Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I start to worry about things. I worry about all the things that I have to do for my work. I worry about all the things that need to be done on my house. I worry about my family and my health and my finances. I worry about you, about the problems you’re having, if I know about them, or problems I imagine you might be having. I worry about the world and the nation and politics and the news. Sometimes this can go on for hours, running and re-running the same worries over and over again in my mind. And I’ve found over the years that the best antidote to this kind of worried mind is prayer.
I’ll repeat the Lord’s Prayer silently in my mind, and when I find I’ve lost my way two or three lines into it and have started thinking about the cracks in the brick walkway in front of our house, I’ll start again at the beginning. Or I’ll use the “Jesus Prayer”, silently saying “Lord Jesus Christ,” with my inbreath, and “have mercy on me” with my outbreath. And my breathing will get deeper, and I’ll let out a sigh or two, and I’ll start to relax, and pretty soon I’m asleep.
Sometimes, though, these kinds of prayer are not effective. The worry-wheel will just keep churning along, rolling over everything I try to put in its path. And on these occasions I have to get a little firm with myself. I remind myself of some words of wisdom that I came upon once but can’t remember where. What they said was how arrogant we are to think we can’t take a little break, even in the middle of the night, from managing our lives. The hours of night, and of sleep, are the time when we get to let go, and let God take care of everything.
I’ll remember this and then as each worried thought comes up I’ll give that thing, that person, that problem or situation over to God, entrusting it to God for the night. I’ll do this over and over, acknowledging that every particular thing in my life, and my life itself, belong ultimately to God, who can take better care of them than I can, and I will give them back to their rightful owner. And in this way I can gradually let go of the need to worry, and drift off to sleep.
There are lots of places in the Gospels where Jesus encourages us to trust God and not to be anxious about earthly things. The story we heard today is not really about that theme, but it does contain a pointed teaching that all those earthly things belong to God. When Jesus says, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's,” he is not setting up two separate spheres of influence. He is not saying that there is one arena of life, the political and economic, where Caesar reigns supreme, and another, the “religious,” where God’s rights are paramount. Any devout Israelite, including the Pharisees’ disciples, would know Psalm 24, which extols the sovereign power of God, and begins with the words “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.”
But the division into rival spheres is what is assumed by the question “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”, and the ones who ask it hope to trap Jesus in the contested boundary region where the two spheres meet. If Jesus answers by saying “no, it is not,” his enemies will denounce him to the Romans as a teacher of rebellious sedition. If he says that it is lawful, they will discredit him before the Judean masses, who rankle under the rule of the idolatrous pagans. In short, while they flatter him as a sincere religious teacher, who cares more for God’s truth than pleasing people, they want to lure him into choosing which people to please. They are pressing him to take sides on a political question, as if one side or the other encompasses the position of God.
Some commentators make a big deal about the fact that Jesus has to ask the Pharisee’s disciples for the coin for the tax, as if he is somehow better than them and us because he doesn’t carry money. But I don’t think that’s the point. When he holds up the coin, and asks “whose picture is this, and whose title?” he does point out absurdity of opposing the Emperor on religious principle when you’re passing his image from hand to hand all day long. But he’s not saying the problem would be solved if we just didn’t use money. He is saying that Caesar has his place and we owe him his due. But he’s also reminding us that Caesar’s place is not eternal, and that Caesar also owes a debt, one he must someday repay. Because everything Caesar has, no less than everything we have, belongs to God.
It is to remember this that we have our stewardship season. There’s a reason why we take some time every year to ponder what we’re doing when we make a commitment to give to the church. Because it’s not about the hard sell, gradually wearing down every bit of resistance, until that final form is completed and returned. But then why make such a big deal about it. What about it is so important that we spend a month thinking about it, talking about it, and praying about it? I think the answer is that if we look carefully at our practice of giving to the church, it can teach us a profound truth, one that all the other contractual exchanges that we engage in every day try to conceal.
The other transactions that go on in the world all promise to give us something we don’t already have, to do something for us we can’t do for ourselves, or make us feel something we can’t feel any other way. And all those same promises come into play here, too. After all, this is not some separate sphere, as if when we come within the walls of this room we are now in “God’s world.” It’s all God’s world.
But there is something about our giving to the church that is unique. Because the essential truth about the transaction that happens here is that the church does not promise us anything we don’t already have. Or to put it another way, anything we receive from the church that is of the essence of what the church really is, comes to us purely by the gift of God. Here is a giving and receiving that is completely free. God does not need your giving, as if to supply some deficiency in him. Everything you give, your money, your time, your talent, your mind and heart and your life itself, already belongs to God. And every gift that God gives you, she gives in love, expecting nothing but love in return.
And so this mundane exercise of St. John’s annual pledge drive, which can feel ever so slightly tawdry, actually connects us with the sacred mystery at the heart of the church. The faith of Christ, who gave the whole world back to God on the cross, invites our giving. God’s giving Christ back to the world, in his resurrection, is everything we hope to receive. But for all the glory of that redeeming exchange, we don’t need to look askance at what we have to offer. As much or as little as it is, as tainted as it may be by the world’s sharp practice, our giving participates in that free transaction of love that is the true life of the world. Everything that is given for Christ’s sake belongs equally to God. And so do we.