Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he 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.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
What about taxes Jesus? Surely you cannot agree with them.
Nobody likes paying taxes, especially when there is a little bit, or a lot, added on by the local collector…
Surely our money should be going to God and not supporting a human ruler?
Surely should be exempt, make a stand, refuse to pay?
What do you say Jesus? Of course, if you say we do not need to pay we can report you to the authorities, let them know you are against them, encouraging others not to fulfil their civic responsibility.
Then we would have you and we would not need to do it ourselves.
You want a coin? Well yes, of course it has the rulers head on, that is what coins do.
So, it is his money. We need to pay our dues, contribute for what we expect back, pay our share of the services we use and to support those who cannot pay as much as we can?
And having done that we can give to God what is his.
It is not an either-or situation, it is both.
Giving to God does not stop us giving what we owe to society.
Forgive me Lord when I am looking for excuses to not share my resources, to pay as little as possible, while expecting much in return.
A bonus mini sermon this week, written as part of the postal ministry in our Circuit for those who can neither access online worship or physically worship in a building at the moment.
Matthew 21:33-46 Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
In our garden we have some raised beds at the perfect height where I can sit and gently plant seeds, pull up weeds and lovingly tend the plants. We have had some successful vegetable crops over the years – this year less so, with the sum total of two beetroot in four meters of beds…
When we go away, we arrange for someone to come in and look after them for us – water them and make sure no pests are getting at them. We are more than happy to share the bounty, but I would be a bit upset if I found that they had claimed the crops, the beds and all the tools for their own, in return for a few days caring.
In today’s gospel reading, we have the picture of a beautiful vineyard. Well established, well equipped, well maintained and in good fruit. The owner brings in tenants to care for his property. The vineyard owner provided the very best equipment, all that was needed. It is not a rundown vineyard in need of repair, but well equipped and productive. It was not given to the tenants but left in their care. No doubt their contract laid out both what was expected of them – and what they would receive in return. It did, however, remain the property of the owner. But these tenants decide to hijack it for their own and turn away anyone who comes looking for the owner’s rightful share.
Jesus tells us a parable about God’s world, and about his kingdom. Psalm 24 tells us that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. He is the owner; we are trusted to care for all he has given.
We are very aware of the bad effects we have had on the earth that God has left us to look after. Collectively we have been poor tenants. In terms of a vineyard it is overrun with weeds and pests, we have overworked the land, mistreated it and we have failed to water and feed it. We have much to repent of, much wisdom to hear and much more to do in terms of how we are good tenants of the property we have been given.
But this parable is about much more than that. Jesus is in Jerusalem; these are the closing chapters of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is working urgently to get his message across – and he knows he is going to be rejected. Many have come before to bring God’s message to share what God longs to say to his people, to share with them how they should be living for and with God – and they have all been rejected. Now in God’s final attempt, he has sent his son. If they will not listen to others, surely, they will listen to him. If they will not listen, surely, they will look at how he lives and get the message.
The Old Testament Reading for today is The Ten Commandments. God had already laid out the rules, the best way to live, the way that would honour God and be best for the people. Everyone knows how to behave, it is there, quite literally written in stone, yet people had not got it. They had wandered a long way from it, despite God’s many attempts to remind them, to call them out on their avoidance of and disobedience to those Best Guidelines for Living. They had continually refused to hear the message and wanted to do things their own way.
They did not want to listen, and they did not want to go that way. They rejected God’s messengers and the message. Now they are in danger of rejecting the most important one, God’s own son – the one who was in fact the cornerstone of life, living and all that we should be.
So, what about us? What questions does this raise for us in our life and faith today?
Firstly, what has God left us caring for? We are God’s representatives, God’s tenants in the world God made. God created a perfect world and left us with all the tools we need.
> We are left to care for the earth. To tend it lovingly, as if it were our own. We hold it and use it on behalf of God, but also on behalf of our fellow humans, in this generation and the many to come.
>We are also left to care for the church. It is no more ours to own and claim than the earth. We are stewards of it. We are not to use it for our own purposes, but to hold it in trust for everyone. It is God’s church and any growth and fruit it produces are God’s and to God’s glory.
>We are left to care for justice. Making sure that everyone gets their fair share is not just about the vineyard; it is about the whole of the earth. A fair legal system, good health care for all, a voice for those who cannot be heard, an equitable distribution of wealth, support for those who cannot support themselves. They are all part of care and making sure that The Landowner, God, gets God’s share of the wealth.
