21 Pentecost; October 22, 2023
Saint David’s Episcopal Church
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matt 22:15-22
Our Gospel reading for this morning is the well-known story of Pharisees trying to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes. Jesus responds, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus’ answer sounds straightforward, but it has long puzzled me. What, exactly, are we to understand as due to the emperor? Presumably Jesus is telling the Pharisees to go ahead and pay Roman taxes, but I am not sure even about that. More important for us as Christians, what is due to God? What can we, what must we, offer God?
As I sat with that passage this week, as I pondered what is due to God, it occurred to me that what God most wants is us.
We are God’s. We are God’s possession, but that doesn’t sound quite right. Better, we are God’s creation. Best of all, we are God’s beloved children.
And as God’s beloved children, the main “thing” God wants from us, the main thing due to God from us, the main thing we need to give God, is ourselves: our obedience, and our loyalty, and our love.
God wants us to give ourselves to God because God loves us, God wants relationship with us, God longs for us.
Now, we hear a lot about God’s love for us. Just last week, my sermon was all about God’s love for us.
But the good news of God’s love bears repeating because it can be hard to take in. Many of us don’t feel worthy of God’s love. We wonder, in our hearts, could God really love me? Just as I am? Warts and all?
I am not a horrible person. But I am no saint. And I am not important. It seems like there is no reason for God to pay attention to me, much less for God to love and long for me.
But it turns out, God doesn’t see us as unimportant, or uninteresting, or objectionable.
God knows ALL our faults and weaknesses and limitations and sins. But God sees past our faults and weaknesses and limitations and sins.
God sees in us God’s own image and likeness. God sees in us the people God created us to be. God sees in us the people we are becoming, thanks to Christ’s redeeming work and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. God sees each of us as a unique treasure.
It’s our misfortune that we often can’t see ourselves as God sees us.
My mother sent me a story that illustrates a deep truth about who we are. It is, I believe, a true story.
In Bangkok there was an old statue of the Buddha that began to crack in the 1950s. The statue wasn’t particularly valuable—just plaster and clay. But people cared enough to try to repair it. And as they worked on the statue, they discovered that the plaster and clay statue wasn’t just plaster and clay. Beneath the cheap exterior, the statue was solid gold.
Apparently six hundred years earlier, monks had covered their gold statue with plaster and clay to conceal it from invading armies. Over time, everyone forgot what they had done. So, for centuries, people only saw the rough exterior of the statue and had no idea of the literal treasure hidden beneath the surface.
Not until the statue began to break did the treasure hidden beneath the surface become visible once again.
This is a story about us, about who we are in God’s eyes.
We belong to God. We are created to love and be loved. But our capacity to love, that treasure in each of us, gets covered over by our insecurities and our anxieties and our weaknesses.
After a while, all we can see in the mirror is that covering, all the things in us and in our lives that prevent us from loving as we should or knowing how loved we are. That’s when we get stuck. Hold that thought.
Last Tuesday many of the clergy of our Diocese gathered for our Fall Clergy Day. At one point, our speaker broke us into small groups and told us to share with each other the story of a time when, as she put it, God showed up for us.
One of the priests in my group talked about receiving a scary medical diagnosis. Another talked about the death of her grandmother when she was quite young. A third talked about his struggles with sexuality.
What was common to the stories was that they started with the experience of real brokenness, the experience of fear or death or confusion and guilt. And it was in those moments of brokenness that God showed up, that one found peace, that another learned to live with her grief, that the third realized God loved him and was calling him.
The people who shared their stories—and I think this is true for most of us—are like that statue of the Buddha.
In normal times, whatever treasure of love may be hidden inside us is covered over with all of our stuff. But when we begin to crack, when we are broken open, when we acknowledge our need for God, then God really gets to work on us. Then we experience God’s love. Then the gold inside us begins to shine.
It is in those moments that we give ourselves to God, as Christ tells us to do in our Gospel reading.
But that is still only half of the story. That is recognizing that we are loved, which can be hard enough. A second challenge comes in loving others. I don’t mean the people we love naturally and easily. I mean the people we have a hard time loving.
There is gold hidden in everyone because every human being is created in God’s image and likeness. But the gold hidden in some people is covered over with a pretty thick irritating and sometimes even hateful crust. We look at some people, and we can’t imagine that God would want them because we can see that they are not worthy of God’s love.
I think about what is happening in the Holy Land right now. God’s beloved children are killing each other. How could God possibly want Israelis to love Palestinians or Palestinians to love Israelis? How could God want us to love people who are committing atrocities? It’s worth adding that loving someone who commits atrocities does NOT mean condoning their actions!
But God isn’t interested in whether we think someone else is worthy. That’s not up to us.
More, God doesn’t look for worthiness in other people any more than God looks for worthiness in us and thank God for that.
Part of giving up what is due to God, part of giving ourselves to God, is trying to see others as God sees them. One of the great saints of our tradition, Catherine of Sienna, puts it this way: “The only thing we can offer to God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of God’s love as we are.”1
I am not there yet. I work on trying to love others better. I work on truly grasping the good news that God loves me.
But I give thanks to God for the revelation of God’s love for all of us in Jesus Christ. I give thanks to God for helping us to love our neighbors as well as we do. And I pray that God draws us deeper and deeper into God’s love for all.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan