Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 31, 2016: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23  +  Psalm 49:1-12  +  Colossians 3:1-11  +  Luke 12:13-21

In some divine comedy of coincidences, we received the following notice slipped under the door at our home at the beginning of this past week:

North Park Manor Apts Tenants: This letter is to inform you that after July 31st, any personal belongings such as bikes, ladders, tables, cabinets, exercise equipment, etc. that are outside the storage lockers will be thrown out. Please store all of your belongings inside the storage locker. If you don’t have a storage locker, please remove your belongings from all basement areas. We will not be responsible for any damages or lost belongings. If any questions, please call Robert at (xxx) xxx-xxxx. Thank you for your cooperation!

After leaving the notice on the dining room table for Kerry to see I began ruminating on the notice, thinking to myself, “What are we going to do? We’ve got a tiny one bedroom apartment and our storage locker is already completely full. What are we supposed to do with our two bikes, the spare dinette from before Kerry moved in, and his big leather man-chair in the basement?” As I began imagining how we might rearrange the living room to make space for some of our stored belongings to make their way back upstairs I observed some part of my mind rehearsing a fresh new round of one of its favorite conversations, “Why We Need to Move.” Now, alongside classic arguments like, “we’ve run out of space in the kitchen,” and “there’s no room for my books,” I could hear my soul practicing its newest complaint, “we have no place to store our bikes!”

To be clear, we haven’t ridden our bikes all summer. And, by “all summer,” I mean the last three years. In fact, for one of our date nights a few months back we decided to rent Divvy bikes and cycle to a BBQ joint in Andersonville. When the Divvy station one block over from our home was out of order, we ended up walking to two different Divvy stations before we found two bikes to ride — all of which seemed easier than getting our bikes out of storage and inflating their flat tires. I got the used dinette set off Craigslist about twelve years ago when I bought my first condo in Atlanta and when Kerry moved in I tried to sell it, but nobody on the world wide web saw the kitsch retro charm of my Jetsons red Formica diner set. IMG_2412Kerry’s brown leather chair is (no offense dear) a version of the same brown leather chair that practically every guy buys when he gets his own place — proven by the fact that when he moved in we couldn’t decide whose brown leather chair to keep, his or mine, so we put one on each side of the living room facing each other like silent duelists until the pleather began to strip off of mine because I left it baking under the window’s sunlight without remembering to periodically condition its fine synthetic fabric.

The point being: I’m nothing at all like the rich man in Jesus’ parable and neither are you, I’m sure. Even so, as we cleaned out the closet in our apartment to make room for the bikes, we had to look at each of the items we were storing there and decide if we really needed to hold on to it. We somehow managed to do this without any of the practical wisdom of 978-1-60774-730-7Marie Kondo’s best-selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” I wonder if she addresses what you are supposed to do with her book after you’ve read it. I have piles of books on the floor of the living room that Kerry says I should pack away in boxes for the library I will one day install in the office of the home we will one day own which will not only have three bedrooms (enough for us and children and guests!) but also an office, so that our dining room table can finally stop multitasking all day long and just really focus on holding up our food and an occasional centerpiece of fresh cut flowers.

It’s at about this point that I actually am wishing I had a copy of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” or more to the point, hat I had some external reference point for knowing how much is too much. When I look around and see how other people in my immediate circle of friends live, our little 1BD/1BA apartment seems almost monastic. I literally had a bigger apartment my junior year of college. This is not upward mobility. Then I extend my frame of reference a little further and perceive that there are families much larger than mine living in similar spaces. I remember the shanty towns of corrugated steel and dirt floors in Soweto, South Africa a decade after the fall of apartheid. I see the tent villages under the overpass at Lake Shore Drive and Lawrence, the old men camping in the viaduct. Isn’t there a rule to let me know how much is too much?

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The tent village of homeless people living under the overpass at Lake Shore Drive & Lawrence Avenue on Chicago’s north side.

