Monday, October 19, 2020

Currency

 Matthew 22:15-22

How often do you look at your money?

Not the balance in your bank account, but the currency you carry.

I pretty much never look at it, myself. These days, with credit cards and electronic payments, we don’t handle cash as often as we used to. But today Jesus is asking us to stop and take a look at it.


Specifically, the Roman denarius, the common coin of the Empire which ruled Israel in Jesus’ time; the pay of the day laborer, and the physical manifestation of the imperial tax system.

This coin contains the trap that the Pharisees were setting for Jesus, when they asked him if it was “lawful” – if it is in accordance with God’s will – to pay imperial taxes.


The denarius was stamped with a picture of the emperor, and the words, “Emperor Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus” – making the claim that the emperor Augustus was a god (so Tiberias is a son of god). The coin itself was an idol of the imperial religion; blasphemy, for anyone who follows the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me.”


But that same blasphemous image is the way Jesus slips out of the trap. “Well, if it’s got the emperor’s image and title, obviously it belongs to the emperor; give it back.”

And give back to God what is God’s. That’s the will of God that you’re asking about.


It’s a smooth move: if you’re worried about blasphemy on the coins, if you’re worried the currency argues with the center of your faith, then give it back to the empire; don’t hold on to the idol and let it hang on to you.

But when Jesus adds “and give back to God what is God’s”, it becomes much more than a clever tactic. It’s a declaration of what really matters. The emperor’s claim on currency doesn’t interfere with the will of God because what matters is the whole will of God, not specific rules.


I believe Jesus is trying to point out to us that if we commit to putting God above everything else, all the other questions – about the emperor’s claim to divinity, the emperor’s claim on our life and our wallets, any other claim on our life and our wallets – become unimportant and easy to set aside.  Those things won’t trouble us when the focus of our lives is on God: God’s will and God’s relationship with us.


Jesus tells the crowd in the Temple that you can tell the coin belongs to the emperor because it’s got the image of the emperor on it. Which implies, of course, that what belongs to God is whatever bears God’s image. And the Pharisees and the Herodians and the Temple crowds listening in knew just as well as Jesus, just as well as you or I, that the image of God is all of humanity. We don’t see any image of the face of God other than the faces, souls, and lives of God’s people: ourselves, our neighbors, our human family.


In fact, the image of God is stamped on the face of Tiberius Caesar, just as much all the other faces around us. So the face of God is, in a way, stamped on that denarius, too. That would get us in trouble again, with whether that coin should be given back to the emperor in tax or given back to God, except that Jesus is telling us that’s not a conflict. 

Jesus is not setting up a parallel, with one territory for Caesar and a separate territory for God, and we switch between the two of them. Jesus is telling us that what belongs to Caesar is just a tiny part of what belongs to God.


What belongs to your employer, or your bank, or the US government, or a friend or family member – whatever we owe to one another – all of that is just a tiny part of what belongs to God.  

Because everything human is stamped with the image of God, keeping our obligations to one another in community is a part of the will of God, not a distraction from our obligations to God.


At least, that’s true when we embrace the whole will of God: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we embrace that whole will of God as the center of our being, when we focus on the image of God alive in one another, all the questions about the details of the will of God become clearer and less anxious. 

Questions about tax paying, marriage rights and wedding cakes, prayer in school or ten commandments in the courthouse, how the Supreme Court should act – any of the things where we wonder about a conflict between God’s will and the demands of empire – all of these details of God’s will become simpler, less divisive and less expensive, when we focus on the whole will of God. When we give back to God what is God’s: our whole lives and selves.


Even decisions about our money become clearer and less troublesome when we put the love of God and will of God above everything else. In fact, when we seek to give back to God what is God’s – to offer our selves and our community to God – our currency can be a powerful tool.


Because money often stands in for freedom, choice, control, security and other things we value, it’s a powerful tool for directing our hearts and minds and souls.


And this is where we need to actually look at our currency.

If you’ve got cash on you, take it out, and look at it closely.

You’ll see images on it – mostly presidents or Treasury secretaries, plus Ben Franklin – and the prominent title of The United States.  But there’s something else on every piece of US currency in circulation right now.  The motto “In God We Trust.”


