Proper 24, Year A, 2014

When Pharisees and the Herodians gang up on you, you are in serious trouble. The Herodians were political figures aligned with Herod Antipas, who was the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.   While Jewish, he was a puppet of the Roman emperor. Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day. Pharisees and Herodians despised each other.

Imagine how disruptive Jesus must have been for the political and religious leaders of the day to conspire against him!

The Pharisees and Herodians come to Jesus and ask him a question that is almost impossible to answer in a way that will please both groups: 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?

Can you hear how smarmy that question is? Jesus has gained a reputation for being a real truth teller and they are trying their hardest to show Jesus up.

Jesus, however, is no fool.

The first thing he does is ask for a coin used for the tax. Now, this is telling, because Jesus did not have any cash on him. Jesus did not walk around with pockets full of coins. Jesus didn’t have a single coin in his pocket. Jesus trusted God to provide for him. He knows both the Herodians and the Pharisees profited plenty off the backs of the people of God, so he turns to them for a coin. And sure enough they have one.

He flips the coin around and around in his hand and asks them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

When they tell him it is the head of the emperor, he dismissively says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus escapes their trap, leaving them bewildered.

We don’t know exactly why Jesus said what he said. We don’t know if he was unbothered because he realized that everything on earth is God’s dominion, even the empire, so giving money to the empire isn’t taking anything away from God. Or whether Jesus was just being pragmatic—no one can escape the political system they are in forever. We live in the real world, where taxes are due, and there isn’t a religious reason not to respect government authority.

But it certainly evokes questions for us—what are our responsibilities toward God and toward our government?

I’m sure our family is not the only one who weighs every mile driven, every work related receipt, every day care exemption when filing taxes. We do our best to keep every penny that belongs to us in our pocket! We not alone! Burger King is trying to move to Canada to pay fewer taxes. Ireland was in the news this week, since it is closing a tax loophole that has allowed companies like Apple and Barclays to set up shop there and lower their tax rates.

The instinct is understandable—government spending can seem so abstract and often ridiculous. And sometimes you have serious ethical problems with how money is spent. You can be a pacifist and be furious at all the money going to bombing in the Middle East. You can be fiscally conservative and furious at the money spent bailing out banks in 2008. Yet, whether we belong to the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Tea or Green Party, every April 15th, our taxes are due. And Jesus does not give us an out!

Following Jesus is not about isolating ourselves from our world. We aren’t called to move to an island and form a commune in which we are responsible only to God. For this entire world is God’s. And so we’re called to stay in the world and do our best to make it as much like the Kingdom of God as we can. With our relationships, our actions and yes, our money.

Being a steward of our time, talent, and treasure may mean running for the school board, agreeing to be on a board of directions for an organization you care about, going to really boring community meetings, even running for office.

When I served at Emmanuel Church one of our parishioners was a woman named Katherine Mehrige. Many of you may know her. She and a friend of hers thought the after school program at Brownsville Elementary could be improved. There were so many gifted people in the community, they thought it would be terrific if the after school program was a time when community members could enrich the lives of children through music, art, sport and other classes. The PTO looked at them and said, that sounds great! Now, go and do it! I think Katherine had intended for the PTO to run this hypothetical program, but she and her friend got to work and created an amazing program that has enriched the lives of students in our community and inspired schools around the country. Children stay after school, which makes it easier for working parents, and the kids have a great time learning about African drumming or jewelry making or basketball or any of the other hundred classes that are offered. Scholarships are available for low income students.

Katherine and her friend weren’t doing this as an arm of the church, but they are Christians. And one hopes that any of us who follow Jesus would also seek to make the world around us a little better. We belong to the Kingdom of God, but we live in the world. So let’s do a little renovations to the world around us to make a world Jesus would be proud of.



Proper 28, Year A, 2008

We have reached the end of Ordinary Time.

