Scripture - Matthew 22:15-22 (The Message)
15-17 That’s when the Pharisees plotted a way to trap him into saying something damaging. They sent their disciples, with a few of Herod’s followers mixed in, to ask, “Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students. So tell us honestly: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
18-19 Jesus knew they were up to no good. He said, “Why are you playing these games with me? Why are you trying to trap me? Do you have a coin? Let me see it.” They handed him a silver piece.
20 “This engraving—who does it look like? And whose name is on it?”
21 They said, “Caesar.”
“Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his.”
22 The Pharisees were speechless. They went off shaking their heads.
There are a four topics that you aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company - money, politics, religion, and sex. Today we’re going to cover three of them. (Interestingly enough, Jesus never considers any of subjects to be taboo). I believe it’s important to spend some time thinking about these things in church not just because Jesus talked about them, but because they offer us wisdom on how we, as people who are doing our best to follow Jesus, can understand how we are to make decisions and how we are to carry ourselves in the midst of our complicated world.
To give some background to our story, at the time of Jesus, Israel was not its own sovereign nation. King Herod (incidentally, it is not the same Herod that is part of the Christmas story) did not rule on his own, but governed in the name of the Roman Empire. There were Jews that supported Herod and his rule as part of the Roman empire and these people were called Herodians. They were not favored by the Pharisees, who believed that their interpretation of the law as handed down by Moses was the authority to be obeyed by the Jews.
So to find these two rival groups working together to trip up Jesus is our first indication that Jesus is threatening the very fabric of power and authority in first century Palesitine - the political might of the Roman Empire and the religious institution of the Temple.
Politics and Religion.
To complete the trifecta, they ask him a question about taxes -- money -- while they were gathered in the Temple. They really don’t want an honest answer - they want to trap him into saying something damaging.
Taxes were a way of life to the Jewish people. There were temple taxes, customs taxes, land taxes. But the tax in question here was one that would have set Jesus up should he answer the wrong way. The tax referenced in the story was the Imperial tax, the very tax that supported the Roman occupation of Palestine. First century Jews were required to pay their oppressors a denarius a year to support their own oppression.
The tax was divisive. Those who were put in power by Rome - the Herodians and their supporters - advocated Roman governance of Israel, and the tax was a means to ensure safety and security. To those who wanted Israel to be its own kingdom, however, found the tax offensive and a reminder of their oppression. To further complicate matters, the denarius was engraved with an image of Caesar Tiberius and proclaimed him as God. and so to the Pharisees and the other religiously devout Jews of that time, this tax was heresy, forcing them to break the first two commandments - you shall have no other gods before God and you shall not make any graven images.
So this innocent question - Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? - is double-edged. If he says yes - he risks disapproval by the people -- and most likely even some of his religious credibility with the Pharisees. If he says no, he risks trouble with the Roman government.
Jesus asks them to produce a denarius -- and they do. We don’t get just how shocking this action was. Remember that they are in the temple. God’s Temple. The most sacred place for Jews. And this group carried into the Temple an image of Caesar into the Temple of the God who alone claimed lordship and who forbade such images. It was a transgressive act - bringing this depiction of Caesar who claimed to be lord into the Temple of the God who was actually lord. It would have been a powerful object lesson to any in the crowd -- and those standing around would have understood what had just happened and would have chalked up a victory for Jesus.
Perhaps to further drive the point home, he decides to give a more formal answer to their question by saying “then give to Caesar what his and give to God what is his.”
You see, Jesus believed everything belonged to God. Jesus believed that everything had its source in God - including political power. In Jesus’s worldview, religion and politics went hand in hand - we see this over and over again in the Old Tesament where God’s acted through foreign rulers, through enemies, through kings and peasants - through the political forces of the day. Jesus himself was mired in the political machinations of his day. And yet this simple statement - give to Caesar what is his and give to God what is his - demonstrates a creative way to live in the middle of this political, religious tension.
If we take seriously this idea that all things belong to God - including the way that we our society is structured - then as Christians, the way we live our lives, who we choose to vote for, where we choose to shop, what issues we choose to fight for, even what we pray for, are all expressions of our faith and have political and religious implications.
