Archives for September 2014

Render unto God what is God’s, 19 Pentecost, Proper 24 (A) – 2014

October 19, 2014

Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99 [or Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13)]; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” These words of Jesus have become a sort of proverb, and those who know little of scripture may still have heard “Render unto Caesar.” Yet, digging beneath the surface of this short encounter helps uncover some of the deeper currents in the exchange.

First, the combination of people approaching Jesus is intriguing. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees come together with the Herodians. The Pharisees did not want to give money to their pagan oppressors and so were opposed to paying taxes to Rome. On the other hand, King Herod’s position of power came courtesy of the Romans, so even though the taxes were widely considered to be oppressive, the Herodians had a vested interest in keeping the Roman taxes paid. Therefore, the Pharisees and the Herodians each reflected one of the horns of the dilemma.

Then came the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” This reference is obviously to Jewish Law, also called the Law of Moses. Clearly, it was lawful to pay the tax by Rome’s standards; the question was whether it was proper for a Jew to do so.

It would seem that they have presented Jesus with no way out. He can’t speak against the tax, for that would anger the Herodians and lead to a charge of treason against Rome. He could not speak in favor of the tax without alienating most of the crowds that followed him.

Jesus asks for one of the coins used in paying the tax. This is Jesus’ own trap, for it proves at least one among the questioners to be a hypocrite. For the coin used for the tax was a silver Denarius with the image of Caesar on one side, and on the reverse, the image of a woman named Pax or personified peace. The coins were against Jewish Law, which prohibited graven images.

You will recall the incident when Jesus chased moneychangers from the outer courts of the Temple. These moneychangers had a business because one was required to exchange pagan currency for Temple coins before going to do business in the Temple. Carrying the image of Caesar into the Temple was considered sinful. But note that when Jesus asks for a Denarius, one is quickly located and handed to Jesus.

Jesus then asks the question that everyone in Israel could have answered without a coin in hand. In our reading for this morning, we used the New Revised Standard Version, which said, “Whose head is this and whose title?” That translation misses the point of his argument. The word they translate as “head” is “icon,” a Greek word better translated as “image.” The word “title” is better translated as “likeness.” When they answer Jesus’ question, saying that the image and likeness are “Caesar’s,” Jesus replies that they are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Again, the translation covers something better revealed. It could also be translated as “give back” rather than “give” or “render.” Give Caesar back those things that are Caesar’s. It is his coin anyway, who cares if you give Caesar back his coin for the tax?

Then Jesus gives the most amazing line of the short encounter when he continues by saying that we are to “give back to God the things that are God’s.” It leaves everyone calculating what exactly is God’s that we are supposed to give back. And in case you were wondering, the clue was the word “icon” or “image” and the word “likeness.”

Jesus’ answer came from Genesis 1:26-27, which says, “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,’” and goes on to state “God created humankind in his Image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

The principle is this: Just as the coin has Caesar’s icon on it, so it is Caesar’s, we were made in the image and likeness of God, so we are God’s. Jesus affirmed the tax while making it all but irrelevant. Jesus implies that, though we do owe the state, there are limits to what we owe. Yet, Jesus places no limits regarding what we owe to God.

This text is often used to talk about stewardship in terms of what you give to the church. But this is no passage on the tithe. For if giving 10 percent of our income is all we do, we would fall well more than 90 percent shy of the mark. Jesus says that everything you have and everything you are is God’s already.

While this would certainly apply to the money you make, the formula is not that you give 100 percent of your income to God, for God knows you need the money for the necessities of life. The teaching is that once you have given God some of the money you earn, don’t feel that you have bought off an obligation. God wants to share in some of your time and energy, so the 100 percent formula relates to your calendar as well as your wallet.

What God wants is nothing less than to come and abide in your heart. The point is that you have been made in the image and likeness of God. God loves you. God keeps your picture in the divine wallet and on the heavenly refrigerator. Jesus did not care about the tax, for his real concern was that you live into the image and likeness of the God who lovingly created you.

You begin to live into the image and likeness of God by conforming your life to be more like Jesus’ life. Giving back to God through the church does matter, but merely giving money to the government, to this church or anywhere else is only part of the picture.

