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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Loving Neighbors into God's Family (Matthew 28:16-20, Luke 19:10)

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”


10  The Human One came to seek and save the lost.


Opinions are like belly-buttons: Everybody has one.


Nowhere is that truer than in the church.  Everybody has an opinion about a great number of things.  My email inbox testifies to the reality that you all have opinions.  Come to a committee or Church Council meeting, and you will see with your own eyes that people have opinions.  Opinions about a great many things, from issues large to issues small, we can be an opinionated bunch!


Many of those opinions are quite good and worthy of serious consideration – not all of them, but I won’t name names – but really, many of the opinions expressed are good.  The tricky thing is to discern among those many good opinions which opinion gets the most serious consideration.


Growing up, we had a neighbor who had opinion about everyone else’s house on the block.  “I think you should paint your house or your trim this color.”  “I think you should re-do your front porch in this way.”  “Your yard would look so much better if you planted this and trimmed it like that.”  He had all sorts of opinions about what everyone’s house should look like and what everyone should do, but there was one big problem.  His neighbors owned those houses, not him.


What about the church?  Who owns the church?  To whom does the church belong?  That’s a question with only one right answer.  It belongs to Jesus.  He is its owner.  He is its Lord.  The church belongs to Jesus.


The church doesn’t belong to the pastor.  Even if the pastor is the founding pastor or has been around for decades, the church doesn’t belong to the pastor.


The church doesn’t belong to any group within the church: not even the trustees or the Church Council or the leadership team.


The church doesn’t belong to the denomination, even though they own the building, even though we are proud of our theological heritage, the church doesn’t belong to the denomination.


And lastly, the church does not belong to the members, not even the founding members.  That doesn’t change the fact that members sometimes act like they own the church, such as the lady who said to me one time, “I was here before you, and I’ll be here after you,” which was apparently her reasoning for why we should do what she wanted to do, and I replied, “That’s true, but there is someone who was here before you, and he’ll be here after you, and his name is Jesus.”


Every church has only one owner – Jesus.  And unless we’re clear on that, we’ll always struggle about what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to do it.  You see, our opinions and desires need to be informed by Jesus – his desires, his wishes, his will for the church.


Ultimately, the church belongs to Jesus.  He is its owner.  He is its Lord.  We don’t own the church, but it’s been entrusted to us by its owner – we are here to do what Jesus wants us to do.


And what does Jesus want?  Look at the Scriptures we’ve read today.  He wants the church to make disciples.  Why do we exist?  To make disciples.  What is our purpose in being?  To make disciples.  Do you have a different opinion?  That’s nice, but this church belongs to Jesus, so we are going to do what Jesus wants – which is to make disciples.


The Scripture from Matthew 28 we read is called, “The Great Commission” – it’s where Jesus gives marching orders to the fledgling church about what their mission will be after he returns to Heaven.


Sometimes we get this idealized picture of the early church – a golden age of the perfect group of Jesus followers who were super-spiritual and effective at their mission, but they were deeply-flawed and prone to bickering and confusion – like us.  That realization gives me some hope that if they could do it, maybe we can, too.  Just look at the text:


Eleven disciples, worshiping and doubting

It starts out by saying “The eleven disciples went to Galilee.”  Not the 12 Jesus called.  Not the 12, that number of perfect, symbolic harmony and completion.  Nope, 11 – not altogether with it, not perfect, flawed.  11 – a reminder of the  betrayal of Judas against Jesus that took place within their midst.


Some worshiped, and some doubted.  Clearly, they weren’t all on the same page, they weren’t in agreement about who Jesus was and what their next steps were, some were all-in and ready to move ahead, others were still questioning everything and holding back – sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  The church then wasn’t that different than the church today.  Jesus didn’t wait for them to all come around, rather, he gave them their marching orders, their reason for existing, which was – to make disciples.  Jesus trusted his life’s work and mission of seeking and saving that which was lost to this flawed, imperfect group of believers and doubters.  Sometimes, not everyone is going to come along or get on board with where the church is trying to go, but again, our opinions, enthusiasm, or lack thereof doesn’t change the mission.  We don’t change the mission based on opinion polls or surveys or to suit the needs of skeptics and doubters.  Jesus commissioned his flawed and imperfect church to make disciples, and that’s what they did, and what we’re still doing, today.


