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Sermons

The Things That Belong To God

October 17, 1999, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22;

They are out to get him, and now they have a fool-proof plan: trap him between the hated governing officials and the people with whom he is so popular. If he sides with paying taxes, the people will turn on him. If Jesus stands against paying taxes, the government will get him. The roads outside Jerusalem were littered with his type, hanging on crosses, as witness to what happens to those who resist Roman authority. One way or another, the Pharisees would soon be rid of this troublemaker. “Teacher, ... is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

Hypocrites,” Jesus knows what they are up to, “Show me the coin. Whose image and title is upon it?”

The Emperor’s!” they reply.

Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”1

Slipping out of their grasp, once again Jesus has confounded them. Amazed, his detractors go away to leave him alone.

Like them, we know to whom the coin belongs, and can give it back. This is not Jesus giving a lecture on the relationship between church and state, Christians’ responsibilities to governments -- taxation, military conscription, or the like.2 Jesus is simply trying to escape the trap. But his answer raises a far more reaching question: What are the things that belong to God?

The coin was stamped with the emperor’s image and inscription. That is what identified it as belonging to him. Where do you find God’s image and inscription? Where can God’s imprint be found? Surely nature witnesses to a presence behind it. The psalmist reminds us that “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.”3 We can look at creation and marvel, as many a cosmologist today marvels at the immense intricacy of the universe, the utter beauty and elegance of the system of physical laws which appear to govern its behavior. One physicist, explaining why he believes in God, writes: “The fact that this set of laws – still not fully uncovered – appears to be expressible mathematically and to constitute a realized axiomatic system is a delight to me, and I’m not sure it could have worked in any other way.”4 The heavens declare the wonder and glory of God. Everywhere one looks in the cosmos, God’s fingerprints appear. But where do we find God’s image? Not in the stars, nor the sun, nor moon, not in any of nature. The only place we find God’s image stamped into creation is on the crown of God’s creative activity, woman and man. At the apex of God’s work of creation, after the sun, moon, stars, firmament, vegetation and all other living creatures had been brought forth, God said: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;”5 Jesus’ question reminds us that we belong to God. It is God’s image that has been stamped on us. It is God’s inscription that you and I bear. You and I are the things that belong to God, the ones who bear God’s inscription.

What does it mean to be imprinted with God’s stamp, to bear God’s image? First, it means that each of us has the capacity for a relationship with God. Have you taken that so for granted that you have never considered what an extraordinary gift it is? Of all of the things that God created, humans are the only creatures that have such a capacity. Being created in God’s image does not mean that we were created to look like God, or that at our very best God looks like us. The biblical writer is not a biologist, much less a physicist, but a theologian. The divine image is about relationship and purpose. We have been created to know, love, serve, and worship God; we alone have the capacity to interact with God. Wentzel van Huyssteen, a theologian whose discipline is the relationship between theology and science, in his recent book entitled “Duel or Duet”, makes the point that it is the emergence of cognition in humans, the awareness of the self within us, that reveals this special capacity for relationship.

To be sure, this capacity for relationship with God is a double- edged sword, for it means that of all of God’s creatures, we alone also have the capacity to ignore and even deny God’s existence. In all of creation, it is only humans who worship. Granted, we can worship the wrong things, and when we do, things go very wrong. If you have not yet read Richard Russo’s stimulating article in today’s New York Times Magazine, “How ?I’ Moved Heaven and Earth,” an issue devoted to “The Me Millennium,”6 I urge you to do so before the day is over. It is an extraordinary testament to what happens when we push God to the margins of reality, and as the cover proclaims “... put the self at the center of the universe.” But, as the headline goes on to proclaim, “Now, for better or worse, we are on our own.”7 But the gospel tells us we are not alone, much less at the center of the universe, except, perhaps, in our heads.

Aware of the wonders of the universe more than two millennia ago, the psalmist asks: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little less than God.” We are more than creatures, more than offspring. We are God’s children, and the object of an interest and attention that can only be explained by using the word “love.” In all of creation, it is only humans who are the objects of God’s love. A little less than God, we have been made to live with and out of God’s love. We are beloved children of God, being pursued with a relentless love which emerges out of the same magnitude and power who brought all things into being. A little less than God, we bear not only the image of God, but the title “children of God.”

The image of God within us has another implication: stamped with God’s image and inscription, you and I are coin of God’s realm.8 We are God’s currency. We have the capacity and power to manifest God’s presence and rule in life. It is called stewardship. When you and I care, keep and use the created order as God’s gifts to be received and used in God’s service, we are God’s currency, extending God’s realm.

