A Christmas Miracle

Text: Galatians 4:4-7
My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying,  Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. 

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On Christmas morning as a child, my parents would make my sister, and I stay in our rooms as they set up for our families annual Christmas ritual. My mother would put on Christmas music, the "classics" as she would say,  and put some cinnamon rolls in the oven. And my father would make a cup of coffee and make sure that the video camera was ready to go to capture everything on tape. After all the necessary steps were taken, they would tell us that they were prepared, and my sister and I would come running out of our rooms to see what "Santa" had brought us for Christmas.

There was undoubtedly a sense of childlike curiosity and amazement… How could Santa possibly bring all these gifts to people in one night? It's still a question that I'm trying to understand today, so if you have the answer, please let me know… Maybe my math skills aren't high enough to comprehend all the theoretical physics for such a trip. Nevertheless, Christmas as a child was something that was filled with wonderment and awe. Of course, I still feel such things today, but nothing can compare when I think back to my sister's childhood experience with Christmas.

You see, when my sister was young, there was one Christmas where she didn't open any of her gifts… My mother told me that my sister would go on to play with the beautifully wrapped boxes for at least a week after Christmas had come and gone. She didn't grasp that there was something underneath the shiny paper, and there could be something better than what was on the outside. To her, the boxes wrapped in the colorful paper were the gifts, and she honestly enjoyed playing with them. So you can imagine her surprise when my parents finally had to show her that there was something underneath all that wrapping paper… It was indeed a Christmas miracle.

But coming back to the present for a moment, the gifts we have gotten for one another have been exchanged, crumpled wrapping paper and sparkling bows have been torn off in anticipation,  and as we come to this New Years Eve, many people think Christmas as something that has come and gone. So then why is it that we still often live our lives in a way that reflects an unopened Christmas present? We have received the greatest gift of all, the love and grace of God… But when we look around, we find that there aren't many people who are "wearing" or "showing off" this gift. It is tempting just to imagine what is inside, but that isn't enough. We have to unwrap this gift so that it can challenge us, shape us, push us to go outside our comfort zone in order to share it with all people, to let the shining light of this Christmas miracle speak the love, peace, joy, and hope that was meant for all times and all places.

Perhaps one day we can work towards re-obtaining such a sense of childlike excitement… But then time appears to be our greatest enemy, the adversary that prevents us from holding onto the innocence that we once possessed. The world that once looked inviting, charming, and wide open, turned out to be more oppressive than we thought. There were hurts, their pains, there were lost and shattered dreams that made it feel like there was nothing left. So then it becomes only natural to hold onto something that gives us hope, that provides us with strength, that provides the light for us during the darkest of days and provides anticipation for the coming glory of God. The critical thing to remember is that we can't keep it for ourselves…

Can we bring back a sense of childlike awe and wonder that empowers us to share this Christmas miracle with others? Are we able to find it within ourselves to bring this healing light to a world that needs light? Childlike doesn't mean powerless… Childlike doesn't mean we ignore opportunities to grow in our faith, but instead embrace opportunities that allow us to study the Word of God… Childlike, childlike means that we empty ourselves and take on a spirit of humility that allows God to work in us, to enables us to participate in this narrative of salvation that all started with the miraculous birth of Christ.

And so we find ways to rediscover this Christmas miracle in ways that are new and refreshing as Christ came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world, or as Paul states, "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." Christ was born under the law, to a woman who was deemed to be a lawbreaker by her those around her, yet it was by such means, by the power of Mary and Holy Spirit,  that God frees us from the shackles of sin and death in order that we may be called the children of God. And when we find ourselves in situations where the darkness surrounds us or where the struggles of life begin to overwhelm us, we can cry out to God saying, "Abba! Father!"