The relationship between people and their possessions is a central theme in Luke’s gospel, and our wrestling with this relationship is at the heart of our Christian faith. Even before he was born, Jesus’ mother Mary sang her hope that in the coming reign of God the rich would be sent away empty (Lk 1:52-53). Jesus picked up that theme in his Sermon on the Plain, in the section we remember as the Beatitudes in which he pronounced a word of woe on those who are rich and have already received their comfort (Lk 6:24). In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus holds out little hope that the wealthy will ever heed the words of the prophets, much less the cries of the poor (Lk 16:31). When the rich ruler asks what must be done to inherit eternal life Jesus tells him to sell all he owns, give the money to the poor, and then come follow him (Lk 18:22). If a rule is what we’re after, the problem may not be that scripture doesn’t give us one, but that we don’t like the one it gives us.

Then again perhaps, given the number of times Jesus does offer a very direct suggestion about how we should dispose of our wealth, it is significant that instead of offering a rule, in this case, he offers a question. The story of the rich man and his barn comes in response to someone in the crowd, who is neither labeled rich nor poor, asking Jesus to weigh in on a legal matter — the division of a family inheritance. In his reply, Jesus begins with a question (“who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”) and then ends his parable with a question (“The things you have prepared, whose will they be?”). The fact that Jesus offers questions instead of condemnations, to me, is a sign of hope. Jesus recognizes that it is difficult work, trying to live an ethical life in an ethically anemic world. Rather than simply setting a guideline on what percentage of the family inheritance should go to each party, Jesus asks questions that force his followers to examine their own lives.

When God chastises the rich fool in the parable, asking “whose will they be?” we are all brought face to face with our own mortality. Someday, we will all die. Something will happen to all those things we have collected over the course of a lifetime. Who will receive them? Will it be your family members? Will it be your friends? Will it be the institutions and organizations that supported you while you were alive? Will it be the causes you cared about? What do your wishes for the riches that were entrusted to you in life say about who you considered a part of your family? Did you treat them as such while you were alive? Will the way you share your wealth in death reflect the way you shared your love in life?

If only it was as simple as a guideline, a set percentage, a clear rule. Instead, we are called to the lifelong work of continuously asking ourselves, “who is my neighbor?” “Who is my family?” “Where did my inheritance come from — all these things, this money, this privilege come from?” “How much of what I have is truly mine, and how much was passed along to me because of my relationships with others who look like me, talk like me, eat like me, worship like me?” “How much of what I have will eventually go to people who look like me, talk like me, eat like me, worship like me?” “How does my relationship with the things that fill my home, that fill my time, reflect my relationship with God, whose face is shown to me in the faces of my neighbors, near and far?”

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These are hard questions, questions we need help answering. Toward that end, members of our social justice committee have begun conversations with Center for Changing Lives — a local non-profit here in Logan Square that “partners with those held back by lack of resource and economic opportunity in order to uncover possibilities, overcome barriers, and realize their potential.” By early fall we hope to have a series of workshops on the calendar from their “Just Financials” curriculum that is already being used in other congregations here in Chicago as a focus for equipping members to become more intentional in their use of the gifts God has given to each of us. This is an especially important moment in the life of our congregation for us to be talking together about how we connect our faith to our actions when it comes to wealth and prosperity, as we now sit on $1.4 million dollars from the sale of our former property and ask new questions about how we will be church together for the sake of the world here in Logan Square. What sort of witness might we make with the riches God has entrusted to us that would speak powerfully to our fundamental belief in our deep interconnectedness? How do our actions reveal our faith in the God who breaks down the divisions we put up in order to call us all home to each other?

The action required of disciples here and now, as always, is more than a reorientation toward our possessions. What Jesus calls for from those who will follow him is the hard work of constantly checking our myths and stories about who our people are, who our neighbors are, who our family is. It is the work of perceiving with new eyes a world in which we all already belong to each other. With those eyes, in that world, the new creation, how do we make sense of the ways we have chosen to share or to withhold what God has first given us, our inheritance?

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 12, 2015: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19  +  Psalm 24  +  Ephesians 1:3-14  +  Mark 6:14-29

I was having a conversation about faith this past week with someone who asked me if you have to believe all the things we’ve heard Christians believe in order to belong.  It’s a really common question, as you know, because many of you have asked me the same thing.  I gave the sort of answer I think I usually give, which is to say that I don’t think Christianity is primarily about believing the right things, but about the practice of standing up for those beliefs which will put you at odds with a world that is always trying to convince you to remember your place, but lies to you about what that place is.

