cropped-snowy-tree1.jpg

Well Done! Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30

11/16/2014

We have some leftover business from last week. Have you been bothered about those five bridesmaids who got locked out of the party, just because they didn’t bring along an extra flask of oil? They came with their lamps, and their lamps had oil, but they didn’t bring along any extra. They thought they were prepared, but they weren’t. “Good enough” wasn’t good enough, after all. And instead of continuing to wait, even if it meant waiting in the dark, they went off looking for what they needed somewhere else. When they finally arrived, the door had been shut, and they were out of luck.

The nagging question left over from last week comes up again this week. Why isn’t “good enough” good enough? In today’s passage, Jesus tells another parable that forces us to consider this question from a different angle.

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;  to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.   The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.   In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.   But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.   Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’   His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’   And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  – Matthew 25:14-30

Why isn’t “good enough” good enough, as we wait for Christ to come again? What is it about following Jesus that requires more from us than we are often prepared to expect? Does the abundant life Jesus promises to us only come at extravagant cost?

From today’s parable, it would seem that’s the case. In Luke’s version of this story, each servant is given a pound, but here in Matthew, the unit of measure is a talent. One talent was worth 6000 denarii, and we already know from previous stories that a denarius was the usual daily wage for a common laborer. So, one talent was worth about 20 years of labor. Here we have an obviously wealthy master entrusting huge sums of money to his servants, and even the least of these would have had to work for twenty years to earn as much as his master hands over to him.

This is extravagance on a grand scale. We usually think of a talent as some special ability or giftedness, and linguistic experts will tell you that the root of our word “talent” probably comes from the original Greek word we find in this parable. But they will also tell you that the meaning we give to “talent” today did not come into common usage until sometime in the 1500s. At the time Jesus told the story, everyone understood that a talent was a fortune, and five talents was an enormous amount of money, a hundred years’ worth of wages.

Why is this important to know? The traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents has focused on using our abilities while we wait for Christ’s return. Use your talents well, or you might lose them. God gave you special gifts, and you don’t want to be caught on judgment day having to explain why you failed to make the most of your talents. Because the master in our story gave to each “according to his ability,” people have made “ability” the central theme of this parable.

But if we realize that Jesus wasn’t necessarily talking about our abilities as much as the greatest treasure we can imagine, it puts a little different spin on the story. Now, instead of using our abilities as best we can, the question becomes, “how much are we willing to risk to get the greatest return on our investment in the kingdom of God?” And before we can even ask that question, we need to know what great treasure has our master entrusted to us?

If we use the parable of the ten bridesmaids as our pattern, we could consider that the great treasure entrusted to us is the faith God gives each of us. Some have more faith than others, some invest in their own spiritual development, and they see their faith grow. Others may try to hide their faith, and their faith shrivels away. But then we run into the problem of the one-talent servant who is cast into outer darkness, and we are left wondering if perhaps his faith was not real faith, or if it was not deep enough. And that idea doesn’t match up with the promise that “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

But what if the talents don’t represent faith, any more than they represent our God-given abilities? What if this great, immense treasure is something else entirely? Think, for just a moment, about what we as Christians can claim as our most precious treasure, worth more than we can possibly imagine. Is it not the knowledge that we have been made children of God through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ? The Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection is the most powerful and amazing story we know! Instead of teaching us to multiply our faith, or develop our abilities – good and worthy as those things are! – perhaps this parable is here to remind us that our greatest treasure, as Christians, is the gospel itself.[1]

Investing in the gospel means spreading the good news, so that others can come to know and love Jesus. Living into our faith, showing the world what a difference following Jesus makes in the way we live our lives, telling people about the ways God has transformed us – That is how the gospel multiplies and grows. Not by being buried in the ground, but by being shared. And sharing the gospel is a risky business.

Those first two servants understood the need to risk everything. They invested radically in order to double their investment. The third hid his in the ground, in order to return it risk-free to his master. And before we tell ourselves, “I would never do something like that,” we should keep in mind that the third servant was simply doing what was considered prudent at the time.

“Rabbinic law stipulated that burying was the best safeguard against theft and that when one buries entrusted money one is free from liability for it” (Boucher, 139, quoted by Alyce McKenzie.).

Two servant invest radically, and double their money. The third followed a perfectly acceptable course of action, with minimal risk. He did what would have been considered “good enough.” But it wasn’t.

Because if we are talking about the gospel, about following Jesus and being obedient to his teaching, we have to act on that teaching for it to do any good. And the reason we have to act on the gospel isn’t just because Jesus says so.

“Living out the gospel truth of mercy, peace, and forgiveness is wise because the future belongs to God and those are the values of the future. The master will return, the promised kingdom is coming, and its advent will render all the false values of this age obsolete. … What will stand at the end is the gospel and nothing else, and it is true wisdom to live out today the truth of God’s future.”[2]

There’s something else in this parable that we need to see clearly for it to make sense. The relationship between the master and his servants determined how they responded to the trust he placed in them. The two servants who doubled their investment clearly trusted their master enough to risk losing his money. He rewards them with greater responsibility, and invites them into his joy. The mutual trust between the master and these servants made it possible for them to invest fearlessly what had been entrusted to them. But the third servant does not see his master in such a positive light. In fact, the third servant’s conservative handling of his master’s wealth is clearly based in fear of what would happen should he lose it all.

If we think about our relationship with God in these terms, we must ask ourselves, what is our image of God, and how does that image dictate the way we act? Some time ago, I was invited to close my eyes and picture God in my mind, going back to my earliest childhood memory of what I thought God looked like. Try it for a moment. Think back to your earliest impression of God. What did he look like to you when you were much younger? What did his hair, and his face look like? His clothing? His posture? Was he smiling, or looking stern? Did he have a beard? I told the Bible study group on Wednesday night that the first time I ever did this exercise, I was surprised to discover that my earliest image of God, seated on a high marble throne, with his hands resting on large, squared off armrests, strongly resembled the Lincoln Memorial!

