Here in the twilight of the year, little hands looking for donations start popping up all over. The public radio station has just finished its fall fund drive, non-profits have undertaken their year-end mailings, the Salvation Army is soon to show up with ringing bells at grocery stores around the nation, and as happens each year, the church’s assigned readings turn toward the subject of money.
I’m not a fan of all this focus on our pocketbooks, not only does it seem like something sort of impolite to talk about, which is not a good reason to avoid conversation about income and pledges and giving, but also because it seems a little too easy, too cut-and-dried, and that problem, I believe is part of Jesus’s point in the response he gives to his questioners in this morning’s Gospel lesson.
As the Pharisees seek to entrap Jesus between sedition and perjury, he reframes the conversation from being about the letter of the law and being about the simple matter of money, making the question to be about the ownership and orientation of our hearts. To avoid the pitfall of allowing this lesson, though, to provide a trite maxim or an easily-ignored and shallow prescription for living, let’s look, first, at our Scriptures from other places in God’s account of the world. We’ve got a lesson from Exodus, a little snapshot of the relationship between God and Moses, and the beginning of Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians, recounting God’s action in the lives of these pagans as they’ve been converted to belief in Jesus Christ.
This morning’s reading from Exodus finds Moses and Yahweh engaged in intimate conversation, one might even call it prayer. As Moses continues to struggle with the call to leadership that God has placed on his life, Moses seeks strength in God’s presence, desiring to know God more deeply, looking for a reliable well to sustain his life as he is pulled to and fro between God and the Israelites. In his very body, Moses is a symbol of the relationship between God and God’s people. Moses is physically the go-between, walking up and down the mountain, bearing in his person the weariness and strain of trying to bring together these two opposite forces. In this way, Moses’s example is totally timeless, his is a struggle each of us experience today if we seek God’s face, pulled as we are by the demands of life and even modern distraction. So what does this story have for us to mine and apply about our own relationships with God and what might we learn about who God is from this interaction?
We are given the privileged spot of being flies on the wall as Moses pleads for more of God’s power, and presence, for more of God’s very Person. It’s as if Moses knows that unless he drinks more deeply of God’s own well, there is no hope for Moses’s growth, for Moses’s survival. And what is good for Moses is good for God’s people — God’s people need more of God’s deep presence for their own growth, for their own survival as they traverse the wilderness over the ensuing decades.
More than knowing God’s name, as was revealed in the beginning of this book, Moses is hungry to grow closer to God’s own heart, to swim deeper in the pool of God’s presence, to talk with him even more intimately — to know God face-to-face. Moses asks, with some trepidation, I’m sure, “show me your glory, I pray.”
Here the rift grows wider, because as Moses seeks to draw nearer to God, to see him more clearly and more closely, the Israelites are afraid to face God, indeed, when they see Yahweh’s glory reflected on Moses’ skin, they are aghast.
Moses’s courage to ask for a sighting of God’s glory includes an implicit agreement to be surprised, to be shaken up, to have our perspectives made topsy-turvy as we view God himself and all the world through his own light and his own eyes. This might be why God allows Moses to just see his backside, or, to see him as he’s already passed. The stark purity of truth might obliterate our fragile, familiar ways of life, and so God offers dawn instead of midday sun, that we might start to piece together and recognize his ways and his work rather than being completely blinded and rendered dumb and stunned.
Even so, the Israelites give voice to our fear in the face of Moses’s courage. While he’s ready to be challenged by the dawn of God’s glory and light, God’s people tremble for the way they might appear if the light touches them, the darkness that might be exposed, and the pain of unadjusted eyes, unprotected skin, ill-prepared souls and spirits. God leaves us with a question here in Exodus this morning; are our hearts ready to be warmed by his rays, to be melted by his presence, to be refined by his fire?
The Epistle comes to a similar point, with Paul extolling the Thessalonians for their great hospitality when his merry evangelism troupe had come to town, and even more, highlighting their willingness to cast down and throw away the idols they’d known and served all their lives, in favor of this God, “living and true” of whom Paul and Silvanus and Timothy preached.
At first blush it seems obvious and perhaps even worthy of an eye-roll — of course idols aren’t worth your time! Especially ones that are ostensibly “dead” and “fake,” as this God Yahweh is “living and true.” Who wouldn’t leave behind leaders or laws that turned out to be false and turned out to be dead? Duh.
But as I think over my life, I realize that I’m forever trying to resurrect dead principles and always turning to false hopes. It’s the new devotional program that’s going to jump-start my spiritual life. It’s the email-meal-plan that’s going to put the rest of my life on track. It’s the drink or the dessert after dinner that’s going to soothe my rankled spirit.
Even last week, Fr. Jordan urged us to consider how it is that we might be refusing the invitation to the best party ever, how we might be seeking our own ways, or trying to make our own paths to salvation, rather than accepting the invitation of justification that God has sent in Jesus Christ.
Viewed then, through the perspective of our passages in Exodus and 1 Thessalonians, I wonder if it might start to dawn on us how Jesus’s words about taxes might be about something bigger and more significant than money. I suggest that we consider the stewardship of our hearts before the stewardship of our wallets. One method is from the outside moving in — from our wallets into our hearts — and this is a direction that we as Episcopalians believe to be worthwhile in our lives, that a steady, habitual rhythm and an outward commitment can indeed have lasting and formative effects on our hearts and souls. But there’s another direction, too, that’s important, and that’s from the inside moving out — from our hearts, into our lives, whether that direction is toward our wallets, our watches, or our resumes.
As Jesus answers the yes-or-no trick question with one of his famous third options, we’re invited to consider how it is that God has made us in his own image, as Genesis tells us God has done for each and every human life, and then to consider what it might mean that everything which bears God’s image belongs to him. If the coin for taxes has the emperor’s likeness on it, surely that thing somehow belongs to the emperor, Jesus reasons. By adding the line about God, Jesus draws us into the implication that anything with God’s image so pressed on it, just like a coin, belongs to God. By this revelation, we learn that our bodies, our time, our breath, our lives — it all exists and continues by God’s gracious hand and more than our money, God desires the attention and affection, the constant outpouring of our hearts.
Just like financial planning, sometimes helping ourselves to give our hearts away takes a little bit of forethought, we don’t just fall naturally into setting our hearts toward God. One piece of this work is coming to church — showing up and being available to God in our hearts, our minds, and our bodies. So here you are!
Another way is truly paying attention to the people who are placed in our paths every day, whether it’s a co-worker who is downtrodden, an angry person in the lane next to us on I-35, or the baby who won’t go to sleep. How can you reach deep into the well of God’s love within you and share some of God’s own self with this hurting person.
And most important of all, as we approach this altar every week, may it be not only for solace, but also for strength, and not only for pardon, but also for renewal, allowing God’s love and sacrifice revealed in Jesus Christ to fill us up by the power of the Holy Spirit, to energize and enliven our hearts, to draw us close to God’s own face, to his own glory, and then to orient every little bit of our lives, both our money and mouths, both our hearts and our vocations, to accept the light and glory which God seeks to reflect in each one of us.