This week I am preaching at a Church Anniversary, using the lectionary readings: Exodus 33: 12-23 & Matthew 22: 15-22
I’m grateful to our previous Synod Moderator, David Grosch-Miller, currently moderator of General Assembly, for the start of his latest blog:
“It has been a busy time in pursuit of the places where God is at work! The latest quest began in Sheffield with the 300th anniversary of worship on the site now occupied by Central URC. Anniversaries can sometimes be the excuse for nostalgia to cloud the memory and reality to take a back seat.”
Perhaps this explains why I was initially nervous about accepting the invitation to lead worship today as we celebrate this church anniversary.
It is dangerous, isn’t it, looking back. It can make us wistful, even a little disconsolate , as we remember past glories and good times.
When I was the minister of one quite large church, we were talking about the church anniversary which was coming up and one member said “I just wish it was like it had been when my children were young, back in the 1970s – that was a real golden age”. When I looked at a church history that had been written in 1972 I found a chapter “The golden age – 1842-1867”. Perhaps it is human nature that we always look back with fondness.
But we need to beware the desire to grasp and hold and keep what has been and so miss out on the present. Of course we honour what has gone before, but then we need to let go and move on.
In the Gospel reading we heard, Jesus is facing a challenge from those who want to hold on to things. They want to hold onto their religious traditions, they want to hold onto the status quo in the political sphere, and it turns out they would quite like to hold onto their money, too.
The Pharisees send people to ask Jesus a question:
Should we pay tax to Caesar? It is clearly a trick question – saying yes to tax to the Roman power is going to be considered irreligious – whilst saying no to Roman tax is politically unwise – perhaps even suicide.
But Jesus’ answer refuses to fall into their trap, and instead sets their brains whirling. Whose image is on the coin? Caesar’s. “Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God that which is God's".
I am not a great scholar of Greek - I rely on far wiser people than me to open up the subtleties of the original text for me. But I was interested to learn that the verb, in the question which is put to Jesus, is ‘dounai’ – to give, to pay.
But Jesus in his reply uses the verb ‘apodote’ – which has more of a sense of ‘giving back’ – it’s the verb which is used when Jesus ‘hands back’ the scroll after he has read in the synagogue.
Should we pay tax to Rome? – Jesus says you can give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – that’s the coin, with the emperor’s head on it – and give back to God what belongs to God. Give back to God the creator of all that which God has first given to you - which is everything, surely !
Jesus is telling his followers to let go, not grasp, and he is not limited to talking about money – he wants his followers to recognise that if they are to be people of the way – those who follow him, children of the kingdom, they must give their all. We must live as those who know that our worship, our money, our very lives need to be given back to God in deep gratitude for all the grace God has shown us.
So in our anniversary celebrations we give thanks for all the ways in which people here have given their all in following Christ, and we ask what it is that we need to give back to God.
It seems perhaps that Moses, in our Exodus reading, is also trying to grasp and hold onto something: in his case not money but God himself. Moses is used to conversing and meeting with God. His first encounter was in the burning bush, he has known God’s help as has been through struggles with Pharoah, led the people through the parting of the Red Sea, there have been various adventures in the desert, and the giving of the Law at Sinai. But he wants to hold onto God’s presence, to see God’s face.
God’s answer is “you will see my back, but my face you will not see”.
God is with his people, but they are always scrambling after God. They can never rest in one place and know that they have arrived in the golden age where God will be wholly present.
If we come here to this or any church to bask in the glory of God, to gaze on him and forget the world, I think we’re in for a disappointment.
Worship is about recognising God’s place in our lives – God’s love, mercy and rule and how we should respond to those things. But we cannot conjour up God’s presence here and then hold onto exactly what we think God looks like or is saying to us. We are constantly following where God leads, looking for signs of God’s activity in our world and trying to join in: seeing God’s back, and scurrying after.
Celebrating this church anniversary is about giving thanks for all those who have glimpsed God’s back striding into the future and have moved this church to follow after – in worship and service.
We honour the past, we give thanks for all God has given, we give back to God’s service all that we have received. And we seek to move on to where God’s grace shown in Jesus is leading us.
And that means not only thinking about where God is leading us as a community here in Taunton, but also sometimes lifting our eyes to other places in the world. I know you are good at that, here: I know we have been collecting for Water Aid, and the total has been amazing.
But I’m going to ask you to give more. Don’t panic: I don’t want money. I want a little of your time. This weekend is Christian Aid's "climate justice" weekend. We are being asked to inform ourselves more about climate change (what some call global warming) and the effect it is having, especially on the poorest people in our world, who are most dependent on the land for survival and least equipped to cope with unpredictable climate change. I want to give you something - a postcard to send to our MP if you are minded to. I want to ask for your prayers. I want to challenge you to follow God into the future, in your actions, in your prayers and in this church.
And I want to give you a promise - God will be with us, Jesus’ love will show us the way, and the Spirit will inspire us, today tomorrow & forever. Amen.