Those images we hold in our minds dictate the way we behave. If we see God as a stern ruler who punishes those who disobey him, we will act in fear, just as the third servant did. But if we see God as a loving caregiver who wants only the best for us, we will act in confidence that he will forgive us when we do wrong. Our image of God determines how we invest in his kingdom. Either we will share lavishly, or we will hide the good news where it does no one any good. It all depends on how we view God, and how much we trust the One who entrusts us with his greatest treasure.

And that trust is the key to understanding what this parable is really about. It isn’t about using the abilities we’ve been given, even though that is a worthy thing to do. It isn’t about believing that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save us from our sins, even though that belief is necessary for our salvation. But faith is more than simply believing something to be true. James 2:19 says even the demons believe in God, and they shudder. Faith is more than that.

Faith is trusting what you believe, which means becoming vulnerable, putting yourself at risk. Are we willing to invest extravagantly in the work of God’s kingdom? We have been given not only the great commandment, to love God and our neighbor, but also the great commission, to make disciples. Not just converts, but disciples who are fully devoted to a life of following Jesus Christ.

But in order to make disciples, we have to be disciples. It’s by what we do that people see the need to have Jesus in their lives. It’s the risks we take that show the depth of our faith. Not just belief, but trust. The master trusted his servants. Two of them trusted him back. The third one, not so much. Faith is more than just believing something to be true; faith means trusting in that truth to the point of greatest risk. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what he asks of us. Are you willing to trust him, to risk everything in order to hear him say to you, at the end of time, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master?’

[1] Thomas Long, Matthew, 281-282.

[2] Long, 282.

fall-sunrise1.jpg

What Are You Waiting For? – Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13

In 1961, my family moved into a house that was a model of modern innovation. The bedrooms had built-in desks with fluorescent light fixtures, and the closets had sliding doors. The kitchen was all-electric, and there were not only one, but two picture windows looking out over the golf course across the road. But the feature that set this house apart was not visible from the road, or even from inside that all-electric kitchen.

This house had its own bomb shelter, already equipped with blankets, flashlights, jugs of water, and food rations packed in barrels. It was the epitome of middle class preparedness for surviving a nuclear attack. Should anyone decide to “drop the bomb” on southeast Kansas, our family was ready for disaster. We were prepared.

As Jesus neared the end of his ministry, he wanted his disciples to be prepared for the time when he would no longer be with them. But he was also preparing them for something more. He was preparing his followers for the fulfillment of God’s promised kingdom, for “the end of the age.”

Jesus began many of his early parables with the familiar phrase, “the kingdom of God is like….” It is like a grain of mustard seed, like yeast worked through dough, it is like a lost coin or a buried treasure. But now, as Jesus taught his disciples, Jesus told them, “the kingdom of God will be like…” As he prepared them for the future, Jesus wanted his disciples to be ready for the coming of the kingdom, whenever it might occur. This kind of preparation required more than stashing some jugs of bottled water or food rations in a bomb shelter. Jesus was urging his followers to prepare their hearts.

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.

As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.

Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

On Wednesday, our Adult Bible Study group started our study of this passage by looking at everything that seems to be wrong with the story. For example, there is no bride in this wedding party. And what decent bridegroom comes to his own wedding hours after it was scheduled to begin? There’s the problem of the wise bridesmaids refusing to share their oil with the others. That doesn’t seem very gracious! And what oil merchant is going to be open for business at midnight? Finally, there’s the problem of the bridegroom refusing to open the door to the bridesmaids who had to go find oil in the middle of the night. The parable is full of problems and puzzles, and it would be easy to get stuck trying to explain every one of them.

This parable compares two types of believers – the wise and the foolish, or the prepared and the unprepared. We find similar comparisons throughout Matthew’s gospel, and especially in this final teaching about the End of the Age: one will be taken and another left, the sheep will be separated from the goats; the faithful steward will be rewarded, while the unfaithful one will suffer punishment. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus described one who builds a house on rock as wise, and another who builds on sand as foolish.[1]

Jesus uses the image of ten bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom, but the number of wise and foolish bridesmaids isn’t really important. Jesus isn’t saying that only half the world will be saved! He’s simply setting before us two options – wisdom or foolishness – and each of us must decide which type of bridesmaid we want to imitate.[2] Will we choose to wisely be prepared, or will we choose foolishness?

Let’s say that the bridesmaids represent believers, or the church, and their burning lamps represent faith. All ten bridesmaids start out with burning lamps. As the bridesmaids wait in darkness, it’s hard to tell the wise from the foolish. In the dark, they all look alike!

Aren’t we, the church, a little bit like that? Sometimes, I think it is hard for the rest of the world to look at us and see which of us is wise, and who among us is foolish. We may all appear to be ready for Christ’s return. We may attend church, we may serve on committees, we may be the first ones signing up to provide desserts for Wednesday night meals. On the surface, we all look the same, but who among us is spiritually prepared for the long wait in darkness, before Christ comes again?

Sometimes, I feel more like one of the foolish bridesmaids, who are short on oil. These bridesmaids have come to the feast expecting a short wait, and their preparation has been minimal. They are like believers who have limited spiritual resources, whose spiritual reserves are shallow, without any staying power. When the night gets long, and faith is tested with waiting, their lamps start to flicker.

Flickering faith won’t do us much good in the final judgment, and that’s what Jesus is really teaching in this parable. This whole final sermon is about God’s judgment, which each of us must be prepared to face, because the consequences for being unprepared are severe.

The unprepared bridesmaids were shut out of the banquet, and when they tried to enter, the bridegroom told them, “I tell you the truth, I never knew you.” This was the formula a rabbi used to dismiss a disciple, and such a dismissal could not be undone. It was final. “God is not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet 3:9), but when Christ comes again, judgment will be certain. Whether the Lord comes sooner than we think, or his coming is delayed beyond what we expect, we must be ready.

The concern with delay was important to believers at the end of the first century, because they had expected Jesus to return within their own lifetimes. Now, the apostles were dying off, and some had begun to doubt whether Jesus would actually keep his promise to return. More than two thousand years later, it may seem that our world has completely given up on Jesus coming again. Our culture is so caught up in satisfying personal desires, we even view our life of faith in terms of what we can get out of it, or how it will meet our needs. We’ve lost the urgency of expectation that even the first century believers struggled to maintain.