Sounds pretty dramatic, huh?  The new church year begins on the first day of Advent, which this year is November 30th.  Next week, we celebrate Christ the King day.  So, for all intents and purposes, today we celebrate the last day of the church lectionary year.  While we’ve spent all of Ordinary time following the Old Testament through the stories of Genesis, Exodus and then briefly Deuteronomy and Joshua, after today, the narrative thread ends and the lectionary hops around a bit throughout Advent, Christmas and Easter.  We’ll pick back up with the Old Testament narrative in the books of I and II Samuel-but not until next June.

When last we left the Israelites, they were being led into Canaan by Joshua and a bloody series of battles ensued.

So, what happened next?  What did the Israelites do when they woke up and realized they were actually in the Promised Land?  How are sort-of faithful people who reluctantly followed God into new places now supposed to govern themselves?  For that matter, what does it mean for us sort-of faithful Christians to be governed?

At first pass, the book of Judges may not seem to address these questions.  Judges is a weird, weird book.  It is filled with stories that seem more appropriate for a comic book than a book in the Bible.  There’s the story of Jael, the woman who drives a tent peg through Sisera’s head.  There’s the story of King Eglon, a fat man who gets stabbed while on the toilet.  And of course, the story of Samson who stupidly reveals the secret to his super strength to his devious girlfriend, Delilah.

Our reading today is about Deborah, one of the more sane characters in Judges.  She is a prophetess and a judge, hence the title of the book.  Judges in those days are not judges in the sense that we think of now.  Judges were charismatic leaders who led tribes throughout Israel.  They could adjudicate disputes, but they also could act as military leaders, as Deborah does.

The important thing to note here is that Israel has divided into tribes.  For awhile, Israel was able to function as one people, descendants of Abraham, but now the twelve tribes of Israel have spread out over the land they have been given and each is governed by their own tribal leader.

So, now the tribes are not only fighting with indigenous peoples, this division leads to a terrible civil war in which thousands of people die and the tribe of Benjamin is nearly wiped out.

That’s right, the tribes of Israel start fighting each other!

The author of the book of Judges fully acknowledges the sorry state of Israel by starting nearly every new story with, “In those days, when there was no king in Israel. . .”, as if the lack of a king was to blame for this terrible behavior.

Now, we’ll get further into this issue of kings when we study I and II Samuel next summer, but the problem is God doesn’t think a king is that great of an idea.  Eventually, after the civil war, the Israelites start clamoring for a king so they can be like other nations around them.  They go to Samuel, the prophet at the time, and demand he give them a king.  His feelings get hurt, but God reassures him that they aren’t rejecting Samuel, they are rejecting God as their king.  God tells Samuel to warn them about the consequences of having a king.  Now, these are not punishments handed down by God, these are just the natural consequences of a government led by kings.  Samuel warns the Israelites,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you:  . . . He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyard and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  He will take one tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.  He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle, and donkeys and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.  And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

Now, if you go back to our reading today, you’ll see that Deborah was called into action when a local king was threatening the Israelites with nine hundred chariots of iron.  That was incredible, incredible technology.  The Israelites were a nomadic people.  They had weaponry, sure, but chariots made out of iron?  No way.  The sight of such a thing must have been terrifying.  The chariots were the iron-age equivalent of jet planes or tanks.  The Israelites just had no recourse against such technology.  And how were Hazorites able to have 900 iron chariots?  They had a king.

And so Israel wanted a king, too.  Not just because kings were exciting, but because militarily they were unable to compete with other kingdoms.

So, the Israelites ignore Samuel and insist that God give them a king and he does.  And some kings were wonderful and some kings were terrible and the Israelites did just as bad of a job of being faithful to God, their true King, as they always did.

For the first few hundred years of the Christian Church, early Christians broke from this idea that the religious group is also the political group.  After all, they were powerless, even persecuted while the Roman government wielded its incredible power.  However, after Constantine’s conversion, once again, the idea that God chooses kings to rule over his people came into power.

Now, of course, with the world wide spread of Christianity, you have Christians under as many different kinds of governments as you can imagine.  There are Christians under dictatorships, democracies, communist rule, even socialist rule in oppressed countries like. . .Sweden.