Every Sunday here we pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done in earth as in heaven. That’s a political statement - because God’s kingdom means a certain reordering of our society. We’re asking for God’s political intervention to make our world more like God’s kingdom. It means that our ultimate allegiance is to God and God’s kingdom and that as people of faith, we offer ourselves to making that kingdom real here on earth.
This actually brings me great comfort as we approach this Tuesday’s election. I don’t know about you, but I have been living with an awful amount of fear and anxiety about our political process and potential outcomes. It doesn’t help that any time I turn on the radio or check Facebook or switch on the television, I am bombarded with news stories, polling data, trolling memes, sound bytes, articles - you name it - about the election and how high the stakes are and how ignorant you are if you are voting for this person or that person and it makes me want to burrow my head in my bed covers and not come out until 2020 and maybe by that time we will have grown up enough as a nation to have some semblance at civil discourse. I fear, too, for what kind of world we are creating for future generations -- what are we setting in motion in our country that Michael will one day have to deal with? What norms are we setting for how we make tough decisions together as a country?
I get caught in this cycle of stress and fear and anxiety, and then I remember -- everything belongs to God.
Everything belongs to God, so over what is Caesar ultimately lord? Nothing. With candidates and politicians promising this and that, enticing us with safety and security, it reminds me that my safety and security rests with God and with God’s kingdom.
If my faith and trust rests in God and if that is the organizing principle of my life, then no other claim can compete with that. And I am bound to work so that God’s kingdom - a radical reality of peace, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, healing, justice, and righteousness - can be made real here on this earth. We as a church are bound to do that as well. And even our whole denomination - as the United Methodist Church - works to that end even in the political sphere, using our Social Principles as a guide to advocate laws in Washington DC and even working to change those Principles that continue to stand in contrast to God’s kingdom.
And so when Tuesday comes around, I will cast my ballot, knowing that as I do so, it is an exercise of faith - that I will vote in ways that I think best align with God’s purposes in our world. And I will keep in mind some advice that John Wesley gave to the Methodists when people were electing candidates to the British Parliament. I think it is advice that we all need to hear this year. He writes, “I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”
We live in a complicated world. We are faced with so many demands on our time and attention and we are asked to give our loyalty to so many competing things. We are enmeshed in our own socio-political landscape, trying to do the best we can with the world we are given. Yet I believe Jesus invites us to remember that everything belongs to God. Jesus invites us to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s .
To close, I’d like to teach you the hymn we are singing next. It’s from Taize, and it’s a beautiful reminder of the kingdom that we are each called to build, the kingdom that we each, by virtue of our baptism, are ultimately accountable to. We’ll sing it through several times, but I invite you to hear the words and to join in when you feel comfortable doing so.
*Hymn - The Kingdom of God is Justice and Peace and Joy in the Holy Spirit. Come Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom.
May we remember this week that everything belongs to God and that we are called to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, working to create justice, peace, and joy. Amen.
Scripture - Luke 6:20-31New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
There’s a tablecloth in Ben’s family. When Ben and I started dating, his parents were living in Amesbury, MA, and this tablecloth adorned the formal dining room table – the one that was only used for dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was a white tablecloth – a bit fancier than what you might but on your kitchen table with some lace on the edges, but it was otherwise unremarkable…except for these names and pictures on it – some embroidered, some still in pencil. I never noticed these names until we were having dinner around the table on Thanksgiving. I learned that this tablecloth belonged to his great-grandmother on his mother’s side, and every time someone joined the family – through birth or through marriage – the person would write their name on the fabric and draw a picture of something that represents them and it would be embroidered on to this tablecloth. Every time the family came together to eat – whether it was a small number or a great big holiday meal – these names were part of the gathering. Many of the names on the tablecloth have long since passed on – but they are present with us when we eat – and it is a reminder of the family that we have that stretches beyond those physically gathered around the table and reaches into the past and looks toward the future.
