In the name of God: help us to see what is truly you. Amen.
There’s an episode in The West Wing, where the President’s staff are wrestling with a decision, and how to advise the President. The issue was, there was a death penalty case in the federal court system that had finally exhausted the whole appeals process. The date of the prisoner’s death had been set. So the ball was in the President’s court. Would he allow it to proceed or not?
The staff knew that the President was generally opposed to the death penalty. But, it was also true, that part of what informed the President’s position, was the fact that he was a devout Roman Catholic. And, to a degree, he was sometimes a bit defensive about it. He took the words of the church leadership seriously, but he was always a bit afraid of appearing as if he was merely acting on their instructions. While he understood that moral decisions were often required, he wanted to draw clear lines between his actions and his religious beliefs.
But the part of the episode that has been ringing through my mind this week, was not the President, but the way that the defense counsel tried to influence the decision by reaching a member of the President’s staff. Toby Zeigler was a senior advisor and his communications director, and as devout as the President was in his Roman Catholic faith, Toby was equally devout in his Jewish faith.
The defense counsel got wind of this, and decided to try to reach Toby through his rabbi. They knew he would be in temple. The rabbi – willing to play a part in this – brought his influence to Toby through his sermon. Just as Toby is being called away from worship, we hear the rabbi booming in the background, “Vengeance is not Jewish.”
Perhaps I’ve thought of this in the context of the war between Israel and Gaza. This place that is truly a holy land, is being endangered. It, and the people who help make it holy, are dying and living under the threat of death.
But even so, as there is plenty of cause for anger on every side, I keep hearing that fictitious rabbi preaching: Vengeance is not Jewish. And then, in my mind, vengeance is not of God. Vengeance comes from somewhere else.
When we feel the impulse to wreak vengeance, we should check ourselves. Very likely those are times when we’ve turned our backs on God. Sometimes we cloak the vengeance in our hearts with various kinds of flowery language and semantics – but when it is borne out of a need for retaliation, it’s merely costuming.
This week in the Gospel, we’ve heard this story that’s probably pretty familiar to most of us. Jesus is being questioned by the religious leaders of his community – not because they want to learn or grow, but because they want to trip him up. They want to spin language that will catch him, leaving him trapped in a corner – where the only way out would be to alienate someone.
So they ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
It may sound like a simple question – yes or no. But the problem is if he says yes, it’s a betrayal of his community. It would be tantamount to his saying the people should finance and support their own oppression by their foreign occupiers. But if he says no, he’ll be advocating for disloyalty to the political leaders. That would lead to punishment. Prison, perhaps, but who knows what else.
So he turns the query back on them. See this coin? Whose face is on it? Whose title?
It was, of course, the emperor.
So he said, give to the emperor what is the emperor’s. Give to God what is God’s.
I can’t tell you how many Stewardship sermons I’ve heard on this text through the years. Maybe it’s no accident that the people who designed our reading schedule put this little nugget in the fall of the year, when most of us are engaged in Giving Campaigns.
The general gist is, actually, nothing is the emperor’s. Everything is from God. So give to God from what is God’s. It’s a solid message. I won’t stand in its way.
But… I wonder if there might be more to the story than just that.
One way of looking at it is by saying that the coin represents the things of the world – the cares of the world, even. But God represents what is true. The things of the world can sometimes obscure our truer vision of God. So, you could also hear this as a sermon against materialism, but that’s not really what I’m going for, either.
Rather, I’m hearing this as a piece of our calling to constantly examine the world around us. What is of God? What is not of God? Like Marie Kondo asks, “Does it spark joy?” That doesn’t mean that every thing we have in our lives must be tossed out. Some of the things that don’t “spark joy” or that don’t seem to be “of God” still serve a purpose as we navigate human life. But, it’s worth giving some serious thought to what in our lives is of God and what isn’t.
It’s not as simple as “of the world” or “of God”. It’s not as clear as all that is temporal vs. all that is eternal.
Like my fake rabbi from TV said, “Vengeance is not Jewish”, in my own perspective of faith, to me that means, vengeance is not of God. Those things that are not of God? Don’t give them to God – return them from whence they came – return them to the places of the earth that stand in God’s way. Put it back where you found it.
I know the stewardship preachers want to hear that “everything is God’s, so give everything,” but not everything is. Fear is not from God. Humiliation is not from God. Feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy are definitely not from God. What else do you encounter in your life each day that could not be from the God of love and creativity that we worship each week?
Instead, give to God what is God’s. Give God love. Give God your gifts of creativity. Give God moments in your day that bring you closer to understanding God. Give God clear and honest communication. Give God the confidence of knowing that you are being called by and called for God. Give God the wisdom of knowing that you are worthy of all that God gives you. Those are things that we can give God that will bring us deeper into our relationship with God. And I’d bet there are many more. We just have to look for them – we have to be engaged in that discernment each day.
Give back to the world the things it’s given us that separate us from embracing God’s love. Give to God those things that God cared enough to give to you.
And take the time every now and then to really figure it out. And once you’ve figured it out, start again, because it may well have changed.
When we look for God’s gifts, we find them. And when we pattern our lives after those gifts, we are blessed to be a blessing. Amen.