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Worship and Sermons
October 22, 2017

 

“What belongs to God” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, October 15, 2017, Year A / Pentecost 20 – Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99  • 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10  •  Matthew 22:15-22

THEME:  Let Jesus be Lord of our whole lives and use God’s gifts as he wants us to:  by working for the kingdom.

 

          When you think of Albert Einstein, what do you think of?

          A genius – a brilliant physicist who made a series of astounding breakthroughs:  Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and special and general theories of relativity.

          What occupied Einstein’s energy and attention especially as he got older, however, was not his success, but his biggest failure. 

          Long after he became famous, Einstein embarked on a quest to find a single theory that could unify the forces of nature.  

          He spent the last thirty years of his life evaluating and then discarding one idea after another.  But he never gave up, even when he was lying on his deathbed.  The day before he died, he asked to have his latest notes brought to him so he could continue working.

          This is no slight to Einstein.  Physicists today are still working on this.  None, however, have been able to identify the illusive unified field theory that ties everything together.

          But maybe they’re looking in the wrong place.  Because it’s in this morning’s Gospel text.

          Jesus is being lured into a trap.  His opponents are the Herodians and the Pharisees.  Under normal circumstances, these two groups would never join together, but there’s nothing like a common enemy to bridge differences.  They both felt threatened by Jesus.

          So, they approach Jesus with a scheme they hope will be his undoing.  They ask a deceptively simple question:  "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?" 

          If he says ‘yes’, Jesus will lose credibility with his followers, who detest Roman rule.  If he says 'no', he’ll be arrested for political sedition.

          But Jesus' response is as profound as it is clever.  “Show me the coin used to pay the tax,” he says.  Conveniently, his opponents just happen to have one.

          The coin was both a religious and political symbol.  On one side, the coin has the engraved picture of the Emperor and words proclaiming him the divine son of Caesar Augustus.  On the other side is his mother, Livia, portrayed as the Goddess of Peace.

          Jesus holds it up, looks at them and says, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."  His opponents are stunned, and they walk away amazed.

          It probably took them a while to realize that Jesus’ point is as radical in content as it is subtle in expression.  That last phrase “give to God what is God’s” is the key.  It begs the question, what does he mean by that?  What, exactly, belongs to God?

          Well, that’s something the Pharisees ought to have known.  The answer comes straight from Psalm 24:  “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”

          In other words, everything and everyone belongs to God; not just that little coin, but every other coin like it, and every person everywhere, including the Emperor whose picture is engraved on those coins.

          The message is clear.  All of us owe our entire selves – our very existence – to God, our creator, redeemer and sustainer.

          To each and every person, God has entrusted abilities, a measure of wealth and intelligence, and varying talents and passions.  As a result of those things, we have a certain amount of power and influence.  What God expects of us is not only gratitude for those gifts, but good stewardship.  He wants us to use our lives and all we’ve been given to serve him.

          For you and me, there is only one way to do that:  by making Jesus Christ Lord of our whole lives.

          As Christians, we confess that Jesus is not only our Savior, but our Lord as well.  But saying Jesus is Lord of our lives is one thing.  Actually living like he is is a lot harder.

          Frankly, we’d rather not lose control. We want to take credit for our accomplishments and congratulate ourselves on our successes.  In short, we want to be masters of our own destiny.

          And so we devise strategies to reconcile our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord with our own desire to be lord.  To do that, we compartmentalize our faith. We restrict it to safe places – like church.

          But in other areas of our lives - business, politics, extracurricular sports and civic activities or social engagements – how we think, speak and act is all too often governed by a different, self-serving set of laws.

          The result is that we put on our faith along with our Sunday outfit, and then hang it back up in the closet where it stays for the rest of the week.  We proclaim that Jesus is Lord, even as we pretend to control our own lives.

          We can continue like that for a surprisingly long time.  Some people never get past that disjointed, dysfunctional compartmentalized faith.

          But, sooner or later, most of us run into a crisis that forces us to stop and reconsider.  These crises come in two varieties:  one is imposed on us from outside.  The other creeps up on us from the inside. 

          The first happens when catastrophe strikes.  A job or a spouse is lost.  Or a diagnosis shakes us to the very core, or a parent can no longer live independently and requires our care.  

          The second happens when we reach a point where we can no longer tolerate the spiritual dissonance of maintaining two contradictory modes of living.  We can no longer live two lives, one beholden to Christ and his grace, and the other dictated by our self-interest.  Sanity demands congruence between our Sunday selves and who we are the rest of the week.

          Whichever happens first, they both have the same result.  They shock us into realizing we’re not in control of our own lives.  These experiences are painful – but they’re also the beginning of wisdom.

          I’ve had first-hand experience with both.  The first was the catastrophic variety. 

          On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I walked out of Penn Station as crowds of people were running back inside. It was a bizarre site.  Then I looked down 6th Avenue.  The two towers of the WTC were burning and smoking like gigantic candles. 

          In the days that followed, we realized that a fellow church member with a wife and three young children was among the dead.  That was when I began considering the reality that I had far less control over my life than I thought.

          For a while, life kept going as it had.  My career in marketing was on an upward trajectory.  In fact, I was making more money than I ever thought I would. 

          But I wasn’t happy.  I was one person on Sunday – a calm, contented person – but another person entirely Monday through Friday.  On Sunday I was fulfilled.  By Friday I was stressed out, frustrated and miserable.  I hit the wall:  I could no longer maintain the two sides of my faith and my life.  Something had to give.

          That’s what it took to make me realize Jesus is Lord of my whole life, whether I like it or not.  And it put me on the path to ministry. 

          That’s my story.  What about you?  Where are you on this road to letting Jesus be in charge?

          All of our paths are different, of course, but, no matter where we are, all of us need a reminder that he is indeed Lord of all.

          And that’s why, in this Season of Commitment, we need to seriously consider moving toward tithing.  That means gradually, over time, increasing our giving by stepping up, as Bill said, with the goal of eventually giving God the first 10%, right off the top.  

          It’s been my experience that tithing, more than any other spiritual discipline except prayer, reminds us that our lives are not our own, and we do not control them. 

          We belong - body, mind and soul - to God.  God has a purpose for you and me.  It’s for that purpose that she’s given us the abilities and resources we have.

          I say ‘have’, but I should really say ‘hold.’  Because we hold those resources in trust.  They’re not just given to us for our own pleasure or self-centered pursuits. 

          God wants and expects us to respond by using those resources – money, time and talents – to follow Jesus in doing the work of the Kingdom.

          Tithing is a big part of that response.  And when we start to move toward tithing, something deeper happens to us. 

          It opens the way for Jesus to be Lord of our lives so he can begin working through every part of our lives. 

          When we make Jesus Lord of our whole lives, our faith is no longer compartmentalized – it’s whole and integrated.  Jesus becomes Lord not just on Sunday, but all week long;

          Not just in church, but at work, around the dinner table and out at the movies.

           The Lordship of Jesus Christ is the unified field theory all those physicists have been looking for. 

          It ties together all of creation – you, me and all the gifts we’ve been given - with our creator.

          So, in this Season of Commitment, let’s make sure we’re using God’s gifts the way Jesus wants us to do.

Last Published: November 7, 2017 10:30 AM
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