Sunday, October 23, 2011

Trick Questions, Real Answers: Stewardship Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

We all know what trick questions are, right? A trick question is one to which there is no good answer—or, to which the apparent answer leads you down a rabbit hole of misunderstanding and wordplay.

Here are a few examples of trick questions:

Q: How many months have 28 days in them?

A: They all do. (One month has exactly 28 days.)

Q: How many of each species did Moses bring on the ark?

A: None. Moses wasn’t on the ark; it was Noah.

Q: Why are 2007 pennies worth more than 2006 pennies?

A: Because 2007 pennies are worth $20.07, and 2006 pennies are worth $20.06.

Q: I have two coins, totaling thirty cents. One of them is not a nickel. What are they?

A: A quarter and a nickel; the quarter is not a nickel.

OK, this is all silliness. But sometimes, trick questions are not silly in the least. Sometimes they are posed with intention to do real harm. Jesus is asked a trick question about taxes, but the purpose is not to challenge his math or logic skills. The purpose is to trap him in giving an answer that will get him into real trouble.

Just to be clear, there is no easy parallel between the tax Jesus is being asked about and any tax we pay as citizens of the U. S. in the 21st century. This is not an income tax, nor is it a sales tax, nor is it a capital gains tax. The tax to Caesar is an annual head tax on every subject of Rome. It is a tax on all men from age fourteen and women from age twelve to age sixty-five and, the rate is one denarius per year. That’s one day’s wages for a laborer.[i]

Jesus is in the Temple, and not one, but two different groups, groups that do not normally get along or even associate with one another in any way, conspire together to trap him. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” seems to be the attitude of the Pharisees and the Herodians, at least for now. The Pharisees were members of a religious movement within Judaism that stressed strict observance of the law, especially around the matter of table fellowship. The Pharisees’ most pressing concern was usually, with whom should one keep company? How does one stay ritually pure? The Herodians, on the other hand, were also Jews, but those who seemed to be very comfortable collaborating with the Roman Empire. That, by definition, means that they normally flouted the kinds of laws the Pharisees held dear, and they aided the Romans in oppressing the Jewish people. The only thing these groups had in common, it would seem, was their mistrust of Jesus.

So they ask him a question. But first, they butter him up like an ear of late sweet corn. “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” [Matt. 22:16]. Oh, brother. Neither the Pharisees nor the Herodians see Jesus as quite the heroic ethicist this build-up would suggest. To the Pharisees, he’s a guy who consistently gets that table fellowship wrong by eating with anyone and everyone. To the Herodians he is a troublemaker, who is eager to point out the evils of Empire for the common woman and man.

Then they spring the question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” [Matt. 22:17].

Now, the Pharisees and the Herodians have asked Jesus an excellent trick question, one in the vein of “Have you stopped beating your wife?”. If Jesus says a simple “Yes,” then the Pharisees can accuse him of consorting with Rome, the great enemy, and fracture the relationship between Jesus and the people. If Jesus says “No,” then the Herodians can accuse Jesus of being an insurrectionist, a crime punishable by crucifixion. In either case, Jesus loses.

But Jesus, instead of being backed into a corner by the question, asks for a denarius, the coin used to pay the tax. He asks whose head is on the coin—a poor translation for the actual word Jesus used, “image.” Whose image is on the coin, Jesus asks? His questioners respond, “Caesar.” That is true. Perhaps even more interesting than whose image is on the coin are the words found there. As an example, the coin minted during the reign of Tiberius read, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” For Jews, the words were blasphemous. They amount to calling Caesar “son of god.”

Jesus knows this, and it may, perhaps, be one of his most brilliant moves that he asks for—and receives—one of these coins from a Pharisee. For a Pharisee to have been carrying the coin is, itself, a concession to blasphemy. The whole scene reeks of hypocrisy: the ones who are trying to trap Jesus have, themselves, been very nicely trapped.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ words? “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” [Matt. 22:21b]. Has Jesus managed to divide life up neatly into discrete piles, in which all things over here in this pile belong to God, and all things over there in that pile belong to the state? I am not sure. What do you think?

