"Give therefore"-Sermon for Proper 24, Matthew 22:15-22
I was away this past weekend because I knew…it was a vision really…that the internet was going down at the church on Sunday morning and wanted Jonathan to have to struggle through it all on his own. Being thrown in the deep end is really just the best way to learn. You might not be aware of this but there is a long tradition of hazing curates, the newly ordained, before they can really join the priesthood club. We call it baptism by fire. And, of course, I am totally kidding. I can’t stand being away when things go awry and want to thank Jonathan, Nick, Bea, Jack, John and all others who helped make the very best of a difficult situation…not baptism by fire…but grace under fire.
And fire is a sort of perfect point of transition to where I am going next. I was actually gone last weekend on a long planned camping trip with my family. I take one Sunday off each fall, typically to camp, and this was the weekend we chose back in July. And, as it was July when we planned this trip to the hill country, we were imagining a wholly different sort of experience. We were imaging cold-ish nights around the camp fire…bundling up in our sleeping bags to sleep…and long day time hikes with a fall breeze keeping us cool…at least in the shade. Now, I know this is Texas and I shouldn’t fall for such delusions. But, honestly, we have had pretty good luck in the weather category in the month of October in past few years…but that all came crashing down around us this past weekend. It was August hot…triple digit hot…and we were pretty miserable. And, I am only slightly exaggerating…we made the best of it and I am grateful for a few days away with my loved one…but it was really hot…it was really hard to sleep…we really had to adjust plans for our activities…and it was hard not to feel super frustrated about it all.
I think we humans, generally speaking, struggle when our expectations are not met…when we expect one thing and get something else entirely. We are resilient and adaptable…but we can also be downright ornery when things don’t shape up like we plan. I will admit to having some of those feelings this past weekend. And the problem is when we get like this…when we allow the unanticipated facts on the ground, as I like to say, to entirely dominate our tranquilo…there are real costs. For example, we can become pretty bad partners and friends to one another. My brother and one of his dearest friends were one campsite over from us this past weekend…and I watched them snip at each other all weekend long…and I think their frustration over the heat had a whole lot to do with it…normally they’re totally simpatico…this weekend they were more like frenemies. Further, when we are frustrated by our upturned expectations we tend to be less optimistic…less able to role with it and make the best of it. We become less creative…less able to see the opportunities to turn something negative into a positive…like, for example, we were camping on a lake…and so we swam a lot over weekend…really the only outdoor activity available to us after about 11 AM…but we love to swim…my kids love to swim…and if we had had the weather we expected we never would have gotten in the water. And, as I was sort having one of my moments moping around the campsite, I remembered, quite fondly, that we have camped, many times, in Texas in the summer months…quite intentionally…and of course…always on water…because the whole time we planned to be floating, swimming, fishing…beating the heat in a highland lake…what could be better than that. And the only thing, or certainly the main thing, that was different between those trips and this past weekend’s trip…was my perspective…my perspective.
And I think our perspective is one way to understand Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And what then, specifically speaking, is Jesus asking us to give to each…taxes to the government…our love, devotion and adoration to God…well yes…in part. Jesus was a scholar of Torah…he knew that Genesis read that humans were created in the likeness and image of God…therefore like the coin is imprinted with an image of the emperor…we have been imprinted with the image of the Creator…with God’s-self…the very image of love. Therefore, Jesus is saying give to the world the things that belong to the world…even pay your taxes…it is good to know that when we dial 911 someone will answer the phone. But…give to God something even more all-encompassing…which is literally it all…your selves, souls, and bodies…for, please don’t forget, you have a picture imprinted on you too…you are also marked by the one to whom you belong…you are God’s…and God will never let you go. I like how the retired professor from the Seminary of the Southwest, Charlie Cook, says it, “God does not want 10% of your money. He wants it all. God wants your whole life.” And I think then giving it all to God looks like living a particular sort of life…that stands out as different in our world. Though it surely will not look exactly the same for all of us…there are elements of that life which we will all share…and if wanting more details of what that life looks like…please read the St. Julian’s Rule of Life…or the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church…or Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount…or Paul’s fruits of the Spirit...it’s all there…what it looks like to give ourselves to the one who dreamed us up even before we were in our mother’s wombs…even before time began. And, if I had to sum up what this God marked life looks like…I would say it looks like love.
But I have to circle back to where I began…after the hazing Jonathan piece…I think another thing that Jesus’ is asking us to give to both the people and systems that rule over us and to God, the one who made us, loves us and sustains us, is their proper perspective. That is…if our perspective is…if we expect…the markets and political processes to provide us purpose and meaning…to love us through the hard times…to provide hope when the darkness feels overwhelming…to bring everyone out of poverty…and make equality and inclusion finally and forever a reality…like counting on fall weather in October in Texas…we are setting ourselves up for deep disappointment and profound frustration. And, when we find ourselves in such a place emotionally and spiritually, we, again, become bad partners to each other…we lose our optimism and creativity. However…if our perspective is to see the markets and political systems as imperfect human institutions that we should roll up our sleeves and work on…through public advocacy, protest, raising up moral leadership, supporting good science and policy making, and, most of all, the vote…then we might properly perceive such systems as useful tools…that are better to have than not…though maybe still frustrating…at least, again, useful…serving a purpose in the ordering of human life. This is the sort of perspective we should give the “emperor”.
And, I would argue even more importantly is giving God a proper perspective. For God…the One who made and marked us by and for love’s sake alone…God is the very place we find hope when the darkness in this world seeks to overcome us…find meaning and a purposeful life…find a love that does not judge and will never let us go…discover moral clarity and courage to direct how we participate in public life…and provides the spiritual resources required for hard conversations and seeking reconciliation. It is God to whom we look for the love that makes the world go round…and God who empowers us to be agents of redemption…the right-side up-ing of the world.
Our perspectives matter…so what are we looking for…where are we looking for it…what are we expecting…what are our expectations…for how we orient ourselves to God and to the world matters. When these perspectives are properly oriented, which is a spiritual exercise that takes time, attention, conversation, prayer and maturity, the optimistic light of hope burns within us, the creative genius of the One in whose image we were made flows out of us, and we are better partners to all those beloved ones, friends, family and strangers, who have been entrusted to our care. Amen.