Our currency may “belong” to the US Treasury, by the “image and title” standards Jesus applies, but US currency also makes a claim on our behavior – our attitudes and our actions; a claim on those of us who use that currency.

 

With “In God We Trust,” our cash actually claims that we already do what Jesus teaches: put our whole trust in God. 


The cash in our wallets actually asks us: How can we use this currency – how can I use it, you use it – to put our trust in God, to increase our trust in God?


We’re starting our preparation for Consecration Sunday today – starting a four-week journey as a congregation where we consider how God is inviting us to give so that we grow in God’s love. And today, Jesus invites us to look at our currency and consider how we can use our money to grow in our trust of God.


Jesus invites us to use our currency to act on that trust – to continually, proactively, give back to God what is God’s: our whole selves. To love God with heart, body and spirit, a love of God which also loves one another.

And as we do that, the other questions that trouble us will fall away: our obligations to one another and our community can be honored as a part of our trust in God, our love of our neighbors. 


It’s no trouble at all to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, if we know with all the love of our heart, mind, and soul, that we, and Caesar, and everything that belongs to any of us always, and first of all, belongs to God. 



Sunday, October 4, 2020

Sharing the Vineyard

Matthew 21:33--46 (Philippians 3:4b-14; Exodus 20:1-20)

If I had ever wanted to own a vineyard, these last couple of Jesus stories – what we’ve heard these last couple of Sundays – would have convinced me to re-think it. From the vineyard stories Jesus tells, I’ve gathered that labor practices are highly complicated, your family dynamics are your business dynamics, and now… well, apparently vineyard rent disputes are rough and full of violence.


Today Jesus tells a story of unprovoked, repeated abuse and murder. And the Temple elders and chief priests he tells this story to have no doubt it’s going to lead to an equally violent eviction. This is not a morality tale for kids.

But there’s no doubt that the Temple elders and chief priests get the point Jesus is making: If you leaders are hoarding what God has entrusted to you, and rejecting God’s messengers of accountability, it’s going to go very badly for you when you’re replaced.


Nobody has to explain to the Temple leaders that Jesus is talking about God, not grapes. The vineyard’s been a scriptural metaphor for God’s people, God’s kingdom, for centuries.

Jesus assumes you and I will also understand that, and that we’ll hear how this story applies to us, too, as we listen in. That we’ll know that being greedy or selfish with what God has entrusted to us – refusing when it’s time to share the benefits of our gifts and labor – will have dreadful consequences. 


But that warning is not the only thing Jesus is saying to us as we listen to his conversation with the Temple leaders. Jesus is also pointing out to the crowds in the Temple that no one can keep God’s kingdom and God’s blessings all to themselves, and away from others, no matter how hard or violently they try.


No doubt those imaginary tenants feel that they’ve worked hard for the produce of the vineyard; that they’ve earned the right to keep the fruit of their labor – even the vineyard itself. After all, that landlord is never around while they’ve been working.
(They have to discount the fact that the landlord made all the initial investments, and the infrastructure, but that’s easy enough to do when you feel the work in your own muscles and sweat and don’t see someone else working.)

But no matter what they think, or what we do, God is absolutely, positively not going to let anyone keep God’s gifts to themselves, or claim ownership of God’s abundance – even if they are the people God has chosen to be in charge, to lead. God is going to offer plenty of chances to do the right thing, but ultimately God will not let anyone keep God’s gifts to themselves.


That’s good news for the crowds in the Temple, and it’s news Jesus wants us to hear, too. The gifts God intends for all to share cannot and will not be kept from us by anyone else.


Grapes or grace, food or faith, money, skills and talents, time, place, salvation, life itself – no gift of God can belong to one person, or one group, alone. No matter how much time and effort we ourselves put in, we can’t keep it for ourselves alone. And no matter how strong or smart or selfish or violent they may be, no one else can keep God’s gifts away from us, either.


This is great news. But it can get a bit uncomfortable in practice.


Sometimes we don’t really want ALL that God wants to give us. The people of Israel actually asked Moses to keep the gift of God’s immensely powerful presence away from them. We heard them today: You keep all that God-glory, Moses. We don’t want that much awe.
There are times when what God wants to give you or me can feel like too much, too.