How do we figure out which things belong to God? On the subject of our giving, in support of the mission of the church, for example, what is the formula we should follow? I am not sure. I wonder what you think.

In order to begin to answer this question, it’s important for us to understand that question of Jesus’, “Whose image is on the coin?” It’s important for us to understand that word, “image,” and its significance, the role it played, and still plays, in Jewish and Christian theology. It is a word that appears in the very first chapter of the very first book in the Bible, when God, in the midst of creating, says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;” and then a few moments later, the narrator assures us that that is precisely what happened: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them…” [Genesis 1:26-27].

What do we give to Caesar? Those things stamped with Caesar’s image. What do we give to God? Those things stamped with God’s image. How do we figure out how to give ourselves to God? I’m not sure. I wonder what you think?

There is an old tale, which probably amounts to the early medieval version of an urban legend, but it is still instructive. It is about the Gauls, an ancient and warlike tribe of people who inhabited what we now know as France and Belgium. By the time of the Christian era, this Druidic people had come under the influence of the Roman Empire—the 4th and 5th centuries, probably. Christian missionaries spread throughout Europe and Asia, and the Gauls began to be converted in large numbers to Christianity.

However, when the Gauls were being baptized, so this story goes, the missionaries soon noticed they had one odd behavior. When they were being immersed in the river or stream, they would hold one arm up, out of the water, keeping it dry. The missionaries soon learned the reason for this strange custom. When the next battle broke out, the Gallic soldier could proclaim, “This arm is not baptized!” and grab his club or axe or sword and ride off to destroy his enemy.[ii]

As I said, this is most likely a myth. But it speaks to a very real tendency we have as humans to want to compartmentalize ourselves, to want to live as if our life is something we can place in discrete piles, in which all things over here in this pile belong to God, and all things over there in that pile belong to the other things to which I give allegiance. Is Jesus saying, in effect, we belong to God entirely? Is it true that everything that we have—money, talent, ambition, employment, family, you name it—everything is a gift from God, and something we should be giving back? I am not sure. I wonder what you think?

Earlier I gave our young people packages of beans and encouraged them to play a game with them, in which they tried to account for the hours in the day, and how many hours they gave to all different activities. Guess what? There are beans for you, too. Except, I am going to suggest a different game. You don’t have to play it now. But later on, when you have some time, I am going to suggest that you do indeed make piles with your beans. Each bean represents $100. You choose the timeframe—whether you will be working with a week, say, or a month, or a year. Place the beans in piles, representing how much you pledge and give away (whether to the church or to other charitable organizations), how much you have in savings, how much you owe to credit cards, how much you spend on monthly rent or mortgage payments, how much you spend on food, clothing and transportation, and how much you spend on entertainment and socializing. How does your balance look? Does it represent the balance of someone who is making their best effort to give to God the things that are God’s? I don’t know. I wonder what you think?

This is not a trick question; this is a question that deserves a real answer. There is no one right answer for everyone, though from ancient times the tithe, 10%, has been suggested as a great equalizer, a way to ensure that everyone is giving the same amount, no matter their income or their wealth. Is that right for you? Is that something you can aspire to? I am not sure. I wonder: what do you think?

Only you know how much you are giving back of yourself, that precious and unique gift of God, made in the divine image. Only you can navigate the complexities of what it means to be a one-of-a-kind mirror into the divine, and how you express that in all your activities of living. Only you can discern how to give to God what is God’s. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Brian Stoffregen, “Matthew 22:15-22, Proper 24A Year A,” Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks,

[ii] Mark Allan Powell, Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News About Living a Generous Life (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2006), xi-xii.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The One Who Strengthens Us: Philippians 4:1-13

There’s a big dog, named Barnabas, after Paul’s traveling companion on his missionary journeys. There’s shopping at the Local. There’s an adopted son named Dooley, who gets to go to a fancy boarding school thanks to 90-year old benefactor Miss Sadie Baxter. There’s lunch at the Grill, where the hot topic is the budding romance between the editor of the town newspaper and its first female police officer. And, of course, there’s Esther Bolick’s famous orange marmalade cake. If any of this sounds familiar to you, then I imagine that you, like me, have read one or more of the books by Jan Karon, the Mitford Series. These books chronicle the life of a pastor, Fr. Tim Kavanagh, and Mitford, the small southern town he lives in and serves.