On the other hand, there are those who expect the end times with great anticipation. Many have tried to determine when Jesus will come again, and their predictions have all proven false (so far!), because they have missed the point of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). We do not know when it will happen; we only know we must be ready.

Verse five tells us that the bridegroom was delayed long enough for the bridesmaids to fall asleep as they waited. Do we sometimes “fall asleep” in our faithfulness to Christ? Do we find ourselves repeating meaningless prayers and barely skimming over familiar Bible passages? Do we just go through the motions of doing and saying what we think others expect of us?

When the bridegroom is announced at midnight, all the bridesmaids wake up and trim their lamps, preparing to join the processional. But the unprepared bridesmaids discover that they are nearly out of oil. Their supply has run low. They were not adequately prepared.

Sometimes we get a “wake up” call to pay closer attention to our own walk with God. Maybe we are suddenly faced with health issues, or a personal financial crisis catches us unawares. When the unexpected happens, we may suddenly realize that our spiritual reserves are too shallow to give us the strength and courage to stay faithful through difficult times.

When family members struggle with addiction, or our marriages begin to fall apart, we need a deep and abiding faith to get us through the darkness. If we wait until we need faith to get faith, we will be like those unprepared bridesmaids who had to go buy more oil in the middle of the night, and missed the bridegroom’s coming. If our faith is too limited to get us through life’s trials, how can it get us through the dark night of waiting for Christ to come again in glory?

In order to stay ready and be prepared for whatever comes, we must have adequate “spiritual fuel” to sustain our faith. John Wesley promoted spiritual practices to develop strong faith, and his list of spiritual practices can be divided into what we now call “works of piety” and “works of mercy.”

The works of piety include things like reading and meditating on scripture, fasting, attending worship, observing the sacraments, and sharing faith with others. Works of mercy include visiting the sick and those in prison, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, fighting oppression, and giving generously. It’s an impressive “To Do” list. Yet, Wesley encourages us to consider that these works of piety and mercy are the very things that build our faith. If we want faith that is strong enough to get us through the long night of waiting for Christ’s return, these practices will deepen our “oil reserves.” That’s why Wesley called them “means of grace.” Not only will these spiritual practices help us be prepared for Christ’s return, working on them also keeps us alert as we wait for that great day.

And that wait has already been a long one. Waiting with patient endurance can be hard. David Lose writes, “Waiting for something way overdue, waiting for something you’re not sure will even come, waiting that involves active preparation when you’re not even sure what you should be preparing for. That kind of waiting is challenging.”

So, while it’s important to be prepared for judgment day by making sure our spiritual reserves are deep, while it’s important to engage in those spiritual practices that will strengthen our faith, the real question might be, “What are we waiting for?”

That’s a question Matthew’s church might have been impatiently asking. “We’ve been waiting and waiting, Jesus. What are you waiting for? When will you come again and fulfill your promise of a new kingdom?” It’s a question we may ask, too, whenever things we hoped for don’t seem to materialize as quickly as we thought they would.

Whether it’s an impatient “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!” or an encouraging “What are you waiting for? You can do this!” – the question carries with it an expectation that something should be happening, and it isn’t yet.

But notice how different that question sounds when Jesus is the one doing the asking, instead of us? How does it feel to have Jesus expecting something of us that should be happening, and isn’t yet? What are we waiting for?

Are we waiting for God to work some dramatic transformation in our church? What needs to change in us for that to happen? How can we be prepared for that kind of change? Are we willing to step forward in faith, even if it means waiting in the dark? Can we trust God enough to try some things that might fail, knowing that failure can be a great learning experience?

What are you waiting for?

Are you waiting for someone to notice that you are hurting inside, and you have doubts about your own worthiness?

Are you waiting for someone to love you? To show you that you matter?

Are you waiting for some word of encouragement, some indication that you are on the right path, as you struggle to hear God speaking into your life?

What am I waiting for? I get anxious about the future of our ministry here at First Church. It seems I keep asking God to show us a vision, to tell us in clear and concise language just what it is he wants us to do and be, and I’m still waiting for that answer. I keep waiting for my own spiritual reserves to develop, so there is enough oil in my lamp to offer some light to you on your journey. I’m waiting for the Holy Spirit to move us all in a dramatic and unmistakable way toward fruitful ministry. I wait for lives to be changed, for someone to claim the promise of salvation so powerfully that it shakes the rest of us up a little bit, reminding us that the God we serve isn’t interested in a superficial faith. He wants us to depend completely on him.

And this reminds me of the real problem with those foolish bridesmaids. It isn’t that they forgot to bring extra oil to the party. The real problem is that they went looking for oil somewhere else, instead of hunkering down to wait in the dark, if necessary, so they would be present when the bridegroom arrived.

So, what are we waiting for?

It isn’t filling the pews on Sunday or attracting new young families to our church. We aren’t waiting for our lamps to get filled up with more faith or greater spiritual depth. We aren’t even waiting for God to give us a vision for ministry, to tell us in no uncertain terms what we are supposed to be and do.

What we are waiting for is Jesus. We are waiting for the King of kings and Lord of lords to heal our brokenness and bring peace to this hate-filled world. We are waiting for the Savior of the nations to bring in the reign of God. We are waiting for Christ to make all things new. We don’t know when it will be; we only know that it will be when we least expect it.

We can wait in fear, or in joyful expectation, but as we look for Christ to come again, know that Christ is waiting for us, too. He is waiting for us to prepare our hearts for that glorious reign of God to come in its fullness. He is waiting for us to commit ourselves completely to doing the work of the kingdom of God. Jesus is waiting for each of us to turn our lives over to him, and claim him as our Lord and Savior.

What are you waiting for?
The bridegroom says, “Come!”
The Lord Jesus Christ is waiting for you.
[1] Matthew 7:24-27 (and Luke 6:47-49).
[2] Floyd Filson, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, 1960, 263.