My second question is, who comes today to collect God’s share? Who should we be sharing God’s bounty to us with? What in our lives is rightfully Gods? I know, that’s three questions, but they are all wrapped up in one: what do I have, that God has given me, that I am meant to share with those God sends my way? God has blessed me with so much, not just in monetary terms, but also community, the unique people I meet that others may not, my personality, my gifts – how do I share those? You will have your own list of blessings, how will you share those, to offer them back to God as God’s due?
And finally, the stark question in this passage is who do I turn away, reject, or fail to listen to? Who do I reject because I do not like what they say, or they ask more than I want to give? What am I in danger of missing because I rejected the most important person? Perhaps I did not recognise them, because they did not look like I was expecting, I thought they were unimportant, or I thought I could get away with not doing what was asked or expected. And in doing so, perhaps I rejected Jesus and his place in my life. Perhaps I missed an opportunity to in part repay some of what God has given to me. We reject people at our peril. For we do not want to be turning away God, missing the opportunity to share all God has given to us and returning to God all that he is due.
How often Lord have I rejected those you send to me?
Tried to keep what you grow just for myself and my group?
How often have I turned away people sent by you, eager to keep you to myself?
How often, if I am honest, have I turned away Jesus when he has tried to come to me?
How often have I refused to give you your dues, your glory, what you deserve of my life and tried to keep it myself.
How often Lord have I missed you, the most important of all?
I have written this for our Circuit Daily Devotions, a subject very dear to my heart. If you would rather here the spoken version, you can find that here.
A good stuff has been shared with us in our Circuit in the last few weeks about Equality and Diversity and what that means for us in the church. It has been really good to have some theological underpinning for that, and much of it has been really powerful.
As part of the exploration I wanted to look about look at disability and accessibility. As churches begin to re-open, or think about it, these are important questions to ask. We have an opportunity to get it right (or better!) as we have to make some changes anyway.
“The Equality Act 2010 (using a definition from previous Disability Discrimination Acts from 1995 and 2006) defines a person with disability as someone who has a physical or mental impairment which is substantial and has a long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Whilst this is the legal definition which offers additional legal protections to people with disabilities, it should be remembered that anyone may be temporarily disabled (for example when recovering from a serious illness or accident), which may also require them to need additional support or adjustment. Many people with disabilities consider that their impairments are not the key factor that disables them. Instead they are disabled by a built environment that is not planned with their needs in mind, or they are disabled by the attitudes of other people towards them.”
That maybe comes more alive in personal story, so I am going to tell you mine, and share some of the problems that I have in in church. That’s not saying that my problems are unique or that they’re all the problems that are possible, I’m just using my example to give an idea of some of the problems that people can face. The problem with a lot of the disability’s is that the disabilities are not necessarily visible, and you wouldn’t know that someone was dealing with them or you had to help them with them. I hope the questions I raise might give you some thoughts about the accessibility of your church building.
In Mark 2, we hear the story of the men who brought their friend who couldn’t walk to Jesus. There was such a big crowd that they couldn’t get him to the door, so they carried him up the steps to the roof and made a hole in the roof so that they could lower him down to meet Jesus. Everyone focuses on the miracle of the man walking and the big question about Jesus authority, but we overlook the man’s friends and what they were willing to do so the man could get to meet Jesus.
For those of you that don’t know me, I use two crutches to walk, mainly for stability. I suffer with a chronic inflammatory illness that effects most parts of my body. It causes dryness – pretty much everywhere there should be lubrication in a body, I have little or none. That effects way more than you might think.
None of what I’m going to say are criticisms, they are questions, pointers to make us think about our church buildings. I’m also acutely aware that my accessibility may mean someone else’s inaccessibility – something that is there to help me may be making someone else’s needs impossible to meet – and for that reason the conversation needs to go on.
The first question I asked when we moved to our new Circuit was, “which church has the comfiest seats?”! That might seem trivial, but to me it is vital, and without which physical church in a building would not be possible. But actually, when you have a disability, churchmanship, style of worship and a lot of other things go out of the door, compared with issues of accessibility in its widest sense.
But let’s go back to getting in the building. I am incredibly grateful to have a Blue Badge, but that is no help to me if there is nowhere near enough the building to park, or someone without a Blue Badge is parked in it.