What does it mean for us to cry out to God? For the Reformer John Calvin, "crying" in this case is an expression of firmness and unwavering confidence." When we cry out to God, we do so remember the words of Paul in Romans, "For we have not received a spirit of bondage to falling back into fear, but a spirit of freedom to full confidence." Will we lift our voices with the multitudes of people around the world? Will we join with our sisters and brothers in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who face persecution for their faith, and will we lift our voices up to protect the rights of all people? Will we join with those who are oppressed? Will we summon the courage and strength to offer praise so that we are not held by a spirit of fear, fear of the "other," fear of the foreigner, fear of those who are not like us? Will we cry out as children of the living God, embracing the Spirit of light that we have carried with us throughout this season of Christmas? This is quite a challenge, I would say it should be on the top of the list of anyone who is in the practice of making a New Year's resolution…

We are children of a living God… We are sealed in the love and grace of a God who offers more than any earthly parent or guardian… We are not only held in such high regard but also trusted with the task to live out this grace and love in our daily lives so that all may bear witness to the Spirit of God that resides in each and every one of us. Dare we be faithful witnesses to this love and grace? Do we have what it takes to unwrap the divine gift we have received so that we may go out and help others discover the majesty that awaits them as well? It's a Christmas miracle that can journey with us into the new year as we go forth exploring ways that we can better connect with God and one other so that we can speak truth to power, find freedom in the midst of cell blocks and iron bars, and live boldly into the identities that have been given to us from God.

As the children of a living God, how will we carry this Spirit of Christmas throughout the rest of the year? As children of a living God will we continue to live as ones who are satisfied with wrapped gifts, not wanting them to be tarnished by the world? Or will we live as ones who bring the light of the greatest Christmas gift to all people, to those who live in darkness, to those who live under oppression, to those who face injustice, and to those who require a companion, a friend? It means that we have to take a risk… This Christmas miracle can't stay in a box forever… It has to come out, it has to be shared, and we are the ones who are meant to live it out in our lives, speak it boldly yet lovingly with our words, and go out and be with the ones Christ called us to care for… Christmas day may come once a year, but the Spirit of Christmas, the implications of this miraculous gift, are meant to be carried with us now and forever.

Let us pray… Holy God, Lord of this Christmas season and Lord of all times and all places. Renew in us a spirit of anticipation and hope. Kindle in us a fire that shines forth you love wherever we go. May we come to you with a sense of humility and eagerness so that we may go out proclaiming this Christmas miracle we have received. As we prepare ourselves for another year may your Spirit be our guide and may we strive to have our hearts be attuned to your will. Amen.

The Story of Joseph & Mary

*Reflection on Mary is offered by Zoë Garry.

Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

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How many of us can relate to Joseph? I don't imagine that many of us could see ourselves in the place of someone who lived over 2,000 years ago, but how many of us can connect to the situation that Joseph finds himself in this morning? How many of us could resonate with the fears and feelings of distrust that Joseph probably wrestled with before an angel of God spoke to him in a dream? Did Joseph really know what was going on and how this fit into God's larger narrative? Maybe the title of my reflection is a little misleading because Joseph didn't realize… But then perhaps it's appropriate because it reflects our journey of life and faith as well. 

The Scripture passage tells us this morning that Joseph was a "just" man… Some translations of this text say that Joseph was a "righteous" man, but I think in this situation there isn't enough of a distinction to make a difference. And Joseph was a just man, not wanting Mary to suffer any kind of public anger or persecution, but the justice Joseph demonstrated may not be worthy of our admiration and praise… at least not quite yet… 

Justice is one of those funny words and becomes increasingly complex, especially when you throw in the element of faith. Because when you throw religion into the mix what you find is that there is a division between the divine justice of God and our human sense of justice… We find such an act of human judgment in Joseph's decision to break off his relationship with Mary … Joseph was probably afraid, was perhaps angry, and possibly suspicious of Mary. As a result, Joseph did what many of us would have done, which is to fall back on an old coping mechanism that makes us feel like we have some control over the world around us. 

Recently I was reminded that Christmas can often feel like one big paradox… We dedicate a time of the year to celebrating peace, love, and joy, but are often swept up in a sea of chaos that comes with juggling work and family, finances and generosity, and enjoying the company of some, but remembering that there's that "one" person you hope not to run into at a Christmas party… With everything that goes on in our lives, it can feel as though there isn't enough left to give to those who have something to share. But instead of withdrawing from those who need to be heard, we should don a spirit of humility and allow ourselves to be challenged and empathic to those who are hurting as well. 