But I suspect it’s more often uncomfortable when God demands the sharing of our (metaphorical) vineyards.


Think, for a minute, of all the things you’ve earned in your lifetime.  Income, a comfortable home, success at work or school, in athletics or arts? Maybe your reputation feels well-earned, or a treat you give yourself to reward hard work. 

Think about whatever it is, big or small, that you’ve earned the right to enjoy and resent having taken away from you.

I know I’m telling myself I’ve “earned” my good night’s sleep when I find myself resenting a family celebration or a major league baseball game scheduled to run past my chosen bedtime. Or that I’ve gotten the idea that time, work, and rest is mine to control, when I get cranky about the time the sun comes up or goes down. 


Imagine what that is for you. Then imagine God inviting you to hand over half your home or a big chunk of your income to strangers; let someone else present your work without credit; give up your place on the team so someone else with less experience and success can try it. To give away the comfort or success or rest or reputation that you’ve earned, to someone who doesn’t seem to have worked for it.


When we get into that place in our hearts and lives, we’ve become the tenants in the vineyard. Every time you want to hold on to what you’ve earned; every time I say no or ignore the summons to share, we’re – on purpose or by accident – rejecting the accounting for God’s gifts and God’s abundance that God regularly invites.


It’s very easy to become the tenants in this story, even when we don’t want to. We live in a world where we’re constantly taught to value our own efforts, to earn, keep, and hold all that we can. The alternative way of life is an overwhelming, risky leap of faith: to claim and hold the conviction that nothing at all is ours, and all that matters is that we are God’s.


That’s the story Paul tells today: of his own justifiable pride in the righteousness he worked so hard to practice before Jesus found him, and the way that God’s claim on him means that now none of that matters. All he longs for now is God’s gift of faith, that keeps bringing him closer to Christ, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”


And it’s the story of God’s people, gathered at Mount Sinai, being claimed by God with the thundering words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt…you shall have no other gods before me.”


Those stories of God’s claim on us – those leaps of faith into the conviction that we are entirely God’s, and that is all that matters – that’s how the story of the vineyard becomes a story of tenants who send out the fruits of the harvest – to God, and to others – before ever being asked. A story where the violence disappears as God’s messengers of accountability are welcomed as friends, and the summons to share is seen as good news.


Those leaps of faith, leaps into belonging to God and not ourselves, are what create a world where we know without doubt that no one can keep God’s gifts from us.
A world where we take great joy in knowing that nothing is ours to hold and defend and hoard, so we are free to share every bit of comfort or success, every bit of achievement and privilege, without fear or loss. 

A world where every grape and grain and breath is a gift, and every bit of hope, love, and peace is shared freely with all.



Sunday, September 27, 2020

Muffled Voices

 Matthew 21:23-32

You know those moments when you can’t say anything right, so you don’t say anything at all?


When a friend is angry, or grieving, and I can’t tell them that I understand – because I don’t! – but anything else I can think of to say would just make it worse.


When you see something going wrong at work, or in a family member’s life, but you know how much trouble you’ll be in if you suggest that the boss is making a really stupid decision, or that the “love of my life” is untrustworthy. 


This week – in an online discussion among friends – I created and deleted the same comment four times, because I couldn’t find a way to say what I thought that wouldn’t upset people I basically agree with.  


Sometimes you just opt out of conversations, because it feels risky to speak your mind. Sometimes I worry that sharing a truth I’ve learned, or a belief I deeply hold, will be dismissed as “political.”


I don’t know if you’ve felt that, too, but I’m pretty sure the Temple leaders were feeling it in the story Matthew tells us today.


The chief priests and the elders have come to talk with the radical rabbi who was throwing tables around in the Temple yesterday. He’s become something of a celebrity, and he seems to be teaching people that they can ignore and challenge a lot of customs and rules and carefully-constructed plans that keep religious life going smoothly in an occupied country.


“By what authority are you disrupting things?” they ask Jesus. “Who told you to do all this?”


