Archives for September 2017

Whose Image?, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 22, 2017

Proper 24

[RCL] Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

I strongly suspect that even a casual familiarity with any of today’s various sources of streaming news would absolutely satiate anyone’s interest in Caesar and Caesar’s taxes—but here they are again. Still, Jesus is being quite non-partisan here, and, although frequently misunderstood, this little story has much to say to any age, including our own.

The question of the Pharisees and the Herodians, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” didn’t trap Jesus. But it has trapped countless others. It has been used as a blanket statement of Christian political obligation—a quick and easy answer to any questions or qualms the dictates of a government may engender. Jesus’ statement about rendering to Caesar, of giving to the Emperor, has been used as a general rule that can answer any number of specific questions. Actually, it’s just the opposite. It’s a brilliant answer to one very specific question. But it also raises all sorts of general questions about God and Caesar—and only hints at a way to answer them.

Look at the story itself. Two important political groups in Jerusalem—the Pharisees and the Herodians—are ganging up on Jesus. It’s a strange partnership; the two groups didn’t like each other at all. First are the Herodians; they were supporters of Herod, the puppet King of Israel who was nothing more than a Roman lackey. Herodians would have a great investment in obeying Roman laws and paying Roman taxes. Then we have the Pharisees, who, as religious purists, would object strongly to paying taxes to any pagan king and especially to a king who, like Caesar, claimed to be of divine lineage.

At the same time, the crowds, who were watching the debate, also had a stake in this. They didn’t like either the Romans or their taxes, and they frequently showed their dislike by rioting. They would be very unhappy at any answer that seemed to approve of the taxes.

Next, there are the soldiers, who were watching the crowds. They were Romans who were paid by the taxes in question. They didn’t much like the crowds, who had a penchant for rioting and whose rioting they had to control. Finally, it was Passover time—the most likely time of the year for a good riot about religion, the emperor, Rome in general, and Roman taxes in particular.

In other words, this was not an abstract debate about either political philosophy in general or the relationship between Church and state. It was a perfect set-up, a very clever trap. The intent of the question was to ensure that Jesus was either arrested for treason by the Romans, discredited as a false teacher by the Pharisees, finked out by the Herodians, or lynched by the crowd as a traitor to his own people.

On one level, Jesus slipped out of the trap on a technicality. He asked for a coin (notice that Jesus doesn’t have one, but the Pharisees do). It’s a special minting of the denarius. On the coin is marked, “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of divine Augustus, High Priest”. Below these words, the image of the emperor is pressed into the metal. To any good Jew, the coin itself was an abomination. It violated the first commandment by claiming that Caesar had divine pretensions, and it violated the second commandment by containing an image of this false god.

A big part of what Jesus said was simply “give the cursed thing back.” It could belong to no one but Caesar; it could certainly not belong to anyone who worshiped the God of Israel.

This answer was a brilliant counter stroke by Jesus. It avoided the trap, and it allowed that particular tax to be paid with that particular coin—not as an act of political submission, but as a sign of religious fidelity. It was a very specific, and very narrow answer that made it possible for Jesus both to escape the trap and to preach a bit.

But this answer, good as it is, doesn’t directly address the broader questions. Clearly, that coin belonged to Caesar—but what else does? No doubt some things belong to God, but what are those things, and how does one decide? Until we begin to get clear on these questions, what Jesus had to say about that one Roman coin is not much help for us as we make decisions about possible conflicts of loyalty, obligation, or actions involving the claims of the government and the claims of God.

Although Jesus is neither giving a theory about the relationship of religious people to their government nor making a simple division of life into two neat and distinct parts—this is Caesar’s, this is God’s—he is, on a much deeper level, doing something subtler, something more profound.

Remember, that coin belonged to Caesar because it was stamped with Caesar’s image (the Greek word here for “image” is eikōn) and marked with Caesar’s inscription. The coin was made by the emperor for the emperor’s purposes. All that is a pretty good claim to ownership—a claim that Jesus recognized, at least for that coin.

The next question that naturally flows from Jesus’ words is: “What, then, belongs to God?” Well, what is made in the image of God? What is stamped in the likeness of God and created for God’s purposes? Do you see where he’s going here?

Our central definitive characteristic, what it is that makes us human beings, is that we are created in the image of God. And what’s more, at our baptism we are further marked, we are stamped, we are inscribed, with the sign of the cross. Our image and likeness, and what is written upon us, is that of God himself. To whom, then, do we belong? To whom are we to render, to surrender, ourselves?

This, the question of our ultimate loyalty and our deepest allegiances, is what Jesus is really talking about as he deals with the plots and the traps of his enemies. The Lord is saying simply that what belongs to God is nothing other than we ourselves. There is no higher claim upon us, and there can be no higher claim upon us. Our lives are God’s, and all that we do is to be marked by that conviction. All competing claims for our lives and for our allegiance are to be evaluated and understood in the light of whose we are, and whose image we bear.

Alas, all of this does not provide us any easy answers when we face problems with a particular moral or political question. It does not automatically tell us who to vote for, or what policy to support, or which course of action is best regarding energy, taxes, the economy, or our current and future wars. Problems like these will continue to be difficult and ambiguous, and that difficulty and that ambiguity will not change if we toss these few verses from Matthew, or from anywhere else, at them. Still, what Jesus said to the Pharisees and the Herodians can provide us a very good place to start.

Give to God what is God’s—for God owns that which he has made in his image, and he is Lord over that which bears his inscription. It is that image, in ourselves and in others, that leads to concrete imperatives for justice, compassion, and righteousness.

It is that image that both claims our allegiance and directs our efforts. It is God’s image that gives ultimate value and meaning to what we do. It is that image, and no other, which gives us the assurance that something lasting, something permanently worthwhile, is being formed at the core of our personal histories, and at the heart of this broken and yet redeemed world. That, at least, is where we begin.

Certainly, give to Caesar the things that are Caesars—but give to God the things that are God’s.

The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

 

Download the sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Are We Ready to Choose?, Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 15, 2017

Proper 23

[RCL] Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

The gospel for today begs allegory and analogy, leading inevitably to dividing people into groups of good and bad. It is an invitation to play the Blame Game. Coupled with our innate curiosity, like Pandora, we cannot help but want to know just who is going to be bound hand and foot and cast into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth! I suspect that as we hear this read, we all have candidates that leap to mind. It is the rare person who may reflect on why he or she might be that unlucky soul whose only sin appears to be not making the acceptable fashion statement for the occasion.

No matter how one parses this particular parable in Matthew, the results are baffling at best. Particularly in light of the fact that, at the end of the day, it simply means to express how passionately our God wants us to come to his banquet – how passionately our God wants us to come home – how passionately our God loves us – all of us – all of the time. Many are called, says our Lord,  but few are chosen. What remains mysteriously hidden and unsaid here is that it is we who do the choosing. Few choose to return to God, too busy are they wasting time on inconsequential disputes over what is right and what is wrong.

Which message is also at the heart of Paul’s correspondence with the Christ-followers in Philippi. He returns to the theme with which he began: there is no time for bickering, and no time to contemplate retribution against those who imprison me and those who hate us. There is simply no time for anything but the Love of God in Christ Jesus crucified and raised from the dead.

So please, get these two magnificent women, women who have struggled with me to proclaim the good news, get them back together again. Once you reconcile them you can rejoice! “And again I will say, Rejoice! The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything. Then you can get on with the business at hand: spreading the Good News of Christ crucified and raised from the dead.”

Paul is in prison and he believes this is the only way to be: joyful in the Lord. Be joyful in the Lord all you lands! Jubilate Deo! “And the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus…Keep doing the things that you have learned and received…and the God of Peace will be with you.”

Just what “things” have the Philippians learned? When Paul left Macedonia, he issued an invitation to the churches he knew to enter into partnership with him – a partnership of money and ministry. It was to be a partnership of giving and receiving. It is in giving with Christ that we receive, it is in dying with Christ that we live. Christ, who did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, emptied himself, and invites us to do the same. Of all the churches with which Paul was associated – Rome, Corinth, Thessalonica, Colossae, Galatia, Ephesus, and Philippi – it was only the Philippians who responded to his invitation. It was only the Philippians who sent Paul help, sending one of their own, Epaphroditus, who nearly died while serving Paul in prison.

Paul is the first pastoral counselor. He is sending them encouragement in hard times. He reminds the Philippians that they know what to do and how to do it. He has personally benefitted from their faithfulness in Christ Jesus. They have sacrificed money and gifts and nearly one of their own to further the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ – that God is at home and it is we who need to return to his banquet hall, fully prepared to do the work God calls us to do in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s gift to us is the realization that the Church of Jesus Christ goes way beyond any single person or congregation. It is a vast network of congregations and peoples working together, sacrificing for one another, supporting one another.

But it is we who want to be left alone by the God who has made the most inconvenient men and women our neighbors – and instructed us to love them as much as we love God and love ourselves!

Against this backdrop, writes Paul, there is simply no time for division and argument. And there is no way to go it alone. Stop the dissension and disagreement right now. Disengage from worldly concerns and engage yourselves in God’s work – “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches.”

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s final book of The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee, an uncommonly courageous little Hobbit, wakes up after the climactic battle. Thinking everything is lost, he discovers all his friends are around him. He cries out to Gandalf the great wizard, “I thought you were dead. But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Is everything sad going to come untrue? For those of us who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

Many are called, says our Lord Jesus, but few are chosen. It is we who do the choosing. Are we ready to choose? Are we ready to choose to keep doing the things that we have learned and received? Are we ready to move on and leave controversy behind us?

For if we are, the God of Peace shall be with us wherever we are, wherever we go. And everything sad will come untrue. Because our God passionately wants us to come to his banquet. And our God passionately wants us to come home. And our God will passionately supply every need, including finding us a new home in Christ Jesus. Our God will make sure that everything sad will come untrue.

So, it is that even from a prison cell, Saint Paul urges us to Rejoice!

And again I will say, Rejoice!

The Lord is near.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus every step of the way!

Amen.

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (A).