Rev. Megan Huston
October 19, 2014
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
The shirts she had made were a loud green and they said in white lettering “Grand Hawaii.” I was a Junior in high school which meant two things. One- I was through the roof with excitement to go on a vacation to Hawaii, even if it was with my grandmother and two cousins. And two- nothing could be more mortifying than wearing matching T-shirts with my grandmother and two cousins for the entire commute from Houston airport to the Big Island. But when faced with the choice, tshirt and Hawaii or freedom to express myself and no trip to Hawaii, I chose the first.
My cousins & I giggled through each airport in our bright green shirts. My Mamaw Patti was so proud of her clever design. But you see, we did not want to be branded. Because for two high schoolers & a middle schooler, we were busy grooming our identity. Trying to figure out who we were & who we should be, and how to maintain that status. And being marked by our Mamaw Patti sounded like the worst idea ever. Our shirts said something about who we belonged to. And as young people trying so hard to belong to our friends or the popular crowd, we did not want to be claimed by our grandmother.
Our scripture lesson today is about who we are, who we belong to, and how we orient our lives. Two opposing factions try to trick Jesus, one commentator says it would be like John Banner and Nancy Pelosi coming together for a common cause. I think that is a bit of an exaggeration, but to be sure the Herodians, who we know little about except what their name suggests, that they had some loyalty to the Roman officials and the Pharisees who would have been trying to define themselves in opposition to the government, they would have had little in common. Except, in this case, they have a common enemy. An outlaw leader named Jesus who threatens their security.
Taxes would be an especially contentious topic as they didn’t want Jesus causing more problems from the government for an already oppressed people. And so they tag team and think they really have it going on by tricking him into a question that he cannot possibly answer correctly. Suggest paying taxes and you go against your people and your faith. Oppose paying taxes and the government will come running.
But, as usual, as will happen in the next three lectionary texts, Jesus turns their question on its head, and instead exposes the questioners for who they really are. Some say that simply by showing a denarius they were made into hypocrites. Why would you even be carrying a coin with the image of Tiberius? It went against Jewish law of idolatry. The Jewish people were allowed to pay their taxes, which by the way, funded the very soldiers who were occupying their villages, but they paid their taxes in their own currency, called, a shekel. So Jesus beats them at their own game and then he ends with an extremely allusive command, to Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.
We often hear this verse used as sort of a justification to pay your taxes and be a good Christian, it is just a part of life. But the more I kept studying this passage the more elusive the command became. I mean it actually seems that Jesus is saying nothing at all, like if we really knew what belonged to the government and what belonged to God would we even be asking the question?
Which leads to my next question which I think may be the point of the whole passage which is, “So what exactly doesn’t belong to God?” Is it my paycheck or the portion that I pay to the government? Is it maybe like if I pay my 10% tithe to the church then the rest belongs to me? Is it Monday-Saturday and God gets Sunday? What part of our lives is not God’s?
It reminds me of the most comforting thing that the pastor said at my Grandma Gerry’s funeral which was that we were giving her back to God, to whom she belonged before she ever belonged to any of us.
So this is the good news, but this is also the kind of bad news. I think that this scripture challenges us on the things that we dare not speak of at a dinner party- money, politics & religion. I think it challenges us that no matter what side of the fence you may be standing on that you better be standing there with your Bible in one hand and your newspaper in the other. Like, even the conversation around Ebola or Iran or whether you are going to vote for Allison or Mitch, I don’t think Jesus is telling us what the answer is, but I think he is challenging us that all of our decisions and votes and priorities, they are all coming from the same place because every single part of our lives belongs to God.
One preacher challenged her church by placing permanent markers in the pews and during her sermon she had them draw a little cross on their credit cards. So that each time they swiped them they thought “is this purchase aligned with my own sense of values and my God given identity?” She did not tell them what to buy or not to buy. Just to think about how it goes along with their faith.
For the last several weeks we have explored parables that help us glimpse into the kingdom of God. We have heard stories about violent tenants and landowners with endless hope, about turned down invitations and visits from the fashion police, about sons who said one thing & did the opposite. As Petie said, we opened the stories and peaked in to see is there Good news for us here? And I think there was because time and time again we were told that the kingdom of God is here, we just have to be awake to it. That we are always being invited to participate but we have to say yes and come ready.
And in the middle of all of that we have lived our own messy stories facing death and despair and so we turned to a Psalm and, in reality, it told us the same story, that we belong to God. Every part of us. Every moment. Every day.
I had this crazy thing happen on Wednesday. I came into work and it felt like the fog lifted. But when it did I felt like a different person. Like all of the sudden I saw my life with new eyes. Three weeks ago I was rushing around trying to make sure I didn’t get behind on any of my church responsibilities. I was getting to work early and staying late because I thought that is what I needed to do to not let you down and make sure the church keeps growing and innovating and moving forward.
But then, Ruth died. And Rusty had a heart attack. And Don decided that he was ready for new life. And Grandma’s suffering stopped. And Robyn’s baby was born and three days later she suffered brain damage following a freak accident in a surgery. And so finally when I came back up for air while immersing myself in this story about what belongs to the government and what belongs to God, it seemed profoundly obvious that every part of us belongs to God.
That whether we are in the hospital with a friend or if we are worrying over stupid stuff we belong to God. That when we drop the ball and forget a meeting or when we get it right and get to celebrate success we belong to God. That when everyone needs us- our family, our friends, or our boss, that we don’t really belong to them. We belong to God.
My Mamaw Patti died my first year of Divinity School a few months after she had helped me move in. And that stupid green shirt became my favorite. I wore it and washed it until the lettering started peeling off. Because finally I realized that it claimed something about me. Granddaughter of Patti Monroe, a successful realtor, a strong woman who provided for her family at a time when that was rare, a terrible cook, and a wonderful grandmother. The first person who I would tell that I thought I might be called to ministry. That green shirt claimed a part of my God-given identity.
It is so hard not to get caught up in our other identities. Whether that which claims us is our job or our family or our social status. Maybe it is an identity that we don’t want like being loner or poor or maybe we take too much pride in it like being wealthy or popular.
All of who we are belongs to God. So why not live into that and be grateful for each good moment because we never know when something will knock us off our feet. And even then, all of who we are will belong to God. But the more we invest in the kingdom of God, the more prepared we will be for when life knocks us down.
It is kind of like when we are invited to a party, but we were too busy to attend. It is kind of like when we have the intention of doing the right thing, but choose to do the wrong thing instead. It is sort of like when we use the power we have and cause damage instead of doing what we were supposed to. We all have been the bad guy in each of the stories.
But I’d like to think that we can learn from our mistakes, brush ourselves off, and re-focus our lives to be more closely aligned to the kingdom of God. Because life is hard. And bad things happen all the time. Things that are cruel, unfair, that seem unbearable.
But in the midst of all that stuff there is an invitation to be a part of a community that shines light into the darkness. That does not ignore the suffering of the world, but shows up in the middle of it and says “we belong to God” and that makes us treat each other with tenderness. That makes us hope when hope fails us. That makes us treat every moment that we are not caught up in all that suffering as a gift.
So put on your bright green shirts. And claim who you are loudly & consistently. We belong to God and so we get to participate in the kingdom.