Go, and Make Disciples

Jesus told them to, “Go, and make disciples.”  He didn’t say, “Sit inside a building, make sure the doors are unlocked, and if any happen to wander inside on their own, make sure they learn about me.”  No, he said, “Go.”  Get up, get moving, take the initiative.  Build relationships with people who are not part of any church and invite them here.  Tell them about your faith.  Tell them the difference Jesus makes in your life.


Maybe you’re thinking, “Everyone I know goes to church!” In fact, the longer you’ve been a Christian and part of a church, the more likely it is that most of your relationships also go to church. If that’s you, then it’s time to meet some folks who don’t.  Join a bowling or golf league.  Join a garden or hiking club.  Get involved in some sort of community-based organization.  Get to know your neighbors.  There are all sorts of people all around us who don’t have a church to call home; we just need to get to know them.


We also need to let go of the idea that “everyone” goes to church, because “everyone” doesn’t.  Across North Carolina, right here in the buckle of the Bible belt where many counties report having more Baptists than people, any given weekend only 22% of the population is in church.


78% of the people around us are not regularly engaged or connected with a faith family. Some folks see that as a travesty, but I see an opportunity, not one that’s rocket science, either.  Churches who reach those people in their communities have three major things in common.


First, they are crystal-clear that Jesus is in charge of the church, and Jesus wants the church to make disciples, and they stay on target with that, no matter what.


Second, they discover something about who they already are that lends itself to making disciples.


Third, they create a culture of invitation among their members.


Friends, I believe with every fiber of my being that Morehead Church has the potential to be one such church.  We have the potential and the ability, if we are also willing.


First, from this day forward, let us be resolute in the conviction that the church belongs to Jesus, and is here to do what Jesus wants.  Regardless of our personal opinions, let us be firm in the knowledge that Jesus wants us to make disciples.  From this day forward, let there be no argument that this church belongs to Jesus, and we exist for the purpose of making disciples.


Second, what do we have to offer?  We have a reputation for being a warm, welcoming, inclusive church.  We have a reputation for being like family in the best sense of the word.  We are the family of God!  78% of the people around us are not regularly connected to a church family – that means we have the opportunity to be their church family, if we are willing to do the third part: create a culture of invitation.


This is one we need to work on.  All of us.  We have a culture of welcome down pretty good.  When folks show up, they feel the love.  What we need to do is move from being welcoming, which is good, to also being invitational.  Morehead Church is one of the best-kept secrets in town, and friends, it doesn’t need to be kept a secret any longer.  Every person here is part of getting the word out, as each of us invites people to be part of this family of faith.


We’re not trying to be obnoxious or pushy, we’re not trying to shove religion down people’s throats, but hopefully our experience as being part of this family of faith is beneficial to us, and we want other people to experience the joy and meaning we have found.  News of new life in Christ, and the acceptance we find in this church is too good to keep to ourselves.  News like that is meant to get out as we love people into the family.


In fact, if all those pieces come together, that’s a good description of what we can, should, and will be as a church: loving neighbors into God’s family.


Friends, that is what I believe we are called to do.  It’s a vision that brings together Jesus’ desire that we make disciples, and the best of who we already are as a church: a faith family.  The only thing that’s really missing is that culture of invitation, but here are some tools to help you out in that regard.


The Morehead bumper sticker – I want to see one of these on every car in the parking lot.  It’s a simple way you can let people know you are proud to be part of this church.  It raises awareness and visibility of the church every where you go, and you never know the conversations it might open up.  I have also found I am less rude as a driver with that thing back there – it’s hard to cut someone off in traffic, with the name of our church staring back at them as I do.


These “join us” cards.  We’ve got stacks of these lying around all over the church.  I find it can be easier to invite someone to church if you have something in your hand when you do, and these little cards give you that.  Give them to a neighbor, people you work with, wherever.  Sylvia LeClair uses these in the drive-thru: she hands this card to the cashier as she pays for the order of the car behind her, and says, “Give this card to the people behind me and let them know that the people of Morehead Church love them.”  If you see Sylvia pulling in the drive-thru lane, it’s a good idea to get in line behind her.


From time to time, we put together postcards advertising a special event or sermon series, such as these advertising our upcoming Advent series.  These can also be handed out to invite people – it gives you something tangible to offer them, and something they can hold onto if they’re interested.  Again, we have stacks of these all over the church – pick a few up and give them away.


Never under-estimate social media, either.  Don’t be afraid to post things that are happening at church, invite people to them, or share what you appreciate about this church family.  I’ve seen great conversations open up that resulted in an invitation to church, all because you put up something about what you appreciate about this church.


