Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sermon for Proper 24A : "Give to God"

This sermon was given at the chaplaincy last Sunday, 16 October. The readings for this week are here: Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, and Matthew 22:15-22.

     What beautiful readings we’ve gotten to listen to tonight! I’m grateful that I have only a few minutes to talk about them, since this should lower your expectations, and remind me that I can only share one tiny piece of what I’ve seen in this collection of voices, and what I have seen is itself a small piece of what is present here.
     Isaiah opens with an outpouring of power, a great rush of power and generosity from God to someone who does not even know God: “I will go before you and level the mountains”—“I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places”—“I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me”.
     Our Psalm is filled with songs and wonder—the world itself overflows with joy at the holiness and complete kingship of God.
     In Thessalonians, the good news comes to a community “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”; they are so full of this word that the word sounds forth from them.
     In Matthew we also find a great abundance and generosity, but of a slightly different kind.

     In this whole stretch of Matthew, learned men come to Jesus with contrived puzzles and legalistic problems. They set up a world neatly ordered by the little ties of human expectations and human power, and they want him to tiptoe around them and trip. But in each case, Christ slices through these tiny expectations and lifts our eyes instead to a much wider world.
     At the end of Chapter 21, the Pharisees ask Jesus what authority he has to teach; he responds with parables that show the world’s power structure flipped on its head, crushing our expectations. Immediately after tonight’s reading, some men come to ask about brothers, and remarriage, and who gets the widow in the afterlife. Jesus responds by rewriting their idea of the resurrection and saying that God “is God not of the dead, but of the living”. And after this, they get a lawyer to test him, by asking which law is greatest. And Christ responds with a law more bold and broad, perhaps, than they were expecting—that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Each of these responses suggests that what God has to offer us is something more than what we expected.
     In tonight’s reading! the educated folks hope to trip Christ over his own impartiality for status, so that he’ll slip into a political mess.
     But instead of attending to their concern, Christ dismisses them! In fact, I tend to imagine Christ’s whole attitude in this passage as dismissive, even a little disdainful. I imagine him taking the coin, raising his eyebrow as he asks the question, and then flipping it back to them as he says, “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and give to God what belongs to God.”
     In the same way that he dismissed the other educated men, Christ dismisses this question, and in the same way, he suggests that there is something more abundant and generous than what we would expect from our small-scale ideas of power and rule. Christ takes a question about the boundaries of human authority and opens it up entirely : “Give to God what belongs to God.”
     Which, of course, made me wonder, “What belongs to God?! What am I supposed to give?”

     Christ is dismissive of that shiny coin—flimsy money, and its real but flimsy power. This is what the emperor has—and the emperor can keep it. Christ doesn’t call us to claim and spread this kind of power—the kind that builds empires and levies taxes.
     In Isaiah, God pours out power for someone who doesn’t know him. In the Psalm, the world sings out the power of God. In Thessalonians, the good news of God comes to a community “in power”.
     If God doesn’t want the domain of money and bureaucratic authority, what does God want? Where does all this power go? What is it that belongs to God and that we must give to God?

     I think that what God wants is the whole domain of our lives and our selves.
 This is the space over which God wants power. What does he care about the power to print his face on coins, to plaster his name on temples, to build statues and laws over the landscape of the earth. God’s desire is first for us, and the kingdom that he wants is the broad expanse of our minds, the caverns of our hearts, the straight and crooked paths of our actions. Every square inch, every second, every speck—God wants to fill every space of us with his holiness.
     What’s more, he wants us to give this to him. He’s not going to make it easy and just take our choices from us. He wants us to cede our sovereignty and give to him the rivers of our speech, the valleys of our repose, even the forests of our subconscious. He loves all of this, and he wants all of it.
     And when we give this to God, we open ourselves to that power in Isaiah and the Psalm : this righteousness, the reality far behind all the light and darkness, the source of all that is good, Truth itself, the one whose name is Love—we open ourselves to this.

     Now, don’t worry! The strangeness of giving ourselves to God is that when we give something to him, we don’t lose it. We don’t become automatons, with identical mild personalities and empty heads. Rather, the existing shape of our passions and skills shapes the way the power of God takes form in our lives, even as this power actively shapes them.
     Some things we give to God, and he takes and magnifies them, and through them his light shines and his name is known.
     Some things we give to God, and he takes them, and holds them, and says, “Are you sure you really want this in you?
     And some things we give to God, and I think he sort of chuckles and says “Well, that’s interesting!”
     For example, even as I give my whole life to God, I’m not convinced that I need to give up my addiction to coffee, or give up my writing, or stop sleeping in really, really late whenever I get the chance. I don’t think I need to stamp out my sarcasm, my love of arguing, or my inappropriate sense of humor. In my own life, these habits and spaces haven’t led me or others away from God, I don’t think. Once I’ve given them to God, he has even used some of them to draw me closer to him, in ways I couldn’t have expected.

     But there are spaces in my life which I think God would like to change, and fill more and more fully with his holiness. I believe that God cares about that hidden humming monologue I carry around with me inside my head. God cares about every word I choose to think, as much as every word I choose to say. The emotions and impressions we guard and nurture in our hearts—feelings about that co-worker, thoughts about that guy in our seminar, words to a friend about another friend. God cares about these smallest and biggest choices—how will I respond to this cashier whom I find somewhat irritating? how will I respond to my mother’s annoying habits? what will I do when someone is rude or even just dismissive of me? how will I spend my weekend? how will I spend my life? what do I want to do before I die? God wants all of this, and wants to fill these spaces with his voice, his love, his righteousness.
     I hope you will join me this week in considering anew what spaces of our lives we have and have not given to God. And as we walk in this wild landscape of our selves, may we remember that God is always with us, calling us by our own names, and wanting everything to do with everything about us.

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