Monday, January 9, 2012

Third sermon--given at Trinity, Waterloo, October 16, 2011

My third sermon; the Gospel from Matthew was the scene in which Jesus responds to the Pharisees with the famous and much-pondered line about giving Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.  I'm glad that Rev. Maureen gave me this challenge.

On Friday, I spent about twelve hours here at the church; and at the end of the day, I realized that despite being physically tired, I felt spiritually renewed and refreshed because of having watched, as many church members came early in the day, giving of their time to care for the Phelps’ family by providing a reception as the family celebrated a memorial of Ginny’s life. Afterward, most of them stayed, or came and went throughout the afternoon and into the evening to set up for the Fall Bazaar, sponsored by Chat & Sew and St. Margaret’s Circle, an annual event that raises money, which is then given to various mission projects around Trinity. For example, last year Chat & Sew paid for our subscription to IRMS, which enables us to have access to expensive curricula, which means we have Adult Ed programs such as Saving Jesus Redux and Living the Questions 2.0. St. Margaret’s gives to many missions, but most especially works with the Salvation Army’s Adopt-a-Family program to provide Christmas presents to a needy family. Many folks donated their time and talents to this effort by knitting, crocheting, sewing, baking, and making delicious sloppy joes, not to mention setting up all the donated items for Saturday’s sale. They gifted their time and talents to make sure that a grieving family felt welcome and comfort as they bid farewell to a loved one. The spirit of love and fellowship that pervaded the church was palpable, amazing, and energizing.
Today’s Gospel reading is one that appears to have been problematic right from the beginnings of Christian history. In it, Jesus has entered Jerusalem; and the Pharisees, who, according to Matthew’s account, have made common cause with the Herodians (apparently that wasn’t a natural union, according to scholars), continue in their attempts to entrap Jesus; this time hoping for a Catch 22. Either response to the question asked: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” should cause his downfall. If he responds with a “yes,” then they can denounce him as a collaborator; if “no,” then they can accuse him of being a rebel and hand him over to the governor.
Jesus’s reply is what has been problematic for many. After asking whose image appears on the coins used to pay the taxes, however, come the often-quoted, often-pondered words, “give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Many over the ages have debated Christ’s meaning in these words. His response amazed his inquisitors and begs the question: What belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God? A large part of that debate has focused on the authority of temporal governments and the paying of taxes. I would like to leave that discussion for another time and for people more qualified than me. Let’s instead reflect on what may belong to God.
How do we know what belongs to God? Theologians such as the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, point to the question Jesus asked of the Pharisees: Whose image and title is on the denarii? In a sermon given in June 2010, Williams says: “Give Caesar what belongs to him, says Jesus. And how do we know what belongs to him? It has his image on it. Then: give God what belongs to God. The implication isn’t spelled out, but it’s clear enough. What belongs to God can be identified in the same way; it has his image on it. Human beings, who are made in God’s image, ‘belong’ to God.” We’re not his property, but we carry his authority, just as the coins carried Caesar’s, in other words.
I would like to suggest an analogy for consideration: perhaps we should think of ourselves as God’s coins, then. Or perhaps at least the gifts and the talents we are given, or the time we have on earth, if nothing else. I know this is an imperfect image, but it’s one that’s now stuck in my head, perhaps because of our culture’s focus on money and material wealth. We are God’s image, and because we carry his authority as coins, we need to consider how we spend ourselves and our time. If, as many have argued over the centuries, Christ was suggesting that those coins be “given unto Caesar,” and the taxes be paid, then we need to remember to give ourselves to God, use ourselves and our time and talents for God’s glory and for each other.
Indeed, in today’s Old Testament reading, Moses says to God, “Show me your glory, I pray,” and God agrees, but says he will cover Moses’s face until God has passed by; Moses may not see the Lord’s glory—God says that “my face shall not be seen.” However, as we ourselves are images of God, I believe we see a part of that glory each and every time we act as the hands and feet of Christ in the world and give to God the things that are God’s—namely our time and maybe even our lives.
My prayer for this week is that as we consider how to spend ourselves as coins of God, we should be offering that time from our first fruits, rather than the leftovers, so to speak, just as we are asked to do when we are tithing the coins that belong to the emperor when pledging to the church. That may require sacrifice on our part, as it did on God’s in Christ. We may not be God’s property, but nonetheless, we are his, and he is ours, as we were reminded in last week’s readings. As we enter this season of stewardship, consider the ways in which you can give your time and talents to help your church family and your community. Come to the Food Bank on a Saturday morning, teach our children and adults, join chime or chancel choir, bring snacks for social hour, become an usher/greeter, gives rides to those who can’t drive themselves, be a pastoral visitor, get involved with our youth, preach, lead services; there are a myriad of ways to use your time and talents. When you give of yourselves in this way, I know that you will be spiritually renewed and feel like a newly-minted coin. Amen.