The rhetoric in THIS country about whether or not we are a Christian nation has been particularly strong this last year.  There are faithful Christians who believe we risk God’s wrath if we don’t elect conservative Christian leaders to government who will end abortion, post the Ten Commandments everywhere, eliminate sex education and reinstate prayer in school.

But, as it turns out, the founders of our Country were not attempting to make a Christian government.  God is not mentioned once in the Constitution and religion is mentioned only twice.  Once in the sixth article, which reads, “but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  Secondly, in the First Amendment which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

And this is good news not only for American atheists, Muslims, Hindus or Jews, but for Christians, too.  When Israel finally elects a king, they do not become more holy and obedient to God.  Instead, they shift their loyalty to the king.  The God we serve does not need to be represented in government in order to govern our hearts.

God does judge societies, but throughout the Bible those societies are judged on how well they worship God, take care of orphans, widows, the poor, immigrants and whether or not they have just policies.  We can do all those things as individuals and as church communities within a secular government. Occasionally we manage to do them through our government as well.  We feed the poor school lunches.  We give widows Social Security payments.  We maintain justice as best as we can.  And of course our government is not perfect at this, but that leaves room for those of us in the church to pick up the slack-whether through ministries we already do-like Disciples’ Kitchen and Bread Fund-but also ministries we haven’t even dreamed about yet.  Who knows, maybe one day God will call Emmanuel to start a ministry for migrant workers or open an orphanage or teach financial management to those who struggle.

My point is, as participants in a democracy, we are called to keep our government full of integrity, justice and ethics, yet we can still fully live out our Christian duty within the confines of a secular government.  Our fealty to God is not hampered by the Constitution.  In fact, our fealty is protected by the Constitution, which many Christians in other nations cannot say about their own countries.

So, in short, American democracy gives us the best of both worlds.  We have more iron chariots than can possibly be good for us, yet total freedom to worship and serve our God.

Thanks be to God.

Proper 27, Year B, 2006

Do you ever have those moments in meetings when the conversation gets to a subject matter not in your area of responsibility, and you drift off for a moment?  I had one of those a few vestry meetings ago.

I was probably thinking about decorating the guestroom, or what menu to choose for the wedding reception, possibly even about something responsible like Sunday school or children’s worship.  Out of the corner of my ear, I heard Chuck say, “I’d like to concentrate on World Peace on Veterans Day.  I hope our preacher will be able to incorporate that. . .”

Suddenly I realized everyone was looking at me.  I, in fact, was scheduled to preach on Veteran’s Day.  That certainly got my attention, but I was left with a fundamental problem.  I don’t believe in world peace.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against world peace.  If the nations of the world decided to beat their weapons into plowshares, I would celebrate wholeheartedly. 

I just don’t believe that day will come while humans still exist on this planet.  We humans have this nasty problem called sin.  And while we often think of sin in terms of tawdry behavior, like the recent evangelical pastor who was ousted from his congregation for purchasing sex and drugs from a male prostitute (that always ends well), sin can also lead us to abuse power, because power feels so fantastic. 

Like sex or alcohol, power can intoxicate and affect the way we treat others around us, and can definitely affect decisions we make.  And as long as power has this effect on leaders, World Peace will be along way off.

Both our Gospel reading and Psalm today are about the abuse of power.  We often think of the story of the Widow’s mite in terms of stewardship.  We picture Jesus sweetly extolling the virtues of this dear woman who gave God everything she had. 

Well, read more closely.  Jesus is not in a peaceful frame of mind, Jesus is boiling mad.  The first sentence of the gospel today reads,

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation. 

We do not know exactly what the scribes were doing to take advantage of widows, but we knew Jesus was not happy about it.  To see a widow give all she had to the treasury must have been heartbreaking to Jesus.  Yes, it was an act of faith, but the widow should not have been put in that position to start with!  The scribes and other leaders were supposed to take care of widows, not take advantage of them.  The scribes abused their power.

