Pop quiz (and if you need to cheat, please do!) Whose face is on a penny? (Lincoln) Whose face is on a nickel? (Jefferson) Whose face is on a quarter? (Washington)
The image that marks a coin shows whose country- whose Realm- it belongs to. Putting Washington’s face on the quarter is the federal government’s none-too-subtle means of reminding us that this coin really does belong to Washington: DC, that is. We use this coin, but it belongs to the federal government. Defacing or destroying this coin is a criminal offense.
The Jewish leaders came up to Jesus and said, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus responds by asking who their tax money belonged to. He asked for a coin, and then Jesus gave them a pop quiz: Whose face is on this Roman denarius?
Caesar of course: they used Roman money. Caesar’s face was on the coin, and even though we may use it, the coin ultimately belongs Caesar for the maintenance of his empire. Well then, Jesus said, give Caesar that which belongs to Caesar. But give to God that which belongs to God, for the maintenance of God’s empire.
So what belongs to God? What bears God’s image, the stamp of God’s ownership? The word ‘image’ should click in our heads. Because the very first thing said about humankind in the Bible has to do with the image of God. Genesis 1:26 says, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our own likeness… So God created humankind in God’s own image…
From the time of our inception, we have been stamped with the image of God. We belong to God. It’s like writing our names in a book. We only put our names in the books which are valuable to us- the books we want back! Throw-away, pass-on books we don’t put our names in. God opens that flyleaf of our hearts when we’re conceived, and inscribes God’s Name on our inside cover, saying, “This child is mine! You can’t take her!”
When we speak of coins, the answer is Caesar (or the United States government). Caesar’s image is on the coin, and Caesar owns it. But when we’re talking about people, we bear God’s image. And so God owns us. God is the final determinant of what and who we are.
So what do we do with that ‘being owned by God’ stuff? If the coin belongs to Caesar, then we give it back to Caesar. Coins are distributed for our commerce and good, but when Caesar asks that we pay taxes, we pay taxes: We give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.
And if we bear the image of God, we give back to God that which is God’s. Scripture gives two understandings of what that entails. The first is found in Gen 1:27. After God creates us, God tells us exactly what God wants us to do: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and care for it.” And we are placed as the Lord’s gardeners over every plant, and as the Lord’s shepherd over every animal, and we are told to care for them well.
Our purpose is to be the caretakers of God’s creation. And every good thing given to us- the air we breathe, the trees we delight in, the neighbor we love, the talents we use- all these things are to be carefully tended. All these good things belong to God. And we get to take care of them. We are the Stewards of the Realm where all are cared for, where none are hungry or lonely, where all are included. In God’s Realm, there are no orphans, and each of us is a steward of the Realm.
Give to God that which is God’s. In the Gospel of Mark, the whole conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees culminates with the full answer of what it means to render unto God that which belongs to God:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31)
When we give God that which is God’s, we give our whole life: heart, mind, soul and strength. But when God asks us to give our lives, it’s not like God is taking them away from us. It is us entering into full and loving relationship… with God, and with those around us. When we give to God that which is God’s, God is making us complete, more fully ourselves than we ever were before.
When we give to God our strength, we become even stronger.
When we give to God our mind, we become even more discerning.
When we give to God our heart, we become even more loving.
When we give to God our will, we become even wiser.
And all this is not just for ourselves (though we obviously enjoy the benefits of this increase), but so that we might take our place in God’s Realm as caretakers and beloved children of our Creator.
My favorite preacher is Fred Craddock. Fred told a story of how one day he and his wife went into a little diner in Tennessee. As he sat down on the red naugahyde bench, Fred glanced up and saw this little old man grinning at him. Straight at him. Fred hid behind his menu; he was in no mood to talk to anyone.
When he put the menu down, the man was still staring and grinning. Fred tried to ignore him, but the old fellow pulled up a chair and sat down. “Care to have a seat?” Fred asked. The old man continued grinning and asked, “So, what do you do?” Fred Craddock, the preacher, groaned inwardly.