Some days, some weeks, a town like Mitford seems like just the right place to escape to. On those days when life gets a little too real, when the responsibilities we have don’t energize us, but weigh us down; in those hours when dwelling on the enormity of the task ahead causes paralysis rather than resolve: it’s times like these when I’d like to take a drive down to Mitford, which the protagonist has named the land of “counterpane,” because the countryside is laid out with all the loveliness and sweet design of a hand-pieced quilt.

I couldn’t get Mitford out of my mind this week for one simple reason. When life gets tough—and, actually, life does get tough in Mitford. Mitford’s pastor confronts lives ravaged by alcoholism and domestic violence, and deals with angry and frightened teenagers and entire neighborhoods taken up affected by drug problems, among other very contemporary issues. So, when life gets tough for the Kavanagh’s, Fr. Tim and his wife Cynthia, they have a habit of cheering one another on with this little catchphrase: “Philippians 4:13, darling!” That is, they send one another off to face the challenges of the moment with Paul’s reminder: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me” [Phil. 4:13].

Paul knew his share of tough days, days one might like to escape. Paul wrote the letter to the church at Philippi while he was under house arrest. Very likely he knew that he was going to die soon. And yet, the letter has been called ‘the epistle of joy,’ as if the man who wrote it had not a care in the world, but only concern for the people to whom he was writing. Where does he find it? Where does Paul find, not only the strength, but also, that joy, the same kind of quiet contentment and peace that allows someone to face ‘all things’ with equanimity?

It all starts with that phrase, “Stand firm in the Lord.” This is one of those pieces of advice that sounds really wonderful, but is pretty slippery—how do we do that, exactly? Does standing firm mean, for example, never changing our minds about the things we believe? Is “standing firm” the same thing as “stubbornness”? Thankfully, Paul tells us what to do, and then he offers a patchwork of actions and attitudes that will tell us how to do it. First, we do the hard work of reconciliation. Then we engage in what have been called “habits of the heart and mind.” These are the things that open us to God’s presence, God’s peace, and God’s strength.[i]

Euodia and Syntyche have the unfortunate distinction of being remembered for the fact that they are engaged in conflict. This is rather remarkable, since they are named as being “yokefellows,” or “fellow laborers” with Paul in spreading the gospel. We’ve talked about the “yoke” before, that device that joins together two working animals, allowing them to pull a burden or a tool together. The yoke was a potent symbol of cooperation between people who were trying to follow Jesus in their own contexts. The early church had real tension between those who heeded Jesus’ call to literally sell all their possessions and follow him in a traveling missionary lifestyle, and city dwellers, often property and business owners, who stayed in one place and had families and connections there. The missionaries accused the city dwellers of not truly following Jesus. The city dwellers accused the missionaries of being freeloaders, because they depended on the kindness of strangers for their sustenance. Enter, the yoke.

The yoke became a symbol of reduced tension and cooperation between the two groups. The two are yoked together when the urban dwellers support the missionaries who in turn travel to spread the gospel. Paul has entered into this kind of relationship with the Philippians and reminds them of it when he addresses them as "genuine yokefellow." He then folds Euodia and Syntyche into his own apostolic status; they are worthy of the same financial support he has received.[ii]

Euodia and Syntyche are remembered because of a vague implication that they may have had a disagreement, rather than the fact that Paul calls them apostles, and encourages the Philippians to support them. The far greater issue was reconciliation between people who were serving God in distinct ways. We stand firm when we recognize that we are one in the body of Christ, and that each of us is called to service individually, by name.

