Summary: This is a sermon selection and adaptation by Dr. Mosser procured from The Abingdon Preaching Annual is by Mary J. Scifres.
Gracious God, we ask you this day to warm our hearts and encourage our spirits as we worship and magnify your holy name. In our hour of worship show us symbols and signs of your holy presence among us. Grant us the insight to relate the words of sacred Scripture to the living of our day-to-day lives. Make us attentive to the divine message that can make our mundane world such a joy. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.
Prayer of confession
God of Wisdom, we confess that far too often we have behaved like those who questioned Jesus: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" We struggle with knowing to whom we owe allegiance. Do we owe our ultimate allegiance to family or community? to nation or church? to our work or our family? By these questions, Lord, we put off declaring where our ultimate allegiance really lies. Help us understand that by setting up counterfeit choices in life we often become like those who tell Paul after he preached the gospel in Athens: "We will hear you again about this" (Acts 17:32). Our desire to revisit the gospel1 ... is simply our polite way of saying we cannot make up our minds. How long, O Lord, can we "go limping with two different opinions" (l Kings 18:21)?
Help us, we beg you, O Sovereign One. Give us singleness of heart. Help us obey Christ as Christ was obedient to death. Offer to us that word of assurance that our lives, lived in your divine purposes, will not be lived in vain. Offer us words of promise in ways that we can apprehend and obey in cheerfulness and thanksgiving. You, as our heavenly parent, have offered us untold riches in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Give us the will and heart to submit ourselves to the yoke that Christ offers us in freedom from sin even as he offers us the cost of discipleship as stewards of your grace. In all things, may we be a thankful people who offer your divine blessing to our world in need. Amen.
Words of assurance
"As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; God remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103: 13-14). Remember that our Lord is our strength and shield, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Prayer of thanksgiving
O God of the gracious gift of life, we assemble today out of gratitude for the many and various ways that your grace interconnects with our lives. Too often we fail to express our gratitude to you at all; yet we recognize that worship allows us to convey the heartfelt thanksgiving we feel. We ask that our voices join other believers around the world, as well as the saints throughout the ages as our prayers ascend beyond the crowns of the clouds and reach unto the holy places where you, O Most High, make your home. Yet, as you transcend our human realm, we recognize that you mercifully live immanently within us and intimately among us. Make us a living portrait of your loving mercy that you yearn to communicate to our hurting world. Let us be the disciples you have equipped us to become. We pray this and every prayer in the merciful name of Jesus, our Lord and Advocate. Amen.
Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22
[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, Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 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.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 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.” When they heard this they were amazed; and they left him and went away. NRSV]
Sermon brief: of wisdom and money
Jesus was no fool: he knew a trap when he saw one and responded accordingly. In this Gospel lesson, Jesus escapes entrapping questions intended to destroy by turning them into answers intended to puzzle. "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's," Jesus says (v. 21). Rather than debating whether Caesar's face on the coin is idolatrous or paying taxes is unjust, Jesus reminds the listeners that money is symbolic and temporary. This lesson is lost on far too many people. Money is gained and accumulated for any number of reasons but almost always with the idea that it will last as long as it is tended carefully. Anyone who has watched stock portfolios change in this decade certainly has learned that such is not always the case! Still, people hoard money and manage it as if it were a permanent fixture on this earth. Jesus reminds us that this simply is not true.
Likewise, Jesus reminds us that God is invested in the permanent fixtures of our lives. It may be less clear what those permanent fixtures are, but we could venture some educated guesses: our lives, our faith, and our souls. All of these are the very stuff of which God made us, and thus "things that are God's." Yet, even the impermanent things of this life belong to God as they pass through our lives: time, talents, skills, passions, ideas, and material gifts (including money).
Still, Jesus relegates those impermanent things to their proper place, as being a part of this earthly world, important symbols, but not the stuff of which God made us. Woven carefully, these contrasting themes (giving the permanent fixtures of our lives alongside the impermanent things of this life to God) can be woven into a challenging stewardship sermon.
However, Jesus' wisdom and care, in not regarding people with partiality as he converses with his adversaries, might also bring a powerful message to light. Here, Jesus speaks as respectfully of the Roman emperor as he does of God, not a common courtesy that most of his religious colleagues would have given to Caesar. Likewise, even as Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus criticizes his own disciples. To all of them, he says "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?" (v. 18). And to all of them, Jesus offers a wise but puzzling answer about coins and emperors and God-a warning to the "would-be wise." However, Jesus stands alone after this difficult conversation. When everyone hears Jesus' amazing words, they leave him and go away. Such is the journey of many wise followers of God, and such may be our path when we, too, seek the wisdom of God and share it with others. But knowing that this wisdom comes from and belongs to God, we have no choice but to share it with others, for how else can we give that which belongs to God back to God but to share it with God's people-even if it means standing alone when all is said and done. (Mary J. Scifres)
May you leave this place with the blessed assurance that you are never alone. May you go into the world knowing that your life with God counts.