Sermon: Sunday, April 1, 2012: Palm Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a + Psalm 31:9-16 + Philippians 2:5-11 + Mark 11:15-18,12:13-17

So, who bought lottery tickets this week? I did. I never do, but on Wednesday or Thursday I got a text alert from telling me that the Mega Million jackpot had hit $540 million dollars — the largest payout in the history of the world — and I had to get in on that. By the time the winning numbers were announced on Friday night the pot had grown to $640 million dollars.

Can you imagine what you would do with $640 million dollars? I can’t. I mean, I can begin to imagine what I’d do with that much money, but my imagination isn’t practiced at organizing sums that large. That didn’t stop me from trying. As soon as I’d bought the ticket my mind was captivated by thought puzzles, sorting through the practical, personal and political dimensions of that kind of wealth.

I started by wiping out all my debt. Seminary loans, credit debt and a mortgage. About $200,000 in debt, and it amounted to 3 one-hundredths of one percent of the jackpot. I realized I could wipe away the combined debt of pretty much everyone I knew and not even scratch the principal of my winnings. And, at this point, they were my winnings to be sure. As I daydreamed about winning the lottery I began to nurture a secret confidence that I was destined to win. Some powerful mixture of beginner’s luck, God’s favor and destiny were surely conspiring to make my hypothetical story-problems a fact of history.

I went to the Mega Millions website to look for information on how I’d receive my winnings, and how they’d be eaten into by taxes. I was stunned to realize that after federal and state taxes I’d only be taking home a little over half of the total prize. I’ll admit that bummed me out, but it also directed my thinking to a trickier issue. On which amount would I tithe, the full $640 million or the after-tax total of $332 million? It was an important question, with about $31 million hanging in the balance. That’s a lot of tuckpointing.

How do you think about the issue of taxation? If you are fortunate enough to have a job right now, when you look at your paycheck stub how do you understand the numbers you see there? How much of that money is yours? The gross or the net? When you think about your pay, whether you earn an hourly wage or an annual salary, do you imagine that you are earning the entire amount, or just what you bring home after taxes?

And, how do you feel about your taxes? Do you wish you paid less? Can you imagine paying more? Do you know how they’re spent and what they fund? Compared to other states, Illinois’ tax rates are relatively high. Compared to other nations, the United States’ tax rates are pretty low. Our tax dollars are used to fund public education, maintain civil infrastructure, provide for our security and defense, subsidize our farmers, and create a safety net for the poor, the aged and the infirm among us. How do you think that’s going here in Illinois, in the United States, around the world? How invested are you in the welfare of your neighbors? What is your obligation to your neighbor? Who is your neighbor?

These are starting to sound like biblical questions, aren’t they? Who am I required to care about, and what am I required to do about it? They are the sorts of questions posed to Jesus throughout his ministry. In Mark’s gospel, just before he enters the city of Jerusalem, Jesus is approached by a man who asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus looks on him with love and replies, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The crowds surrounding him are shocked by his answer and he tells them, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

What an imagination he had, Jesus. I can barely begin to imagine how to spend $640 million dollars, but to Jesus this is no challenge at all. Give it away. Take everything that is precious to you and give it all away.

As I imagined the sorts of problems that would come with winning the lottery, I wondered if I’d be able to continue working as a pastor. Could you honestly preach good news to the poor and the reign of God come near if you were holding on to $640 million dollars? What would happen to my relationships with people in the congregation if, all of a sudden, I was among the ultra-wealthy? Could I serve both God and wealth? Which one would I choose?

These sorts of fantasies are interesting to observe when there’s nothing at stake. When it’s an imaginary jackpot being considered. The questions strike closer to home when you see them being lived out in flesh and blood, as I think many of us did a little over two weeks ago when a former employee of Goldman Sachs posted his letter of resignation on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. In his twelve years with the firm, Greg Smith rose from summer intern to Executive Director and head of the firm’s US equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Of his work with Goldman Sachs he writes,

“Over the course of my career I have had the privilege of advising two of the largest hedge funds on the planet, five of the largest asset managers in the United States, and three of the most prominent sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Asia. My clients have a total asset base of more than a trillion dollars. I have always taken a lot of pride in advising my clients to do what I believe is right for them, even if it means less money for the firm.”

Greg Smith is not the kind of person who has trouble imagining what to do with $640 million dollars. He took pride in knowing how to advise people in the use of their wealth, and in particular he took pride in “getting to know [his] clients and what motivated them, learning how they defined success and what [he] could do to help them get there.”

But he saw the workplace culture changing around him, and he didn’t like what he saw. He reports,

“I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.”

And so, disgusted with the culture of his workplace and believing that his integrity was worth more than his paycheck, Greg Smith questioned “business as usual” and gave away something very precious in this day and age. He gave up a good-paying job. And, perhaps, he gave up his reputation. I mean, he certainly made a name for himself with his public resignation, but he also made a set of very powerful enemies. And in the end, what did he change? What kind of impact can one person really make by setting himself against a profit-making empire like Goldman Sachs?