So, what are these habits of the heart and mind? First, the habit of joy. I have been wandering the streets of Mitford this week, and it strikes me that the main character, Tim Kavanagh, for all his angst and all the responsibilities he has to meet, cultivates this habit of joy. The particular book I’m reading takes place after Tim and Cynthia marry. Tim has been known as a confirmed bachelor, marrying for the first time in his 60’s, and no one is more surprised than he is. But his marriage has been a source of unexpected joy for him. Karon writes,

“He never failed to wonder at how all this had come about. If he had known that being together was so consoling, he would have capitulated sooner. Why had he been so terrified of marriage, of intimacy, of loving?

“He had read again this morning about the wilderness trek of the Israelites and the way God miraculously provided their needs. Manna every day, and all they had to do was gather it.

“‘Men ate the bread of angels,’ was now the psalmist described it.

“That appeared, somehow, to illustrate his marriage. Every day, with what seemed to be no effort at all on his part, he received God’s extraordinary provision of contentment—there it was, waiting for him at every dawn; all he had to do was gather it in.

“‘…bread of angels…’”[iii]

Each of us needs to gather joy like the Israelites gathered the manna in the wilderness: fresh every morning. Tim found it in marriage. We can find it in our relationships, in our work, in an unfathomably blue October day. It’s there; all we have to do is gather it in. The habit of joy.

Then there is the habit of gentleness. There has been a lot of criticism in recent years of what has been called the “feminization” of Christianity, which I think is just a little bit of backlash for the fact that we find more and more women climbing into pulpits these days. Christianity has gone soft, we are told. Where is the call to Christian soldiers, to be warriors for Christ? There are even churches and preachers who have arisen to meet this specific call—the Tennessee group, GodMen, for example, and the radio preacher Paul Coughlin, who says this “meek and mild Jesus is a bore.” Paul gives folks like this no consolation; Paul, who is man enough to stand toe to toe with the Roman authorities and face death with joy and courage, nevertheless calls for gentleness, which he clearly feels is a characteristic that transcends gender. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul says. “The Lord is near.” The habit of gentleness gives us openness to God’s presence.

The last habit of the heart is the habit of answering worry with prayer. I would like to offer my own testimony that this can be a very hard thing to do. When we are gripped with worry, with fear, with anxiety, prayer is not necessarily the first thing that occurs to us. That is why we need to cultivate a habit of prayer before we are being pulled down in the vortex of our worry. I may have shared before the story of a good friend who has a very strong practice of daily prayer—first thing in the morning, last thing at night, a day that is bookended by a request for strength at dawn and words of thanks before bed. A few years back her cell phone started ringing insistently while she was in a meeting. She quieted it, but finally picked it up and learned that her husband, who was not even 40 years old, had had a stroke. She left the meeting and jumped into a car to go to find him, all the time praying a simple prayer, over and over. We know it as the Serenity prayer.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

My friend had developed a habit of prayer. In a crisis, prayer was her first instinct, her first defense. The habit of prayer means that, in every circumstance, in every situation, we are moved toward relationship with God, and not away from it. The habit of prayer.

And then, there are the habits of the mind, habits of thought.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. [Phil. 4:8].

Ours is a culture that, at the moment, seems locked in a perpetual rant. The right rants about the left, the left rants about the right, the 99% rant about the 1%, the 1% rants about the 99%.

The story is told of a Native American boy who was angry and upset, and went to his grandfather for advice. The grandfather told him, “I have two wolves inside my heart. One of them is kind and understanding. He lives in harmony and peace. The other wolf is vengeful and cruel. He rages, but his anger changes nothing. The two wolves fight inside me to see which is more powerful.”

The boy asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. The grandfather responded, “The one I feed.”

It’s pretty simple. Whichever thoughts we feed will gain strength. If we want to have that experience of connection with God, of standing firm, Paul encourages us, feed those thoughts of honor, and justice, and excellence.

