18 October 2008

Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost - "The Ultimate Bailout"

Reach into your pockets and pull out your change. If you have a purse, open it up and pull out a coin, please. Everyone needs to have some money in their hand.

Look at your money very closely: is there an inscription on it that claims the image presented is an image of God? No? This is what was inscribed on a Roman denarius in Jesus’ time – the claim that the emperor was divine, a god – and so money was printed bearing the emperor’s image.

There are days when I’d prefer that our money would be printed with some kind of indication as to how we worship it. At least then we might be a little more honest with what truly captivates our lives and demands our attention. Let us pray: Almighty God, you ask only that we give to you what is right. Help us to see the truth of what you ask, and to entrust what is right into your care. Amen.

The Rev. Fred Craddock tells a story about a friend of his who once worked as a missionary in China. At the time, it was common for missionaries to be under house arrest, and this particular man was no exception. Finally, soldiers from the Chinese army came to tell him he could go back to America. He and his wife rejoiced – their family would be free again!

There was a catch, however: the soldiers said, “You can take 200 pounds with you.”

“Well, they’d been there for years. Two hundred pounds. They got the scales and started the family arguments: two children, wife, husband. Must have this vase. Well, this is a new typewriter. What about my books? And they weighed everything and took it off and weighed this and took it off and weighed this and, finally, right on the dot, two hundred pounds.

The soldier asked, “Ready to go?”


“Did you weigh everything?”


“You weighed the kids?”

“No, we didn’t.”

“Weigh the kids.”

In a moment, typewriter and vase and all became trash. Trash. It happens.”

Images and values and demands are volatile: they have a tendency to shift and change and evolve faster than we can imagine. Look at the massive swings in the stock market over the past few weeks, and remember that these aren’t cash transactions taking place: they are speculation on the relative value of certain companies and industries, the rise and fall of what we think they’re worth. As a general rule, most of us love children: as a father, I can tell you that when the child in question has my curly red hair and blue eyes, or her mother’s nose and dark hair, I find it hard to think about anything else at the end of the day. Everything is in flux, and everything is negotiable, even your own life.

Don’t believe me? Let’s see if we can’t do an exercise in valuation this morning. How many of you have nickels in your hands? Okay – find someone with a nickel, and trade nickels. How about quarters? Trade quarters. Anyone with a $20? Come up here and give it to me. J

Now – those of you who came with your boyfriend or husband, raise your hand. Come up here and trade with each other. You won’t? Why not? Isn’t one husband the same as another? Do you mean to say you are partial to your spouse? My goodness – Jesus wasn’t partial, so why are you?

The Pharisees made one little mistake in trying to trap Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. They assumed that Jesus was impartial. They assumed that Jesus cared as little for people as he did for money. They assumed wrong. For Jesus, the image of Caesar on the coin is not the issue – it is the image of God in Caesar himself that matters, as it is the image of God in Caiaphas the high priest, Joseph of Arimathea, the other Temple authorities and everyone listening to Jesus speak. When it comes to the image of God within us, Jesus has an extremely partial heart. A coin is a coin is a coin, but each and every person is a work of the hands of Christ – Jesus is as partial to individuals as He can be.

God, we discover, is impartial to stuff. As the Rev. Craddock noted, stuff is trash when compared with people we love. God was impartial to the coin bearing Caesar’s image; God was very partial to Caesar himself and how Caesar governed his people. God was impartial to the possessions and estates of Cyrus, the king of Persia; but God was very partial to Cyrus’ role in freeing the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city. God was impartial to the idols and false worship that once ruled the church in Thessalonika, but God was very partial to their true worship after meeting Paul, and Paul showed God’s partiality by thanking the Thessalonians for their faithfulness in the face of persecution.

Partiality is part of the deal when it comes to Christ’s regard for creation. The value that Jesus sees in each and every individual life is not determined by anything but the image of God within us. Images have no power without that extremely biased, partial value. You’re all familiar with the swastika, the symbol of the Nazi Party: did you know that prior to the rise of the Third Reich, the swastika was a holy image for Buddhists and Hindis across the world? Images have no power without the partiality of those who see them, and Christ himself has an extremely partial regard for all of God’s image-filled children: even the Pharisees, the Herodians, even Caesar himself.

With that partiality comes value and identity. I once played a game in my former parish with German coins as tokens, because I knew those coins had no value in America. I wouldn’t do the same if I were playing the game in Germany. Germans are partial to the Euro because there is a demand for them; Americans are partial to quarters for the same reason. But in Germany and in America, people have a value that far exceeds any coin. Trade a quarter for a quarter and you come out with the same thing. Trade Joe Plumber for Jane Six-pack and you don’t have a deal, because Joe isn’t the same as Jane. The demand for each of us is different in different circumstances, and each of us is valuable for different reasons to different people. The question is: why are we so valuable to God, which part is God going to demand from us, and what is God willing to pay?

“Give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus says. God is demanding something from us – and isn’t it funny how we assume this means money. Even before God, money has a tendency to capture our attention. Instead of angels dancing on the head of a pin, many of us are trying to figure out how to pay the bills, keep gas in the car, get a few drinks on the weekend and maybe throw a bone to the church once in a while. But money isn’t the issue here.

The issue isn’t your time or your possessions, either. How would you figure the value of your time in our faith community? Hours worked? Lives touched? Walls painted? Floors cleaned? Psalms memorized? Bibles given away? When would you give or do enough to satisfy God’s demands? How would you know? Is God more partial to one person’s reading and another person’s singing? Who determines the value? These questions are often the distraction which takes us away from the true demand God is making of us.

Here is God’s demand, which goes far beyond a denaius! God is simply not interested in bargaining for you piece-by-piece – God wants the whole pie or nothing at all. In poker terms, God is asking you to go “all in.” Christ is extremely partial toward you, because your baptism marks you as a member of Christ’s body, every last molecule from the day you were washed in that water to the day you die. Like those coins from Roman times, you’ve been marked with the image of God, and when Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” well, that doesn’t leave much room for discussion, does it?

Just as Caesar demanded his denarius all those years ago, God is now issuing a demand for you. You belong to God; you are God’s own child; you bear God’s image in yourself; you cannot be exchanged for anything or anybody else. God is extremely partial toward you, and this partiality comes with a promise: “Come, take the righteousness I bring, the promises of grace and mercy I give to you, and give me all that you are – body, spirit, possessions and everything else. I am willing to demand your stuff in order to get your life, for your life is worth far more to me than your stuff. But the gift I give in return is far more than I take, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. You are my own, I will have you, beloved child, and there is no price I am unwilling to pay, even the price of my own life.”

Demanding? Yes. Reckless? Yes. Foolish? Yes, to the tenth power. Here is a fool’s bargain presented to us, the ultimate bailout: Christ’s own life given, not at cut-rate prices, but for those who didn’t want it in the first place. We would rather pay the denarius than accept the free gift – and so God bends to our demands and plays by our rules. God demands all that we have, and then returns it to us with the added gift of Christ’s own mercy, the gift God wanted to give all along. Baptism is the contract and the Lord’s Supper is the reminder that payment has been made on our account. The bargain is so outrageously unfair that if you were the buyer, you’d walk away from the bargaining table laughing at the demand. But because you are the recipient of this foolish bargain, this outrageous price paid for your life, my advice to you is simple: take it – take the deal at face value and run. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your neighbors: God is giving away heaven for a song, and the bargaining table is right here. Amen.

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