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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Squirrels - 10/22/2017

A friend of mine sent me a cute little online meme that I got in my email as I was sitting down to begin writing the sermon this week. A meme – just to be clear – is little saying or a quote from something – sometimes profound, sometimes silly –  combined with an illustration or photograph.

The one I got from my friend was made of colorful words on an illustrated list. The name of the list was “Things I learned from our dog about resolutions.” And it continued:

  1. The best resolutions are more playing, eating and sleeping.
  2. Resolutions are a waste of time if you see a squirrel.

That, I realized, was how I was feeling about this text we have today. It's so busy.

I would try to get focused and start looking for how a sermon was coming out of the text at this time and in this place – how was Jesus revealing God to us? Where was the text feeding our souls and our hearts? How was it speaking to our need to rest in the safety and care of God's love for us?

But every time I started, I'd be like that dog in the resolution … Maybe I should focus on the verbs … ooh, squirrel! Or maybe I could do something about traps …. oooh, there's another squirrel! And this kept happening. This text is so busy.

And then I realized, maybe it was the pace of the story and that looming sense of what the Jewish leaders are up to that was really trying to get my attention. There was something about this busyness that was trying to get noticed. So I went with it.

This story picks up for us today with a very quick scene of the Pharisees who have stolen away to make their own secret council where they can plot against Jesus …. create reasons for the Romans to arrest him and the people to despise him.

We already know, of course, of the futility of trying to entrap the Jesus with his own words. Still, the story starts off with this insistent and malicious buzz of the plotting Pharisees.

Then we get a little delegation of people constructed to confront Jesus and speak the Pharisees' plot. This is no ordinary delegation here. These are the students of the Pharisees  … up-and-coming leaders and teachers of the Jewish people .. and with them are followers of Herod, the Roman ruler of the region. They are the Jewish people's oppressors. They are odd bedfellows. But it is part of the Pharisees' plan apparently – an acceptable means to an end in their plot to get rid of Jesus and stop the people he is stirring up from questioning the way they interpret and carry out God's law.

So we're only two sentences in when we suddenly we have this group of Herodians and students of the Pharisees face -to-face with Jesus. The disciples of the Pharisees likely do most of the talking as the Herodians look on … they are trying to butter Jesus up and build him up in righteousness in front of all who can hear. It's as if they are schmoozing and praising Jesus to somehow disguise the fact that they are laying a bear trap at his feet. It's a scene that might remind us of cartoon villains who are so bad at their job we ultimately end up feeling sorry for them … like Wiley Coyote or Snidely Whiplash or Megamind.

And so they set the trap and stand back. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

The reason this is a trap is because if Jesus answers “No,” in the presence of the Herodians he would likely end up in trouble with the Roman authorities – the kind of trouble that had already led to thousands of Jewish people much like him being crucified.  And if he said “Yes,” his popularity among among the people would take a hit. The tax in question was the Poll tax and it was unpopular among the Jewish people of the time. There were already significant taxes levied by the Romans. This was an additional tax on non-citizens, which was what you chose if you wished to remain a faithful Jew and worship the One-True God above all else – instead of Caesar – the allegiance citizens of the Roman Empire chose.

This popularity was something the Pharisees and chief priests were very concerned with. It was only two weeks ago we heard that when they realized Jesus' was talking about them in the parables … that they were the son who promised to go into the vineyard to work, but then didn't … they were the wicked tenants.... it was then “they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.” (Mt 21.46)

But of course where the Pharisees could only imagine a “Yes” or “No” answer to this question, Jesus shakes things up as usual by treating it otherwise.

I love Jesus' brilliance here in how he handles his accusers. First he exposes their intentions. “Jesus, aware of their malice, asks 'Why are you putting me to the test?'” The language he uses here is worth noting. The word “malice” is the same word Jesus uses when he teaches us to pray, “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one,” (6:13) – the one of malice, the one through which evil has found an opening. “Why are you putting me to the test?” Jesus also asks them. His language here brings us back to his 40 days in the wilderness where the evil one tempted and tested him.

And then Jesus asks his accusers to show him the coin used to pay this unpopular poll tax, and while taking a look at the coin, he begins to give his accusers an answer that both surprises and undermines them. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.”

In other words, yes, we do have obligations and commitments and responsibilities and even penalties in this world. We can feel that ourselves whether we are talking about a tax, a duty, a promise or even a legal decision. And we can and often must fulfill those things. But Jesus shows us here that it is possible to do that without claiming allegiance to that authority above God. So, yes, Jesus says, this is part of this world and God understands that – we are all subject to these worldly obligations. It's a point proved directly by the Pharisees' disciples who so readily pulled another ruler's coin from their pockets ... a coin inscribed, BTW, with something like “Tiberius Caesar Augustus: Emperor and Divine Son of God.”

So give to Caesar that which is Caesar's!

“And give to God what is God's,” Jesus says, meaning that as God's people, as followers of Jesus, we are loyal to God above all and committed to God's empire, … we are a people who are loyal to a God who promises again and again to work against the plots of those who oppress, who deal in hate or violence, who get between God and God's creation, who make a way for evil and malice in this world.

So what does this have to do with all the busyness I mentioned earlier – you may be wondering by now?

Well, for three weeks in a row now you're going to have a preacher standing up here and comparing us to those who are opposing Jesus in this story. First it was the chief priests and Pharisees in the parable of the evil vineyard workers. Last week our Gospel led us to consider how we might be a little too much like those who ignored the King's invitation to the Son's wedding, and now this week, I'm going to suggest that we can become a little too much like the Pharisees and their disciples – chasing squirrels and busyness that distract us – that lead us to confuse the righteousness we must earn according to the rules and expectations of the world, with the righteousness that has been earned for us by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Squirrels and other distractions that pull our attention and often our very bodies away from the stuff of good resolutions for God's faithful people. Because our best resolutions are, after all, very much like those of that wise family dog, in a way.

We resolve to make more room in ourselves for God to play and act and heal through us.

We resolve to eat more from this Table of Life where we give thanks and celebrate God's forgiveness of our sins and promise of eternal life in our Redeemer.

We resolve to lift our prayers and burdens up to God daily so that we may find our sleep and rest soundly in God's mercy and abundant love.

And we make all these resolutions knowing that when we do get distracted by a squirrel on occasion, our loyal God brings us back home as many times as it takes. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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