This isn't included in this familiar Bible story, but I would imagine that Mary tried to tell Joseph what had happened to her. Apparently, that wasn't enough for Joseph, because as we see in the unfolding of this text, Joseph was ready to quietly "dismiss" her. There are a lot of stories out there that have not been heard, there are a lot of stories that have been dismissed. There is a myriad of stories from women and the oppressed that have not been heard… They haven't been heard not because of a shortage of ears to hear, but because of a lack of grace, compassion, and justice that searches for truth rather than preserving the status quo, which we seek out during this season of Christmas. 

Could Joseph have really known what was going on around him? I don't think Joseph could have imagined fleeing to Egypt as a refugee with his future family to escape unjust systematic oppression. I don't believe that Joseph fully understood the words of God who told him that this child inside of Mary would become the savior for all peoples, all nations, all classes, and all races… I don't think that Joseph could have fully understood what was going on, and being honest, I don't think we always no what is going on as well. 

I don't mean to give Joseph a hard time or make it seem like Joseph was a bad person, but I bring up these things because I think this is a story we need to hear. And the stories that we need to understand are often the ones that we don't want to listen to the most. But that doesn't mean there isn't any hope or grace left for us… What this means is that there are multiple opportunities for us to try and try again until we perfect this spiritual gift of Christmas listening… 

Here is where the divine grace of God enters into the picture… While Joseph, while we are left with many questions and doubts, God speaks to us and tells us what we need to hear… For Joseph, it was that Mary was telling the truth… And that Joseph needed to set aside his fears to take on the responsibilities that God gave him. For us, it was and is and always shall be God reminding us to hear and actively listen to those who tell us their stories… That while it may be difficult, we are to uphold one another to a standard where compassion, empathy, and love rules our lives instead of fear, mismanaged power, and distrust. 

Maybe God was talking directly to Joseph when the angel of the Lord said, "And he will save the people from their sins." We all require salvation… A salvation that liberates us from the bondage of sin and death and brings us into the one community, the one body of Jesus Christ. There will be many times where we will find ourselves unable to believe. Maybe it's because we are unwilling or perhaps it's because we are recovering from our own hurts. But that is why Christ came into the world in the form of a humble child… Joseph needed salvation from his doubt, his anger, and his fear, and we need the redemption that is offered so freely from the Christ Child so that we might one day come together and dwell in unison in the Kingdom of God listening to the stories that have long been silenced. 

Can we use this Christmas time to cultivate a level of belief that takes us outside our fears, our distrust, and our own biases? Are we willing to let the Christ Child, the one who shall be called Emmanuel, enter our hearts so that the voices of those who have been silenced and marginalized can be heard? It takes faith… It takes courage… It took the coming of God to Joseph in a dream to believe the story of Mary… But we don't have any excuse not to think, because Christ himself came into the world to open our hearts, to open our ears, to open our eyes… There are no more excuses left… All that there is is to accept this Christmas miracle, this great gift that bears a great deal of responsibility, and go out into the world believing and seeking true justice in love, faith, and Christian fellowship. Amen.

When Lord?

Text: Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday! Christ is King, but when have we saw God in need of food, shelter, companionship, the essentials of life, and healing? Christ is King, but not the kind of King that we often imagine. It’s not a very pleasant thought for us to think about, but one that is ever present as we confront the reality in which we live…

Did you know that here in Watertown, NY, there are many individuals who are without a place to live? And unlike other metropolitan or urban areas, those who don’t have a home are often forced to sleep in their car, making their need invisible to our site and creating a false sense that everything is fine when it really isn’t.

Did you know that not too far away there are women and men at Fort Drum who come from all different parts of the world? There are those who come from Africa, from Asia, from Europe, from South America, and from all different parts of the United States.