Today is All Saints Sunday. It is a day that is set aside to remember the saints - particularly those who have gone before us. It started in the ancient church as a festival to remember the martyrs who suffered and died under persecution whose names were never recorded, so that their sacrifice and their memory would not be lost to time. Through the centuries this celebration evolved to include all who lived and died in faith and now rest from their labors and live eternally in the fullness of God’s glorious presence.
We also recognize on this day that all of us, by virtue of our baptism into Christ, are among the saints of God. The New Testament declares this time and time again when the Apostle Paul writes to the early churches and refers to them by name --- the saints living in Corinth or the saints in Thessalonica. We acknowledge that it is by God’s grace that we are among the living saints – not because of anything we’ve done or because of our own merit -- but simply because Christ made each of us a part of God’s family. And so All Saints day isn’t just a remembrance of our departed saints – it’s a celebration of God’s larger Family – our union with those who have gone before, those who are still living, and those generations yet to come – because Christ’s life, death, and resurrection unites all of us in every time and every place – a union that celebrated in our common baptism, nurtured in our life together, and ultimately fulfilled in the age yet to come.
Today is a reminder that we’re all one family in Christ, those who have gone before us, those who are here with us, and those who are yet to come.
The passage we heard from Luke earlier this morning may be an unusual one for All Saints Day. This version of the Beatitudes doesn’t seem to easily lend itself to remembering that great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Yet it does illuminate how we as the living saints should be trying to live – call this passage a description of the family values. Blessed are those who don’t quite have it all together – because the kingdom of God is coming, and all will be made right. Love everyone – especially those people who get under your skin. Take the high road when someone tries to bring you down. Give to everyone – no questions asked. Treat others like you want to be treated.
It’s a good way to try to live in God’s family. It’s true that none of us gets this down perfectly – but aren’t these the lessons we’ve learned from many who have gone before us? Aren’t these the lessons we hope to pass on to future generations? Isn’t this our hope for all people, everywhere?
It’s important for us to take the time to remember that Christ makes us into one family – but especially important to remember this during a time when we are all still grieving so many losses. We still mourn the deaths in our community, the people who friends and neighbors have lost, as well as the deaths in our own families. We all carry with us people who we love that are no longer physically present with us – some of them may be biologically related to us, some of them we have chosen to call family, some of them may have been family to those we know – yet all of them are part of God’s larger family.
On All Saints Sunday, we have an opportunity to name the saints – to name those who are part of God’s family and to be the ones who remember – as one day we will be remembered. We stand in the ever-flowing stream of Saints as the ones who honor the past and to give to the future. We name the saints because their story should not be forgotten. We name the saints to affirm that they are part of God’s family – our family – and that they are present with us whenever we gather together.
This morning, I have here some white fabric that we’ll be turning into a tablecloth. Who do you find yourself carrying with you in your memories? Who, when you gather around the dinner table, do you wish was still here to sit down with you? We’ll name the saints who are no longer physically with us by writing their names onto this sheet with pencil and you are invited to draw a small symbol of something that represents them if you wish. You can write and draw as many names as you feel led to do so – names of people in the community or names of people in your own family or names of those who are important to you. It’s OK if a name is on there more than once! You can name them aloud as you write, or name them silently. We have room for two or three people at a time to do this, so I invite you to come forward as you are moved to do so.
This is our new Communion parament. These names and pictures will be embroidered on the fabric – and we will use this tablecloth whenever we gather together for Communion, whenever we gather together for a potluck, whenever we celebrate a birth or mourn a death because these lives are inextricably bound with ours – they are always present with us as part of the mystical body of Christ that we, too, are a part of. Anyone will be free to add names to it whenever they would like – to remember those who pass from us during the year.
The beauty of a day like All Saints is this: it is a reminder to us that death is never the final word. Both in life and in death, we are connected to God and to one another. We are one body in Christ – those that we have named here today, those who will come after us, those names that we pull from history like Mother Theresa or John Wesley or Saint Paul, and even those names that are eventually forgotten. We are all held together in God’s glorious light and bound together both now and in the life to come.
For this we give God thanks and praise – that we are one family together, throughout all of time, throughout all of space, throughout all of history. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.