It’s a reasonable question, but it’s also an attempt at a trap, and Jesus turns that right back around. He asks the leaders where they think John the Baptist got his authority, and they flounder. 


John’s got wide acceptance now as a prophet – a man “from heaven”, who speaks on God’s authority. The people aren’t going to stand for it if you say he was just a kook. But John claimed that Jesus had that same divine authority – actually even more divine authority – and the leaders are going to get in trouble with everybody – the Roman government, other rabbis, and lots of people – if they call John, and therefore Jesus, a heavenly prophet now.


There’s nothing right to say, so they don’t say anything at all.

Which, of course, undermines their public authority and doesn’t satisfy anyone, including themselves.

They’ve been caught in the trap of “politics in church”, and it’s a lose-lose situation for them.


So Jesus tells them a story.

Two sons are sent by their father to work in the family business. One says no, the other yes; both do the opposite of what they said. It’s entirely obvious to everyone in the Temple that day, like it is to us, that actions matter more than words.
It’s easy to read that as Jesus condemning the priests and elders as hypocrites for saying one thing and doing another.  But I think it’s possible that Jesus was actually telling them a story of hope.


He recognizes that they are trapped in silence by the politics – the everyday power dynamics – of the Temple. No matter what they actually believe, they can’t speak their minds, or tell their truth. No matter what they say, they are at risk; they have too much to lose. 


But Jesus’ story reminds us that there’s more to who we are than what we say – or what we don’t say. That our relationship with God, our salvation, the wholeness of our faith is not based on saying the right thing, or on staying out of trouble. Our relationship with God, the faith that sustains our life, our part in salvation, is about what we do with our hearts and hands. The opportunity to recognize the work of God in Jesus, to learn from him, imitate him, follow him is still open to every one of the chief priests and elders, even as they deny him right now with their words and their silence.


That’s true for you and me, too. 

For any of us who feel like there’s no safe place or way for us to speak our faith, our trust in God and commitment to Jesus.
It’s very often risky – to our relationships, our sense of security, our sense of place – to say out loud a truth our faith teaches about what justice means, or peace. Risky to say out loud that our allegiance is to God, rather than any human leader; risky to say that we hear God’s truth in the words and actions of someone who isn’t popular with our friends.

Jesus hears that.  I believe Jesus would prefer if we could claim those truths out loud and without hedging. But Jesus still tells a story that offers hope when we’re trapped in uncomfortable silence.


We might not speak the truth of God, but there’s still space to act it. 

You don’t have to win an argument about how God’s justice should be done in our world – you can buckle down and spend your time, talents, and treasure to make God’s justice happen, one person or a whole system at a time.  

When any and every single word you might say will upset a family member or get you in trouble with a friend – you can use your hands and heart and physical presence to love beyond measure. 

When you can’t speak without losing your authority, you can use your authority to protect others, or free someone else to speak and act the truth.


This story Jesus tells does not mean that nothing we say actually matters. Words are actions, sometimes. Any time you have the power to make your words true; when you have the ability to decide who belongs, or what is acceptable; when a listener can’t tune you out or ignore what you say, then your words are actions. 

It also doesn’t mean that doing our faith, doing God’s work, is ever easier than saying we believe, or speaking the truth.


But Jesus does offer this second way, and he offers a model to follow. The tax collectors and prostitutes – the folks of his day with the least religious and moral authority and acceptance – are way ahead of the religious leaders in the kingdom of God.
The ones without authority are already acting on God’s truth revealed in Jesus, while the authorities in the Temple have too much to lose to say God’s truth or their own beliefs out loud.


It’s a hint that we may be more free to speak and act when we let go of all we have to lose. And a nudge that we, too, may hear God’s truth in the voices and actions of those without authority. A caution that looking to authority – our own, or others – for answers may block our view of God at work. 


Whoever we are, whatever fear or hope makes us speak or keeps us silent, the story Jesus tells reminds us there is still and always room to draw closer to God. 

The story Matthew tells us today contains a challenge – a challenge to act God’s truth in our lives, now and always. 

And it also contains a promise – that whatever is muffling our voices – yours and mine, the Temple leaders or the tax collectors – God hears our truth in our hearts and hands, our actions and our love. And God responds to it all.