Jesus battled against the lure of power his entire ministry.  During his 40 days in the desert, one of the temptations with which Satan taunted Jesus was to remind Jesus he could have power over all the kingdoms of the world.  But Jesus refused.  And he taught this philosophy to his followers.  To help his disciples resist the temptation of power, he told them not to get attached to any one town, but to do their ministry and keep moving, accepting gifts from no one.  Jesus and the disciples lived simple lives and though constantly surrounded by crowds, never gave into the temptation to abuse the power they had been granted.

Our Psalm today reiterates this distrust of those in seats of power. 

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth,   
for there is no help in them.
When they breathe their last, they return to earth,
and in that day their thoughts perish.

What is interesting about this passage, is that the word for rulers is a word with very positive connotations. The word can mean generous man, or noble man.  Yet, the psalm is telling us not even to trust noble rulers!  Instead the psalm tells us to trust the God of Jacob-the God who has been faithful for generations. 

The controversial activist and Jesuit priest, Daniel Berrigan once wrote,

I can only tell you what I believe; I believe:
I cannot be saved by foreign policies.
I cannot be saved by the sexual revolution.
I cannot be saved by the gross national product.
I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents.
I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists,
plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
nor by the Vatican,
nor by the World Buddhist Association,
nor by Hitler, nor by Joan of Arc,
nor by angels and archangels,
nor by powers and dominions,
I can be saved only by Jesus Christ

Daniel Clendenin, founder of Journey with Jesus has updated this to read,

I cannot be saved by George Bush or Jesse Jackson,
by Hillary Clinton or Condi Rice, nor by their successors or opponents.
I cannot be saved by Green Peace or the ACLU,
by Focus on the Family or by Promise Keepers.

Which returns us to the Psalm for this week: “Blessed is he whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God”

This Tuesday many of us went to the polls, hoping either for change or to prevent change.  We put hope in our leaders hoping our Congressmen and women will be upright, honest and wise.  We hope that if we elect the right people into our government, that we will be safe and secure.

Our readings today remind us that not even the best politician, the most noble leader with excellent policy, can save us in any kind of existential or permanent way-only God can do that. 

Knowing this, the temptation then becomes, “Well, then why should I care about what happens in politics?  Why should I care about world peace?  If my security is bound up with God and not with leaders here on earth, why participate in the system?”

While God warns us about the dangers of power, he simultaneously calls us to create cultures of justice and integrity.

Remember the widow and how angry the scribes made Jesus?  Jesus expected the Scribes to create a culture of justice and instead they participated in a culture that took advantage of widows!

Our ultimate reality is grounded in God, but this is the same God that calls us to live here on earth.  There’s a term that describes this-the already and the not yet.  God has already saved us and we are already his-but it is not yet time for God’s kingdom to  come to fruition and in the meantime, we must be fully present in our daily lives.

We’ve talked a lot about stewardship the last month, but I invite you to think about stewardship in a broader sense.  God has entrusted us with these lives, with this country, with this planet.  He charges us to create societies in which widows and orphans are taken care of, in which justice and mercy are prevailing qualities. 

We may not have power to create world peace single handedly, but in America, we are blessed, because we are each empowered to participate in our government.  We don’t have to rely on the scribes or a dictator or a king.  This week we each had the opportunity to vote, to build a government-what an incredible opportunity to create a government that loves justice.  We also have the power to reach beyond our class and racial lines to build connections with those who are not like us.  We have the power to live on this planet lightly, being stewards of this earth we are currently treating so poorly.  Stewardship is not only about responsibility, it’s also about power-the power God gives us to take care of each other, the power to make change for the good, the power to live life thoughtfully and with care.

And we may not be able to create world peace, but we can create a culture that values just war, and taking care of widows, orphans, the disabled, and the elderly.  We can create a culture that is more interested in connection than division, reconciliation than hatred, information rather than ignorance. And we can do this because we know that ultimately our security and hope rest in the God who loves us-all of us, Democrat and Republican, gay and straight, women and men, children and adults. 

Thanks be to God.