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Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 19, 2014

When Evan was in kindergarten, I started giving him an allowance. I encouraged him to spend some, save some and share some. Evan understood the concept of saving his money. When he wanted something, the first thing he expected was that mom would pay for it. When I said he had to use his money, his desire to save often overcame his desire to have the object. But he did spend money on a few things he wanted – Nintendo games for example. He understood the trade – money for objects. But what he didn’t understand very well was giving away. I tried to explain to him that when I wanted him to give money to the church, we were sharing that money with God so that the church could provide ways for us to learn to love God and our neighbors. I said we could trust God to use the church to help people in need. Of course for a five-year old, that was a hard concept to understand. But by the time he was in sixth grade or so, had a better understanding. One Christmas Eve someone stood begging at an intersection we passed and he asked me to go back and give the person some money. I did turn around but the person had left.

The Pharisees know that they have to pay some money to get something in return as well. It was not a good thing they had to pay for, it was taxes, but the trade-off was that it kept the government off their backs. The rest of the money they had was theirs to do with as they pleased. They did give money to the temple, but they were not necessarily as good about helping the poor and needy. Now they are asking Jesus a question specifically about paying the taxes. They want to know if it is lawful. (Well, what they really wanted to do was trap Jesus). The Pharisees paid taxes with the emperor’s special coins, but do not like it, and some of the crowd Jesus is talking to are downright hostile and want to fight the regime. The other people who ask the question of Jesus are Herodians, enemies of the Pharisees because they agree with having the Herodian kings and want to live peacefully with the government they have. The only thing that unites the two this day is their desire to get rid of Jesus. The question about taxes was just the thing, they thought. If Jesus said it was legal to pay the taxes, then he would alienate a large part of the crowd and give the Pharisees another reason, as if they needed one, to get rid of him. If he said not to pay the taxes, then the Herodians would report him for treason.

As usual, when they think Jesus is stuck between a rock and a hard place, they are proved wrong. Jesus again answers a question with a question, wanting to know whose head and whose title is on the coin. It is Caesar’s head and a reference to his divinity, so even doing business with the coin violated the first two commandments, but his questioners were able to produce one with no problem. Having seen the coin, Jesus says to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

Well, what in the world does that mean? Again Jesus has left us with ambiguities. He is certainly not saying that all the money belongs to Caesar and that nothing belongs to God. But the Jews do have to live in the world, and that world requires payment of taxes to Caesar. Jesus is not trying to divide church and state into equal but separate spheres. He is not saying that you should compartmentalize your dealings with the government, because Caesar and the money and the government all belong to God. And he is certainly not saying to go along and live life as if everything worked out fine, that a life could be lived where service to the government and service to God could co-exist peacefully. His main point is not about the government at all; rather it is about remembering what comes first in their lives, and that is God. All good Jews would say that. Psalm 24:1 says everything belongs to God – people, animals, the whole created order. Humanity is created in the image and likeness of God just as the coin bears Caesar’s image. But the Pharisees and Herodians have not mentioned God at all, so Jesus has to bring God to their attention. As in so many other stories, he puts the question back on them. You cannot serve both God and money, he has said. So you have to determine where your allegiance lies and subordinate everything else to that one loyalty. For a Jew it was God. But Jesus does not give any hard and fast rules about how to do that. It is up to each person to discern how he or she will honor that loyalty and live in the world.

Jesus puts that focus on us too. We must discern what we will do with our money as Christians, when our central allegiance must be to God. First we must discern whether our central allegiance is to God or not. Do we ask what God would have us do in everything or not so much? I have found that my central allegiance in one area of my life is to exercise and staying thin. I finally went to the doctor about my sore ankle, and you have never seen anyone so happy as when he said he didn’t think it was serious and prescribed physical therapy. He told me I shouldn’t take long walks, but that biking and the elliptical and swimming were OK. I was so bull-headed about going to the doctor because I didn’t want to hear it if God in the person of the doctor said to get off the ankle.

Are there areas in your life you want God to stay out of? Maybe you have a pet project you just have to do, whether it is God’s will or not. Maybe you are committed to your work to an unhealthy level. Maybe you are capable of serving others but don’t. To be a Christian is to put God at the center of our lives in everything. For most of us, that is a work in progress, but it needs to be one we pay attention to. We belong to God completely and we must be God’s vessels.

Now to the touchy subject – money. It is no surprise that the Pharisees asked about money; we all want more of it and must deal with it in this world. There are taxes to be paid and life to be lived and paid for. We may have other Caesars on our coins – a world tour, a boat, a big screen TV, things that we think will make our lives better. And using our currency in these ways is fine as long as it doesn’t conflict with our central relationship with God. Since God comes first in our lives because we have God’s image and likeness stamped on us, the money we give to God and God’s work is the money that should come out of our earnings first – our first fruits, given straight off the top, not after we have paid all our Caesars. Paying God is not like paying a tax. We know how much the tax is, we carve it out and we pay it reluctantly, but it is our civic duty and most people obey it. Then we think whatever is left is ours. How we give to God is different. It is about relationship. It is about sharing our resources to help foster the coming of God’s economy, where all will know about God’s love for them and all will have enough. That is why we give to the church. Since God comes first in our lives because we have God’s image and likeness stamped on us, the money we give to God and God’s work is the money that should come out of our earnings first – our first fruits, given straight off the top, not after we have paid all our Caesars. The church’s mission is to bring in God’s kingdom, and that is the most important work we can do. St. John’s helps feed the homeless, gives gifts to needy children, provides school supplies to those without the resources to get them. We provide opportunities for adults and children to know how much God loves them as we grow in our faith journeys. We offer inspiring worship and good fellowship opportunities. Our impact on parishioners’ lives and the lives of those we serve is enormous for such a small church and we need to give generously, even sacrificially, to keep these programs going and develop more as God calls us to do.

The biblical standard of giving is the tithe – 10% -- and I would encourage you to have that as your goal – long-term or maybe even short-term. If that will not work in your economy, try giving a percentage and working your way up by giving a percentage of last year’s pledge higher this year, putting for example a 5% increase from your previous year’s pledge into this year’s pledge. We ask for higher pledging so we can serve the Body of Christ in even more effective ways.

Render to God what belongs to God. Offer your first fruits, trusting that God will make good use of your money. Your generosity will bless you, and your faith will increase.

AMEN.

     - Rev Ann Barker