Be prepared that not everyone is going to accept every invitation.  You may have to invite 7-10 or even more people before one accepts your invitation.  You may also have to invite the same person 7-10 or even more times before they accept your invitation.  Again, don’t be rude or pushy about it, and at the same time, don’t be disappointed when they aren’t ready yet.  Every no you receive is just getting you one step closer to a yes.


Above all, be genuine and heartfelt in your approach.  You’re not trying to “sell” anybody anything.  You’re simply speaking from your own experience – considering what you value and appreciate about being part of this church family, and the difference this church makes in your life.  As part of this part of God’s family, that should come easy.


You and I may have opinions about what the church should be doing.  Opinions, after all, are like belly buttons – everybody has one.  So let’s put our opinions to the side, because Jesus, the one to whom the church really belongs, has asked us to make disciples by capitalizing on the best of who we are – a family of faith.


Why are we here?  What are we doing? What’s our purpose?  We’re loving neighbors into God’s family.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Life Beyond the Tears (Revelation 7:9-17)

After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number.  They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language.  They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb.  They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands.  They cried out with a loud voice: “Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.”  All the angles stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures.  They fell facedown before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.”

Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”  I said to him, “Sir, you know.”  Then he said to me, “These people have come out of the great hardship.  They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood.  This is the reason they are before God’s throne.  They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them.  They won’t hunger or thirst anymore.  No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them.  He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”


It is no coincidence that a hallmark of Christian worship is music.  We sing our theology.  Whether thumbing through the hymnal for time-honored expressions of our faith, or utilizing newer songs that continue to express the timeless message of our faith for new generations, our songs of worship are a treasure trove of Christian theology.


On this All Saints’ Sunday, when we celebrate the lives of those who have passed from this life into the church triumphant, as we rejoice in lives that, in God’s love, do not end, I think of the verse from that great hymn, The Church’s One Foundation:


“Yet we on earth have union with God the three-in-one,”

“And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”


 I can’t sing that verse anymore without getting choked up.  It recalls to mind all the saints in my life who have entered into their heavenly home and now rest in the nearer presence of God.  I think of the saints whose lives I have celebrated in funeral and memorial services.  Though death is hard, the tears that well up at those times are tempered with the knowledge that they have been graciously received and embraced by God in the life to come.


The scripture we have just read from the Bible’s last book, Revelation, gives us a glimpse of that life – a place of perpetual worship, un-ending fellowship, where the trials and difficulties of this life have melted like frost in the sun.  The promise from God is that there will be no crying, no weeping, no hurt or pain, no sickness, no suffering, and that God himself will wipe every tear from their eyes.


What’s more – a reunion awaits all of us in the not-too-distant future.  And, that reunion is closer than we realize.  We don’t have to wait until we die; the reunion can take place sooner than that.


Central to our faith, confessed in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, is a belief in the communion of saints.  Friends on earth are connected to our friends above.  Think about the intimacy of friendships and relationships that we experience as families and as a church family – friends, those bonds of love do not end at death.


Ashley and I got back on Friday evening from 9 days of vacation, driving ourselves around the desert Southwest, some in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, but the bulk of our time was in Arizona.  We didn’t see everything, but 1300 miles in 9 days, we certainly tried!


Arizona, you may know, is a beautiful tapestry of Anglo, Native American, and Spanish influence all melding together.  With the build-up to All Saints Day, everywhere we went, we saw signs that people were gearing up for their celebrations of Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.


The origins of the day are for people to remember those in their lives who have gone on ahead of them into death and celebrate their lives – sounds an awful lot like what we do on All Saints,’ doesn’t it?


The tradition in places where Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated are for families to spend the day in the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried.  They play games, they sing songs, they pray prayers, they decorate the grave, and they share a meal together, often bringing and leaving some portion of the meal – not as an offering to the dead, as is commonly misunderstood – but as a way to include their departed love in the celebration, acknowledging that though they have died, they are still a part of the family, and when the family gathers together to do what is central to families –sharing a meal – even those who have already passed through the veil between this life and the life to come are still granted a place at the table, and still included in the family’s meal.


 I don’t know what you think about that, but it sounds like communion of the saints, to me.  I can’t help but think that perhaps they have a more robust understanding and experience of the communion of the saints than we do.


But, you don’t have to come from a Spanish-speaking culture to understand and experience the communion of the saints.  It may not be in the cemetery, but we have a meal, too, you know.