To live more fully into that image and likeness of God that is in you, give back your heart to God – for it is God’s anyway. When the time comes for communion in just a little while, I would encourage everyone, no matter what your denominational background, to come forward to receive the bread and wine of communion. And if you have not yet been baptized, then come forward for a blessing. For at this altar, we can meet Jesus anew every time we worship. For in answer to the question, “What are the things that are God’s which we are to give back to God?” the answer is, “You.”

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Dress codes or radical welcome?, 18 Pentecost, Proper 23 (A) – 2014

October 12, 2014

Exodus 32:1-14 and Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 (or Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23); Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Today’s gospel passage probably requires a bit of translation. There’s a big difference between the cultural expectations of first-century Palestine and 21st-century America. Not only about marriage, of course – but marriage is what today’s gospel highlights.

Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a marriage feast given by a slave-owning king. Now, slave-owning kings were quite common back then. Fortunately, neither human bondage nor absolute monarchy is part of our day-to-day experience now. This isn’t to say we have wiped out oppression or tyranny on the face of the earth – far from it. But at least in this nation, we call it a crime when one person claims to own another, and we do not permit anyone to have absolute power. They weren’t quite ready for “checks and balances” in Jesus’ time.

So – in and of itself – the progress of 2,000 years will require us to make a kind of adjustment in order to hear and understanding this parable.

So, too, will the whole idea of marriage. There are those who insist that our modern-day, state-sanctioned unions are a sacred institution, implying that this phenomenon is of ancient provenance. One president even called marriage “one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization.” Of course, that is not the case.

Now, marriage is a fine thing. But what do we really know about the history of marriage? What are the facts?

Scholar Kenneth Stevenson, who was Bishop of Portsmouth, in England, summarized marriage in the patriarchal tradition of ancient Judaism in his book “To Join Together”: first, negotiation of contract, then betrothal, followed by consummation.

What may be hard for us to imagine is that the contract negotiated was no Philadelphia lawyer’s prenup agreement; it was a financial contract between two men, the bride’s father and the groom. In the time of Jesus, women were exchanged like plots of land and herds of cattle – just so much property. The men owned them.

The period of betrothal, then, was not so much a time in which two persons got to know each other better and grew closer in love – but a kind of “grace period” in which the groom could cancel the contract – for some justifiable cause, but without penalty.

Remember that Joseph, when betrothed to Mary, chose not to exercise his option to wiggle out of his marriage contract. He could have, because she was pregnant, but he didn’t. And it’s a good thing, too. Had he done so, none of us Christians would exist.

And in the first century, before anything so technological as birth control, women were like human childbirth machines. They would marry at age 11 or 12 or 13, and immediately begin to have children. Typically, a child every year or so for maybe 10 years. Lots of these children died in infancy. And most of these women died by the age of 30.

So the men would remarry – another teenage bride – again and again. It was not at all uncommon for a man of 40 or 50 or even 60 to marry again: each time a child bride, bought from her father.

This, of course, is not a fundamental, enduring institution of our civilization, is it? It’s more of an oppressive mess and a muddle, out of which we humans have managed to climb. And thanks be to God for that!

Now, what of the actual church liturgy for marriage? Although there is mention of marriage celebrations here and there in ancient texts, the formal, standard, official liturgy of the church dates only to about the 12th century.

What appears to have happened is that the tradition of holding a marriage feast was appropriated into the church’s liturgy. The cultural observance became, over time, a religious one.

To say that more clearly: there is no evidence of an official religious rite for marriage in Jesus’ time. Marriage was entirely a domestic and civil affair. If you were very wealthy, you might invite a rabbi or Pharisee or even High Priest of the Temple to attend, maybe even lead some prayers – but this was unusual, not the standard. This is why there are accounts of Jesus performing miracles at wedding feasts, but no record of him preaching a wedding homily. There was no such thing.

So, a man works out a deal with a woman’s father, and she is ordered to go and live with that man – someone she may not even have met. After a period of a year or more, the man decides that this is working out, and he and his contractual partner (not his bride, her father) lays on a feast.

Remember, this was long before clocks and calendars were common household items. You didn’t send out engraved invitations in the mail, or an e-vite to your fellow bloggers. You sent out messengers – slaves, if you were fortunate to own them – to invite everyone to the marriage feast. Come to the feast; it’s happening right now, today.

And pretty much everyone would come. In those days, ordinary people owned two changes of clothing: your regular, everyday work clothes; and a festive garment, a wedding robe – something usually white, that you kept clean and unwrinkled. And most people did not own much more. When the messengers came to invite you to a marriage, or you heard that bell ring – you would just pen up your sheep, drop your weaving, whatever; run home and put on your wedding garment; and go to the party.