Second sermon--given at St. James in Independence, Iowa, on August 21, 2011

Here is my second sermon, and these are the readings from the RCL for that Sunday: Exodus 1:8-2:10 Psalm 124 or Isaiah 51:1-6 Psalm 138 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20
I am very thankful for Fr. Sean, Rev. Sue Ann, and the congregation at St. James for giving me and others a chance to practice our skills as we journey through our processes.

What image appears in your mind when you read or hear the noun “rock?” Do you picture something small, more of a pebble that fits in your hand? Or is it large, something you can stand on, maybe even mountain-sized? Is your rock rough, rugged, sharp-edged? Perhaps you see one that's smooth, like the river rock often used in aquariums and gardens. Possibly all of these images vary in your mind as you consider the word, and may depend on the circumstances in which you're in when you encounter it. I think, though, that it's safe to say that we all share the idea that a rock is solid, stable.
I have a friend who loves rocks. She's not a professional collector or a geologist, but when she is out walking, she will pick up an interesting one and keep in her pocket, often using it as a worry stone. When I questioned her about her choice of rock, I assumed that she always chose one that was smooth. After all, the worry stones sold in stores are smooth and nicely polished, and pretty to look at. However, she responded that no, the rocks she picked up generally had rough, uneven edges, and had simply caught her eye for one reason or another. I paused and reflected about this, questioning my assumption about her preference, and why I apparently valued a smooth, pretty stone more.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus blesses Simon Peter, son of Jonah, because God revealed to him that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” using the profound, at least in my mind, play on words, since Peter in Greek means “rock” and Cephas is “rock” in Aramaic.
And this is why I asked, at the beginning of this sermon, what you envision when you hear or read this word, because that will affect how you envision both Peter and the church. I have to be honest and say that as I began thinking about this Gospel reading, one of the first things that came to mind were the many jokes about St. Peter and the Pearly Gates. I did stop to consider whether this was an appropriate subject for a Sunday, but in being true to myself as a literature person fascinated with all sorts of texts, I felt challenged to find some significance, some relevance. And I thought that for quite a few people, who don't read Scripture, this is their only image of Peter—the gatekeeper who decides who does or who does not enter Heaven. After all, he has the keys to the kingdom. These jokes show a very literal interpretation of these keys and the man who holds them—a smooth and solid character, if one-dimensional.
However, as we can see in the Gospels, Peter is very complex and not perfect—he is not a smooth stone and doesn't appear very solid. In a just a few more verses from today's reading, Jesus is rebuking him, saying “Get behind me, Satan,” when Peter says that Jesus shouldn't be subjected to the suffering and death he is foretelling to his disciples. We all know of Peter’s fear in the courtyard, causing him to fulfill Christ's prophecy, that he will deny his teacher, his Messiah, three times before the crowing of the cock. How can he be “the rock” upon which Christ will build his church?
However, I think that Jesus didn't necessarily want someone who was smooth and polished to lead his church. Smooth and polished is comfortable, and doesn't allow for much more in the way of change and possibility. I would venture to say that the Pharisees would have seen themselves in terms of smooth rocks. They were solid and obeyed the laws, and they didn't feel the need for change; they were comfortable as they were.
But a rough rock can be uncomfortable, whether you're holding it in your hand or standing on it. If you're climbing one, however, it's easier to find a purchase; smooth can be slippery and treacherous. Jesus was willing, as a good teacher, to work with Peter, maybe smoothing some of the edges, but knowing that this man, whose faith enabled him to receive the revelation that his mentor was the Messiah, but whose flaws were a reminder of his humanity—Isaiah bids us to remember the rock from which we are hewn--would make things uncomfortable for the powers that be. Jesus, I would say, knew that Peter would take his lessons to heart precisely because he was not perfect. Christ had faith in his servant, that he would be the foundation of a church that would not become too smooth, too comfortable in itself and forget its purpose—which was to help bring about the kingdom of heaven through God's love.
So my prayer is that, as we're presented with a world in which people are being marginalized, having their rights denied, and going without basic human needs such as food and clean water, we be reminded that today's Gospel is not about Peter being given a literal set of keys in order to decide who gains entry and who doesn't, but a charge to perhaps not let ourselves or the Church only reach for those smooth stones, when events make us uncomfortable, but to speak up. This Gospel is also a reminder that we are all rough rocks with our uneven edges, but that God loves us in spite of them, or actually, as with Peter, I would say, because of them. This should be a source of great comfort. Amen.