We are coin of God’s realm when we become creators ourselves, whether that is in the arts, the sciences, or the humanities. It is most immediately visible in the creative arts. I think it is why I love them so and am so moved by them. Talk with a musician, painter, sculptor, writer, about what it is she does, of what is called the creative process, and you will hear of being grasped by a presence greater than herself which must come to birth on canvas, in stone, steel, bronze, or on manuscript paper. But this creativity resultant from the divine image within us is not limited to the arts. The mathematician will talk about the beauty of an equation, the chemist of the elegance of a formula, the biologist of the wonder of a molecular structure, the physicist of the awe and astonishment of living in a non-stagnant universe. We reveal the image of God within us when, like God, we become creators. The exercise of this gift is part of our vocation as Christians. We are called to such stewardship in every sector of our common life, be it social, economic, political, scientific, aesthetic, yes, even religious. Each of these is a place where you and I are called to manifest God’s presence as coin and currency of God’s realm.

The third place you and I manifest God’s presence and reign is in the stewardship of our relationships with one another. You and I are the currency through whom God establishes order, justice, compassion, care, beauty, truth, and goodness in human relationships. Humans were not created to be free agents living life as though accountable to no one but themselves. When that happens, life is blighted and warped in the ways so tragically described in other articles in “The Me Millennium” edition of this week’s The New York Times Magazine. Read David Samuel’s “In the Age of Radical Selfishness; What it’s like being 30-something, overpaid and totally disconnected.”9 One of Jesus’ major themes was how we treat one another, reminding us that as we treat one another, so we treat God. “As you have done it to the least of these my brothers and sisters,” says Jesus, “so you have done it to me.” You and I are the currency through whom God is at work preserving, restoring, and nurturing life.

Yet we live in a culture that tells us wealth, possessions, even relationships define us. I had a vivid reminder of that this week, when there appeared in the mail boxes of our building a magazine called “Quest.” It is one of those give-away periodicals that focuses on social life in New York City. Generally the magazine appears in our mail boxes, only to pass from my hands into the recycling bin, along with the multitude of other catalogues we receive in the mail almost daily. But not so with this October 1999 issue.10 eyond a cover displaying a very handsome and relaxed Ralph Lauren, what caught my eye were the words imprinted across his glossy photograph: New York’s Billionaires: ... 32 men who shape the city with their priorities, passions and whims.” I will not bore you with the list, nor spend time asking why it should be only men. The truth of the matter is those 32 men do shape the culture of this city with their priorities, passions and whims. To the article’s credit, it mentioned not only the pluses but also some minuses of such a life: “You can buy anything,” but, “nothing is good enough.” “Women half your age find you attractive,” but “Your ex-wife finds your assets attractive.” “You are worth more than the GDP of entire countries,” but, “You need a small army to guard your loot.” Here’s one it failed to add: before it is over you discover that rather than owning your possessions, you are owned by them. It is what happens when we forget to whom we belong, when we let our possessions, wealth and relationships define us. As John C. Bookout, reminded the National Fraternal Committee last month: “The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings, but shorter tempers; wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints; we spend more, but have less; we buy more, but enjoy it less. We have bigger houses, but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; increased possessions, but reduced values. We can get to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the hall to greet the new neighbor; have conquered outer space, but are captive to our inner space. We know how to make a better living, but are clueless when it comes to finding a life.”11 Such is a life stamped with the imprint of other things that would be lord in our lives.

In a culture that uses the image of wealth and possession of things as the measure of our value, meaning and stature, Jesus reminds us that we belong to God, we are the coin of God’s realm, God’s treasure -- God’s beloved. Your value, meaning and stature are God-given, because you bear God’s image. You and I are not owned by Caesar, not owned by the culture, not owned by our possessions, not even by ourselves. We bear the mark and inscription of God, who walked among us in Jesus Christ to reveal who God is, who you and I were created to be, and to break the grip of those things trying to separate us from God, the God who reaches out to us now by the power of the Holy Spirit to give us life in divine abundance.

Give to the Caesars of this world what belongs to them. But remember, you belong to God.

  1. R.S.V. translation of Matthew 22:21
  2. Charles B. Cousar, et. al. Texts for Preaching, A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV - Year A, (Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1995), p. 533.
  3. Psalm 19:1
  4. Robert Mills, Professor Emeritus, Department of Physics, Ohio State University, “My God,” unpublished paper, c 1999, p.2
  5. Genesis 1:26. See also Genesis 1:27.
  6. Richard Russo, “How ?I’ Moved Heaven and Earth,” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 1999, pp 85-89,
  7. Ibid, cover headline.
  8. The turn of phrase is Thomas H. Troeger’s in “Serving the Word,” Homily Service, October 1999, Vol. 32, No. 7., (Silver Spring, MD: The Liturgical Conference, 1999), p. 45.
  9. David Samuels, The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 1999, pp. 120ff.
  10. Quest- New York From The Inside, (New York: Meigher Communications, 1999), p. 63.
  11. Anon, “Paradox,” Presented by John C. Bookout, President of the National Fraternal Committee, meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, September 11, 1999.

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