Following is the text of Bishop Stacy Sauls’ sermon from yesterday at the Everyone Everywhere 2011 conference in Estes Park, Colorado. Sauls is Chief Operating Officer of The Episcopal Church.
Meeting Jesus in Mission
At first, the Gospel passage for today does not appear to have much to say about mission. It appears to be about Jesus being a smart aleck, which is no doubt exactly how the Pharisees and Herodians saw his clever way of avoiding their question. But everything has a context.
The context for this passage is that just prior to this question about paying taxes to the emperor, Jesus had been talking about, you guessed it, mission. He was telling one of my favorite parables, the one about the king who gave the wedding banquet but none of the invited guests would come. The king’s creative response, after a burst of anger at those who had neglected the invitation, is to send his servants out into the streets to invite anyone they can find, as Matthew says, both good and bad, so that the hall could be filled with guests. The context for this encounter about paying taxes is about going out into the streets and inviting everyone, good and bad, to enter the king’s banquet. It is about inclusion of everyone. It is about mission.
Now conversations about mission, especially ones that start with including people in the king’s banquet indiscriminately, do not necessarily make everyone comfortable. I once had a parishioner in my former diocese, frustrated with my understanding on this point, who said to me that if the kingdom of God was as inclusive as I said it was, who would want to be a part of it. Of course, it wasn’t I saying how inclusive it was. Monica Vega spoke yesterday morning about how central to mission it was that people be led out, even forced out, of their comfort zones. That is, in many ways, the whole point of mission – to force us out of our comfort zone into a transformational experience. But that is not something everyone is always thrilled to sign up for.
Jesus was talking about mission, about including anyone who will come, the best people and the not-so-best people, and being more than a little critical of those who had failed to do so. Sure enough, someone tried to change the subject. That happens a lot when you try to direct the conversation to mission. Someone will try to change the subject. There’s something about mission that makes people quite uncomfortable, as transformation, which is just another word for change, often does. You can see the scene. When Jesus encounters the Pharisees, Jesus is talking about mission, about those on the margins being invited into the banquet and one of the Pharisee raises his hand. “Oh, Jesus, Jesus. Let’s talk about something that really matters. Taxes. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Fortunately Jesus had learned a very important lesson in life which I commend to you, which is this. Just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it. And that is how Jesus dealt with the sabotage of the Pharisees with a question of his own.
He showed them a denarius and said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” And with this Jesus was back in control of his own agenda, and that agenda is mission. It is always mission. Here’s why.
If coins bear the emperor’s head and title and are the emperor’s, what then is God’s? If coins that bear the emperor’s image are the emperor’s, what then bears God’s image and is therefore God’s? We do. Human beings do. Theologians call it the imago Dei. It is one of the most basic principles of the Bible, coming as it does, in the very first chapter of the very first book. Humankind is made in the image of God. In exactly the same way that a coin bearing the emperor’s likeness belongs to the emperor, human beings belong to God because they bear God’s likeness. In exactly the same way that a coin or a statue represents the emperor, we human beings represent God.
Jesus asks a very important question, not about ancient Roman coins, but about us. Whose image do we bear? Is it the emperor’s? Or is it God’s? And if it is the latter, that we bear the image of God, is it not the case that the image of God necessarily implies the imitation of God, that the imago Dei necessarily calls forth the imitatio Dei, that being the representative of God necessarily means acting on behalf of God? And if that is the case, we have found what our mission is. It is God’s mission. It is simply to be ourselves, who we were created to be, God’s image, God’s beloved, God’s partners. We exist to be the people of God’s mission. It is simply who we are.
So this is an important question for us. Whose image do we bear? Whose are we? To whom do we belong? The answer has to do with being who we are. For the wellbeing of our souls, which is another way of saying for the sake of our very identities, we must pay attention to this question and to what this question means. What is God’s? Who is God’s? And what does that mean for us?
That is why mission is not about something we do. It is about who we are. It is not about doing good. It is about following Jesus. It is about following Jesus where he went and to whom he went and for the reason he went. It is about doing that for this simple reason, to be with Jesus. And if we want to be with Jesus, where he told us we would find him is with the poor. If we want to be with Jesus, where he told us we would find him is with the hungry. If we want to be with Jesus, where he told us we would find him is with the sick. If we want to be with Jesus, where he told us we would find him is with the oppressed, the marginalized, the outcasts, the sinners. It simply comes down to being who we are, followers of Jesus. Nothing more than that. Nothing less than that.
God is eternally oriented to the other. God has oriented Godself toward the creation from the first moment of time. And God has affirmed that orientation in Christ, always outward, which is what the word apostolic means, to be sent out. It is that outward orientation God invites us to take up because, it turns out, it is the very source of God’s own life, which God offers to share with us. Thus mission is about reaching out to others, not to do something for them, but in order to be who we are, to be true to who were made to be, God’s very image. If something gets done that is a good thing, but it is the means to building a missional relationship and not the end of it, and that sort of relationship cannot be without understanding that the really good thing we are seeking, to be with Jesus, is for ourselves.
The point is to meet Jesus. The point of it all is to be transformed by Jesus. That is mission, to be transformed by Jesus, transformed by Jesus in the person of the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. All the good done in the world will, in time, just pass away without the foundational reality that our mission is to be transformed by Jesus. So give, therefore, to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s. You.