Sunday, October 16, 2005

Pentecost 22 - Year A

You can almost feel the tension rising. The way Matthew tells the story is that time after time, Jesus encounters these religious leaders who were trying to trap him, condemn him, and reveal him as a fraud. And time after time Jesus humiliates them. He slights them. He accuses them.

This morning’s reading was probably the encounter that broke the camel’s back.

The religious leaders probably thought they were going to trap him once and for all. They start by buttering him up, “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 don’t show favouritism. Tell us then, what do you think, Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

But Jesus sees right through them. And uses some pretty strong language,” Why are you trying to trip me up, you hypocrites?”

Then he asks, “Who has one of those idolatrous coins on them, the ones that taxes are paid with?” One of the religious leaders fumbles in his pocket and pulls out a coin.

“Whose head is on this coin and what’s his title?” Jesus asks holding the coin to their noses and his eyes lazar-beamed in theirs.

“The emperor’s” they respond.

“The give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and the give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus blasted throwing the coin back at them.

On surface it, Jesus seems to be giving a non-answer - a politician’s answer - when backed into a corner.

But the subtext might not be totally clear, at least not to these religious leaders. They know they’ve been beat. But I’m not sure they get the insult lying underneath Jesus’ answer.

When Jesus asked for the idolatrous coin, the astute observer probably noticed that Jesus didn’t have one on him, but the religious leaders did. The shrewd observer probably said, “We know where your allegiances lie.”

You need to remember that Roman coins, adorned with Caesar’s likeness, wasn’t just as instrument of exchange, it was an object of worship. The Romans worshipped Caesar as a god. For good and faithful Jews, to carry a coin with a pagan god was to be in direct violation of the first and second commandments.

It appears that Jesus is also condemning these religious leaders for being too cozy with worldly power. It looks like to Jesus, and probably to those listening in, that these keepers of the faith owed too much to Caesar – their livelihoods, their social status, their wealth – that there was nothing left over to give to God.

They stormed off, angry that they’d been beat, insulted, exposed. Now they knew their enemy. But they respected him the way you respect any worthy adversary. But this adversary needed to be crushed before more damage was done.

Matthew says that the religious leaders were “amazed” at Jesus. Amazed at what? That some nobody from the middle of nowhere could out argue these learned men of God?

For Jesus, this was the beginning of the end. He stepped over the line. He angered the wrong people.

That day, at that hour, Jesus’ fate was sealed. And so began the church’s uneasy relationship with worldly power.

Constantine’s baptism by Pope Sylvester in the year 326 inaugurated a new era for the church when the Christian religion came out of hiding to reside in the official palaces of empire.

Most theologians point to that event as the church’s One Big Mistake. By becoming too close to power Christians lost their voice; their dynamism; their passion for the good news of Jesus Christ. And we settled into a comfortablity that snuffed the vitality of the early Christian movement; and in the twinkling of an eye, we became the Christian institution.

Some might say we moved from adolescence into adulthood. Others might say that we gained the whole world, yet forfeited our soul.

But history tells us that church does its best work from the sidelines, far from the corridors of power, on the fringes.

In the late 1980's, it was the churches in East Germany that largely prevented the revolt against the Marxist-Leninist regimes from turning violent. The churches were among the only people in the country who had the moral credibility to stop the crowds because the churches were NOT part of the establishment. They had enough distance between them and the power brokers that people could look to them for guidance without worrying that they might be betrayed into government hands.

I think that’s a powerful lesson for us.

The political doctrine of the separation of church and state arises from within the church itself. When the Baptists fled England in search of home where they could worship freely and teach their children according to their own beliefs, they wanted to make sure that the government would not have control over people’s faith. The separation of church and state was not designed to protect government from intrusion from the churches, but to protect the churches from the government meddling in church affairs, freeing the church to be the church.

Those of us in the church who are politically active often believe that if we elect the right party, if we put the right people in the right offices, if we pass the right laws, than – at last – the Kingdom of God can arrive through legislation.

I know this because it happens to me all the time when I forget that the kingdom of God is not a political agenda – although it does affect politics – and I get mixed up in partisan brawls. And I forget that my first allegiance is not to any party or political viewpoint, but to Jesus who died to gather the whole world to God.

When faith and politics collide, it isn’t a partisan struggle. While I have deeply held political beliefs, I can’t ally myself too strongly, as a follower of Jesus, with any partisan agenda. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; the measure of righteousness: justice, mercy, peace, self-giving, suffering love.

The collision of faith and politics happens in deeply intimate human relationships. Public policy happens best when the faces and stories of real human beings are seen and heard, celebrated and cherished. It means leaving aside partisan blinders and working for the common good, beginning with the least and the last and the lowest in our world

Does this mean that there is no place for Christians in the public sphere? Not at all. We need Christians in public office, not to protect our own interests, not to look out for ourselves; but be the voice for the voiceless, to be the power for the powerless, to be the strength for the weak. To be the servant people that God has called us to be. To bear witness to a different way of being in the world, where opposition and enemy become friend and neighbour, where the values of life, freedom, forgiveness, mercy, servanthood, and peace are the features of the public face of the church.

What I think this passage is about, is Jesus telling his followers to live in the world as beacons of light, as living contradictions to the prevailing powers of might and force and conflict, and speak with the power of the cross of Jesus, the power of suffering, self-giving love.

When we give to God the things that are God, we send Caesar a very clear message: Jesus is Lord.


Sunday, October 02, 2005

Pentecost 20 - Year A

We pick up where we left off last week. You may remember last Sunday that Jesus was teaching in the temple when he gets hassled by the Man and he’s tired of it.