MVdeeporange

Blessed – Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12

All Saints Sunday A November 2, 2014

As the disciples followed Jesus up the Mount of Olives, after leaving the Temple where he had silenced the Pharisees and Sadducees, I wonder if any of them were remembering another mountain, only a couple of years before, where Jesus had also climbed to a place where he could teach them. As much as we’d like to follow them, and hear what Jesus has to say, we’re going to take an All Saints detour today. But it isn’t so much a detour as a flashback to that earlier sermon on that other mountain.

In movies, flashbacks give us necessary background and character development. They take us back to an earlier event that helps explain how we got to this point in the story. This week, we’re flashing back from the final sermon Jesus will preach in Matthew’s story, to the very beginning of his ministry, to that familiar passage we now call The Sermon on the Mount. In this first and longest sermon from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus lays out the foundation for his entire ministry. Just as in chapter 24, where we would be reading if we stayed on track, Jesus climbs up on a mountain with his disciples nearby, and other followers listening behind them. Then, Jesus sits down to speak, showing his authority as a reliable teacher of God’s ways. But instead of words about the last days, which we will hear over the next few weeks, let us go back to that first sermon, and hear words of blessing.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12)

Chunking is a term used in learning theory to describe how the human brain handles information. We tend to learn and remember better when we can compile new information into larger “chunks” because we can only handle about 7-9 pieces of information at a time. That’s why your 10-digit phone number is grouped into three segments – an area code, a local prefix, and your 4-digit personal number. Three chunks are easier to remember than 10. And it’s why your credit card number is so long – even when chunked, it’s harder to remember, both for you, and for anyone who happens to see your card while you’re using it. Another tool for remembering information is to look for repeating patterns. Patterns help us remember important learning, because they help us group small bits of information into larger chunks. The pattern of the beatitudes follows a three-part formula: First the blessing, always in present tense. Then the description of those who are blessed, and finally, the reason they are blessed.

Here we have nine beatitudes, the introduction to Jesus’ very first act of teaching. Let’s see if we can chunk them in ways that will make them easier to remember.

The first three beatitudes focus on those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are meek. Jesus begins by addressing us in our weakest, most vulnerable state. These three beatitudes seem to contradict what we think of as “blessing.” How can such negative attributes as spiritual poverty, mourning and meekness be blessed?

I once asked a friend how he was doing, and instead of the usual “fine” or “great” he smiled and said, “I am at the end of myself.” My friend had exhausted all his own resources, he had used up all his own spiritual strength. You would think this would have been cause for despair, but here he was, completely at peace, smiling as he said, “I am at the end of myself.” He knew what it is to be blessed when poor in spirit, because at the end of himself, he was finally able to depend completely on God.

Mourning is something we’ve experienced extensively in this congregation over the past year. In eight months, we have grieved the loss of six of our own saints. So much sorrow takes a toll. It drains us of energy and makes our hearts heavy. Yet, in our sorrow, God blesses us with hope, and reminds us that we have a future in Christ Jesus that the world cannot see. Our hope is in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, and in the promise he has given us that where he is, there we may be also.

And what about meekness? We don’t often use the word “meek” in today’s society, because this world sees meekness as a liability. Meek rhymes with weak, after all, and no one wants to be seen as weak. Those who are weak don’t stand a chance in this world, where personal power is considered a premium virtue. But theologian Thomas Long writes, “’Meekness’ is not timidity or passivity but rather a patient trusting that God will act in due time, an insistence on being nonviolent even in the midst of a violent society, a contentment with the basic necessities of life even in a possession-hungry world, and taking delight in the gifts of God and the many comforts of faith (Psalm 37:3-5, 7-8 14-17).”[1]

When we are at our weakest and most vulnerable, Jesus tells us, the kingdom of heaven will be ours, we will find comfort in our sorrow, and we will inherit the earth. We may see our present condition in a negative light, but our future is filled with great promise.

The fourth beatitude starts out sounding like it might belong to this group that includes spiritual poverty, sorrow, and meekness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst,” Jesus says. But what do they hunger and thirst for? Righteousness. And this puts the fourth beatitude in a category by itself. For those who seek righteousness will be satisfied. They will be filled. In this one promise, Jesus turns our attention away from what we lack, and toward what we eagerly seek – the righteousness of God. Though the fulfillment of this promise is still in the future, it gives us great hope. Instead of focusing on our deep need, Jesus turns our attention to God’s great provision for us.

And this brings us to the next three beatitudes. As we are filled with God’s righteousness, we are transformed into those who bring mercy, purity of heart, and peace to a broken world. If the first three beatitudes could be seen in a negative light, these next three must surely be seen in a positive way. Those who offer mercy, whose hearts are pure, who make peace in every corner of creation are given an amazing promise. They will receive mercy. They will see God. They will be called the children of God. These blessings are easy to identify as true ‘blessings’!

So we have three ‘negative’ means of blessing, a pivotal blessing, and three ‘positive’ means of blessing. Now comes the hard part.

Beatitudes eight and nine are so similar, it makes sense to chunk them together, but that doesn’t make them easier to accept. If we started out at our most vulnerable, came through a desire for righteousness to the strength of mercy, purity, and peacemaking, you’d think Jesus would be building us up for the grand finale, the blessing to top all blessings. Instead of “Blessed are those who finally attain the perfection God intended, for they shall live eternally with God in glory,” Jesus says,

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake ...”

and I don’t know about you, but those words make me pretty uncomfortable. I don’t want to be persecuted. Many people suffer persecution throughout the world because of their faith in Christ, and I pray for them daily, but I don’t want to be one of them. For example, you may have followed the story last summer of Meriam Ibrahim, the woman who was sentenced to death in Sudan because she was a Christian.

On May 15, a Sudanese court sentenced Ibrahim, who was pregnant at the time, to 100 lashes and to be executed by hanging for refusing to identify herself as a Muslim. She was accused of converting to Christianity from Islam and of marrying a Christian, Daniel Wani, who is Sudanese-American. Ibrahim was raised by her Orthodox Christian mother after her Muslim father abandoned the family, and she denied ever being a Muslim and refused to renounce her faith. Her child was born while she was in prison. The couple’s other child, who was less than two years old, had to live in the prison cell with her.

