Sunday, February 28, 2016


Mark 12:13-17        New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.


Part of my sermon preparation each week is finding an image that fits what I am hoping to say.  Often I don’t come up with the right image until Saturday or even Sunday morning.  This week Leah asked if I could possibly think about it a bit earlier as she was going to be on a retreat with our high school youth and would like not to have to worry about it while she is gone.  So I began my image search on Monday.  I found a very cool hound dog with ears outspread and some word clouds and scrabble boards with the word listening on them.  And then I saw this . . . it’s nothing at all like any of the other images.  It doesn’t just say “listening” - it defines all the parts of listening.  Jesus frequently said things like, “Let those who have ears to hear, hear what I have said.”    But I think what he really meant is, “Let those who want to make the effort, listen to me.”

Not hearing.  Listening.  And according to this pictograph listening includes a number of things. 

Ears to hear (big orange symbol)
Actually hearing what someone has to say.  Most of us take that for granted, but there are some who no longer have the ability to hear the way they used to.  Hearing aids and the listening devices we have in the sanctuary are very helpful, but they aren’t perfect.  Even people with really good hearing might have what parents often call “selective hearing” in their children.  They really only hear what they want to hear.   “Clean your room” is somehow completely inaudible, but “Who wants pizza?” comes across loud and clear.  

Eyes to see (turquoise symbol)
Eyes are not absolutely necessary to hearing.  After all, blind people can hear just fine unless, like Helen Keller they are blind and deaf.  But we’re talking about listening, and I don’t know about you, but I can really hear what you are saying much better if I am looking at you.  I not only hear your words, but I see your facial expressions and body language, so I have a deeper understanding not just of the things you are saying but how you feel about what you are saying.   

Undivided attention (blue line)
It isn’t easy to give anything my undivided attention for very long.  Squirrel!   Even if I want to pay close attention, I can easily be . . . oooh … shiny!   . . . where was I?   We are surrounded by all sorts of distractions, even when we are sitting in the audience of an intensely dramatic play performance  . . .What a lovely dress that lady in the front row is wearing . . .  OK, I’ll stop.  But seriously, giving someone our undivided attention means we are really paying attention to what they have to say.  As difficult as that may be, especially in a time when cell phones and wearables like my watch are constantly demanding our attention, and when live-tweeting what’s going on at an event is becoming more and more accepted as way of including everyone we know in important events.  I was one of the people live-tweeting from General Assembly in Indianapolis some years back, but what that meant is that I wasn’t always looking at the stage and I missed some very cool stuff.   I was only hearing what was going on, not really listening, not really engaging with it - not giving it my undivided attention.  

Heart to feel (yellow symbol)
A heart to feel what is being said.  Listening is about more than using our physical senses. It includes allowing the other person’s emotions in.  It means having a bit of empathy for the speaker. It means responding from the heart, from the very seat of our being.  An odd thing about empathy - science has shown that when someone is listening to another very closely and with empathy, it is not uncommon for the listener to yawn.  I know - we always think that yawning means the other guy is bored or sleepy.  But in fact, yawning is also a sign of empathy at work.   So someone starts stifling yawns while talking to you, take it as a compliment. It means she is listening very closely, with ears and eyes and heart.   

Mind to think  (grey symbol)
Mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote about a Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who solved crimes by using his “little grey cells.”  He was often criticized by those who didn’t know his methods because he didn’t seem to be doing much on the cases he was investigating.  But he always caught the evil doers, through careful consideration of both facts and all sorts of apparently random information.  He never took things at face value, you see.  He always looked for the underlying motives and deeper meanings in whatever people told him.  I love that this symbol is grey, because listening clearly includes the use of the “little grey cells”.  

So listening is an activity that includes all of these things - ears to hear, eyes to see, undivided attention, a heart to feel and a mind to think.  Jesus expected, or perhaps hoped is more accurate, that people hearing what he had to say would focus, not just on his words but where those words pointed.

When the Pharisees came to him with that test question - “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?  Should we pay them, or should we not?” - they were trying to trick him into saying something treasonous, something that would allow them to go to the Romans and say, this man is preaching against the Emperor.  Jesus was much too smart for them, and said, “Give to the Emperor what is his.”  Clearly, the coins were the Emperor’s - they had his face on them, after all.  He managed to say “Pay your taxes!” without upsetting the folks listening who were actively working against Rome.  That was a good trick.  It was like saying something today that all the Democrats and Republicans would agree about.   

So, great. Pay your taxes!  Keep church stuff and government stuff separated.  Excellent. I am a strong proponent of the separation of Church and State.  I believe that the government needs to stay out of the church’s business and the church needs to stay out of the government’s business.  I keep my views on specific candidates out of the pulpit and off my lawn, my car bumper and my Facebook page.   And just so you know, I am registered to vote with no party preference and, if asked, I won’t say who I plan to vote for.  I will, however, use my understanding of the Gospel in forming my decision about who and what to cast my vote for, as should we all.

How many of you got the opportunity to see the play “12 Angry Men” here in town?  I saw it last night and I have to tell you it was a great performance.  So powerful.  So timely.  Issues of race and prejudice and preconceived notions that had to be peeled away like the layers of an onion in order for the jury to clearly see possibilities.  One of the characters - Juror 3 - upon hearing Juror 8’s concern that the other eleven men were willing to take a life without thinking about it, scoffed at that man for “preaching.”  Several times, when he wanted to put someone’s opinion down, he would refer to what they said as sermonizing.  Notions of compassion and grace, as far as he was concerned, had no place in a jury room.  Mind you, none of the other jurors mentioned anything even vaguely religious - certainly nothing overtly Christian.  But somehow the notion that the young man in question might have some worth as a human being escaped a few of the Jurors entirely for the majority of the play. 

And yet, that is what Christians are taught to believe.  That God created all of us, and loves all of us and that therefore, we all have worth in God’s eyes.  That Jesus came to save the entire world, not just certain races or ethnicities or gender identities or sexual orientations.   Jesus said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Those who truly listened - with ears, eyes, undivided attention, heart and mind - knew that he was saying a lot more than “pay your taxes and go to the Temple on the Sabbath”.  The money belongs to the Emperor - to the world.  To the corporations and the IRS.  God doesn’t care about money.  But God does care about your soul, your heart, your happiness and your well being - and the Emperor doesn’t.  The Emperor - the world - says spend your money here, spend your power there, love this, hate that.  God says, use your heart and mind and soul sharing the love that I have poured out upon you.  Don’t judge - leave that to me.  Don’t hate.  It is beneath you.  The Emperor - the world - says reject this person and that one because they are different from you.  Jesus says do as I did - reject no one.  Welcome everyone.  Help those in need.  Jesus said,  “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”   
(Matthew  7:12) If anyone asks you to do otherwise - to treat others badly, to reject anyone, to think of others as in any way less than - it seems to me that they have not really listened to the Word of the Lord with eyes, ears, undivided attention, heart, and mind. 

These are not things that we do just when we are doing our churchy things.  These are things that God requires of us in all of our affairs.  These are the things we must consider when we make decisions about where and how to spend our money and our energy - and about who we choose to spend our money for us.   

Love your neighbor as you are loved. 
Love God with all your heart, your strength, and your mind.  
Serve God with all your will and your life. 
Give back to God all that you have received from God, 
whose love knows no conditions, 
whose forgiveness knows no limits, 
whose giving knows no ending. 

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