October 19, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Romans 12:1-5, Matthew 22:15-33

Better Than A Snow Day

I invite you to think of a time when you experienced the fullness of freedom. You were set free, and you knew it, no doubt. You feel it in the stretch of your toes and in a long deep breath. You are alive and free, and the world better be ready.

For me, I knew this feeling in the winter of seventh grade. This was the first year of changing classes and having seven teachers; there was junior high gym and orchestra, theatre after school, and more homework than ever before. School started at 7:30 in the morning, play rehearsal ended at 8:30 in the evening, we had dinner in the car. And then it snowed.

For several days in a row, I got up and turned on the news to watch the scroll along the bottom of the screen listing the school closings in alphabetical order. I remember the fierce intensity of these moments and the fervent prayers bargaining promises to the Holy Spirit. Then I saw Kettering City Schools roll across the scrawl, and I felt a whoosh of euphoria rush through my being.

It’s not that I didn’t like school, I liked school. But a snow day is a present brimming with possibility. I could go back to sleep or study for the test we were supposed to have. I could meet up with my friends down the block and we could go sledding. All the stress is canceled; it will have to wait until tomorrow.

Today anything can happen, and I can’t wait! Today we are free.

Now of course, this experience of freedom reflects my position of privilege. If only every twelve year old’s biggest problem is too many activities. If only snow days could be surprise holidays for everyone and not family crises because there is no child care, or because we rely on the school for breakfast and lunch, so now how will we eat? If only we could declare a free snow day to everyone, cancel the wars and release the prisoners, erase all the debt, and give food to the hungry, let families reunite.

The truth is, we live in a world where our lives are taken and owned by many forces. I believe it is possible to be a people set free, but it’s not all in the wonder and magic of sledding and hot chocolate. Becoming free is terrifying.

For a few months in seminary, I  spent time at a tiny non-profit dedicated to helping men who were coming out of prison obtain their state ID. As you know well, you can’t do much anything without ID. So getting a valid ID is one of the first challenges people face upon release.

I had been thinking this work would be so much fun, because the men coming to our office would be so happy. Getting out of prison should be exhilarating and brimming with possibility. It should feel like a snow day, like a thousand snow days. And yet, the men who came to our office were usually not happy. Usually, they were scared. I’m talking about big men who could be seriously intimidating if they wanted to be, but on this day, standing on the brink between their life in prison and who knows what happens next, these men were terrified.

I once read a reflection by a man who was released from prison and adjusting to life on the outside. He explained that for the longest time, every time he would come to a door, he would instinctually stop and wait for a minute rather than just walking through it. He was so conditioned to the prison practice of stopping before every door and getting buzzed through. Think about what that must be like. Sure many of us just go through doors all the time, no big deal. But for many others, the doors we encounter every day are a reminder that we are not so free after all.[1]

Freedom is not getting processed out of prison and handed a bus ticket. It’s not getting sent home from your tour of duty in Afghanistan then hailed as a hero, when what you really need is counseling for PTSD, what you really need is a job. There is more to freedom than escaping slavery in Egypt only to wander in the desert, hungry and thirsty. There has to be.

Friends, if you have graduated from high school or college. If you have ever lost your job or retired, you might know the thrill that rushes through your being on that first day of freedom. But then what? What does it mean to actually make a life for ourselves in the light of liberation, to believe in a God who breaks the rod of oppression and sets the people free? What does it mean for us to see the possibility that our lives are worth giving…

Today we continue our sermon series called “Jesus Said What?!” We are exploring the confounding teachings of Jesus in the book of Matthew in the days leading up to his betrayal and crucifixion. He has been teaching at the Temple for a little while now, the tension in the crowds is building. Today we hear two attempts made by groups trying to trap him.

The first test question comes from the Pharisees: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God according to the truth… Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

You can see why this is a trap. If Jesus says, “Yes it is lawful” that gets him in trouble with the religious leaders. The act of paying taxes was in conflict with Jewish custom. It involved acknowledging the divinity of Caesar, an act of blasphemy. Of course, if Jesus said, “No, don’t pay your taxes” that could get him in trouble with the Roman authorities. The crowd is ready, rubbing their palms together waiting to see which law he’s going to break.

Right after this encounter, another group comes at Jesus. This time it’s the Sadduccees, a Jewish sect that did not believe in the possibility of an afterlife. They say to Jesus, now we don’t believe in the resurrection, but you do, so explain this: In the law of Moses, if a man dies, his brother marries his wife so she is not put out on the street. Now say there’s a family of seven brothers, and this happened all seven times. In your fantastical afterlife, which one is her real husband?

Oh Jesus I hear you sigh. That’s not written in the scripture, but after each of these mean-spirited and obnoxious questions, I’m pretty sure Jesus takes a long deep sigh. Then instead of walking away and dismissing these awful traps, Jesus answers both questions and then some. He uses his response to enlarge what they are asking, to pass their tests, and then issue a choice.

To the Sadducees he says, Look, you don’t understand the scriptures or the power of God. In the resurrection, there’s no concern about who’s married to whom, the resurrection is so much greater than you imagine. Haven’t you heard it said, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, God not of the dead, but of the living… Now this does not mean that those who are dead are no longer part of God. Quite the opposite. It means that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, all who have gone before are living with God in the resurrection. Choose life greater than death.

To the Pharisees Jesus tells them to go bring him a coin. Right there in the Temple, and somebody produces a coin that features Caesar as the son of god! Jesus makes them look at the blasphemous denarius, then he lays out this choice. Give back to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s. And give to God the things that are God’s. Jesus just placed a demand on their lives.

We Americans might think of this incident in light of our sensibilities around the separation of church and state. It’s tempting to imagine Jesus saying, pay this percentage to the state and this percentage to the church. But this is not a story about giving a percentage of money to the church. This is a story about giving your life to God.

(Now please know these are not mutually exclusive. You are very welcome to give your money to the church AND your life to God. That would be fine!)

In the scripture we hear today, in these days before the cross, Jesus is getting ready to give his life to God. He tells these Pharisees, and the crowds, and us, “Won’t you do this too?” Give to God what belongs to God, and I’m pretty sure he means our lives. This invitation is terrifying and liberating all at the same time.

Giving our lives to God could look like something different for each of us -it could mean dying, but usually not. It could mean living a life of service and pleasure, compassion and gratitude. You give your life to God when you get up early to serve breakfast to hungry children, and you can give your life to God by sleeping in. It is the deliberate choice to gather up your life, in all its messy fullness, and give this life to God’s love.  Do this every day, and get set free.

Because we all know what it is to have our lives taken from us. Our lives are taken by our jobs and our worries, by systems of oppression and abusive relationships, by cancer and addiction and relentless demands from family, by social pressure to fit in and academic pressure to get all A’s. Your life can be taken by all kinds of forces.

Your life can only be given by one, and that’s you. When you give your life to God, it becomes very clear who your life belongs to and who it doesn’t.

When we give our lives to God, we share in the reckless generosity of Jesus Christ, and we help each other do the same. Freedom isn’t getting processed out of jail and handed a bus ticket. It isn’t just going through a door without hesitation, or getting sent home from war, or getting an A on anybody’s test. It is much better than that. Being a people who live in the light of liberation means giving our lives to possibility we haven’t even imagined.

Today anything can happen, and I can’t wait. Today we are free. I gather up my life and give it to God, and see, it is even better than a snow day. Better than a thousand snow days. Amen.

[1] For accounts of adjusting to the outside world, read Surviving Justice: Americas Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated edited by Lola Vollen and Dave Eggers, Voice of Witness: San Francisco, 2005.

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