International outcry led the Sudanese Supreme Court to release Ibrahim on June 23. However, security forces detained her at the airport three days later when she and her family tried to travel to the United States. The Sudanese forces accused her of using a forged passport. She lived at the American embassy in Khartoum with her family for a month before she was finally allowed to leave Sudan.[2]

That’s persecution. And while Meriam Ibrahim’s story made international news, other stories like Meriam’s go unwritten every day somewhere in the world.

But look at what Jesus says about those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is identical to the first beatitude, and notice that Jesus doesn’t put it in future tense, but the present. Right now, both those who are poor in spirit, and those who are persecuted, receive the kingdom of heaven.

And then Jesus gets really personal. For the first time, he isn’t talking about some hypothetical “they”. Now he looks us each in the eye and says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Not “if” but “when” people revile and persecute you and say awful things about you because of your faith in Jesus Christ, he says,“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Biblical scholar Earl F. Palmer notes that the Sermon on the Mount is structured much like Psalm 1. Among their common features, they both begin with blessings, and they both end with a parable. Palmer tells us that there are two Hebrew words that translate as “blessing.” One is barak, and it means to bow or stoop. This is the word used in Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me.” But it’s also the word used in Numbers 6:22 – “The Lord bless you and keep you…” In this case, it means “The Lord stoop down to you.” But in Psalm 1, the word used for “blessing” is ‘ashar, which means “to find the right road.” Palmer writes, “’ashar in Psalm 1 means ‘you are on the right road when you walk not in the way of unrighteousness but in the way of the Law of God.”[3] This is the meaning of ‘ashar in the nine uses of “blessed” that we find in the beatitudes. You are on the right road when you are spiritually poor, when you are meek, when you show mercy, when you make peace, when you are persecuted for the sake of the gospel.

Rejoice, and be glad! You are on the right path! Yours is the kingdom of God!

But there’s one more thing you need to know about these beatitudes. The beatitudes aren’t a prescription, or a “how to” lesson. They aren’t commands, like the two we heard last week, to love God and love our neighbor. Jesus isn’t telling us to get busy and become poor in spirit or start mourning or get out there and make some peace. And Jesus also isn’t saying, “if you will do these things, this is what your payment will be.”

Jesus is telling us that, no matter what circumstances we experience, whether good or bad, he is with us on the right road. Things may look bleak, or they may look great, but no matter how things look, we are on the right road if we are on it with Jesus. And that road leads straight to the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is already here among us, even as we wait for its fulfillment. But to be on that road with Jesus means we have to trust him, we have to name him as Lord. we have to believe that he is the Son of God, who died to save us, who rose from the dead, and who reigns with God the Father through all eternity.

Scripture tells us that many will come from east and west, and north and south, to sit at table in the kingdom of God (Luke13:29). That table is waiting for you to claim your place at it. Will you come to this feast that Christ our Lord has prepared for you? You are blessed. The Kingdom is yours. Will you come to this Table?

[1] Thomas Long, Matthew, 49

[2] http://www.covchurch.org/news/2014/07/25/church-prepares-to-receive-sudanese-woman-who-refused-to-renounce-her-faith/#more-18121

[3] Earl F. Palmer, Feasting on the Word Year A, volume 4, 238.

2014-10-24 09.52.57

The Greatest Commandment – Sermon on Matthew 22:34-46

October 26, 2014

When our son was living with us while attending college, I would often come home to find him unwinding from a hard day of study, sprawled in front of the television. Almost always, I would find him shouting out responses to the game show, Jeopardy! He was pretty good at remembering the bits of trivia that were represented by various categories on the game board, and he was extremely good at remembering to always phrase his responses in the form of a question.

It’s easy to play Jeopardy! from the comfort of your own couch, where you can feel brilliant every time you get one right. The stakes aren’t very high if you miss one, and if you get too frustrated, you can always turn off the TV. Jeopardy!’s format puts questions in the form of answers, and answers must take the form of questions. It’s obviously a winning formula for a game show, because Alex Trebek just started his thrifty-first season as game host.

That whole question-and-answer thing was something Jesus was pretty good at, too. Over the past several weeks, we’ve been following the conversation between Jesus and various religious groups, and these conversations all seem to revolve around questions posed as answers, and answers that sound like questions. But today, we come to the end of the conversation. In today’s passage, Jesus gets the last word, and yes, it takes the form of a question.

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
           “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”
No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. – Matthew 22;34-46

So let’s review:
In chapter 21, the Temple rulers challenge Jesus’ authority to teach in its courts and throw out the money-changers. Jesus meets that challenge by telling the parable of the two sons, insulting the religious leaders with the news that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of the scribes and temple rulers.

Jesus then tells the parable of the wicked tenants, further accusing the chief priests and Pharisees of rejecting God’s anointed one. It makes them mad, but they are afraid of the people, so they don’t arrest Instead, they conspire to trap him.

Jesus responds to their anger with the parable of the wedding banquet in chapter 22, a particularly difficult story that ends with a wedding guest being thrown into outer darkness, simply for wearing the wrong tie to the party. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” Jesus tells his opponents. In other words, since you have rejected God’s chosen Messiah, others will be invited to participate in the Kingdom of God in your place, but even these must commit fully to faith in Christ to be included.

Then, last week, we heard the conversation between Jesus and a new batch of antagonists, that awkward alliance between the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. They try to trap Jesus into revealing himself as either a traitor to God or a traitor to Rome, certain that whichever way he answers their riddle about paying taxes, he will say something worth getting arrested. Of course, they run the risk of causing a riot by setting Jesus up this way, but Jesus slips through their trap by turning their political question into a spiritual one, and he confounds his accusers once again.

We skip over the story of the Sadducees trying to trap him with questions about the resurrection to get to today’s passage, but it’s worth noting that he silences the Sadducees and sends them away with the notion that “God is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

So far, Jesus has interacted with Temple rulers, Pharisees, disciples of Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees. In every instance, Jesus astonishes his listeners with a wisdom they have not heard before. And the stakes get higher and higher.