In the book I am reading, Tim and Cynthia go on a camp-out with the church youth group and manage to get lost in a cave. Their flashlight goes out, and despite the fact that they have only been walking for a few minutes, they become seriously disoriented and lost. They attempt to retrace their steps, and Tim has a fall. They wander into an underground lake and their feet get soaked. Their water runs out and they get thirsty. Cynthia decides the best idea is to start screaming for help. They exhaust and terrify themselves by groping about for hours in the dark. Finally, they realize they need to simply stop, and stay in one place. They recognize that they are more likely to be found than to find their way out on their own. They stop. They sit. They lean together for warmth and comfort. They wait.

Standing firm in the Lord is something like this. We cultivate the habits of joy, of gentleness, and of prayer; we feed those habits of the mind that allow us to focus on what is good, and we learn that our best and perhaps most faithful response to all life has to offer begins in stillness. Philippians 4:13, darlings! We stand firm in God, and we learn that we do indeed have the strength to see us through. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Susan Eastman, “Philippians 4:1-9: Commentary on Second Reading for October 9, 2011,” Working Preacher,

[ii] David E. Fredrickson, “Philippians 4:1-9: Commentary on Second Reading for October 12, 2008,” Working Preacher,

[iii] Jan Karon, These High Green Hills (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1996), 20.

Monday, October 03, 2011

God's Abundant Harvest: A World Communion Sunday Sermon

Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46

As many of you know by now, I am the daughter of small business owners. My parents started out with a neighborhood grocery store, my father having learned the butchering trade from his father. But before long they obtained a liquor license, started carrying wine and beer, and quickly realized that here was a much more lucrative business. Both children of the Great Depression, there was no question as to what they would do: the choice for financial stability always won the day. They went full time into the liquor trade.

And so I grew up in a big apartment over a liquor store. It would be fair to say that I grew up in close proximity to wine. My parents always had wine with dinner on Sunday nights, for many years their one day off each week. For some reason never explained, they had wine at home only when my mother cooked Italian food. And from a fairly young age I came to appreciate that a good glass of wine “put gladness in the heart,” as the Psalms tell us [Psalm 4:7].

But, growing up in a liquor store, I saw the other side of the love of wine as well. There came a time when I recognized a certain look on my mother or father’s face, a look that indicated they were troubled at the toll the love of wine was taking on a neighbor or a friend. My parents developed a good instinct for signs of alcohol abuse, and they fretted over the wellbeing of some of their best customers. As the Psalms also tell us, wine can be a “mocker,” a waster of lives, a wrecker of fortunes [Proverbs 20:1].

And there you have it: the wisdom scripture holds about wine. On the one hand, wine is seen in scripture as a sign of God’s gracious care and abundance. Wine gives a merry heart [Ecclesiastes 9:7] and gladdens life [Ecclesiastes 10:19]. A glorious feast with good wine is promised by God on the Holy Mountain [Isaiah 25:6], and wine and grain are a part of God’s covenant promise of land and abundance [Isaiah 36:17].

But for every mention of wine in the context of abundance and care, there are more mentions of the devastating effects of too much wine, or the wrong wine, or wine imbibed without care, for the wrong reason. Oppressors are said to be drunk with blood as with wine [Isaiah 49:26], and the people are warned away from wine at times of war and trouble [Jeremiah 35:14]. Wine is said to take away the understanding [Hosea 4:11], and the trials of life are compared to “wine that makes us reel” [Psalm 60:3].

In other words, scripture confirms what we already know to be true about wine from our own experience. That it can be a good and delicious and delightful thing under the right circumstances, and a devastating thing under the wrong circumstances. It can make life beautiful or destroy it utterly. And so, it is up to us to discern, what is a good and right and appropriate use of this gift from God? And what is a misuse of it?

