A Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

When I was a kid, we went to church every Sunday at Church of the Redeemer Episcopal Church. Back then, it was a newly planted church located on Chippenham Road. Three and sometimes four Sundays a month the liturgy was Morning Prayer. But the first Sunday of the month was always ‘Communion Sunday.’ To me, that mostly only meant that church was going to be long, sometimes lasting over an hour. For that reason, I didn’t like ‘Communion Sunday.’ But I do have other memories of ‘Communion Sunday’ that have stayed alive – so alive that they are something more than just memories. They are signs that grace must’ve happened, somehow. That, God, the real thing, had drawn near and changed us, that what is within you is not just a memory, but God’s abiding presence.

Well, when I was growing up, kids didn’t go up to the altar for Communion. We couldn’t do that until we’d been confirmed by the bishop at age 11 or 12. So, as kids, we just sat in our pews until the adults had all communed. And here’s what I remember so clearly about that. It was the smell of the wine the people had received on their breath. First it was faint, coming from the first rows of pews in front of me. But it gradually grew stronger as the people going up for communion came closer to our pew and then it was our pew and then the pew behind us, until you were surrounded by this scent. I didn’t really know what was going on up there at the communion rail. I really didn’t. But I did know that after you went up there, there was this scent, as if you had been – I don’t know – perfumed by God, that while you were up there at the rail, maybe you had come so close to God that his scent was on you. That’s what I thought was happening. You had come close to God – not a metaphor or a symbol or a memory or anything else – but the real thing, God. Sort of like when your uncle who wears way too much cologne hugs you and you smell like him for the rest of the day. Well, I thought that something like that was happening when people went up for Communion. They had come into contact with God and carried that contact, carried something of God away with them. They had come face to face with the real thing, and it had changed them.

A few years ago, I watched a child take a sip from the chalice one Sunday morning. When the wine landed on her tongue, you could see her tastebuds sending a hurricane of messages to her brain. It must’ve been the first time she had sipped wine from the cup. Her face contorted into this wild kind of expression including the little girl trying to get her tongue as far away from her mouth as possible. She turned to her mother and said, “It’s real wine!” Her mom, of course, gave her daughter a mortified shoosh and then buried her face in her hands muttering, “O God, O God, O God, O God!” Her daughter tugged at the sleeve of her mom’s dress saying, “Mom! It’s real!!”

That child, experiencing the real thing, was both so excited and also sort of so terrified all at the same time. Because what would the real thing do to her?! Would she become instantly giddy or sick to her stomach? Had she trespassed into the mysterious and powerful realm of the big people too soon? Was it going to change her in some way she couldn’t imagine? For sure, I could identify with the mom as she gathered up her daughter and tried to make it back to her pew as far under the radar as possible. The mom skulking, the daughter skipping and smacking her lips loudly and going ahhhh! But honestly, I also found myself wishing we could all experience the same sort of breathtaking exaltation and clarifying terror of knowing we are in the presence of the real thing. And that when we walk away, the scent of God is on us, a holiness clinging to us that we would carry with us everywhere we went.

I read a piece by a religious and social critic a few years ago that has stayed with me. It’s a little cranky but I’ll share it anyway. He wrote, “The Church drives me crazy! We approach the altar at church like it’s a TV tray … That altar is the altar of the Living God. We should approach as if we were walking up to a nuclear reactor with its awesome power open and exposed and dangerous, threatened to be changed by the sheer power of God’s ferocious [holy love, irradiating us so that we go away from there changed]” by the real thing.

The Pharisee and the Herodian whom we hear from today in the Gospel reading may have been as narrow-minded in their focus and small in their imagination as any of us who are just trying to get kids fed and bills paid and just somehow survive from day to day. But we do them a disservice if we assume that they didn’t get Jesus. They may not have been clear on all the details, but they knew that he was the real thing. He was just as dangerous to them and to the world as they wanted it as a nuclear reactor core, and they knew it.

When they sipped in his words, it was not a bland beverage they tasted. It was the real thing. What else but the real thing could threaten them enough to put the Pharisees and the Herodians arm-in-arm against Jesus. Let’s just say they weren’t exactly natural allies. The Pharisees thought of the Herodians as sell-outs and compromisers, appeasers who didn’t really believe in anything beyond holding onto power by cutting dirty deals with the hated Roman occupiers. The Herodians thought that the Pharisees were self-righteous, moralistic conservatives who didn’t understand that in the real world sometimes you just have to shave corners to keep everything from coming unglued.

And lately, Jesus has been exposing the littleness of their lives. He has been drawing back the heavy curtains and letting the light of God’s holy love bring into the light both the good of who they wish they could be and the bad of who they all too often end up being. And they react the way any of us would – they want to stop him. Which is where this question of paying taxes to the emperor comes from. It’s supposed to be a trap, a ‘gotcha’ question. And whether this got him in trouble with the Roman rulers or the common folk made no real difference to them. He just had to be stopped.

But the question they cook up for him falls flat. For starters, Jesus shows that they are the ones carrying around Caesar’s money, not him. They are the ones who had the emperor’s image in their pockets, not him. His words, ‘render to God what is God’s’ left them to examine their own hearts, which is not what they came to Jesus for. They had come face to face with the real thing and they didn’t want any part of it.

“Render to God what is God’s,” Jesus says.

Since at least the second century, interpreters of this passage have said that the coin of the realm in question to be rendered is not the denarius or the dollar. Do you know what it is? It is you. You bear God’s image. You bear God’s image on you like the scent of wine, God’s holy love clinging to you; so we have everything we need to God what is God’s.

We come to this altar with all of our lives – the good of them that we hope for and all the rest of it. Side by side with friends and strangers and children who might know more about what is happening than we think and even an exasperated mother with her face in her hands, side by side, our lives, the real thing, the coin of God’s realm.

We come together to render to God what is God’s. Our hearts. With adoration and hope and fear and sometimes something closer to ‘Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God!’, that we may be changed; and carry that, something that God has given us, like we have been perfumed by God’s holy love, wherever we go. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May