Now, the Pharisees are back for one last attempt to trick Jesus into saying something that will justify arresting him. Naturally, it’s a lawyer who comes up with the ultimate question. This is actually a no-brainer. Everyone knows the Shema. It’s fastened to their foreheads and on their doorposts. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”[1] It’s a good answer, straight from scripture, and the Pharisees nod in agreement.

But Jesus adds something to it, another commandment from Leviticus. Okay, this is a little unexpected, but still well within everyone’s understanding of what God wants from us. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is certainly a good commandment to follow the first. The explanation Jesus gives for naming both of these commandments makes sense: the first five of the Ten Commandments are all about loving God, and the last five certainly show how to love our neighbors. While putting these two ideas next to one another may have been a new thing for some of those listening, it is well within the bounds of acceptable Jewish belief, and the scholars in the group would have heard other rabbis teach something similar. So far, Jesus has passed the test, and he has said nothing controversial or heretical.

Through all of these tests and challenges, Jesus keeps pointing back to the supremacy of God, and who can argue with that? But the real question isn’t about the Law or doctrine, or who is in and who is out. The real question, the one that is deeper than any the religious leaders have asked so far, is about the identity of the Christ. And so, Jesus puts that question to his opponents. It isn’t a trick question, as theirs have been. He isn’t being sly. He really wants to know what they think. But instead of asking “What do you expect the Messiah to do?” or “When do you think the Messiah will come?” Jesus asks, “Whose son is he?” The Pharisees answer automatically from the tradition of the prophets[2] It’s a sound, scripturally based answer, again the one everyone expects. The Messiah will be the Son of David.

The promise God made to David, and the prophetic writings about the identity of the one who will come to save Israel, all recognize that Messiah must come from David’s line. The Christ will have royal blood, but it will be good old-fashioned red-blooded human blood. The thought has never occurred to anyone that the one who comes to save Israel is anything other than a flesh-and-blood warrior who will conquer Israel’s oppressors.

The assumption that Messiah would be a “Son of David” included the understanding that this future “anointed one” would be a human king to rule over Israel when peace would finally come throughout the world. First century Jews, regardless of their political views, agreed that all kings of Israel were messiahs, because they were all “anointed.” But THE Messiah would be whichever king happened to be on the throne when world-wide peace was finally achieved. This Messiah would not be a miracle worker or a prophet. He would simply get to be the final king of Israel, descended directly from King David.

“How is it, then that David calls him “Lord?” Jesus wants to know. He quotes Psalm 110, which later became quite popular as a “messianic” psalm. But at this point in history, no one thinks of it that way. No one has considered that David might have been referring to his own descendant as “Lord.” Jesus forces them to see Psalm 110 in a new light. And that light reveals that even King David would bow down to this descendant, indicating that THE Messiah would be more than merely human. The Messiah would come from God.

In three short movements, Jesus has taken the most basic, common understanding of Jewish faith – loving God alone – and expanded it to include loving others, and then taken the most fundamental Jewish belief about Israel’s anticipated Savior and turned it on its head.

The Messiah comes from God, and is divine. The Messiah is both the Son of David and the Son of God. Putting these two ideas together was a good deal more radical than putting together the verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus to summarize the Ten Commandments. Loving God and neighbor are indeed the first and second most important commandments, but establishing Jesus’ identity as Messiah is the ultimate point of the entire conversation we’ve been exploring for the past several weeks. Anyone who believes that Jesus is, in fact, The Messiah, must believe that he is both human and divine. No wonder the Pharisees are left speechless. To consider that the savior they have hoped for might actually come from God is more than they can handle. From this point forward, they aren’t asking any more questions.

“Jesus is Lord” is perhaps the earliest confession of the Christian church. In Romans 10:9 Paul writes, “because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

And in 1 Corinthians 12:3, we read, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.”

Saying aloud that “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous and radical thing to do in first century Palestine. Naming Jesus as Lord identified that very human carpenter’s kid as God. It could get you in trouble with the synagogue for blasphemy, or crucified by the Romans for refusing to acknowledge Caesar as lord. One didn’t say it lightly. If you admitted out loud that “Jesus is Lord” you had to be willing to take the consequences, and that could mean punishment by death. If you were going to go around saying, “Jesus is Lord,” you had to really mean it.

But claiming Jesus as Lord is the only hope we have. We aren’t very good at keeping that commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength. Too often, our hearts are distracted by our own desires. Our souls become shallow and closed off to anything that might cause us discomfort, or force us to change. And our strength is often spent in ways that do not honor God. We want to love God, but we don’t know how. We have forgotten that “the primary component of biblical love is not affection, but commitment.”[3] And we aren’t very good at commitment.

Which makes it hard for us to do very well when it comes to loving our neighbor. Especially when our neighbor is someone we don’t like, or someone who is very different from us. We forget that the kind of love God has in mind isn’t a fond emotion, but the hard work of caring more about another’s needs than our own.

No matter how hard we try, or how much we want to, we can’t seem to keep God’s greatest commandment, or the second that is like it. And if we cannot keep God’s law, our only hope is depending on God’s grace. Our only salvation is to call Jesus Lord, to recognize him as the one who became flesh for our sakes, who died that we might live, who rose again that we might have eternal life.

But if we are going to go around saying, “Jesus is Lord,” we have to really mean it. We can’t just give it lip service; it has to show up in the way we live. Our very lives depend on it.

So Jesus looks at us, as he once looked at Peter, and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” The Pharisees and Sadducees are done asking Jesus questions and putting him to the test. Over the next few weeks, as we near the end of this church year, Jesus will be putting us to the test. Here are a few of the questions he will be asking from the 25th chapter of Matthew:

Will we keep our light burning (ten bridesmaids, Mt 25:1-13)? Will we invest our talents (25:14-30)? Will we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned (25:31-46)? In short, will we love our neighbor in loving God and will we love God in loving our neighbor? Will we mean it when we say, “Jesus is Lord?”

