It was just about ten years ago: my clergy colleague group and I were just getting to know each other during our first biannual retreat gatherings. These twice-a-year gatherings happen in spring and fall, respectively. Our routine is pretty simple: We gather on Sunday evening, spend two full days together in each others' and God's presence, feast and fast, walk and sit and then return home on Wednesday afternoon to our respective families and respective places of worship, work and witness.
One part of our routine is that we cook together. It is a feast that encompasses both Eucharistic worship and convivial fellowship. I wanted to talk about a particular experience from that early gathering when we were cooking....it was the first time I had ever cooked, over an open fire, a full duck's breast.
Those who know that form of meat are already realizing how challenging a concept that really is. You see, a duck's breast has almost as much fat as it does meat. That means, cooked properly, the fat renders, the meat is succulent and the skin is crispy. All well and good...but what happens when you put that much fat in contact with open flame?
It was terrifying.
I put the duck breast on the flame as you would any other poultry. As the skin started to brown, the fat rendered....and the flames shot almost two feet into the air. Mistake. I reset my thoughts, pulled the duck off the flame and then set them to cook "low and slow" on the side. It was only after the fat had rendered that I felt it was OK to go back to open flame to brown the meat and get it ready for the plate.
My colleagues still tell me that it was the best duck they have ever had. Me? I have flashbacks from time to time as I remember those flames engulfing that poor duck breast. Dinner almost burned, utterly.
And with that image in mind, I turn to the upcoming Gospel for this Sunday. One I will be preaching on at my church as we begin our annual stewardship program in earnest....the story about how the Pharisees challenge Jesus with a question...Is it "right" to pay taxes to the Emperor. Out of the frying pan and into the fire! He answers one way and he commits sedition. He answers another way and he betrays religious principle!
He asks for a coin. They produce a denarius, one with the image of the current Emperor struck upon it. He asks whose image is on it? The emperor's, of course....it is the coin of Empire!
Then, he said, render to Caesar that which is his. Render to God that which is God.
I hear the word "render" and I remember what happened with the duck fat. All well and good to hear that lesson, yes...but then think about it: Can you make such an easy demarcation in your life between what is the world's (Empire's) and what is God's? Too often, those two parts are all tangled up in each other.
It takes patience, a willingness to slow down the process of discernment, and then a focus on allowing things to render appropriately so that the right balance in life is struck. We give, sometimes, what is God's to Empire...and sometimes we mistake the Empire's share in our lives for something in which God is invested. Rendering is a process of one thing giving way to another. When we do it in a good and godly way, then life is balanced. I believe that is what Jesus is teaching us in that above-mentioned encounter. It is also what St. Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans (chapters 12 and 13), when he is coaching his fellow Christians on what a faithful life looks like when it is lived in fidelity with God, in context with a civil rule of law.
When rendering is done well...the dish is perfectly cooked and we are appropriately prepared for a balanced life. It works when you take care, and remember just which side of the grill...or which portion of your world...is in the right place, at the right time and to the right purpose for which God intends and extends purpose.