Every time we celebrate Holy Communion, The Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the love and grace served in even greater abundance than the large pieces of bread I give you serve to draw us closer to God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit AND to everyone else who gathers at the table.  Communion connects us to Christ, it makes us part of his body in a way that is as tangible as the bread in our hands.  And all those who are connected to Christ are connected to each other.  Those who have gone on to the Church Triumphant are still connected to Christ, and therefore, still connected to us and we to them.  Nothing than divide those who are connected to each other through Christ, not even the seeming finality of death.


If you read a little further in Revelation, you’ll see another description of heaven as a great banquet, a wedding feast, a dinner party.  A good meal is a sign of the kingdom of God!  A good meal is a foretaste of heaven!  As a pastor, I’ve been to more covered-dish suppers and funeral meals than I can remember.  I’ve seen things combined in casseroles that don’t belong together, and things suspended in gelatin that should never be suspended in gelatin.


On more than one occasion, someone will say, “Well, we don’t know what else to do, so we brought food,” but can I tell you, making and sharing a meal is exactly what we should do!  It’s a way we show concern and care, and it’s a way we stay connected with each other, even beyond death.


Imagine the Lord’s table as standing in that mysterious place between this life and the life to come.  Picture two chairs at the table – one on the front side and one on the back side.  That front chair is for us – it’s where we take our place at the table.  That chair is easy to see and accessible.  But what about that chair on the back side?  It’s a bit harder to see, but it’s there.  It’s for those saints who have gone ahead of us into the fuller presence of God.  Our communion liturgy witnesses to the reality that we worship and fellowship among “God’s people on earth and all the company of heaven.”  And so, we in this life take our seat on this side, and our friends who have gone on into the life to come take their seat on the other, with Christ, the host of the meal, at the center. 


We are at the same meal, reunited with loved ones as we all connected in Christ, and yet we know that their reality is different from our own.  Our life still contains its fair share of suffering and difficulty, tragedy and tears.  But our friends seated in that other seat – their life no longer includes pain and suffering and tears.  It doesn’t lessen that reality for us, or make our grief any less real.  You’ve heard the saying, “Time heals all wounds,” but there are some wounds time will never heal completely.  Those of you who have lived longer than I have carry wounds that time has not healed.  Lessened, perhaps, but not completely healed.  The fact is time doesn’t heal wounds – God does – and some wounds will only receive complete healing in the life to come.  If you want to know what Heaven looks like, it looks like healing.  It looks like mighty and powerful God intimately wiping away every tear from every eye.  That doesn’t take away our pain, but perhaps it gives us some hope about what our loved ones on the other side of the table now know and experience.


As we prepare to come to the Lord’s table today, let us think of those who are in that seat on the other side of the table.  Joining us as we feast and dine with Christ, filled and sustained with his love and grace, are James Knight, Chic Aydelette, and Bobby Stanley.  Today we break bread again with Minnie Mitchell, Susie Wall, and Dalton Davis.  Today we share the cup with Calvin McGuire, Mable Jones, and Jean Thornton.  Not only today, but every time we come to the Lord’s table.


Not only each of these, but all the saints who have gone on to the Church Triumphant.  In that banquet in heaven, I imagine it much more like a covered-dish meal than a catered affair.  The body of Christ is a place where each member brings their best to the table, that’s true whether in heaven or on earth.


This year, I think of Ashley’s Papa Buddy, and his famous biscuits and coconut cake hitting the table.  I always think of my grandparents, and Ashley’s grandparents, and my Mom.  I know they’re joining us from the other side of the table, and are already experiencing the fullness of that banquet from that place where God has wiped every tear from their eyes


As we prepare to come to the Lord’s table today, who is it you have pictured sitting at the table from the other side, and what are they bringing?  Not even so much the food, but their characteristics and traits?  Think of the impression they left upon us, what of them still lives and grows beyond death, because it lives and grows in each of us.  Think of how the world today is a little better reflection of the kingdom of God because they walked among us.


Today, as we light candles and see their light and feel their warmth, may we sense the presence of those represented by each one.  Today we dine with Christ, one another, and even those who have gone on before us.  Today, a bit of heaven has come to us, and it’s as real as the bread in our hands.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Taxes and Tithes, Traps and Tricks (Matthew 22:15-22)

15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19  Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.


It’s said you can bring up the topics of religion or politics once at a fancy dinner party, but do it twice, and you won’t be invited back.


