How many of you brought a wallet to church today?
Why did you bring it?
Why did you bring it?
I carry my own wallet because it has my driver’s license. And cash. And credit cards. And insurance cards, receipts, and of course some
Calvary gift cards.
All that stuff provides a certain security when I leave my house – an ability to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities – that’s the cash and the credit cards and the gift cards. It’s also a symbol of a safety net (the insurance cards) and a guarantee of identity – that driver’s license stands between me and becoming “Jane Doe.”
I like my wallet, and I depend on it.
So, like the Pharisees and Herodians who set out to trap Jesus, I’d have had it with me in the
is actually sacrilegious, unlike bringing your wallet to church.
You see, when the Pharisees produced a Roman coin inside the
where Jesus is teaching, a coin with a picture of the emperor and an inscription
calling him “divine,” they’re violating their own interpretation of the
commandment against idolatry. There was a whole system of currency exchange in
the Temple Court
just to make sure that sacrilegious Roman money didn’t come in to the holy
spaces of God’s worship.
It just goes to show how dependent we can become on the things that are the emperor’s – the things like money, rules, and security that tie us to a secular system, a world run by self-interest and profit and certainty and personal power.
That’s what’s in your wallet.
It’s what’s in mine.
Jesus points out to the religious leaders – and to us – that it’s in the emperor’s interest to provide us with symbols of power and identity and security. If we feel confident and comfortable and like we belong, we don’t rock the boat.
And Jesus agrees that it’s fine to pay our taxes and stay out of trouble with the emperor. But it gets really, really easy to depend on those things that ultimately belong to the emperor – not to you, yourself, or to God.
And that’s dangerous. Deeply, insidiously dangerous to our hearts and souls. Because getting dependent on the emperor begins to make us belong to the emperor, and that is certain to divide us from God, whether we want it to or not.
It happened to
Israel in the
wilderness. They wanted something more manageable and stable and visible than
God to depend on, so they made a golden calf.
And though God was persuaded not
to wipe them out for the sin of idolatry, God does decide to get some distance
from the people. God tells Moses to take those people away to the promised land
without God. Their tendency to demand security from
someone or something other than God made it too likely God would have to destroy
them on the way, so God won’t hang out with them.
The Israelites didn’t much like getting kicked out by God. (Would you?) So Moses pleads with God to stay with the people – not just to take care of them at arm’s length, but to be present, as noticeably there as the person next to you. That’s the conversation we overheard today in our story from Exodus.
Don’t abandon us, Moses says, or we’ll lose everything that makes us special. The only thing that matters about us is that we belong to you, God. And God does agree to go with the people.
And then Moses asks for the wallet.
Moses asks for the kind of tangible assurance from God that the emperor – in the form of the finance industry and the state of
– is so fond of giving us. Concrete
tokens of relationship and power.
He doesn’t get it from God. Instead, God offers Moses a quick peek at God’s back.
That’s a profound experience of glory, but it’s also a profound experience of the way we can’t catch up to and hold on to God, of how we can’t control our relationship with God, or the way it affects us.
God tells Moses we can’t have God the way we have the empire. But we have the goodness of creation which surrounds us, the tradition and the personal experiences that describe God to us, and God’s unpredictable generosity.
All of them things we receive and cannot hold. Enjoy, but don’t control. Utterly present, but not dependable.
That’s what it means to belong to God. To live with love and gratitude, but not status and security. And that’s what Jesus is telling us to do.
Remember what belongs to the emperor: Rules and power and comfort and status and most of all, security.
Give that back to the emperor.
Because otherwise you become dependent on the emperor, and you belong to the emperor. But what Moses said is still true now: the thing that makes us special, the thing that gives us life, is when we belong to God.
So pay your taxes. Use your cash and your credit cards for gas and groceries and possessions and payments and treats. Buy your legally mandated car insurance, carry your driver’s license.
But don’t ever get to depend on that. Because that makes it way too easy to forget that you – every bit of you, heart and body and soul – belong to God. And God’s presence isn’t secure, it’s just glorious. It’s not comfortable, it’s just necessary. It’s not manageable, it’s just generous.
I could preach today that you should throw away your wallet. But I don’t really want to have to bail you out of jail for driving without a license. So instead, let’s try to teach ourselves to trust God the way the emperor needs us to depend on our wallets.
Try praying with your wallet in hand - before you leave the house for the day, or when you’re coming home at night. Hold your wallet and pray to God that using these tools of empire, these symbols of power and status and anxiety, will help you lean even more on the presence of God.
Or make a new habit. Every time you take out your wallet, or pay your taxes, or order something online, add a habit of stopping to notice a particular part of the goodness of God’s creation: tasty and healthful food, a person you love, the beauty of sunset, the scent of rain….
Measure the time you spend on bill paying and shopping and keeping your finances and insurance straight. Take an equal amount of time for prayer – by singing holy music, using your creative gifts, reading the Bible, or breathing meditation.
Keep the balance, then tilt it toward God.
Whatever it takes, DO it.
Practice your awareness of God’s presence, because the emperor will make himself felt without help. Practice your risky trust in God, because the empire makes it so easy to depend on idols.
Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. We’re going to anyway. But never, ever, give to the emperor what is God’s – your heart, your soul, your self.