(I am indebted to Bob Dykstra for framing the question of this text in this way—“What does it mean to belong to God, all the way down?”)
We called Louise the prayer lady. Every single person in that church—member or non-member, man or woman, younger or older—knew her: Because everyone had found themselves on the receiving end of one of Louise’s prayers. Her prayers would arrive with the mail. Sorting through all the ads and the bills, somewhere in the pile, you would discover an envelope with your name on it; and inside, a beautiful greeting card or an elegant piece of stationery bearing a handwritten note that included your prayer.
Louise prayed for births and deaths; for suffering, sickness, and struggles; for brokenness and failures. She prayed for the pain and the ache in our lives even we did not know how to name. When you opened your “prayer mail,” in Louise’s slightly crooked cursive, she would have written two to three very concise sentences of encouragement, of hope, of challenge. And then, from her ample library of prayer books or from her Bible, she would have copied the prayer or the verses meant most especially for you. She always hit the mark.
And Louise prayed for her church. I barely had my foot in the door when Louise came to me, frustrated. “There’s no place to pray in this church” she lamented. “Not a single group gathering for prayer. No wonder we’re so contentious. No wonder we’re so stuck. So I think I’m going to start one,” she said. “And would you mind if we started by praying for you?”
Well, when she put it that way, what was I going to say?
Louise gathered up a group of about six people. They prayed for each and every aspect of the life of that church. They prayed for children and youth, for confirmands, for fledgling new ministries; for finances, missions, worship, outreach, education; they prayer for every hint of divisiveness in the church, and there was a good bit of divisiveness. They prayed for adults Louise felt simply needed to be held in the heart of Christ. They prayed for the Spirit to come and fill our life together with holy gifts. They prayed for God to make a way when there seemed no way.
Louise and her little group gathered in the chapel and prayed and everyone know it. The church trusted their prayers. Whenever we found ourselves in a tight spot, I would say to the staff—“It’s going to be OK, Louise is praying.” And I meant it.
This woman, so shaped in prayer, lived so fully in the presence of God that God shaped her discernment. She embodied the love that lives in the heart of God with such depth and grace and mercy that it spilled out of her and into the lives of everyone she knew. When I turned fifty and Louise was in her eighties, she came to my birthday party. My gift? You guessed it, a prayer. In essence, it read “Oh honey, only fifty? God has plenty of time to turn you inside out and upside down a few more times. Enjoy it.”
“Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God.” Jesus’ memorable answer to his critics in this morning’s gospel serves not only to outwit them. His answer confronts and confounds them (Rodney Hunter). Jesus poses the same question to us this morning. In our lives—as individuals, as a congregation, as country—what belongs to the emperor? And what belongs to God? He confronts us, he confounds us. All the way down, at the bottom of it all, what grounds our lives? Where do our hearts make their home?
For Louise, all the way down, at the bottom of it all, prayer grounds life.
Moses kills an Egyptian. Guilty and fearful, he flees to the “backside of the desert” (Helman). One day, while tending his flock, Moses spies a bush blazing and yet not burned. Amazed, he steps aside and when he does, God speaks; calls Moses to a holy and terrifying journey. Moses tries to refuse. God refuses the refusal. Before he acquiesces, Moses presses God for something no other human being knows. “Who are you?” he asks. “What is your name?”
“I AM who I AM,” says God. “My name is I AM.”
Moses takes the message of the great I AM to Pharaoh and God’s people win release from slavery in Egypt. Moses’ journey takes forty years of wilderness. Out in the barren places, Moses cultivated a level of conversation with God that holds open the future for God’s people. The people falter, disobey, whine. Moses’ prayer keeps the way open (Buechner).
One day, God summons Moses to the mountain. Left alone, God’s people grew bored, restless. They fashion for themselves a calf of gold and they bow down and worship; they dance and celebrate around their self-made God.