And what feasts these were! Not the luxurious, self-indulgent and obscenely expensive extravaganzas we know today, but festive gatherings nonetheless, frequently lasting for days on end.

Same kind of thing, for instance, as when the Prodigal Son returned: roasted fatted calf, music and merriment, giving of gifts, and lots of wine. No evidence of cake, or throwing garters or rice, or making toasts, or even an exchange of vows. And no mortgaging of the homestead to borrow money; the party simply lasted until you slaughtered your last calf and drank the last of the wine.

Much has changed in the sacred institution of marriage, and thanks be to God for that! And much will continue to change. Thanks be to God for that, too.

So, what relevance does this gospel passage hold for us, if marriage is so radically different in our culture and in our church?

This, too, may be hard for us to grasp, as we no longer live in a culture with a lot of clear implicit expectations.

This may have been true in the United States of the 1950s, and it certainly was true in the Palestine of Jesus’ time: Everybody just sort of understood what the standards were – at least with regard to the wedding garment.

If you live in Galilee or Bethlehem, you knew that to come to a wedding feast was to wear a wedding garment.

So this parable, which seems harsh – after all, someone is thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth for wearing the wrong clothes. But perhaps this parable is about participation, or the lack of doing it fully.

There is the first group, who simply decline the invitation. And then there is the guy without the wedding robe, who refused to participate completely.

If you were you the king, you would feel snubbed and insulted by these people, right? If you had the power, you might send those folks who offended you to the outer darkness, right? Or at least, you’d be tempted to. Come on, admit it. When someone offends you, you are tempted to retaliate. We all are.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. This is a parable, remember. An analogy of the Kingdom of Heaven, a story of the way God acts in the world.

God has invited us to be partners in the building up of that kingdom, on earth as in heaven. We are invited to the greatest feast ever imagined. And how many of us fully participate all of the time? Precious few.

And this omnipotent God, who could reign down fire from heaven and smite us where we sit – this God does not act like the king in today’s story, although he could. God does not enforce the dress code or punish us for not participating fully.

Instead, our God invites us again and again, over and over. We are called to that feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. The feast at which the disgrace of the people will be taken away from the earth, when God will wipe away the tears from all faces.

You, me and every person on this planet are welcome at this table.

When God is the host, everyone is invited. Sadly, as in today’s parable, not everyone comes – but everyone is invited.

When God is the host, the food is rich beyond our imagination or understanding. Sometimes it appears to be quite simple – like bread and wine – yet we can be profoundly moved and transformed by this feast. When God is the host, we are nourished not just for the morning, but for the journey. For most of us, this sustenance lasts as long as week, for others it lasts a lifetime. And when God is the host, everyone gets the same gift: the amazingly abundant, undeserved, and inexhaustible gift of love.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Barrie Bates is serving in interim ministry in the metropolitan New York area and as editor of church reviews for the journal Anglican and Episcopal History.

Tenants in God’s Kingdom, 17 Pentecost, Proper 22 (A) – 2014

October 5, 2014

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Psalm 19 (or Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80: 7-14); Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Any halfway decent real-estate agent or commercial property manager could probably explain today’s gospel parable from Matthew in two seconds flat. It is all about landlords and tenants after all. And there is an entire body of business law devoted to them and their all-too-numerous disputes.

In Jesus’ telling, a vineyard owner contracts with tenants for the use of his land – and then promptly leaves town for another country. At harvest time, the same landowner sends his slaves or agents back to the vineyard to collect the rent – his share of the harvest in this case – from the tenants. But the tenants decide to take matters into their own hands. Apparently hoping to secure the property for themselves, they beat the first slave, kill a second and stone the third. Then they do it all over again, finally even killing off the landowner’s son in the hope of somehow gaining his inheritance.

What are we to make of this graphic tale of greed and mayhem, violence and murder?

At the very least, the landowner in question, we might be tempted to think, ought to have done a more thorough background check before renting out his vineyard – the very source of his livelihood – to those scoundrels who end up murdering his slaves and son. Surely even in the ancient world people knew who was trustworthy or not. Word got around, after all, even before the Internet.

