We’ve done it again. We have promised. We have committed “ourselves to live our faith in such a manner that our lives and our words may draw children towards the love we know in God. We [have] reaffirmed our commitment to the life of Christ in our midst, as together we advocate for the nurture, safety and protection of this child and all children, and strive for righteousness, justice, and peace for all people.” That’s what we said. What were we thinking?!
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, “Each day in America, 4 children are killed by abuse or neglect, 5 children or teens commit suicide…Each day in America 7 children or teens are killed by guns, 24 children or teens die from accidents….Each day in America 847 babies are born to teen mothers, 1241 babies are born without healthcare, 1392 babies are born into extreme poverty…Each day in America 1837 children are confirmed as abused or neglected, 4028 children are arrested…” Vermont was ranked 10th in all 50 states in the percentage of children who were poor, 14th in the percentage of children who live in food insecure households. (CDF Website) What was that we committed our lives to?
The theme for this year’s Children’s Sabbath is “Precious in God’s Sight: Answering the Call to Cherish and Protect Every Child.” Perfect! We just committed ourselves to advocate for the nurture, safety and protection of Lindyn and all children, so we are with the program. Now, if we only knew what that meant and how to do it, let alone if we only had the courage, wisdom, and faith to do it.
There is a story in the Jewish tradition that says:
While the sage Choni was walking along a road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” replied the man. Choni then asked, “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered, “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”
It is just such a faithful, longterm perspective that is required for us to begin to discern how we will live out the promises we’ve made this morning, and a couple weeks ago when we baptized Emma Bishop. This story is part of a larger passage in which the rabbis are discussing Psalm 126, which says that when God returns the captives to Zion, “They will be like those who dream.” So the story goes on–“Can one dream for 70 years?” Choni wondered. So after his encounter with man on the road, Choni fell asleep for 70 years and awoke from his decades of dreaming to find the tree grown to fullness, bearing fruit for the generations that followed him.” (Told by Marian Wright Edelman in the Welcome to 2014 Children’s Sabbath)
Can you even begin to imagine what fruit our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be presented with in 2084, 70 years from now? What trees are we planting now? Lindyn, God willing, will be almost 72. Will there be a Second Congregational Church in Bennington? If there is, maybe it will have a different name. Surely it will look very different and will do things very differently from the way we’re doing them. A number of us had the opportunity to dream and listen to Mike Piazza this week, hearing what a church for the 21st century might look like. I’m afraid that we are primarily a church for the 20th century, but we got a glimpse at the fruit tree seed catalogue this week, and are excited about some of the seeds we might plant that will bear fruit.
You may (or may not) be wondering what any of this has to do with our gospel reading for this morning, where Jesus is confronted by the Herodians and Pharisees and asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. “Money, politics, and religion, oh my!” is the way one commentator reacts to this passage. (David Lose, inthemeantime, 10/13/14) Well, money, politics, and religion are all involved in living out those baptismal vows as well, but let’s first try to understand what Jesus’ response to the question might tell us.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” it is said, which also describes the current situation we find ourselves in in the Middle East, especially in regard to the coalition against ISIS. In the passage in Matthew, Jesus has already made his entry into Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple, so he has made some powerful enemies. There is no other reason why the Pharisees and the Herodians would have come together, other than to entrap Jesus, and after a little fauning, they ask him a question designed to get him into trouble with one or the other groups. “Teacher,…tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This tax was the Imperial tax, one of many taxes that the Jews of Palestine were required to pay. There were Temple taxes, land taxes, custom taxes, and this Imperial tax, paid as a tribute to Rome to support its occupation of their country. Each Palestinian had to pay a denarius, about a full day’s wage, to the Emperor, and it had to be paid with a coin that bore Caesar’s image on it, as well as the words “Son of the Divine Augustus.” To the Pharisaic or observant Jew, that meant you broke the first 2 commandments in one shot– using an idol and proclaiming another god’s name.
“Teacher, …so sincere, so impartial, tell us, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jesus knows their game and plays it skillfully. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” he says, and when they produce a denarius, it is no doubt from a Herodian’s pocket. A Pharisee would never carry one, but Herodians, like their name implies, were complicit with Rome’s rule. Jesus forces their hand. Then he challenges them both–”Whose image or ikon is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The Emperor’s.” “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Both groups of Jews would have affirmed that all things are God’s, and also would have understood immediately Jesus’ reference to “image,” that formative verse in the first chapter of Genesis which says that God created human beings, male and female, in the divine image, in God’s own image. Whose image do you bear? Jesus is asking.
As usual, Jesus does not offer pat answers. And the way this passage has been used to justify all sorts of approaches to church and state questions is often way too blunt and cut and dried to really be true to what Jesus was saying. Religion, politics, and money do mix and challenge and inform one another. If we believe that all things belong to God, and that every child is precious in God’s sight, how do we provide quality education, health care, and security for the children we have promised to care for? If politics comes from the word “polis” or community, how can we as a community do what we need to do for the common good?
We know that 80% of a child’s brain is developed in the first 3 years of life. 700 new neural connections are formed every second, through the interaction of genes, environment and experiences. “Children who are given quality early experiences have better relationships with classmates and friends, and develop better language, math, and social skills. They score higher on school-readiness tests, are 40% less likely to need special education, and 70% less likely to commit violent crimes.” (Let’s Grow Kids website) An investment in early childhood services and education has a much greater return than paying for incarceration, or prolonged special remedial services, or various other social implications. Is that politics? Or religion?
“Whose image is on the coin?” Whose image is on you? If we agree that everything is God’s, then everything we do and have is God’s as well. One church passed out markers during the service, and folks were asked to put a cross on their credit cards. Then every time for the next couple of weeks they used their credit cards, they were reminded that this purchase, too, belonged to God.
(You may be interested to know that one characteristic of a 21st century church will no doubt be the availability of direct deposit giving, as well as payment through credit cards. People are carrying less and less cash and do almost all their financial transactions online or with credit cards.)
So where might we invest our time, talents, and resources now, so that they will bear fruit in the future? If what we know about early childhood development is true, and I have no reason to believe it isn’t, then investing in early childhood programs is essential. Our relationship with Headstart in North Bennington, supporting them with Boots on the Ground, is a start. I can imagine all sorts of other ways we could directly connect with those children and their families. Volunteering in classrooms, setting up reading programs–just reading with kids, or singing with kids–volunteering with the Seedlings Program–a joint venture of Community College of Vermont and Retired Senior Volunteer Program–which connects a “pod” of 7 first-graders with 5 or 6 adult tutors and mentors who follow them through 5th grade. Walking, hopping, or sponsoring in the CROP Walk provides funds for hunger and development programs that benefit children. Joining in the work of Eaarth Advocates to address climate change and the earth we are leaving to our children and gradchildren. Signing up to be in the Godly Play classroom – we really do want to have 2 adults each Sunday. The list of immediately available possibilities could go on and on.
And we need to invest in making ours a 21st Century church, so that the children and parents of this and future generations will find a welcome in our church family that communicates to them. The language we use, the technology we use, the music we worship with, the activities we engage in–all need to be looked at through the eyes of those who haven’t heard much good news coming from the church and who aren’t sure what we’re talking about when we do communicate.
We commit ourselves to live our faith in such a manner that our lives and our words may draw children towards the love we know in God. We reaffirm our commitment to the life of Christ in our midst, as together we advocate for the nurture, safety and protection of this child and all children, and strive for righteousness, justice and peace, for all people.
May God help us to keep our promises. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark