave him alone.
In this Gospel lesson, Jesus is trying to convey the fact that, because we exist in two different worlds, we have certain obligations to fulfill in both. Because we are citizens of the country in which we live, we pay taxes to the government to help fund certain programs. Some of us serve in the military when our freedoms are threatened by forces that wish to harm us. Some of us serve as leaders at the local, state, and national levels to help govern and make decisions for the welfare of the people. But, we also serve as citizens of heaven, and with our allegiance to God, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves at all times, “Is this what God would have us do?” or “Does this decision fall in line with what I know to be true about God and God’s love?” This is the point that I believe Jesus is trying to make. We must balance our responsibilities to both, but at the same time, we must always remember that our greatest allegiance is to the God who created us. Our greatest call is to work for the building up of God’s Kingdom, even when it seems contrary to what’s going on in the world around us. In those moments when we’re conflicted between our obligations to God and country, it falls upon us to ask important questions, even if they make us uncomfortable and challenge our world views. It falls upon us to ask ourselves, “Is this what God would have us do?”
My brothers and sisters, may we have the will and courage to persevere in this work of balancing our responsibilities to both God and country, and may we always remember that our service to God is the only path that leads to the abundant life that God desires for us. Amen.