Wherever you find yourself on this morning, will you join me in a word of prayer?
Almighty God, we thank you for your love towards us, your presence with us and ask now that you would hold us, that you would cover us, that you would fill us, for all the places that you have prepared for us. This we ask in your wonderful name. Amen.
Certainly, as we gather on this morning, I must confess that I always look forward to Sunday. That might be expected from a member of the clergy or a preacher, but my anticipation for Sunday runs much deeper than simply the rituals of worship or the practices of our own religion.
On my way to this moment, I have had several occasions to reflect. and also discuss with many, the passing of time since we entered the challenges back in March and the moment of acknowledgement of the present pandemic. If we think for a moment and reflect upon the time that has gone by, we were thrusted into the center of these circumstances. Very quickly, we were moved and almost caught up where we changed our habits overnight. Prior to this moment of acknowledgement, we had been hearing about the possibilities and also the prospects of what could happen, but we tried to find comfort along the edges, hoping not to be drawn closer to the center. But the moment arrived, whether we wanted it to arrive or not. The moment arrived where we were moved from the fringes and had to grasp the realities that were confronting us, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer in sickness and in health. We were immediately wed to the moment.
This is why I look forward to Sunday. If we think about that moment, our routines and our lives were interrupted, and they were disrupted. I look forward to the encounter and the meeting that takes place on Sunday. It is a day that disrupts the routines that somehow have been trying to get a hold of me. A day that seeks to call us not to conform, but to transform. I look forward to Sunday because there’s something about Sunday that is unlike any other day of the week. Because it allows the ground that I’m on, and the place where I stand to shift from ordinary to extraordinary. It is a day that opens my thoughts to shift from impossibilities to possibilities. It is a day to take that which has been weighing me down and set it down. It is a day to try and shake off some of that, which I had no business carrying and let it go.
It is a day that allows for the examination and the reexamination of what I may have sought to avoid. But now I can embrace with faith, strength and gain the courage to face it head on. It is a day that moves all of us from the fringes of life, into the very core of where we find our life. Somehow, although many of you who are connecting with us are not here, whether you’re in your living room, your dining rooms, your bedrooms, all of a sudden, those ordinary places have become extraordinary sanctuaries. Although we may not see your faces, we recognize your presence. Although you may feel that you have been isolated, I remind you, you are never separated.
We look on this day, our separation is not isolation because when we look at today, our speaking is not about a God who just sees us, but more importantly, it is about a God who is with us. No matter where you are today, I remind you, we stand here, lifting up and letting you know that God is with you in a moment like this. As much as I would like to lighten the moment found in the gospel this morning, I am compelled by its content and the calling of the spirit to move to the core of the text that is always present, but sometimes not heard clearly. Because the gospel and the words of Jesus have a way of disrupting, disturbing, and upsetting our routines, there is a tension and a meeting in this text, two forces moving in opposite directions.
And if we’re not careful, we can be caught up going in the direction and not moving with the kind of flow and intent that we ought to have in times like these. One is moving with a focus and a plan shaped by their selfish desires and the other by Jesus who has a focus that is shaped by the selfless service found in seeking God’s will. The religious authorities and certain political influences of the day planned and plotted in order that they might trip Jesus up or trap Jesus by drawing him into the center of their debate and conflict. What they did not realize was that Jesus was not trying to move away from the center of life’s critical questions, but he wanted to place himself dead center. Or let me rephrase that, place himself at life’s center, in order that they would hear what they needed to hear, to get out of the routines and the focus that they had to take the temporary and somehow transform it into the eternal.
The text, for a moment, rest upon their questions, that they thought would bring Jesus down. But their question only helped to lift him up. They try to preface their question with words of flattery. They try to get him to think that they thought highly of who he was, and so we hear their words. When when they say, 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. Listen to how they paint the picture and try to get him to fall for this kind of facade. And then they immediately move to asking, almost with a demanding tone, tell us, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Jesus steps right into the center and calls us to join him there as he answers their question after careful examination of the coin used for tax in that day, it was here, printed and casted with the emperor’s image pressed upon its face. And Jesus looks at the coin, has them carefully examine it. And he tells them, give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s. It is not the answer that they expected. Perhaps it’s not the answer that we would have expected, but Jesus gets to the heart of the matter while they perhaps try to trip him up while hoping he addresses the issue by skirting the issue. Jesus could have gotten caught up in whether or not one should pay their taxes. And in the honest responsibility on both sides to engage in fair and just practices for the benefit of all and for the functioning of government, for the care of all of those around us, Jesus could have spent time talking about civic duty and the accountability we should uphold in meeting the requirements, set upon each of us, as we examine and hear the need to assist the poor, the need to provide care for our sick, to deliver essential services, not to those considered at the high rung or those considered special, but especially to those who have been marginalized, ostracized, racialized, in order that their importance would never be minimized.
He gives the straightforward and simple answer, but raises a key question. You may not see it printed on the page, but the question is right there. He says, give the emperor what belongs to him, but give to God what belongs to God. The question and focus is not what I give to the emperor. The real question today is what do I give to God? The real wrestle is have I come prepared on this day and every day of my life to give him my best? On this day, have I really thought about who is first in my priority, who is at the center of my life, and who is at the center of all of my joy? They left God out, when Jesus was trying to make sure God was brought in. They had closed the doors, when Jesus was trying to open the doors. They had shut down their thinking had drawn their conclusions. They had made up their mind about what they should do when God was calling them to do more than what they had already done. It is at the center of all that is taking place in our lives that God is working and speaking. They were focused on someone’s failure to pay taxes. When no one was asking the question, God, what would you have me to do for my brother and my sister? God, what would you have me to do for my son and my daughter? God, what would you have me to do for the sick and the shutout? God, what would you have me to do in the highways and byways in the dark where all of those who are crying out, their voices need to be?
I am reminded this morning of one of the most noted, deans of preachers, Dr. Gardner Taylor, who often reminded many of us preachers that we have to be careful to not be intimidated by the crowd or the circumstances we encounter and be guilty of preaching what might be called a suburban gospel. A gospel, well that is comfortable camping out on the edge of the city. It does not deal with the real issues of life. It embraces simply manageable themes that are inoffensive and only offers prudential advice. Well, I’m grateful today to join with my colleagues today, I’m grateful for the leadership of our dean that is not letting us get comfortable on the here, the fringe, and the outskirts of the city, but to press to the core of what is happening today. That no matter where you are, that you know that there’s somebody here praying for you. Somebody here lifting you up. Somebody here who is not comfortable to live life on the edge of the city, but to be at the center of where life’s traffic is really taking, what shall I render and what shall I give?
All week I have been challenged by almost a deafening sound of politics, posturing, positioning, marketing, promoting, and advertising, and attempts at influencing my life and your life that has at times sent my spirit drifting. But the gospel has a way of interrupting those patterns. It has a way of disrupting the chaos. It has a way of asking me the question, what shall I give? In another translation that says, what shall I say render unto God? I can remember hearing in the days, gone by acquirers, who often lifted up that selection in that gospel hymn, what shall I render to God for all of his blessings? What shall I render? And what shall I give? All I can render is my body and my soul. That’s all I can render. That’s all I can give. God has everything. And everything belongs to him. God has everything and everything belongs to him.
I remind you today. It is our giving, not our receiving, that transforms the world. I learned very early in my 22 years of pastoring, that out of all of the statements, declarations, assertions, and sermons that were offered, declared, and given, there was one statement that caused more disruption, more disturbance, and more unsettling, above all the others that I made. It was simply saying to an individual or to an assembly that I love you. It caused more problems than saying, there’s a meeting on this night that we were short with something else. To tell someone I love you causes them to wrestle with truth or false hood. Saying I love you opens the door to vulnerability. Saying I love you causes an examination that some will never feel causing. Saying that I love you will make those who have never gotten up before rise up out of circumstances they never thought they would get out of.
Today we’re not called to camp out on the fringes of life, but we dare to stand at the center and declare our love for God, our love of neighbor, our love of every man, woman, boy, and girl. The love that is needed from every parent, child, neighbor, and for even every stranger. I remind you today, if you want to turn the world upside down, call someone and tell them I love you. Call someone and offer the best that God has given you. On today, what shall I render? And on today, I’m reminded of standing with my mom, standing with my parents, standing with family, and we would stand and sing, “Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing that grace. Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the Mount, oh, fixed me on it, mount of that redeeming love. Today, what shall I render? Love. Unceasing. Love with no limits. In your home, in your connections, whether it’s digital or in person, tell someone that God loves you. And so do I.