[1] Deuteronomy 6:4-5

[2] Isaiah 11:1-9; Jeremiah 23:5-6, 30:7-10, 33:14-16; Ezekiel 34:11-31, 37:21-28; Hosea 3:4-5

[3] Douglas Hare, quoted by Alyce McKenzie

Chicken Enchiladas

I was sure this recipe would be here somewhere, but I’m not seeing it. I got it from a US Army wife when I lived in Germany. That’s another story. I shared it with my family, and now my nephew makes it for his family – so it must be good, right?

Start with:

1 chicken, or 4-6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

If you need some chicken broth, cover a whole chicken with water in a deep pot, add a bay leaf and a bouillon cube or two, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the chicken falls off the bone. Remove the chicken from the pot, and when it is cool enough to handle, remove skin and bones, shredding the meat into a bowl.

Or cook some boneless skinless chicken breasts in the microwave and shred them if you’re in a hurry and don’t want to mess with the bones and stuff.

In a separate bowl from the shredded chicken, combine:

1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can chopped green chiles
1 chopped onion (optional)
1 c sour cream or plain yogurt
Cumin (I use quite a bit, but I really like cumin) to taste

Mix HALF of the soup mixture into the shredded chicken, setting aside the other half for the final step.

Grease/butter/cooking-spray a 9×13 dish, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Open a package of flour tortillas, and separate 8-12 of them (this depends on whether you cooked a whole chicken or just some breasts). On a clean surface, spoon about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of the chicken mixture onto a tortilla, and roll it up. Place the enchilada seam-side down in the dish, and repeat until you have no more chicken mixture left. Pour bout a cup of water or chicken broth (you can use whatever cooked out of the chicken breasts if you nuked them) around the edges of the dish to prevent the ends of the tortillas from drying out. Spread the reserved soup mixture over everything, and cover with about a cup of shredded cheese (cheddar, co-jack, “Mexican blend” pre-shredded, whatever… probably not Swiss) over the top and loosely cover with foil.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking until cheese is golden brown and the enchiladas are bubbly. Remove from the oven and let set 5 minutes before serving. You can garnish with sliced black olives and chopped tomatoes and chopped green onions if you want to make it look pretty for company.

Add a salad, and you have dinner.

2012-09-30 12.50.11

Winter Wheat (reblogged)

Once a month, I write a short piece for our church’s print newsletter, the Circuit Rider. This publication was established fifty years ago, when the pastor at that time asked a legal secretary in the congregation to be the editor. Jo put together theCircuit Rider every month for fifty-plus years, until she joined the Church Triumphant on October 1st.

Here’s a link to my article for this month’s Circuit Rider. It’s in memory of Jo, who I’m sure has heard her Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

2012-09-30 12.50.11

Whose Image? – Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

October 19, 2014

This is Laity Sunday in the United Methodist Church. We celebrate the part of our baptismal covenant that calls each member to be a minister, to live out faith through personal devotion to God and acts of service to others. Who makes up the laity of a church? Everyone who isn’t clergy – so that means each of you!

I like to use the word “we” when I talk about our work together, but this is one area where I can’t include myself in the picture. As clergy, my job is to help you, to equip you do your job. Yours is the work of the church; you are the laity who make ministry happen.

But what exactly does it mean to minister as a lay member of this church, our church? How is God calling each of you to grow closer to God, deeper in faith, and more active in the mission and ministry of this congregation? As Methodists, we have John Wesley’s model for discerning God’s will in our lives. It’s a four point framework that begins with Scripture, and includes the traditions of the faith, reason, and our own experience of encountering God, as we determine what is the good and perfect will of God for each of us, and for all of us together.

As we turn to scripture first, our gospel reading for today takes us back to the Temple court in Jerusalem, only a few days before Jesus will be betrayed. Jesus is still teaching about what it means to live in the kingdom of God, a kingdom that has already broken into our world and is growing toward its fullness. Because the kingdom of God is already present, but not yet complete, our citizenship in that kingdom rubs up against our very real day-to-day living in a broken world. Sometimes the conflict between worldly reality and kingdom living becomes confusing and uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t know how to reconcile our allegiance to God with our worldly obligations. Jesus was faced with this same dilemma, and in today’s reading, he shows us how to live in the world while living into the kingdom of God.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They 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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22) 

Here’s the story so far: We’re still in the Temple on Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus has already cursed a fig tree, challenged the authority of the chief priests and elders, and told parables to anger the Pharisees – and it isn’t even noon. That’s the setting.

The characters in this part of the story include Jesus, of course, but the rest of the cast has changed somewhat. Now, instead of the Temple rulers who challenged Jesus’ authority in the last chapter, the Pharisees have sent some of their own disciples to speak with Jesus. This is the only time disciples of the Pharisees are mentioned in the entire New Testament, so that might be an important detail to hold in the back of our minds. In addition to these disciples, the Pharisees have apparently taken advantage of the lunch break to enlist the help of their opponents, the Herodians. The Herodians weren’t particularly religious, but they supported the Roman authority given to Herod over Israel. An alliance between the religious Pharisees and the political Herodians was unusual – they only worked together because of their mutual fear of Jesus and his growing influence with the people. So we have Jesus, the Pharisees’ disciples, the Herodians who have joined them in an awkward alliance, and the silent onlookers who have gathered around Jesus to hear him teach. We have the setting and the characters. It’s time to introduce the plot.

As the Pharisees go off to conspire with the Herodians, they look for a way to force Jesus to reveal himself as a rebel against Rome or a blasphemer against God. Preferably both. They decide to start with flattery, hoping to get Jesus to let down his guard, so he will walk right into their trap. They describe his impartiality to all, and his disregard for rank, encouraging him to denounce Roman authority. At the same time, they refer to his sincerity and truthfulness, encouraging him to claim a level of righteousness that belongs only to God.

The problem these religious and political leaders set before Jesus is one we face every day: To whom do we owe our primary allegiance? When the law of the land seems to go against the law of God, what choice will we make? This is the problem in the story’s plot that must be resolved. They think they have set up the perfect “either/or” riddle, because whichever way Jesus answers, he’s going to offend one group or the other: he will either break Roman law or Temple law – he can’t have it both ways. They wait for Jesus to answer. They are sure they’ve got him now.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks. And we suddenly remember another conversation, at the very beginning of his ministry, when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 to Satan in the wilderness:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt 4:7).
In that conversation, Satan has invited Jesus to throw himself down from a pinnacle of the Temple, to prove that he is the Son of God. But Jesus knows better.