And then the obvious question arises. Why did they do it? The tenants had to have been fairly bright guys. Or they would not have gone into agribusiness in the first place – then as now not an easy way to make a living. Did they really think they could get away with it – get away with murder? Well, apparently they did. Their greed got in the way of their common sense and reason. No doubt not the first time such a thing has ever happened – and not likely to be the last either.

The point of the story seems so obvious to Jesus’ hearers that they leap to it without a moment’s hesitation. The landowner, they declare in moral outrage, “will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.” The story must have also resonated with the early church community, for it is one of only a very few of Jesus’ parables recounted in all three of the so-called Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Alas, the news these days is sadly still full of just such parables of greed and corruption. We know them too well. We are even now just exiting one of the worse financial crises in our history – by fairly common consensus the result in large measure of rampant materialism and greed. And millions of people have suffered the consequences. So, yes, some people clearly do still think they can get away with it. And some indeed do. The world has not changed all that much in the time since Jesus told his parable.

We might conclude that it simply does not pay to be an absentee landlord. Better to stay home, lock the back door and mind the store. After all, there is no place like home. Surely, that is where one can feel safe and secure. Maybe so, but try telling that to someone whose mortgage is still upside-down or under water and is likely to remain so for some time to come. Let’s face it. Even security at home is sometimes an illusion.

The parable, of course, is about us as much as it is about thieves – about us as much as it is about the “chief priests and the Pharisees” who come to recognize themselves in Jesus’ words. The priests and Pharisees at least deserve begrudging credit, if not for their actions then for their insight into their own motivations. They want to arrest Jesus for his words and be rid of him. They knowingly seek to neutralize his potent message of God’s righteousness and Kingdom. What they do not know – and what we sometimes forget – is that it cannot be done.

No matter where we live or what we have, we are all no more than tenants in God’s Kingdom. Nothing ever truly belongs to us. In the final analysis, everything we have has been lent to us. Everything is borrowed for a time. As the old saying has it, we are living on borrowed time – quite literally. Like the priests and Pharisees of this narrative, we too might wish the world were different, that tenants were owners and servants, masters. But it is not so.

“They will respect my son,” the landowner erroneously concludes as he decides to send his child as emissary after his slaves are beaten and killed. To paraphrase Doctor Phil, television’s favorite pop psychologist, “What was he thinking?” If only the landowner had gone to his parish priest, he might have been set right. “Do not send your son,” he would have been told in no uncertain terms. “Call the police and report the incident. Begin eviction proceedings. Get back home.”

All good advice to be sure, but it is doubtful the landowner would have followed even his beloved pastor’s counsel. For the landowner’s economy is not that of this world. And perhaps it is just as well. He knows something we tend to overlook, that in the end it is not a matter of land, property rights, wealth, possessions or ownership. For a follower of Christ, it is ultimately not even a question of life and death. It is only the Kingdom that matters, a kingdom most decidedly not of this world.

“The Kingdom of God,” Jesus says in explanation of the story, “will be … given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom.” And the fruits of the kingdom of which Jesus speaks have nothing to do with grain or grapes, much less dollars and cents. If we miss that, we miss the point of Jesus’ parable entirely. We miss the Kingdom at work in our lives. For, the Kingdom is, in fact, ours – but only to the extent that we give in turn to others of all that has been so generously given to us. In God’s Kingdom, finally, that is the only way tenants become landlords.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain and area dean at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary – a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page. Isten hozott!

Walking the walk, 16 Pentecost, Proper 21 (A) – 2014

September 28, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Imagine you are watching television and a commercial comes on. The camera pans out over a tranquil beach scene where a family is enjoying the sun and the water. One parent is helping a smiling child build a sandcastle, while the other child runs in the surf, throwing a stick for a bounding, energetic golden retriever. The other parent is sitting in a beach chair under an umbrella with a picnic basket and a drink, waving to the rest of the family. Finally, at the end, the product is advertised. But that’s not all, right? What was really advertised was not just a drink or an item of clothing or sunscreen or life insurance – the marketers were cleverer than that. They were advertising salvation – buy our product and it will save you from your harried, over-scheduled existence and lead you to this “perfect” life.

Sometimes, we are so harried, we are so tired, we are so over-scheduled, and perhaps are so short-sighted and feel so self-centered in our every day existence that we buy into this false salvation. We grumble at our church leaders, “Is the Lord among us or not? We aren’t getting what we want. God’s not leading us to salvation as we imagined it, so maybe we need to look elsewhere.”

