Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost

‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.’

The religious and civic leaders continue to challenge the authority of Jesus.
They are now trying to trick him, to trap him.
They bring up issues from life and scripture that demand an answer.
They are the kind of questions that essentially are lose lose for Jesus.
But, Jesus is far smarter.

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,
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’

The Pharisee’s aren’t talking about taxes in general.
They are talking about a particular tax, ‘to the emperor’ tells us that.
Everyone paid all sorts of taxes, Temple tax, land tax, all sorts.
The tax the Pharisees are talking here is the Imperial Tax, ‘to the emperor.’
This was paid to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel.
They had to pay a denarius a year to their oppressors.
A denarius a year to keep being oppressed.

You can imagine that this was highly unpopular.
Most would have resented it. Nationalist zealots in particular.

The two groups which have conspired on Jesus with this question had very different views on this tax.

The Herodians were fine with it. They had been put in power by the Romans, so of course it was in their interest to keep the Romans happy.

The Pharisees on the other hand had a trickier relationship with this tax.
 The tax had to be paid with a coin engraved with a picture of Ceasar, which also stated his divinity. This is of course a problem for those so religiously devout: just having this coin breaks the first two commandments:

You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol

So you can see what is happening.
This tax was a controversial issue.
Most were opposed to it, so if Jesus says they have to pay it,
he will be offside with the crowd.
He will be seen as supporting the oppression.

If he says they don’t have to pay it,
he will immediately be in trouble with the authorities.

The two groups who have bought this question to him don’t agree on what the right answer is either.
The only thing they agree on is that they want this trouble maker gone.

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.’

This is the first bit of brilliance.
He gets them to hand over the coin.
By doing so, they reveal their own complicity in the system.
He also reveals that he is not. He does not have a coin to show.
At this very moment, their plan to trap him begins to unravel.
You can almost hear the gasp of the crowd.

If this handing over of the coin wasn’t enough, he makes it clear.

‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’

They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’
Their answer tells everyone they know exactly who is on the coin, what is written on it, and therefore not only are they complicit in the system, they are in fact breaking their own rules by doing so.
The coin carries a graven image, and states the divinity of emperor.
Two commandments broken.
And the fact they can name this, means they can’t plead ignorance.

Their plan is now gone.
Their trick is over.

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.’

So what is the emperors and what is God’s?
Taxes, rates, all those things are dreadful.
None of us like paying them.
But, we have to.
Even if we don’t like the government, or agree with what they are doing, we have to pay our taxes.
That is the emperors.
A small or sometimes not so small part of our money.

To start carrying on about not paying them suggests something else. It suggest the idea a few more dollars as being of supreme value.
It tells of what is in the heart.
Give to the emperor what is the emperors. Don’t let that become your big issue. Don’t let holding on to a bit of cash become what is imprinted on your heart.
For where your heart is, there will your treasure be also
Your heart, your whole being belongs to God.
Give to God the things that are Gods.

While the emperors image is on the coin, God’s image is in us.
We are created in God’s image.
Give to God what is God’s.

This ends up going deeper than about a coin, money, or taxes.
In his this statement Jesus reminds that we are God’s, and that we are to give ourselves, our time, our minds, and our hearts to him.
Give the government its tax, but give your whole life to God.
Be in the world, but not of the world.

Jesus is setting the Pharisees straight about their hypocrisy, and in doing so he sets them onto a higher way of thinking.

He says the same to us.
‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.’

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes

In the parable we hear today, Jesus is telling as an allegory of God’s work within Israel.
He uses images from the prophet Isaiah and the Psalms to tell the religious leaders what has happened, what is going to happen, and how this is going to effect them.

On the surface, it seems to be quite straightforward, but a closer look reveals what Jesus says is far more potent, and also raises some difficult questions for the church today.

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. 

This imagery comes from the Isaiah reading from earlier:

Let me sing for my beloved
   my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
   on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
   and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
   and hewed out a wine vat in it.

The beloved is God, and the vineyard is Israel.

Jesus is setting the scene for the religious leaders, so they know exactly what he is talking about. There would be no question in their minds about what he is talking about:
 it is about God and Israel.

Two sets of slaves are sent to collect the produce:
The first set of three, one is beaten, one killed, one stoned.
The second set is larger, and is treated in the same violent way.
These slaves represent the prophets who were ignored by the religious leaders at the time.

The landowner sends his son, and they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him

The son is Jesus, and this fortells his crucifixion.

We have to look at the owner of the vineyard here.
He sends a delegation and they are killed.
A normal human reaction to that would have been to send an army to sort this out.
But he doesn’t.
He doesn’t react with violence.

He sends another delegation.
When they are killed, surely his response should be ‘they’ve had one chance, now I’ll send in the army and get them out of my land.’

But it isn’t.
He send his son, the heir.
This is not a normal reaction.
After two sets of horrific violence and death inflicted on your people, why would you send your son?
Surely now would be the time for vengeance.

The son is killed.
Jesus puts it to the chief priests and elders:

Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 

They said to him,
‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

The chief priests and elders react as we would expect.
Jesus does not supply this answer.
It is the chief priest and elders.

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”? 

He questions their response.
He doesn’t agree with them.
He doesn’t condone the violent response at all.

Have you never read in the scriptures.
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”? 

God didn’t retaliate with violence.
Instead he sent his son to die, the stone the builders rejected.
He was raised, he became the cornerstone

This is a different way of authority and power.
It shuns violence and aggression and revenge.

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Jesus is saying to the chief priest and elders
that because they are still clinging to power and authority,
they can’t see how God might be working in a way that does not take life,
but rather gives life.
They can’t see how their use and abuse of their authority is actually keeping God out.

The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

This is a message for the church today.
We don’t stumble over the block that is Christ, the cornerstone.

We stumble when we follow the way of the elder and chief priests.
We stumble when we strive to hold on to authority and power.
We stumble when we embrace the way the world understands power
rather than the way of God,
God who showed us the ultimate power when his son gave his life on the cross.
God who showed real power is not life taking, but life giving
when his son was resurrected to new life, a life in which we all share.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom will be taken from us if we continue to act out of power instead of love, compassion and selflessness.

The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone

The cornerstone of the faith that is borne out of love, and forgiveness, not power, control and violence.