Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“What to Render unto Caesar”
October 22, 2017 (20th Sunday after Pentecost)
Matthew 22: 15-22
The Pharisees and Herodians joining together to seek advice from Jesus on the tricky matter of, shall we say, church and state is as weird as the National Rifle Association and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals uniting to ask Jesus whether it is lawful to kill muskrats. The Pharisees and Herodians were not kissing cousins. When they sweet-talked Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance to the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality,” we smell a rat.
Their question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not,” showed no interest in what Jesus believed. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, in the Pharisees’ eyes, he would break the commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” If Jesus answered that it was unlawful to pay taxes, he would appall the Herodians who were especially fond of the empire. The Pharisees and the Herodians shared one common goal: Jesus’s blood.
You know how Jesus answered their question. The quote floats around in your biblical brainpan, especially from the King James Version, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
There must be an uncomplicated answer as to what is due the emperor and what is due God. The IRS, after all, tells us every year what is due the emperor. Even our church, in a few weeks, will ask us to consider making a pledge, perhaps a tithe (10% of our income), to support the Lord’s work here at Holy Trinity? Straightforward, huh…or is it?
When you hear Jesus’ answer, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” it sounds an awfully lot like something the great Yankee Yogi Berra might say: “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical” or “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
We are not so good when it comes to pondering vexing questions. We want answers, now!
You have heard someone, I’m sure, when asked a particularly vexing question, say, without a moment’s pause, “There are three simple points to consider.” I always wonder: how do they come up with three points so quickly; why not two points or four? I tend to be suspicious of people who speak authoritatively and immediately on thorny issues.
And there are some thorny issues floating around these days. Take for instance, how the United States should respond to North Korea which threatens to rain down havoc on God’s planet? I suppose one answer might be, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” or perhaps “Do nothing” is another. From my limited vantage point, no answer seems as simple as three points: ready, aim, fire. I always pray that our president and congress, you and I too, will struggle mightily with such tough questions, deliberating and agonizing together, disagreeing with one another even, and certainly praying.
Don’t you smell a rat whenever another person, especially a leader, seems incapable of grappling with the perplexity and seriousness of monstrous questions, especially when the lives of young people and innocent civilians are at stake?
Abraham Lincoln, when asked whether God was on his side, did not launch into the old saw, “Of course, God is on our side, we are the United States of America.” Lincoln instead said: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” Lincoln was a humble leader who dared wonder whether he was on God’s side.
When the United States first invaded Iraq in 2003, the then Secretary of State Colin Powell was reminded that his boss, President George W. Bush, was in bed by ten and slept like a baby; General Powell reportedly replied, “I sleep like a baby, too—every two hours I wake up screaming.” That is not nationalistic flag-waving, macho-politics, or even three bombastic points to incite the political base. That is a leader who struggled through the night because he was dealing with matters of life and death.
Another president who understood the immensity of such questions was Dwight Eisenhower. Only days after the end of World War II, General Eisenhower, who had been in the thick of such a dreadful war, said, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.”
Tough questions bring us to our knees and tenderize our hearts with humility. Tough questions bid us to struggle together for the best answers when none seem apparent. We must ask as did Lincoln whether we are on God’s side and perhaps it is not such a bad thing to wake up screaming like a baby as did Colin Powell whenever blood might be spilled because of our decisions. The best answers come when we have prayed long and hard, waiting on the Lord to give us a new song to sing, not one of our foolish concocting but of God’s wondrous creating.
When Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his opponents “were amazed; and they left him and went away.” He didn’t offer a simple answer to a tough question. He offered an answer that bid faithful people to ponder, “Are we on God’s side?”
What if we struggle together with what is right and just, always seeking to make certain we are singing God’s song? If we do, I’ll bet people will be amazed.
Pastor Wilbert Miller
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
Has anything in your life ever been urgent, really urgent?
Farmers understand urgency: the harvest must occur when the wheat is ripe. There is no tomorrow. The time is now.