Like the Israelites in Exodus, we are wandering through the wilderness of Sin – both a geographical place and a play on words that reminds us of our imperfection and unfaithfulness.

Yet, God remains faithful. God is still at work in our lives, no matter what we believe, no matter what we do as we move through the wilderness. We made promises to God during our Baptismal Covenant:

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Always, the answer is, “I will, with God’s help.”

We cannot separate our belief in God from the action it demands. We cannot immerse ourselves in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” without being stirred to embodying this knowledge and love of God through our actions in the world. Together, they create faith. We can do a whole lot of prayer or a whole lot of serving in a soup kitchen, but an imbalance of one or the other does not exemplify what Jesus is asking. God is faithful in word and deed, and that is the faith that we are called to.

Take this modern parable for example:

There once was a man who came to know Jesus and wanted to be baptized. The whole community supported him and he was baptized along with several others on a Sunday morning. Things seemed to be going smoothly with his newly minted faith. Prayer flowed easily from his lips and heart, he never went by the homeless person who was on the corner of the street where he worked without speaking to him and giving change when he could. He came to church every Sunday, sang in the choir, and went to adult formation classes.

After a while, things started to feel, well, like a suit that was becoming too small, too tight. What he once did with joy was now starting to feel like an obligation. He didn’t know what to do. When someone asked him to pray for them, he said, “Of course!” with enthusiasm and then forgot to. He began to avoid the homeless person by his work by going through another entrance. He attended church and church events less frequently. He considered his life outside of church as separate from his faith, and it was getting busy. He got a promotion at work, started dating someone seriously, and was getting involved in some philanthropic activities through his workplace. He still believed in God and felt love for God, but didn’t know how to integrate these pieces into the rest of his life. It all seemed like it was too hard, too much. Eventually, his church community who witnessed his baptism and vowed to do all in their power to support him in his life in Christ never saw him again.

How many of us have told someone we would pray for him or her and then got distracted and didn’t? How many of us have thought or talked a lot about helping the marginalized in our neighborhood, but haven’t? How many of us have been puzzled when people who were once zealous about their faith faded away, and we intended to contact them but never have?

We all have good intentions. But as Jesus teaches us in our gospel reading today, our intentions don’t really matter. It’s our actions that are grounded in and flow from our relationship with God that count – individually and as a community.

The man in the parable was not the only one who fell short of his promises – the community did, too. All these everyday actions are outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual grace. These are all acts of love – love that God has for us and that we have for God. They are sacraments with a small “s.”

Jesus preached and taught and touched and healed people. Jesus was doing all this non-stop for a few years and then was crucified, died and was resurrected. But it doesn’t stop there. Over and over again, God’s actions prove God’s love for us. We were given an advocate, the Holy Spirit to come and assist us in continuing God’s work in the world. We get to become part of God’s action.

If we take an honest examination of how God has touched each of our lives, we can be surprised by joy. Think back on your life, the ways that the tapestry of threads have been woven to get you to where you are today. Those times where just the right thing happened, those unexpected moments that changed your life, and the spaces in between, all where God was caring for you. How do we respond to this?

Jesus gives a telling example of response to God’s love in his parable today about the two sons being asked to work in the vineyard. The first son tells his father outright that he won’t do it, but then has a change of heart and goes and does it anyway. Whereas the second son tells his father he will and then never does. It’s a pretty extreme example, but it gets the point across. Jesus tells this to the chief priests and elders – who rejected John the Baptist and were rejecting Jesus – in order for them to be caught in their own web of deceit. Jesus asks them, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” and they know they are trapped because the answer, of course, is the first son. He ended up living his life faithfully; he didn’t just talk about it or say things to appease his father.

We often do similar things in our own lives. We say we are Christians, but how do we know? How do others know? God has given us the gift of our lives and we are called to respond. We are to be good stewards of our lives, spreading the love of God that we have received, to others.

We aren’t perfect, but we are definitely called to be different. As political comedian Stephen Colbert put it, “Either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition; and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

If we choose not to walk the walk, then we are just as bad as the chief priests and elders Jesus encountered.

But there is hope for us! We can be like the first son and have a change of heart. We can choose to be obedient to God and live in a wide, loving margin of grace.

As we grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus and each other, may there by clarity and fire in God’s call to us, and may we receive the courage to do something about it.

 

– The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the associate priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, and is completing a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Adler Graduate School.