My fear about the role of beliefs in the experience of Christian faith, I continued, is that we so quickly turn them into criteria for inclusion, whether that be in the church on earth or in some concept of heaven we’ve developed that exists only for those who’ve proven themselves good enough at thinking and doing the right things to get in.  We make belief the high bar you have to vault over to belong, though I am convinced that the message of grace is that there is no bar at all.  By the grace of God, who created us in and for love, you already belong.  You belong to yourself.  You belong to your family.  You belong to the land.  You belong to God.

The extent to which we already feel as though we do not belong — that our bodies are not our own, that our place in our families is conditioned on becoming and remaining the right kind of person, that our experience of life on this earth is determined by fictitious lines drawn across the face of the planet that assign freedoms and resources to some and dictate hunger and poverty for others, that we doubt we could ever be known and loved by God — is a sign of the sinful brokenness of the world around us.

The conversation stuck with me long after it ended, and I kept thinking of other ways I might have answered the question.  It occurred to me that another way of getting at the testimony I was trying to give would have been to say that for all the emphasis on what Christians say they believe, I think it’s just as important for us to name what we do not believe.

This Roman currency minted ca. 18 B.C. shows an image of Caesar with the Latin inscription "divi filius" or "Son of God."

This Roman currency minted ca. 18 B.C. shows an image of Caesar with the Latin inscription “divi filius” or “Son of God.”

For example, our creeds teach us to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.”  If we stopped right there and excavated that statement of faith from history, we would remember that in Jesus’ time the title “Son of God” was already taken by the emperor.  Naming Jesus the Son of God wasn’t radical because it claimed divinity for a human being. It was radical because it said that imperial authority and divine authority were not one and the same. It was saying, “I do not believe that the emperor is God’s agent on this earth. I do not believe that wealth and power make right.”

Jesus was not the first person to stand up to wealth and power and call them to account. In this morning’s gospel we hear the story of the death of John the Baptist, who was killed for standing before King Herod and telling him that all his power and wealth did not entitle him to take whatever he wanted.  Herod had taken his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, a violation of the Jewish law that bound both the king and his subjects. In the great tradition of biblical prophets, John spoke truth to power and paid the price.

What I find tragic about this story, and convicting for me, is how the gospel of Mark describes Herod’s ambivalence about John the Baptist. Though he has John jailed for speaking out against him, Herod does not immediately kill him.  He recognizes that John’s accusations are true, and that he is a righteous and holy man. “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20) He is stuck in a conflict between his role and his soul.

In a former life, one in which I worked with teenagers for a living, we used to talk a lot about limits, and how essential they are for establishing safety.  Children are constantly testing their environments for the invisible lines that divide acceptable from unacceptable.  When adults fail to clearly establish those lines, children feel unsafe and act out in terrible ways.

Excessive power and wealth seem to make children out of grown people.  The idea that “everything has a price” creates the illusion that wealth transcends limits with destructive consequences.  The bible illustrates that principle with Herod’s desire for his brother’s wife, but we see the same dynamic playing out all around us every day.  When employers exploit the labor of their workers because no one is watching, or because the laborers are undocumented, we see the lie that power and money make right at play.  When states such as our own threaten to withhold pay from government workers and cut services to those who are poor, elderly, in recovery, or ill in order to preserve imbalanced systems of taxation that treat corporations like people and people like cogs in the machine, we see the lie that power and money make right at play. When nations use military might to keep the global balance of power tipped in favor of the relatively wealthy at the expense of the undeniably poor, we see the lie that power and money make right at play.

Like children, our employers, our states and nations, need limits in order for the world to remain safe for those who are crushed and exploited by the powerful and the wealthy.  I think Herod, on some level, knew that.  I think his attraction to John’s message exposes the fact that, beneath his title, beneath his power and wealth, he is still a human being whose conscious can be swayed. At least I think that’s the point the story is trying to make, and it’s a point worth remembering.  Behind every corporate hierarchy, inside every state bureaucracy, there are people who are trying to balance the obligations of their roles with the dictates of their souls.