I know a bit about the urgency of the harvest. I worked on a farm in high school and college. One summer day, Herb Minch, my boss, informed me that we would build a forty-five-foot silo made of hundreds and hundreds of cumbersome concrete slabs. I had no idea how long building a silo would take but imagined a week, maybe even two or three—after all, there were others chores to be done along the way: cows to be milked, stalls to be mucked, hay to be baled. Imagine my alarm when I discovered we would unload all the cumbersome slabs from a flatbed trailer one day and carry them twenty-five yards to the building site the next where the silo would be built that very day. When I rode my motorcycle home each of those two nights, on dark winding West Virginia country roads, I was certain I was about to die. My stomach was bloody and scraped. I felt like a prizefighter knocked silly in the third round at Madison Square Garden. I quickly grasped the urgency of the harvest.
Jesus understood the urgency, as well, even though he was a carpenter’s kid. You will remember, he was the one who said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
I once read an article in “National Geographic” magazine about wheat harvests in the plains of the United States. The article included eerie photos of combines, lights ablaze, harvesting wheat at four in the morning. Wheat farmers run their combines, night and day, when the wheat is ripe. No delays, no excuses. The time is now.
How many of us would stay up all night to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven? Can’t this wait until tomorrow, maybe a month, perhaps even a year? We might harbor serious concerns about a person who exhibits an acute sense of urgency, someone who seems incapable of waiting: are they suffering from some psychological malady that compels them to act so brashly? Take it easy, we say. What’s the rush? Shouldn’t we discuss matters first, hold a congregational meeting, make certain every opinion is adequately considered before acting?
According to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is so near that sick folks need cured today! the dead need raised now! lepers cleansed immediately! demons cast out instantly! That’s the rush!
These are urgent days and we must travel light. All Jesus offers us for the journey is a little bread and wine, a bit of water, and a Bible; that’s it—no excess baggage. Jesus urged us, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.” Travel light for the Gospel’s sake. Get on with it!
Oh, and by the way, Jesus never promised such a calling would be easy: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…they will hand you over to councils and flog you…and you will be dragged before the governors and kings because of me…” Not a single word about success by the way—just urgency.
While it may sound overwhelming, I know you sense the urgency because I have been watching you for a year now. In just the past few weeks, quite a few of you have picked up immediately and rushed off to visit your ailing mothers and your niece. You packed light; no time to waste. You didn’t count the cost of the plane or train ticket; you didn’t even think to ask your employer whether your time away would be considered vacation time or sick leave. You just took off immediately for love’s sake to places like Virginia and Florida.
You sense the urgency, of course you do. I have watched you visit your dear friend week after week who lives in a continuing care facility. She is mired in the dense fog of her autumn years. She can’t quite remember who you are. You often feel ill-at-ease, not sure what to say, and yet, knowing the harvest is so near, you start singing the first thing that comes to mind:
“Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so;
little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me,
yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”
Oh, I have not only been watching you, I have also been reading your Facebook posts. Just this morning, you wrote this: “There was once a woman who had a little three-year-old boy. And they were loved and a complete family of two, even unto themselves, but then she met a man and fell in love with him. And one day she invited this man to meet her son.
“As my dad tells it, he was sitting on the sofa in my mom’s little apartment and I was staring at him for a long time, as I marched circles around a coffee table in front of that sofa and quietly checked him out from head to toe. After several minutes of this I finally stopped, pointed at him, and declared, “YOU are my daddy.”
“At this point most men would’ve laughed nervously and quietly made a mental note to not date this woman (and her precocious kid) ever again. But my dad just smiled and looked at me and said “ok.” And we have never EVER looked back on the verbal contract we entered into on that day. Ever.
“I love to hear and watch my father tell this story because he his face lights up and he always smiles, and I know that he really, really loves me. And I know that he knows I really, really love him”…That, dear friends, is the urgency of the harvest. Telling someone that we love them, not tomorrow, but today.
A good friend of mine received a card from a venerable pastor on the day he was ordained a minister of the church in the holy office of Word and Sacraments. The card simply read, “Dear George, it will be a glorious struggle.” This wise servant of the Lord knew what he was talking about: he served deep in North Philadelphia’s inner-city. Whenever a row house was a burning inferno or a teenager was gunned down, desperate families came knocking at Father Black’s door first, no matter the hour. They knew that he understood: the harvest is now, not tomorrow.
You know that, too. There is nothing quite so invigorating as being called by Jesus to join the glorious struggle for the life of our groaning world as you are enveloped in the wonder of the kingdom of heaven fast approaching. When Jesus calls you and you follow immediately, that is pure gospel joy.