What’s Mine is Yours? Matthew 22:15-22

Cat Goodrich
Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
October 21, 2023

What’s Mine is Yours?
Matthew 22:15-22

Gillian, Cocoa and I took a walk yesterday, down our street lined with towering sycamore trees.  The sycamore leaves all turn brown and drop in dry heaps covering the curb, but interspersed through the neighborhood are oaks and maples, sweetgums and dogwoods, chestnuts and black walnuts, trees whose leaves turn the most incredible shades of orange, gold, and crimson, so that the sidewalks become a red carpet.  Some are so beautiful, I can’t walk by without stooping to pick them up.

I’m ashamed to say the magic of fall was a mystery that would pass by almost unnoticed until I had children.  But now, my children ask me – why do leaves change color in fall?  How does it happen?  And I know now that leaves produce chlorophyll through spring and summer, a chemical which tints them a basic green color and allows them to turn sunlight into sugar through photosynthesis.  The sugar feeds the tree.  The chemicals which appear to tint a leaf yellow or gold is called carotenoids, and they’re there, in the leaf, all year – but the chlorophyll covers it up, so the yellow can’t be seen.  As the weather cools, especially if we get bright sunny autumn days and crisp fall nights, and a few rainy days, the leaves have a lot of sugar stored up to feed the tree.  That’s when the chemical that turns leaves bright red and orange begins to be produced; it’s called Anthocyanin.  As the nights grow longer and days shorter, chlorophyll production tapers off – revealing the brilliant yellow and red that have been there all along, and just weren’t visible.[1]  The tender leaves of a tree would freeze if they tried to survive the winter, so they seal up the veins that carry liquid to and from the branch, and eventually, they let go – falling to the ground, carpeting the sidewalks.

The words of Psalm 19 come to mind…”The heavens are telling the glory of God, the earth proclaims Gods handiwork.”  Yes. It’s true.  Look around. Breathe it in. With eyes to see, we people of faith can’t help but recognize the hand of the creator present in the world around us.  How can this be if God is not?  Chlorophyll, carotenoids, and anthocyanin coexisting within a single leaf, each sustaining the tree in its own small way, one stepping forward as another falls back.   And more than that, the wisdom underlying the cycle of our seasons testifies to the wisdom of the creator: this autumn time of letting go, creation hunkering down through the cold winter to rest and build strength, the cycle starting again with the fresh green growth of spring.

We often hear that God created the universe out of nothing.  Earth was a formless void into which God spoke.  But: Celtic Christians believed that God created not out of nothing but out of God’s own being. Imagine the big bang as a birthing, creation born in a flash from the divine body.  Everything is therefore infused with the sacred, because God’s body is the ground of our being.  God’s breath, our breath. Think of the respiration of leaves, as co2 is absorbed and oxygen emitted.  Then their majestic turning, green fading to reveal brilliant flaming colors of fall, readying the tree for winter.  This incredible balance, this beautiful world. This stunning cosmos.  All of it. Of God. From God. Holy.  This means that instead of being far off, out there, or up there, detached from the machinations of our world, God is right here.  MaryAnn McKibben Dana quotes John O’Donohue: “If we believe that the body is in the soul and the soul is divine ground, then the presence of the divine is completely here, close with us.[2] All we need to do is slow down and tune in: to notice the holy at work in the ordinary.[3]  God, not far off, but right here.

And so this question that the Pharisees and the Herodians ask… do we pay taxes to Caesar?  Is it lawful?  This is a sneaky, trick question. It’s a political, partisan question, a question designed to make someone angry no matter what Jesus says: if he says, no, don’t pay it, the Herodians will have reason to arrest him.  But if he says, “Yes, Pay the tax,” both the Pharisees and Jesus’ followers will be furious.  See, the tax was a denarius, about a day’s wages, paid once a year to support the emperor.  So this tax didn’t pay for firefighters or police, it didn’t fund trash collection or pave streets.  It went into the emperor’s coffers, it funded his sacrilegious ostentatious odious occupation of Israel.   And it had to be paid with a coin that had Caesar’s face on it, a graven image they were forbidden by Jewish law to possess.  Sure, Jesus says, give to Caesar what is Caesar.  Let him have his coin.

