Give to God what is God’s: it’s simple

RCL Year A, Proper 24

Well, it’s hard to believe that this is it. My last sermon to you at ECA. My last chance to say everything I want to say. Where do I begin? Do I lay out all my theology to make sure that you get it, do I tell you all the stories I never got to before, do I try out one last joke? Well, as Maria says in the Sound of Music, let’s start at the very beginning. Not the beginning of our time together in January of 2011. I mean the very beginning: the basic truth, what it all boils down to: you are God’s beloved, and God is doing good things here. That’s the essence of what I want to say to you today.

But it takes more than that to sum up our last few years together. To do that is more complicated. For my side of it, I have learned much about myself and my ministry, who I am and who I’m not, what I can do well and what I really can’t. You’ve watched me grow and been patient with me (mostly). Because even though I’d been ordained for several years and served in three congregations before I came here, I’d never been rector. I’d never had quite this much authority in a group of people – what I said hadn’t carried quite as much weight as an associate priest. So I didn’t know that some questions were not as simple as they first appeared – ‘where do you want the altar flowers to go?’ seemed like such an easy one on the surface. Or ‘Hey, what if we tried taking out the kneelers?’ While other questions went much more easily than I’d expected, like asking you all to participate in the reconciliation process several years ago, to get through the feelings from the embezzlement. Or inviting George Romer and then Mary McPherson to be senior wardens with me. (Excellent senior wardens, I must say.) Or hiring a new Christian Ed director – what a blessing Susie Ferguson turned out to be for this congregation and our children. But it took me a while to realize that when I offered an opinion, it was actually listened to. Not always accepted, of course, but listened to.

At the same time, I learned a lot about you. I learned what you liked to do, which weren’t just the things that had shown up in your parish profile during the search. You enjoy your fellowship dinners – serving barbecued meat, smoked meat, roasted meat, meat cooked in pits, meat in sausages, marinated meat… You excel at visiting each other in the hospital – no matter how quickly I got there to see someone, you had nearly always beaten me to the room. You like music that you can sing along with in worship, though I’m still not entirely certain what music that is. And I learned about what you deeply wanted, which is to see your beloved church continue and thrive. And to work more on your own lives of prayer and relationship with God. And I also saw that you are willing to risk new things to do that, even the unknown and suspect territory of community organizing, or tackling a public commitment to saying the Daily Office every day. Of course, sometimes what you like and what you deeply want for this congregation don’t always line up perfectly, and so we had some things we had to talk through along the way. And my own limitations and contradictions sometimes thwarted what I wanted to see happen here. That’s the complicated part. So saying goodbye now is partly about celebrating all that we did together – and forgiving and letting go of what we didn’t get to do.

The thing is, we’re all kind of contradictory creatures. In the words of one of my mentors which I often repeat, human motives are always mixed. So of course a congregation of humans doing life together is going to be even more mixed. Today’s gospel passage, I think, is about that – our contradictions, our mixed motives. The trick question that the Pharisees ask of Jesus, should we pay taxes or not, has one motive in mind, to catch him up. But Jesus’ response is serious, naming the competing claims we all have on our lives. Pay taxes? Yes. Give to the emperor what belongs to him, he says – you live in this world, do what is necessary to participate in its life. But give to God what is God’s. Which, in the end, is everything.

It’s complicated, participating in this life. Our motives are mixed because we’re pulled in lots of different directions. We have the voices of secular culture telling us one set of truths: to go for success, to look out for number one first, to find our identity in what we buy. Then there are the tugs from the people in our lives, who want us to align with them, be on their side of opinions and baseball games; people who need us to care for them and take care of them. There is the work that pays our livelihood, sometimes demanding more time and thought from us than we can easily give. And then there are our own compulsions, that tell us to avoid relationship or, on the other hand, to lose ourselves in it; to stick with people just like us or to bury ourselves in tasks and work instead. We hear so many voices that are often at odds with each other about how we ought to spend our time, our money, our energy. And each of them can pretend to be the most important voice of all.

But behind and beneath all of those voices is the one voice that really is the most important – the voice of God our creator who says, you are made in my image, you are my beloved. At the very beginning of the Bible’s story is our creation, God making everything and calling it good, God creating humankind in God’s own image. So Jesus says, Give to God what is God’s: give your whole self, your whole life. Your life came from God and it belongs there – give it and be who you are called to be. It’s the simplest, truest answer of all.

Living that out isn’t quite as simple. Or, rather, we don’t let it be so simple. All those other voices take up too much airspace. But if we tune them out and start at the beginning, then it does get simpler. If each of us is made in God’s image, then I and you and every single person we meet in this church and in all parts of our lives have in us the good and the holy and the true – and we can work to live out of that goodness in our own choices and decisions, and to help others live out of that goodness as well. If each of us is beloved of God, then we can love each other as beloved. And we can let go of the other things we try to hold onto for security instead, because God’s love makes us ultimately safe. When we start from that place of truth and trust, it all gets so much simpler. It isn’t really all that complicated after all.

You are God’s beloved. And so am I. In these last few years, we created together – we saw created among us – all kinds of good here. And that love and that good work will continue and be part of us even as I move on and you grow and change as a congregation. God is at work here with us and in all the places we go; we can trust in that and be thankful. I am grateful for you and for all you gave to me and my family here; I am glad of the good work we did. And I’m curious to see where we’re all going next. Give to God what is God’s – this church, each of you, me, all of it is God’s. And so we offer it back, and say thank you. Amen.