Did you know that the North Country is facing an opioid epidemic that has impacted thousands upon thousands of individuals and families? And our traditional technique of preventing drug usage has not had any positive effect. Locking men and women behind bars without any means of rehabilitation or social safety nets means that a large number of those incarcerated will be disproportionately Black and Brown along with those who find themselves in situations where they are unable to pay their way out of the current correctional system we have in place.

Did you know that in Watertown, 30-40% of the population is on Medicaid? And the truth is that there is probably a good number more who are sick and in need of medical assistance but do not have the means to acquire the treatments that could potentially make them better. Are we willing to pool together our resources to make sure that those are vulnerable are cared for, or will we neglect the call to be the Good Samaritan?

If we are to take seriously the belief that each and every one of us is created in the image of God, then we better take seriously the question of where we find God in the situations named above, and what that means for us as people who hear God’s voice saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

How did we get to where we are today? What forces have driven us to become so polarized that we are unable to come together to address the needs of the communities in which we live? Why is it that we label one another ways that are destructive and divisive? When the time comes for us to stand before the throne of God who reigns over the heavens and the earth, what will we say when we are asked to present an account of the things we have done?

The text for this morning pushes us to think about the kind of King Christ is, and also asks us whether or not we are living under the sovereignty of God or following our own ways.

There are so many needs in the world that it sometimes feels like the work we do will never be enough to solve all the problems that are at hand. It may surprise you, but psychologists actually have a name for this feeling, and they call it “compassion fatigue.” I’ve always been on the fence when it comes to compassion fatigue because on the one hand, I believe in the importance of self-care, but on the other hand, I think that each and every one of us is called to participate in a work that goes way beyond ourselves.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve spent the last two weeks on a whirlwind tour of the Adirondacks and New Jersey. At Lake Clear, I got to hear about the beautiful work that is being done by communities of faith in the Presbytery of Northern New York, and in New Jersey, I had the opportunity to meet future faith leaders as they got to hear about the summer internship program offered by our church and the presbytery. Also, I also got to spend time at Johnsonburg Camp and Retreat Center learn about the continued work that they are doing to provide spiritual opportunities for youth, young adults, and people of all walks of life.

It’s really a beautiful thing… to hear about the great work that is being done in communities both near and far. And it’s a shame because the news tends to report on the bad things that go on rather than all the good that is being done. Maybe if we took the time to see the good that is going on around us, we wouldn’t be as divided as we are today and possibly would then be able to come together as one body to care and love for one another in a way that reflects the character of Jesus Christ. The work that we are called to do is not easy… Breaking down the walls of division that we have erected for ourselves is not something that happens overnight. But as we begin to deconstruct the labels and preconceived notions, we have given one another, the work of healing and reconciliation may start to take place.

Our spiritual identity, our worldly status, is founded on whether or not we are living into the lives that God has set before us. The core of our very being is dependent on whether or not we are willing to let the sovereign grace of God govern our lives, or if we are going to rely on methods that have caused such schism in our human family and created the world. While we may be concerned with the labels or titles that the world offers, God is more concerned about a different kind of “labeling,” a labeling that identifies whether or not we have been faithful stewards of the gifts we have been given and whether or not we have used what we have to care for the least of these.

Rich, poor, right, wrong, liberal, conservative, refugee, citizen, patriot, unpatriotic, Jews, Greeks, male, female, slaves, and free – the labels that we place on one another are endless. But in the end, our attempt to categorize individuals based on their traits are futile. As we’ve seen in the passage for this morning, God isn’t concerned about the labels or categories that world assigns to us… Instead, God is concerned with whether or not we have fed, clothed, cared, and visited those individuals whom we are called to love and serve.

