Sunday, February 28, 2016

A sermon preached at Andrews Presbyterian Church on Sunday, February 28, 2016.

Mark 12:13-17

I bet you think this sermon is going to be about money!  After all, this this text is often one used when preaching about giving, or stewardship.  And sermons about money are uncomfortable at best. 

Jerry Falwell (google images)
When I was in college at Tech, for a while I attended University Baptist Church.  They had a worship specifically for students, which I had never experienced before.  I really enjoyed it, though there were some things that made me uncomfortable.  My parents came for Parent’s Weekend, late in the fall, and went to church with me on Sunday morning.  Although I didn’t know it ahead of time, it happened to be stewardship Sunday, and the preacher preached a hellfire and brimstone sermon about how we should give to the church and therefore, to God.

Later that day, my mom remarked that I was lucky that my dad hadn’t gotten up and walked out.  Apparently, he’s not real fond of that kind of teaching.  We’ve never discussed it, but that made an impression on me, even at that young age.

Money is hard to talk about in church; in fact, it’s one of just a few subjects that we’re not supposed to talk about in church – money, sex, politics, and ????  Why are they so hard to talk about?  They’re very personal, we say.  The thing is, these things are really part of our everyday life, and therefore should be talked about.  Jesus didn’t shy away from talking about these subjects.  We’re just uncomfortable hearing what he has to say.

This sermon is about money, but only in the broadest sense.  It begins with the Pharisees and Herodians try to trip him up.  The Pharisees were religious leaders who were resentful of the Romans, and King Herod, though the didn’t actively opposed Herod.  The Herodians were those Jews who supported King Herod.  They were strange bedfellows, but they conspired to put Jesus in a bind.

They ask him whether they should pay the imperial tax to Caesar.  The imperial tax was one of many taxes.  However, it was a bit different in that it was a tax on those who were subject to Rome – those who were oppressed by the Romans!  The tax was supposed to be used for the upkeep and rebuilding of the Temple which had been destroyed, but instead was used for the upkeep of the pagan temple.  It was an affront to Jews.  Only those who had renounced Judaism could collect the tax for the Romans.  Now you understand why tax collectors were so despised.  In addition, the coin of the realm had the image of Caesar on it, the image of the god Caesar, which was considered idolatry. 

 They butter up Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?  Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”  They’re really asking who it is that ultimately receives Jesus’ loyalty – Caesar or God.

They think they’ve caught Jesus in a double bind.  There is no way satisfactory way to answer the question as they’ve asked it.  If Jesus says yes, he is consenting to the use of a coin bearing the image of an idol, and declaring his loyalty to Caesar.  If he says no, he is committing sedition – and the Roman authorities could arrest him for rejecting Roman authority even as he claims God.  What will Jesus do?

Jesus knows what they are up to, and beats them at their own game.  Rather than answer directly, he asks for a coin.  You know that he asks whose image is on it, and when they reply “Caesar’s,” he tells them to give Caesar what is his.  That coin which bears Caesar’s image, give it back to him.  He wants it, he can have it. 

BUT he says, give God what is God’s, as well.

Give Caesar that which is made in his image, and give God what is made in his image – yourself.  In the first chapter of Genesis it says,
“So God created humankind in his image, in theimage of God he created 
them; male and female he created them.
We are created in the image of God; therefore, we must give to God our very selves.

So while this isn’t a sermon about money, it is a sermon about stewardship.  Are you confused?  Many of us think of money when we hear the word stewardship.  But listen to what it means to be a steward.  A steward is:
a person who manages another's property or financial affairs; one who administers anything as the agent of another or others.  (
A steward is a servant in the household of the the owner.

We talk about stewardship in the church.  We are God’s stewards.  We have been put in charge of God’s creation, all of it, money and creation and everything else.  We have become servants of God, with a special responsibility. 

It puts a whole different spin on things, doesn’t it?  Let’s not talk about money (we’d rather not, anyway).  Let’s talk about giving ourselves and that which we have back to God. Let’s talk about taking care of the things that have been put in our charge – our wealth, but also our hearts, our souls, our minds, our strength – that’s so much bigger than just giving money back to God.  If we are God’s stewards, we have a job to do and a responsibility to God to do it wholeheartedly. 

In the mid-90s, a woman named Ruth Coker Burks found herself doing something she could have never imagined.  In 1984, she found herself in a hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas.  She was visiting a friend who was ill, and as she visited, she noticed a door covered with a big red bag.  She watched the nurses draw lots to see who had to go in and check on the patient.  She knew what was going on; she had a cousin that was gay. 

The young man in the room suffered from what became known as AIDS.  One day she ignored all the warnings on the door, following what she calls “some higher power moving her,” and went into the room.  In the room she found a man who weighed less than 100 pounds.  He wanted to see his mother.  When she went to ask the nurses about calling, they laughed at her.  Nobody was coming, they said. 

When she finally wrangled a phone number from the nurses, the woman hung up the first time she called.  When Ruth Coker Burks called back, she told the woman that if she hung up, there would be an obituary for her son put in her local paper, and his cause of death would be listed.  The woman talked to her, and told Ruth her son was a sinner, and that he wasn’t their son anymore, and that they wouldn’t claim his body when he died.

Ruth went back into the young man’s room as she tried to figure out what to tell him.  She ended up sitting with him, holding his hand, putting damp washcloths on his face until he died 13 hours later. 

Glenwood Live Oaks (Google images)
Ruth’s mother had, years ago, given her a family cemetery that had 262 plots in it; the cemetery was acquired when her mother bought up every plot during a family feud.  Ruth says she always wondered what she would do with that cemetery.   Soon she knew.

Over the next years, rural hospitals started referring young men with AIDs to her.  She became a one woman AIDs ministry and hospice care.  She would do whatever she could – take them to appointments, pick up prescriptions, help them fill out paperwork, write wills.  As word spread, her work was paid for through donations, and young men in the gay community helped out.  Thousands came to her for help.  Forty-three of them are buried in the family cemetery.

As I hear stories like this, I am humbled.  So many do so much.  Some give all they have.  I feel so silly worrying about how much money I am to give to the government or God.  God wants so much more.  God wants the first to become last, and the last become first, to become servants of all.  “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.”  (Mark 11:45)
Jesus seems not to be worried about what we give to Caesar, But he tells us that God wants something of great value from us – our very lives.
May we have the courage to make it so.  Amen.

Story about Ruth Coker Burks;

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