When preachers are tired or hungry or just grumpy, we don’t usually like to admit to being preachers. Because people either hate you on the spot, or they’ve got a problem they’d like you to solve. You’d much rather say something like, “I’m a fertilizer salesman; want to see my stock?”
But Fred Craddock had more integrity than that. Fred groaned inwardly and said, “I’m a preacher.” To which the grinning old man replied, “Well, have I got a story for you!”
It seems that the man had been born some 80 years past in the back hills of Tennessee. His mother wasn’t married. Never had been. Back in those days, that made him what they called, in polite company, ‘illegitimate.’ But he didn’t live among polite company. The names he was used to were more raw, more abusive. When he had to go to town, he could feel people’s eyes on him, trying to figure out who his father was. “Who does that boy look like? Could it be old Ted down-river? His hair’s about the same color. Or maybe Joe Jack, who died in the mine 5 years back. Old Joe Jack was always a wild sort…”
At school, the boy would always take his lunch down to the river. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, down to the river- because if he stayed at the schoolhouse, the other children would torment him until he thought he would explode. It was a hard life. But one thing that boy loved to do was to go to church. He loved to sing the old gospel hymns: “At the cross, at the cross, where I first found the light, and the burden of my heart rolled away; It was there by faith all my fears took flight, and now I am happy all the day!
Oh, that boy loved to sing, because when he sang, he was not the boy without a father, but he was an angel in heaven, one voice among a hundred making something beautiful for God.
But even more than singing, the boy loved to listen to the preacher. Oh, the preacher was a chisel-faced man with a long, electric beard; and listening to his voice was like listening to thundering waters, as he brought his flock down to the depths of torment, and up to the heights of heaven.
The boy would always sit in the very back so he could slip out quickly before anyone else. After all, he knew right well that boys with no fathers did not belong in church. Church was for the Chosen of God.
Well, one Sunday, he was just a hair slow, and the boy got caught in the crush of the crowd pushing into the narrow doorway. He was wiggling and poking, trying to get out, when suddenly, he shuddered under the heavy clap of a large hand on his shoulder. He looked up the hand, looked up the long, black-sleeved arm, looked up, up into the intense, piercing eyes of… The Preacher.
The boy almost retched with fear. “I know your mother, boy. I know who you are. You’re… you’re…” The boy broke into a cold sweat: “Oh God, he’s trying to figure out who my father is- just like everyone else.”
The preacher continued searching the boy’s face, as if looking for something. “I know!” the Preacher bellowed, “I know who you are!”, and he clapped the boy on the back. “Why, you’re a child of God. I can see it; there is a striking resemblance! I can see it! Now you go on, son; you go out there and claim your inheritance!”
And the old man, who was that boy, who would later become the Governor of Tennessee, that human being said to Preacher Fred Craddock, “That was the day I was born. That was my birthing day.”
Children of God, this is our birthing day. You don’t belong to Caesar; you belong to God. So go out and claim your Holy Inheritance- A world where no child is called fatherless, no babe is left motherless, and no person is outcast in God’s Realm of Compassion and Justice and Love. And God will give us the Spirit and the power to make it come true.
God of grace, and God of glory, on Your people pour Your power;
Crown your ancient Church’s story; bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving Thee Whom we adore
Serving Thee whom we adore!
In the Name of the One who made us and will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
(Resource: Fred Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons)
SCRIPTURE FOR NOV. 4, 2018 MARK 12:13-17; 28-31
(Jesus was teaching in the Jerusalem temple, and what He was saying was upsetting the religious authorities. So they tried to trap Him, saying,) “Teacher, we know that You are an honest man, that You are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to You. We know that You teach the way of God in all honesty. So we ask You: Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay our taxes or not?” Jesus saw their hypocrisy and said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Hand me a coin.” They handed Him a coin, and He said to them, “Whose head is on this coin? Whose image?” And they replied, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus said to them, “So pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar… and give to God what belongs to God.” And they were amazed. …One of the scribes who had been listening to them debating appreciated that Jesus had given a good answer, so he asked Jesus a further question. “Which is the most important of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “This is the most important commandment: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second most important is this: “You must love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.