Some religious leaders want to know who gave him permission to teach, where he got his degree, who gave him his license. They want to know how much damage he’s done.

Jesus goes on the offensive. He yells at them. He calls them names. He says that thieves, traitors, and prostitutes were going ahead of these well-educated, powerfully connected, and politically savvy men of God. That’s quite the insult. So much for gentle Jesus meek and mild.

Then Jesus tells this story about the wicked tenants in the vineyard. Really, he’s invoking the prophet Isaiah. Everyone back then would have known the song of the vineyard which is today’s first reading. He’s turning it around on them. It’s like Jesus wanted to stick the knife as far into these learned scholars and powerful religious leaders as he could.

The landowner: God. The rotten tenants: The religious leaders and scholars who didn’t get what Jesus was all about. The vineyard: God’s people - Israel. The son: Jesus.

People were probably wondering how many ways can Jesus call these people “corrupt”? They are so crooked, Jesus says, that these wicked tenants, these scholars and leaders, will be destroyed when the landowner returns.

But it’s not as if God hadn’t tried to get to them. The landowner sent his slaves to collect the fruit from the wines. Jesus was talking about the prophets, the ones who spoke for God. And they paid for it with their lives because God’s message usually makes demands that we don’t necessarily want to live with.

So, when you crack the code of this story we might wonder if there is any good news in it at all. “Don’t get to comfortable,” Jesus tells them. “You think that with all your connections, all your fancy degrees, all your money, that you are most important in the kingdom of God. But you ain’t. I’m going to take the kingdom of God away from you and give to someone who knows what it’s all about. ”

“But you won’t listen. It says right there in the bible, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’”

Of course they couldn’t see it. Who could see rejection as strength? Who could see suffering as a victory? Who could see death as a triumph?

We find that weakness in the world’s eyes is strength in God’s kingdom.

Paul certainly knew what that was all about. His life oozed that message.

If anyone could brag about how great he was in God’s kingdom, it was Paul. He gives us his resume at the beginning of today’s second reading: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,” he says, “I have more: circumcised on the 8th day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”

Paul came to know what many people –even faithful people - never learn: God isn’t interested in our strength. God is interested in our weaknesses. I know how crazy that sounds. I don’t know why God loves us most in our weaknesses, except that maybe, that’s when our defenses are down, that’s when all the masks are dropped, and down with them fall the false strength and the phony swagger; and our true selves shine. And we sing with our real voices.

It’s not that we go looking for suffering. But sooner or later suffering comes to us.

Paul, today, says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in death, if somehow I may attain resurrection from the dead.”

Paul knew what these religious leaders, learned scholars, and probably most of Jesus’ listeners didn’t: that God hides inside weakness and suffering. Paul tried route of heroic spirituality, he went down the road of hard work, and he vaulted up the ladder of success. He had the life that every boy back then dreamed of.

But when he encountered Jesus, he saw that God wanted him to bear different fruit, to run a different race. And all of a sudden, everything he worked for, everything he achieved, he said was like “losing.”

St. Bernard of Clairvaux once said that “The church dwells…in the wounds of Christ.” I think that’s a powerful image, don’t you? We “dwell in Christ’s wounds.” We live, as Christians, smeared in blood and pain, sharing Christ’s agony and death for the life of the world.

Last weekend when Pastor Phil Hink was here to talk about our Guiding Principles and Purpose Statement, the group I was in, talked about what our values are as a congregation and what strengths we would like to build on. Someone in our group said that Good Shepherd is a “safe place. And that’s the gift we can offer to the community.” I really like that. I think he meant that we can be our selves here, we don’t have to put on airs, that all are welcome, that everyone has a place in God’s kingdom.

Everywhere else we turn, expectations quash our spirits and demands crush our souls. If there is any place on God’s green earth that we can let it all hang out, to show each other who we really are, where we can be honest about our weaknesses and our suffering, our pain and our pressures, with no judgment attached, it’s the church.

This past Friday, Betty Lambert and I went to a workshop for Caregivers put on by the Good Samaritan Society. And one of the most spirited discussions we had that day was when the presenter said that she often has trouble with pastors not wanting to give Holy Communion to dementia suffers because they don’t “understand” what is going on when they receive the bread and wine.

Personally, I’ve given Holy Communion to dementia sufferers and never thought twice about it. But as this story swirled around in my head, I got angry. Angry with these doctrinal purists who put dogma ahead of people, who forget that Jesus came to save sinners, to heal the world, to gather people to God. Jesus didn’t come to put up barriers but to knock them down. How strong do we have to be before we can receive God’s love? How much do we need to understand before we can be forgiven? How whole do we have to be before God can give us healing?

My friend Kevin Little of Eastminster United Church in Toronto, in his sermon for today said,

“We eat this bread, drink this wine, [we] use words like “the body of Christ broken for [you].” I think the word “broken” is key. This is broken food for broken people. When we admit our weakness and we open ourselves to the other, something mysterious rushes in. In our Communion prayer, in the giving and receiving of the Eucharist, in the taste of the bread and [wine] [we imagine] where our broken places are, where we might go to meet Jesus, and the wonderful race God has prepared for us.”

Isn’t that what we really are? Broken people gathered around the table to share broken bread and crushed grapes?

We are not a perfect family. We are a broken family. But that’s where Jesus does his best work. We are together not because we choose to, but because God has chosen us to be together, to walk with each other, holding on to each other when the weight of life bears down on us, falling together when the weight becomes unbearable, and at the end of the day, we rise together. We press on, because Christ Jesus has made us his own.

May this be so among us. Amen.