We know this because we are those people.

How often have we, in our own lives, found ourselves defending the organizations we work for at the expense of those they exist to serve?  How often has the “greater good” been used as an excuse for the status quo?  Can’t we all, on some level, relate with Herod — who knows that John is right, who is drawn to his message, but who capitulates to his wife in a demonstration of power and wealth in front of his guests.  Haven’t we all, at some point, ignored the voice within us to appease the voices around us?

The reason we so often begin our worship with a confession of sin is because we know that we do. We do ignore the voice within to satisfy the voices around. We do maintain the status quo when change is needed. We do avoid the uncomfortable interaction, the difficult conversation, the formal complaint, the organized protest. We do overlook the harm we cause while still demanding justice from others, and we confess these things regularly so that we can stay alert for all the ways these patterns of complicity are daily recruiting us into a system of lies in which we do not believe.

We do not believe that our humanity is defined by our nationality.

We do not believe that justice and vengeance are the same thing.

We do not believe that food and shelter and health are commodities to be withheld.

We do not believe that violence is the precondition for safety.

We do not believe that our skin color or our native tongue determine our worth.

We do not believe that poverty is an acceptable price for progress.

We do not believe that anyone’s life is more legitimate than any other’s, but instead that we have all been adopted as children of God, heirs to the promise of grace and forgiveness, which is the assurance that the bar is not high, it is not even low. There is no bar. We all belong, to ourselves, to each other, and to God.

And we know there is such joy in this belonging that we cannot help but share it.  Like David dancing in the streets and feeding the people, we are wanton in our love for those the world calls unlovely.  Like John, we cannot help but speak truth to power.

This is why so many people have been gathering downtown on Mondays in a growing movement called “Moral Mondays Illinois” to protest the failure of our state government to take the actions necessary to protect and provide for the most vulnerable people in our communities. Last month our bishop, Wayne Miller, got arrested at one of the Moral Monday protests.  In a letter explaining his decision to take part in the protests he said,

Bishop Wayne Miller, Metropolitan Chicago Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Bishop Wayne Miller, Metropolitan Chicago Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

“The ideal that all are created equal is betrayed by the glacial advance of a new age of racism, classism, gender bias, spatial segregation, life-annihilating violence, and general disregard for the well-being of others. The ideal that all are afforded equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is betrayed by the unconstrained rise of an oligarchy of fabulously wealthy tycoons and corporations, to which the courts have granted civil rights without demanding civic responsibility in return …

It is therefore incumbent upon Christian leaders, not merely as a matter of civic responsibility, but as a matter of evangelical necessity, to speak and act in a way that places the Church clearly and unambiguously in community with the God who was betrayed by standing in solidarity with those … whose trust is being betrayed by government that has forgotten that it exists to defend the well-being of the vulnerable, the broken, and the marginalized, against the crushing force of unrestrained wealth and social privilege, even if this solidarity — this withdrawal of consent — leads to arrest and punishment.”

I will be gathering tomorrow morning at 10:30am at the James Randolph Center on LaSalle St downtown for the next Moral Monday protest, where at least 200 other people of faith are expected to be as well. My goal is not only to participate in the protest, but to listen to the voices and stories of those whose lives are placed in jeopardy by the failure of our elected leaders to govern wisely. I want to hear their stories first-hand so that I can share them with you and with others more accurately. I invite you to join me.

Paul writes to the Ephesians, “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people…” (Eph. 1:13-14)

The word of truth is the witness of Jesus’ humanity in the face of the world’s inhumanity, the fact of his solidarity with all the poor and oppressed, the challenge of his non-violent confrontation with power, his life poured out for others, and finally the assertion that he is not dead. That power and wealth, that violence and empire, have not ended his life because it lives in us. It is our salvation. It is our inheritance. It is our song. It is our dance. It is our cry whenever we assemble to declare now the year of the Lord’s favor, the jubilee, the foretaste of God’s preferred future breaking into the present. That is what we believe.

Amen.

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Sermons

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 CNN.com 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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