But then Jesus says, “give to God what is God’s.” If God created the world out of Gods own being.  If the heavens are singing the glory of God, the earth reveals God’s handiwork… then everything – all of creation belongs to God. So all of it is sacred.  Even the coin with Caesar’s face on it.  Everything should be devoted not to Caesar.  Not to our faulty government with its partisan politics and deadlock and decrees.  But to God.

Now many will tell us that this is not true. That religion has its place over here. In here. In here.  That commerce, and governance, and leisure, and business, and learning…. They all exist out there. Keep religion in here.  But out there, pay your taxes.  Look out for yourself, your family, your comfort.  That’s all that matters.  Forget the mystery of the leaves.  The majesty of fall.  The sacramental shimmer that infuses everyday life.

They want us to think that Gods domain is here. Here.  Not out there. Out there, there is technology to demand our devotion, and drugs to numb our aching hearts, and money to be made from fear and hate. Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are churning out bombs and planes, and aircraft carriers. There’s money to be made out there, especially if God stays in here. And here.

But this week I saw a video of a child, a little boy, rescued from the rubble after an airstrike in Gaza.  He was maybe 5 years old, covered in dust.  Hair matted with blood. He was looking around with wide eyes, asking, “am I alive? Am I alive?”[4]

And I read an op-Ed written by an Israeli-American woman, whose child, her son, was kidnapped by Hamas militants two weeks ago.[5]  Taken while fleeing a terrorist attack on a music festival, and she does not know if he is alive or dead.  And she is terrified.  Terrified of what will happen to her son. Her beautiful boy, who loved music.

And on my way here, this morning, I passed by a boy, hood up, hands shoved in his pockets, in the cold. Sitting on a step. Backpack nearby. Waiting for a car to pull up so he could make his next deal.  Just a few blocks from here.

They will tell us there is nothing we can do. These boys are not our problem.  Just let it go.  But how can we?  These children. These boys. They are our children.  How can we allow this to happen? The bombs to fall, the terrorists to terrorize, the hopelessness to spiral into the abyss?

Because in their faces, if we look closely, we will see God’s face. Their bodies: the tear-streaked cheeks, the eyes wide with shock, the shoulders hunched against the cold, they are precious.  Sacred.  Beloved.  The creator’s handiwork.

I don’t have to tell you that our world, God’s creation, is a bit of a mess right now. But I can’t help but wonder what might happen if we stopped to notice, to acknowledge the divine signature all around us.  If we realized that we ourselves, you, and me – each of us owes our being to God.  And our endless bickering, our pointless posturing, our political maneuvering – all of the blood spilled and the children killed to control one tiny corner of our planet for however long … is just a diversion.  Hubris.  Human fault and frailty.

And I wonder what might be possible if we could open our eyes and tune our hearts to see the holy handprint within us, shimmering golden like the carotenoids… right here within us all along.  Just waiting for the green greed of the world to recede, for the cold night to creep in, to inspire us to find a way shine.

Maybe, just maybe when we look to see the face of God in others… when we remember whose image and likeness we bear within our own hearts – maybe we will have the courage to offer to God every possible thing that we can.  Our whole lives.  Our whole selves.  For peace.  For justice.  For those boys.  May it be so.

[1] “The Science of Fall Colors,” USDA Forest Service website, https://www.fs.usda.gov/visit/fall-colors/science-of-fall-colors#:~:text=As%20night%20length%20increases%20in,unmasked%20and%20show%20their%20colors.

[2] John O’Donohue, Aman Cara: A book of Celtic Wisdom qtd by MaryAnn McKibben Dana in her Blue Room newsletter, “The Divine is Close With Us,” 8/25/23

[3] Ibid.

[4] I could not find this video in the writing of this sermon.  I believe it was shared in an Instagram story by Rev. Ashlee Weist-Laird.

[5] Goldberg, Rachel, “I hope someone somewhere is being kind to my boy,” guest essay, The New York Times, 10/12/23, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/12/opinion/israel-hamas-hostage.html