The Bible, however, is no slave to social norms, and our passage today is a complex web of politics, religion, and money – three things my grandmother taught me never to talk about in polite, public company.  The only thing missing from this conversation is sex – add that one to the mix, and we’ll have people running for the doors, or perhaps we’d have them running in, I’m not sure.


Why are these topics off limits?  Perhaps, they are too personal and private to be discussed among polite people.  Perhaps they are too inflammatory – opinions on such matters run deep – and we avoid these topics in the interest of “just getting along.”


Politics, religion, and money get center stage in today’s passage from the 22nd Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.  Here’s the backstory: An occupying army of Roman soldiers had invaded the country with much bloodshed and cultural upheaval.  Then taxes were collected, and used to fund the same occupying army.  The tax wasn’t popular, but refusing to pay meant imprisonment or death.  Taxes were not paid to demonstrate good citizenship so much as to stay alive.  Benjamin Franklin famously said “There is nothing certain in this life except death and taxes,” but for the people of 1st Century Judea, it was a matter of taxes or death.


Two groups who ordinarily have nothing to do with each other have joined forces in their quest to defeat Jesus.  The Herodians were those loyal to King Herod, who was seen within his own country of Israel as a sellout to the occupying Roman government – a puppet king whose loyalties lie in Rome, not to his own people.  The Pharisees – devout, religious, purists – detested Rome and anyone sympathetic to Rome.  It was insulting enough to pay the tax, but to have to use Roman currency to do it – engraved with an image of Caesar and proclaiming the divinity of Caesar – required them to regularly violate the first two of the ten commandments.


The Herodians have the lock on government power, the Pharisees the lock on religious power.  Along comes Jesus, an unlikely third party candidate, but lately he’s been gaining in the polls.  The Pharisees see him eroding their religious traditions and heritage, the Herodians see his popularity as a potential political threat and the seeds for an uprising.  Politically, the only thing the Herodians and the Pharisees had in common was their hatred of Jesus.  Indeed, politics do make strange bedfellows, as now they caucus together in a united front against Jesus, asking whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Rome.


Even Admiral Ackbar could see from a mile away that it’s a trap.  If Jesus answers, “yes,” he risks losing the support of his adoring public.  If he plays to public opinion and answers, “no,” then he can be arrested for advocating lawlessness and possible insurrection.  It’s a trick question with no right answer.  Jesus recognizes the inherent flaw in the question is that he is being asked to pick a side.


Jesus doesn’t take the bait, but reframes the question.  “Does anyone have the coin used to pay the tax?”  Someone in the crowd produces a Roman denarius, like this one, and presents it to Jesus.  Go ahead and pass this around, although, I would like it back, so whoever ends up with it, please bring it back to me!


As he casually holds the coin in his hand, Jesus asks, “Whose image and inscription are on this coin?” and he knows full well, as his opponents will answer, that the face of Caesar, as well as words ascribing glory and power and even divinity are on that coin.  The coin that’s being passed around is badly worn, but you can just barely make out the face in the middle, and evidence of some sort of writing around the edges.


And so, Jesus says, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.


He hasn’t technically answered the question.  He hasn’t helped us make heads or tails about the question of paying taxes, but has introduced a new, more fascinating and utterly more important wrinkle to the fabric: namely, what – and who – belongs to God.


Before I tackle that question, let me ask one of my own: why is it, actually, that we’re not supposed to talk about money, politics, and religion in the first place?  Yes, these matters are personal and potentially divisive.  People feel very strongly about these matters, which is just why we should talk about them in the community of faith – not to tell people what to do but to help them see these issues from the vantage point of their faith. When you ask what church folks look for in a good sermon, one common theme is that the sermon will connect to and inform their daily life; how the biblical story, in other words, connected with their life story.


What is more daily, more directly related to our decisions and priorities than our politics and how we spend money?  Does not our faith and who we believe and experience Jesus to be not have some influence on both?  Do we not have at least some idea of what the kingdom of God is like, some picture of what that might look like, and are we not called to work to bring God’s coming kingdom to fruition?  Are we not called to bear a little more light to an often dark world, to bring a little bit of heaven to earth, and really mean it when we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?


Give to God what is God’s – we don’t have to scratch down too far to realize that it all belongs to God.  Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all within it; the world, and all who live in it.”  But that doesn’t really solve the dilemma – if God already owns everything, how can we give God what God already has?