And now, facing the Pharisees and Herodians as they gang up on him, Jesus sees through their hypocrisy, just as he sees through ours whenever we pretend to submit to God, but hold in our hearts the desire to have our own way. We don’t like to think of ourselves as hypocrites. We don’t like to fall into that category Craig Groeschel describes in his book, The Christian Atheist: people who claim to believe in God, but who live as if God doesn’t exist. And those disciples of the Pharisees, who stood before Jesus, didn’t like it either. The Herodians might not have cared one way or the other, but those Pharisees considered themselves among the most faithful of all God’s people. They did not like being called hypocrites. At. All.

Let’s pause here at this point of tension in the story. Imagine you are one of those silent onlookers in this drama. Maybe you have been following Jesus as a faithful disciple throughout his ministry. You’re one of the insiders, one of the chosen twelve. You think you know this guy, this Jesus, but you are wondering how he’s going to wriggle his way out of this one. You’ve been close enough to hear him say, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matthew 17:22-23). You may be wondering if Jesus is about to be arrested, and you are about to be left without a leader.

Or maybe you are one of the people who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and when you heard that this Jesus was preaching in the Temple courts, you went looking for him, to hear for yourself what this new rabbi was teaching. Maybe you were laughing along with the crowd when the pompous religious leaders heard their own words used against them. Maybe your heart was “strangely warmed” as you listened to this man teach with an authority that could only come from God. Maybe you have been wondering, as you listened, if this could be the Messiah after all. And now, you wait to hear what Jesus will say, how he will solve this riddle the Pharisees and Herodians have put before him. Because you are certain that whatever he says will force you to decide where your allegiance lies. Whatever he says will tell you if you should put your trust in him, or if you should walk away.

And Jesus says, “Show me the money.”

Notice that Jesus does not happen to have a denarius in his own pocket. But he’s pretty sure one of his challengers will have brought such a coin into the Temple. And he’s right; they hand him a denarius immediately, not even realizing they have exposed their own blasphemy, by bringing a Roman coin, bearing a Roman inscription that calls Caesar “divine,” into the Temple where God alone is to be worshiped as holy. But Jesus does not call attention to this. He turns the coin over in his hand and asks a question any child could answer. “Whose image is this, and whose inscription is on this coin?” And with this seemingly simple question, Jesus raises the stakes even higher.

You see, this wasn’t just any coin, but a coin required for paying a tax to the Romans. And it wasn’t just any tax. First century Jews had to pay their share of taxes, just as we do. But the tax that required payment with a denarius was the Imperial tribute, or “census” tax that had been instituted about the time of Jesus’ birth. It was the tax Jews paid to support the Roman occupation of Israel. The Jews had to pay one denarius a year to finance their own oppression.

I have to imagine it was the Herodians, those Jews who supported the Roman occupation, who answered first. “The emperor’s,” they said. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

You can almost hear the wind going out of their sails, can’t you? The Pharisees and Herodians are amazed. There is nothing more they can say, so they turn and walk away. Those who are gathered around Jesus are left to ponder what this all means. At first, it seems as if he has foiled his opponents once again with a “both/and” answer to their “either/or” question. But an unspoken question hangs in the air: If the image stamped on a coin determines whose it is, what has God’s image stamped on it? The Herodians and the Pharisees may have already left, but a deeper truth begins to dawn on the rest of us as we remember the story of Creation from Genesis:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

You belong to God, for you were made in God’s image. Whether male or female, God created you to bear his own divine likeness. Your purpose, your calling, is to bear that image into the world as a constant reminder that God’s kingdom has a higher claim on each of us than this broken world of ours.

Some have used this passage to defend the separation of church and state. That isn’t what Jesus is talking about. Some insist that this is another one of Christ’s lessons on the proper place of money in our lives. It isn’t. This lesson isn’t even really about money at all. It’s about recognizing the image of God when we see it in one another, and calling attention to that image as a reminder that God is very present, even when we feel the most oppressed or threatened by the world around us. When Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” he’s reminding us that all we are and all we have belongs to the one who created us, the one who loves us more than we can ever imagine.

At another time in Jewish history, another oppressive regime ruled over the nation of Israel. The prophet Isaiah described the love of God to people who had given up all hope, who were certain that God had abandoned them forever. We read in Isaiah 49:13-16,

“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.

Not only do you bear the image of God, you have been inscribed on the palms of God’s hands. Not only are you inscribed on the Creator’s hands, but also on the hands of Christ, those hands that bear the marks of death on a cross for our sakes.

Sometimes the image we bear may be difficult to recognize. It may be distorted by the world’s inscriptions on our lives – what we wear or drive or eat, how we live and whose opinions we value. But under all those inscriptions is a deeper mark. It is the mark of the cross, drawn on us at our baptism, on Ash Wednesday, and at the time of our death. It is the mark that says, “You belong to the God who formed you, who loves you, who will not let you go.”

This is our primary identity: we are the beloved children of God. That identity is the filter through which we make all our decisions. It is the standard against which we must measure all our choices. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. But give to God the things that are God’s.

Since we are in the middle of our stewardship drive, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by increasing your pledge. Since we are in the middle of nominating season, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by agreeing to serve on a committee, or at least complete the Time and Talent Survey that someone has graciously given time and talent to put together for us. I’m not asking you to do either of those things. I’m simply asking you to remember that you are the image of God shining out into the world, and the people you encounter every day, whether you like them or not, whether you approve of their actions or political opinions or theological beliefs – they also bear the image of God to you. Look for it. Recognize it. Know that someone is looking to you, often when you least expect it, to find that image and see it as a reminder that God has each of us marked on the palms of his hands.

Today is Laity Sunday in the United Methodist Church. We celebrate the part of our baptismal covenant that calls each member to be a minister, to live out faith through personal devotion to God and acts of service to others, to shine God’s image into a broken world until the kingdom of God comes in its fullness. Amen.