Next there is getting up the path, hoping that there are no steps. Is there a drop kerb where necessary – and nothing obstructing it?
What about the entrance into the building? Is it level? You would be amazed how big an obstacle a raised door frame (there must be a technical term for that!) is when you are are wobbly, in a wheelchair, with a pushchair, or just have your hands full. Is the door too heavy? Can someone open it by themselves? Is there someone there to open it for anyone who needs it (remembering it might not be obvious who needs that help)
Can I find an appropriate seat? I really need to sit with my right leg in the aisle, preferably with a large space between rows. Pews are quite simply an impossibility. Would someone let me have the seat I need, or would I be “taking my seat”? Can I sit at the back, or the front, if that is necessary for my disability? Is the seat comfortable? Can I shuffle and change my position in it to move the pressure points? Is there a way I can raise my legs if I need to? How long I personally can sit comfortably is very limited (and yes, it’s less than an hour!)
A lot of people with disabilities are very energy limited, and cannot arrive at church half an hour early to get the seat that they need, they may need to arrive at the last minute and need to be able to have the right space.
What is the lighting like? Is it too bright – or not bright enough…! Everybody’s needs are different. Is there perhaps the possibility for some individually controlled lights?
That also applies to screens. Are they in the right place? Are they legible? Are they too bright, too dark or using the correct colour contrast? (Different colour contrasts work better or worse for different people, so it can be tricky) I actually have my own individual screen at our church, so I can set it to the setting I need. Is that a possibility in your church?
Likewise, if you use videos in worship, can they been seen and heard by all? Is there some way their point can be explained. I love a video in worship, but can rarely process them in that space.
Are there paper copies of words? Preferable in large and appropriately line spaced text?
Can someone manage to carry, or hold during the service, anything that you are asking them to. Normal hymn books are really hard to hold and turn pages if your fingers or wrists are not good.
In break-out groups, can everyone understand what you want them to do? Is everyone able to participate? Can everyone hear, process and respond in that environment? Can there be an alternative option?
How do we use language? Do we invite everyone to “stand to sing” for example? When not everyone can stand – or sing. Do we use phrases like “everyone can do this” – can they?
Is our service very singing focused? My illness means that I can’t sing. I appreciate what a great tool in worship singing is and one I always used a lot, but if someone can’t sing are they excluded from worship in a big way? I guess post-lockdown we are all going to have to think about that!
Do we speak at a speed that people can hear and process? It takes me a long time to hear what you have said, process in my mind what you have said, and then respond. That applies even to things like the Lord’s Prayer, which I have to dredge from my mind and process through my brain before I can say it – slower than most. I am usually a couple of lines behind and give up. I stand no chance of remembering a response to a phrase in a prayer that you might ask me to share in, or what the lead in is that I am meant to respond to. I’m fine with that, but please don’t be offended – and be aware!
How does celebrating communion together work? Is there a way to be a part of the body if you can’t kneel at the rail with everyone else, or even stand? Have we found a practical way around that?
And after the service? I love to share fellowship, to hear how people are and what is happening in their life, but it is incredibly hard to have that conversation in a noisy room where everyone else is eagerly doing the same. Is there a quieter space where anyone who needs that can go and talk without the aural distraction?
As I said, that’s my experience, others will each have their own story.
No church can meet all these needs, But it is good Christian living to be aware of other’s needs and do what we can to make church buildings and services as accessible as possible. Have we at least thought that they may be needs, and ways we could work around them? What is most important is to ask people what works best for them, and be willing to do all you can towards that.
I am very happy to share advice or experience. Better still ask anyone you know has needs how to make worship more accessible what would help them – don’t assume. But also, don’t forget those who won’t say. Try and think if what might be excluding somebody and try and think of an adaptation before they have to ask. Try not to assume what someone needs…
And for those who can’t access physical church at all, I have some thoughts coming in a couple of weeks…
We thank you Lord for the uniqueness we each bring, for insights, gifts and challenges that we all have.
Thank you that all are welcome, to your love, to your place of worship, to be in your presence.
Help us to be aware that our normal may be restricting someone else, or keeping them away.
Help us to be bold to ask for help, to share our needs
And help us all to listen carefully to what the needs of someone else are and seek to help.
God of love and acceptance help us to meet together in worship of you, that we may learn more of one another’s story and through that learn more of you.