Having finished a time of thanksgiving and feasting with friends and family, we know what it is like to give, we know what it is like to share and care for those whom we cherish and adore. But those aren’t the people God is concerned about. As we have seen time and time again in the New Testament, Jesus continually challenges us to be with those whom we would never normally associate ourselves with. And while we may think that this is a hard task to accomplish, we will soon bear witness and celebrate a God who did that very thing… Coming down to earth in the form of an infant, God came to be with those who needed a savior the most…

Have we responded with compassion to “the least of these”? Have we seen the face of Christ in those in prison, the hungry and the sick, and treat them as we’d treated our Lord, our Savior, our King, Jesus Christ, or did we continue to follow in the ways of sin and let their cries fall on deaf ears? We know what Jesus would have done… We proclaim that truth every Sunday we gather to worship… But the actual test for us will rest on whether or not we will allow the Spirit of Christ to challenge us by encouraging us to connect with our neighbors in new ways, discovering opportunities that allow for spiritual growth, and understanding what it really means to worship Christ as King.

Give to God the Things That Are God’s

Text: Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

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This morning we find that the Pharisees were at it again, but this time with the Herodians and their disciples as well. How many times have we run across these encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders and the teachers of the law? We shouldn’t be surprised, then when we discover their latest plot to try and put Jesus into a precarious position. I’m sure that they waited for Jesus to be in a crowded place before swooping in to pose this question to him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” Saying “no” would be an act of treason… It would be an act of treason against Caesar and the Roman empire. Saying “yes” would imply that the people were to submit themselves solely to the global powers and principalities that be, which would be a grave sin… But Jesus didn’t fall into their trap. Instead, Jesus turned and answered them in a way that challenged those in the crowd and us today to think about what it means to be people who claim to be the hands and feet of God in the world. 

Before Jesus answered the question crafted by the Pharisees and the Herodians, I bet they were feeling pretty good about themselves… Jesus may have evaded them before, but this time, they had him in their sights, there was no way that Jesus was going to come out unscathed. So I imagine it must have been all the more disappointing then when Jesus turned the tables on them. Having been given a coin that is used to pay taxes, Jesus showed it to them and asked whose image was on the currency. When they replied that it was a picture of the emperor, Jesus then gave one of the most recognizable quotes from the New Testament, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” What makes this so remarkable is that Jesus gave a subversive answer without actually being subversive… Jesus essentially says, “Give to earthly rulers the things that are theirs, because in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter since everything belongs to God and to God alone. Give, therefore, to God the things that are God’s because we all belong to God, who created each and every one of us.”

And this is where things become a little challenging… It was certainly challenging for the Pharisees and the Herodians as they eventually dispersed in disbelief, and it continues to be challenging for us as modern-day readers of this passage. Because if we are honest with ourselves, we would see that there is an underlying struggle for us as citizens of an earthly power, and as Christians who profess a faith God and membership in the Kingdom of God. But what’s important for us to realize is that this conflict isn’t always apparent to us, it isn’t still obvious. And so therefore it is also essential for us to understand is that this clash of two realities also has real moments, that are observable, that sometimes have a negative impact on those whom we live in community with, such when we act like Cain who out of selfishness and malice asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) We know the truth, the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ… But when it comes to doing the things we are supposed to do, we sometimes, like the Pharisees and the Herodians, try to place God in a situation that would meet our own needs. 

We see this tension between the mortal and cosmic realms in our everyday lives. I remember that there was a time when I was taking a train from New York City back to Princeton. While I was reading a book, someone who appeared to be in need help, someone who appeared to be homeless, came into our passenger car asking for some money. I had some change in my pocket and offered it to them as well as a few other passengers, but soon after this person left someone said, “That person is always asking for money. They’re just a bum who can’t be bothered to get a real job.” Look… I don’t profess to know everything about the homeless person’s life. They might have well been looking for a few quick bucks, but if anything, I walked away knowing more about the character of the person who spoke out against those who had offered what change they had than the homeless person who was looking for some help. We’ve been raised to look out for ourselves… We’ve been so immersed in the way of thinking that focuses on protecting our own prosperity we have forgotten what it is like to look out for others. We have forgotten about the very people Jesus called and still calls us to care for and love. 

This might be hard to hear, but there’s a little bit of Pharisee in each and every one of us… This isn’t a bad thing, let’s be clear about that. The Pharisee’s were people who were trying their best to live out the teachings of the religious law, but often they fell on the wrong side of the Gospel message. We, too, have tried our best to live by the moral and ethical codes that have been passed onto us. But where did these teachings come from? While I’m sure that some of them came from Sunday school lessons and sermons, I would imagine that the majority of what we learned came from our parents, our teachers, and our communities, primarily the society and culture in which we were raised. There is nothing wrong with following the rules or trying to stick to the teachings that we had given from those who had come before us. But the problem is when these principles become a barricade that prevents us from offering all that we have to the mission that God has given us. We know what it means to give to Caesar and to the empire, but do we really understand what it means to provide what we have to God, a God who is not limited by human powers or borders?

We know what it is like to live in a world where the tensions of our civic life clash with the realities of our religious life. From the moment that we wake up, there is a whirlwind of things that vie for our attention… There are the numerous texts from work or friends that we didn’t answer,  a significant sale at either a department store or online, multiple sporting events, the latest Netflix or TV series catch up on, and by the end of the day we realize that we have dedicated very little time to the thing that we proclaim to be most important in our lives… By the end of the day, we recognize that what we have given to God is very little compared with what we have given to the demanding voices and pressures that seem to have control over our lives. It’s difficult when there are so many things that pull us away and distract us from what it means to live into the identities that God has envisioned for us. But knowing the pains and joys of human life, God does not condemn us for withholding what we have or giving what we have to Caesar, but instead abundantly counter-intuitively offers grace that allows us to grow in faith and love.

And herein lies the good news of the Gospel. Because when we stop and think for a moment we remember that Jesus has already modeled what it means to live a selfless life that is dedicated to God. Having been raised and trained as a carpenter, I’m sure that Jesus kept some of the trade skills that he had learned from Joseph all those years ago. And while the Bible doesn’t record any stories of Jesus using his craft, I would imagine that there were times when Jesus would use what he had to help those around him. Jesus’ life and work were meant to inspire us to look past our obligations to the Roman Empire, our own modern-day allegiances, and to look towards our ultimate responsibility of taking care of God’s created world… Giving what is due to Caesar may be a part of God’s plan, but it certainly isn’t what God is primarily focused on. Because there is so much more at stake than whether or not we are citizens who carry out our civic responsibilities… Not because these civic responsibilities don’t matter, but because they are a  given. What Jesus is more concerned about is whether or not we will one day be able to view them in the larger picture that God has painted, that includes the community of saints in the Kingdom of God who come from North, South, East, and West… All that is required of us is that we give to God the things that are God’s.

And let me say that giving to God the things that are God’s isn’t an easy task. Sure, we can give up things like chocolate when the season of Lent rolls around, but that’s not really something that God cares a whole lot about… I’m sorry if that’s a surprise to you, because while may be a healthy practice it doesn’t do a whole lot for spiritual growth.  So what’s next? What is our response after hearing and witnessing the good news? We know that we can find reassurance in the fact that in God, there is an abundance of grace, but how can we live lives that respond to Jesus’ call to, ‘Give to God what is God’s”? I’m not sure that I can give an answer that encompasses the many complexities of life and faith, but I’ll leave you with two closing thoughts: 

1) Giving to God the things that are God’s goes way beyond the surface belief that God only cares about what goes into the offering place on Sunday morning… It’s about not only finding ways to give our treasures but also finding ways to give our time and our talents as well so that we can bear witness to God and in humility serve the church and our surrounding communities. So how do we hear God’s voice calling us to serve?

2) Giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s means that our relationship to Caesar is pretty one-sided, meaning that we offer what we have and it is only by Caesar’s will and charity that we receive anything in return. But God doesn’t work that way… God calls us into a deep relationship that is not founded on indebtedness but founded on salvation and hope that is found in Jesus Christ. So looking at our relationships, how do we make people indebted to us, and how do we then create relationships and communities that model our connection to a God who gives freely?

May we turn from Caesar’s grasp to serve our living God, who calls us into a relationship that empowers us, so that we may remember that we belong to a God who created all things, who sustains all things, and rules over the heavens and the earth. Amen.