God responds with such anger that holy rage threatens to consume the people. God decides to leave them to their own devices. I AM is about to cut them loose when Moses intercedes. “I just want to remind you, God, that not one bit of this was my idea. I tried to say no, you insisted. These people, you picked them. Of all the people in the world, you picked them. This journey, your call: as I see it you have an obligation here. So calm down and give me your plan.”
The key to this remarkable conversation lives in the way Moses presses God. With each request, Moses beats with greater intensity upon the holy heart. “Please, God, your will and your way. Please, God, we need your presence. And we need to know for sure that it is you. Go with us! God, O God, show me your Glory.”
All the way down, at the bottom of it all, from the day of the burning bush, God’s presence becomes Moses’ lifeline. And not his alone; Moses insist that God accompany God’s people.
What belongs to the emperor? And what belongs to God? We have to figure it ourselves over and over and over again. Because someone in the generations yet to come depends on us to do our part, to persist boldly, even to beat upon the heart of God, for God to be known to us.
An unlikely coalition seeks Jesus out, with every intention of destroying his reputation. Unlikely, because, well … imaging Michelle Bachman and Nancy Pelosi joining forces.
They pose a question pitting religious piety against civic loyalty. They believe Jesus only has two options. Either way he answers, they’ve got him, or so they think.
Jesus rejects the failed logic that shapes the question. The unlikely coalition falls victim to their own trap.
Against all the odds, Jesus carried the day. And he does so without ever answering the question; without ever telling us what exactly belongs to the emperor and what exactly belongs to God.
The absence of an answer disappoints. We find ourselves facing choices every day in which we encounter some version of the emperor-versus-God dilemma (Hunter). Surely what belongs to God bears the mark of compassion and care, redemption and release, goodness and grace. Paul says it is obvious the Thessalonians belong to God. It is evident in their work of faith, labor of love, steadfastness in hope. And still, in the daily choosing, in the particularities of our lives, it just isn’t always easy to say, “That—that specifically belongs to God. I’d stake my life on it.”
Do we choose paper or plastic? Wall Street or Bread for the World? Give 5%, 15%, 50% for God’s work in the world?
Do we feed our family or do we blow the whistle on immorality and injustice in our workplace? Do we make pancakes for breakfast, have some pleasant family time at home, or do we worship on Sunday morning? Do we vote for better schools, even if the funding comes from legalized gambling, or do we hold out for something better?
Exactly what belongs to the emperor? What belongs to God? James Dittes, pastoral theologian, says, “There is no knowledge being accumulated” in answer to this question … we all start fresh.”
When it comes to the mysteries of God and the mysteries of persons, we cannot rely—like the Pharisees and the Herodians—on what we already think we know. Google, Wikipedia; no help. God moves in mysterious ways. On any given day, we search and seek and live by the best light we have; by all we have tasted and seen of the goodness of God. And we can dare to live this way—persistently, boldly, and deeply—because one thing we do know. You and I—we belong to God. We do. Our lives individually and corporately, they do. Our hearts, down deep, at the bottom of it all—our hearts do (McAfee Brown).
Belonging to God may mean a willingness to pray and to be prayed through. It may mean a desire to persistently press God to make God’s self known. It may mean a passion to dispel false certainties, to resist false dichotomies.
Belonging to God may mean—well, that’s the journey, isn’t it? To seek and search and say what it means, down deep, at the bottom of it all for us.
What belongs to God?
WE belong to God. WE belong to God. We BELONG to GOD.
And so my friends, let us this day GIVE to God what IS God’s.
Resources for this sermon include the following:
- Bob Dykstra, “God’s,” Cloud of Witnesses, volume 9, Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry
- Patricia Kennedy Helman, “Moses,” Alive Now, September/October 1979
- Robert McAfee Brown, Reclaiming the Bible, Chapter 1,
- Rodney Hunter, “Pastoral Implications,” Lectionary Homiletics, October 1999.
- Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures
- Pulpit Resource, Vol 24, #4, 1996