Our passages for today, for World Communion Sunday, also show us the good uses and tragic misuses of God’s gracious gifts, and the outcomes we can expect when we cannot learn how to share them. Both passages center on vineyards, those places whose purpose is the production of wine. These are hard passages for a day whose purpose is to encourage us to seek unity, to find pathways to peace. In our reading from Isaiah we get a sense of the prophet at his most dramatic. The passage is known as a “Song of the Vineyard,” and it is a play on a very well-known genre of the biblical era, a song for a wedding feast. Imagine the scene with me. All the guests would be assembled, reclining around tables groaning with the best food and wine. A bard would rise in the midst of the festivities and sing to the bride and the groom and all their guests, a song of love, comparing it to delicious and fine wine. Except, Isaiah fools his audience, he pulls a bait and switch. He sets them up for an unpleasant surprise, because… there is no fine wine here, only wild, bitter grapes, and there is no love here, only violence and discord.

Matthew’s parable is hardly any better. Here, too, the setting is a vineyard… a place whose purpose, ultimately, is the creation of wine, which can be a symbol of God’s abundant love and care for us. Only… there is discord between the owner of the vineyard and the workers. That is putting it mildly. There is murder and there is mayhem. Even the owner’s own son is a victim of the strife. The condemnation pronounced at the end is harsh: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” [Matthew 21:43].

Matthew’s threats are so disturbing, and, honestly, out of character with the gospel as a whole. Just a few chapters later, and Matthew will show us a Jesus who pours out a goblet of wine to be shared with his friends, saying “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” [Matthew 26:27b-28]. And still later, a Jesus on the cross, who refuses the wine that might lessen his suffering [Matthew 27:34]. And finally, Matthew shows us a risen Jesus, one who emerges from the grave breathing forgiveness and a vision of God’s reign to which all are invited, a table at which all are welcome [Matthew 28:18-20].

Here’s what I take away from these readings for us today. The fatal error in both cases, in Isaiah’s potent love-song-gone-wrong as well as in Jesus’ violent and unsettling parable, is this: No one is sharing. Everyone is hoarding. Everyone is defending their so-called rights to exclusive ownership of God’s gifts with violence.

A couple of Sundays ago, I came across a review of a new book called Three Famines: Starvation and Politics, by Thomas Keneally. He’s the author of “Schindler’s List.” He demonstrates, by examining the causes of the great Irish potato famine of 1845, the 1943 Bengali famine, and the Ethiopian famine of the 1980’s, that in no case was there ever a food production problem. There was always plenty of food. Rather, there was a food distribution problem. There was a food withholding problem, one created by governments who had no interest in helping hungry people. Famine is not created by nature. Famines are created by humans who refuse to distribute food equitably.[i]

This is not God’s way. This is a pathway neither to unity nor to peace. The gifts of God can be good and delicious and delightful when shared. And they can be, and usually are, the source of devastation when misused or taken for granted. They can make life beautiful or destroy it utterly. Justice is the key. The peace that comes with justice is the goal.

An old bumper sticker says, “If you want peace, work for justice.” How simple, and at the same time, how hard. It’s overwhelming. Who among us feels prepared? Who among us has the energy? How can we even begin?

It is a beautiful thing that the Sunday we set aside to remind us of God’s plan for our unity and peace is also a day very near the annual celebration of a Christian saint who so fully embodied that path. Saint Francis of Assisi has captured the imaginations of Christians and non-Christians alike. We are moved by the simplicity of his message, which is this: we start with the assumption that we can be instruments of God’s peace and justice, one day, one relationship, one action at a time.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled,

as to console; to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

God longs to welcome us to the table. God desires abundance for us. God wants to give us that which is beautiful and delicious and gladdens the heart. We can be channels for God’s desires. We can live out God’s invitation by choosing to sow love, pardon, faith, hope and joy in each encounter. We can help to create a space for God’s communion table by giving consolation, and pardon, and understanding wherever they are needed. We can be a part of God’s abundant harvest. God promises there will be enough for all of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Johann Hari, “Famine, the Unnecessary Evil: Review of Three Famines: Starvation and Politics,” New York Times Book Review, September 18, 2011, BR9.