This, too, seems like a story with biblical proportions. When we read that, in the days before his death, Jesus entered the temple and turned over the moneychangers tables, we might imagine that his act of defiance was a huge public spectacle, making him the center of attention. In fact, “such an act would have affected only a small area in the huge Temple compound.”

Like Greg Smith’s very public letter of resignation, Jesus’ actions might have generated some buzz, might have caused a minor stir, but they didn’t stop the Temple from conducting its business in the usual manner for long. Jesus claims the moral high ground, charging the the Temple has lost its connection to God’s vision for the world, saying “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” He condemns the culture of the institution.

But is that fair? After all, the moneychangers and the merchants were simply doing their jobs. They were part of a system put in place to help people make their offerings in an appropriate way. Moneychangers set up shop in the temple courtyard because, under Mosaic law, it was unlawful for Jews to make graven images. Roman currency bore the image of the emperor, and was unfit for use as an offering, so moneychangers would buy that currency from pilgrims to the Temple and exchange it for acceptable currency that could be used for making offerings. Likewise, it was impractical for people traveling to Jerusalem to have to bring livestock for offerings with them, so vendors set up shop in the Temple marketplace selling all that was needed in order for people to keep the law. We can’t all be Greg Smith, can we? We can’t all walk away from our work, or our wealth, can we?

The longer I fantasized about winning the lottery, the clearer it became that this particular fantasy was simply a way of talking to myself about what I would be doing with my life if money were no object. One friend told me, “if I’d won the lottery, I was going to open a bakery.” I thought about that for a minute, then asked him, “well, what’s stopping you from opening a bakery anyways?” Another friend told me, “if I’d won the lottery, I was going to give it all away” and I thought, “so, give it all away.” The essence of the lottery fantasy is that makes the hard choices easier. We can spend our lives as we’d like, at no cost. We can be generous, at no cost.

The reality is, there is a cost to these decisions. Living a life of integrity, following the vocations God has placed in us — whether baker or banker — has a cost. Being generous to one’s family, friends, and neighbors comes at a cost. Each of us ultimately has to decide what we will do with the gifts given to us — our selves, our time and our possessions, signs of God’s gracious love. Will we keep them to ourselves, or give them away? We cannot serve two masters, God and wealth.

This is the loyalty bind the religious authorities try to use to entrap Jesus after his episode in the Temple. They send the Pharisees and Herodians, who ask, “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” We know from the Greek here that the specific tax being referred to is the poll tax, required of every adult in the census. It could only be paid using Roman currency, a silver denarius from the imperial mint.

Archaeologists have been able to demonstrate that this wasn’t the everyday currency being used in Galilee, that standard currency in use was free of images. So, in order to pay the poll tax, you’d have to see a moneychanger again, so that you could offer the appropriate offering to the empire.

This is what Jesus’ opponents are asking him to weigh in on. Should good religious people break the religious law about graven images in order to make tribute to Caesar, or should they follow religious law and set themselves against Caesar? It’s a trap. If he says the first, he will lose face and support among those who follow him and he will cease to be a threat. If he says the latter, he will be setting himself against the rule of law in the empire and they will be able to have him arrested.

Instead of answering their questions, Jesus asks them to show him the silver denarius. By producing the coin, his opponents demonstrate that they have already made their decision. They have chosen empire. Jesus calls attention to the image on the coin, “whose head is this, and whose title?” And they answer him, “the emperor’s.” Jesus returns the coin and tells them, “so give to Caesar the things that bear his image, and give to God the things that bear God’s image.”

And now this bible story sounds like another that we know, because what bears God’s image? We do. Jesus sidesteps the trap laid out before him by saying, in effect, “let Caesar have your precious metals, and let God have your precious lives.” Now it is the Pharisees and the Herodians who find themselves in a loyalty bind. They’d made the mistake that most of us do, identifying themselves with their wealth, thinking their tides rise and fall with the coin in their pockets. Jesus asks them to consider who and whose they are, the emperor’s people or God’s people.

This is the question posed to us today as well. All fantasies aside, we live in a world of costly decisions. If we want to see our friends and families and neighbors well cared for, then we must be the ones to give — not from an imaginary jackpot, but using the coin in our pockets. Whose people are we? The empire’s or God’s? Whose image do we bear, and how are we caring for all who bear that image?

We have a chance to find some of the answers to some of these questions today, as we gather with friends and neighbors from other congregations in our neighborhood to learn more about those in our community without enough to eat; those struggling to find safe, affordable housing; those sick and unable to afford healthcare; those arriving from other lands with children and dreams more practical than jackpot fantasies.

I spent almost half of this past week preoccupied with empty fantasies of countless coins and costless decisions. Dreams of wealth occupying my imagination. Today Jesus marches into the public square, overturns the marketplace tables, and demands my full attention as he asks me to choose between God and empire.

Who will occupy my heart and mind this Palm Sunday?

Who will occupy your Palm Sunday?

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