Think about that coin for a minute.  That coin stamped out by human hands for human purposes, and the image of Caesar imprinted on it - it’s hard to ignore the connection to those words from the beginning of Genesis about the first time God stamped out a human being: “Let us make humankind in our image” (Genesis 1:26).


An unspoken question hangs in the air as the eyes of Jesus meet ours. “And you, my friend: Whose image do you bear?”


Give to Caesar the things with Caesar’s image, but give to God what bears the image of God – yourself, your whole self, nothing less than yourself.  We belong to the one whose image we bear.  We belong to God.


Whatever we render unto Caesar, or to the retirement fund, or to the offering at church, we can never afford to forget this: we belong entirely to God. We may divide our budget, but we must never divide our allegiance.  Our first citizenship is in God’s kingdom, the church exists as an outpost of that kingdom, the embassy of a people who gather not under the flag of any one nation, but under the shadow of the cross of Christ.


That’s what we’re supposed to be anyway. Yet, I find that too often our other allegiances are allowed higher priority than God.  We too often modify and qualify our identity in God, describing ourselves as conservative Christians or liberal Christians; young Christians or old Christians; traditionalist Christians or contemporary Christians.  Every modifier and qualifier divides our loyalties and muddies our identity.  Our lives are influenced more by forces that are economic, cultural, and geographic than they are shaped by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.


Friends, God comes first.  Before anything else.  Our ultimate, absolute, and final allegiance is pledged to God and God alone.


While we may feel strongly about our loyalties, before we are Democrat, Republican, or Independent, we are Christian.  Before we are liberal or conservative, we are Christian.  Before we are American, we are Christian.  No matter what else, our identity is in God.


Why does that matter so much? 
Think about that coin that’s going around, and think about the image on that coin.  That coin is 2000 years old.  The image has faded and is barely recognizable.  The emperor died long ago.  His empire has collapsed.  Everyone who pledged their allegiance and loyalty and identity in that earthly empire now have nothing to show for it.  The image on that coin is faded, and everything that image represents is now gone.


Eventually, all kings and kingdoms shall fade into oblivion.  Rulers and realms will be relegated to the ages.  Powers and principalities will pass away.  Every nation that rises will eventually fall.  But the name of the Lord endures forever.


The image of God, unlike the image on that coin and all it represents, doesn’t fade.  It is marked indelibly on each of us, it will last for all time and for the time that is beyond time.


Our value, worth, and identity is not found in that coin.  Not in the accumulation of those coins and the things they buy, not in the image on that coin and all it represents.  We are valued, every one of us, with sacred and inestimable worth, because we bear God’s image.  Recognize that value on yourself, and recognize it on all others who bear that image, and you’re on the right track toward giving God the things that belong to God.


So sure, give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar.  Some trinkets?  A coin?  Sure, why not!  That will all fade away, anyway.  But give to God the things that belong to God – starting with yourself.  Give yourself to God, and those other issues about what to do with your energy and time and money will come along, as well.


But, just to give you an opportunity to practice, at both ends of each row, you’ll find a permanent marker.  What I want you to do is to reach in your wallet and pull out a credit card or your debit card, or a dollar bill if you don’t have any cards.  I want you to mark the sign of the cross on that card or bill, and then put it back in your wallet.  From now on, when you pull that out of your wallet, the first thing I want you to do is remember that you are made in God’s image, and nothing you or anyone else does can change that, especially not the amount of money in the account tied to that particular card.  Once you’ve done that, ask yourself if the purchase you’re about to make is consistent with the values of God’s kingdom, and your identity as one who bears God’s image.  Use that as an opportunity give yourself to God again, and ask God to shape your priorities and identity to be more like Jesus.


It’s been said “Who you are is God’s gift to you.  What you do with yourself is your gift to God.”  Give God your self.  Your whole self.  Your very best self, and nothing less.


Let us pray.

O God, all that we are and all that we have is a gift from you.  Out of your great love, you formed us in your image and breathed into us the breath of life.  When our love failed and we turned away, your love remained steadfast.


Forgive us for those times when we live with divided loyalties.  Forgive us when look past you for our identity.  Bear with us as we learn to give you the highest place and our first and primary allegiance.


We thank you for the value and sacred worth you have placed upon us, the honor you give us simply by forming us in your image.  As those who bear your image, help us to live like that actually makes a difference in our lives.  May we worship you not with lip service only, but with our whole lives.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.