Sunday, October 26, 2014

Reformation (and St. John's Farewell sermon)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pentecost 19A

You can almost feel the tension rising. The way Matthew tells the story is that time after 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 after time, Jesus humiliates them.

This morning’s reading was probably the encounter that was the straw that broke the camel’s back - for both of them.

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 knows what they’re up to.  He sees right through them. And uses some pretty strong language,” Why are you trying to trip me up, you hypocrites?”

Hypocrites? Why was he calling them 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 into theirs.

“The emperor’s - Caesar’s” they respond.

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

On surface, Jesus seems to be giving a non-answer - a politician’s answer that doesn’t really answer the question - 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 at their own game. But I’m not sure they fully 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.

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.

So, the shrewd observer who noticed that Jesus didn’t have a coin on him, but the religious leaders did, probably said, “We know where your allegiances really lie.”

That’s why Jesus was calling them “hypocrites.”

It appears that Jesus is 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 leftover to give to God.

The religious leaders stormed off, angry that they’d been beat, insulted, and exposed. Now they knew their enemy. And they respected him the way you respect any worthy adversary. But this adversary needed to be crushed before he could do even more damage than he already had.

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.

The Roman Emperor 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 out the vitality of the early Christian movement; and in the twinkling of an eye, or a sprinkling of water, we became the Christian Institution.

Some might say that, with Constantine's conversation, Christians moved from adolescence into adulthood. That we finally grew up and took our seat at the political grown-up’s table. 

Others might say that we gained the whole world, yet forfeited our soul.

And 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 after the Berlin Wall fell. 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. 

Churches had enough distance between them and the powerful rulers, that people could look to Christians for guidance and support without worrying that they might be betrayed into government hands.

And we can learn today from our sisters and brothers in other parts of the globe. The fastest growing churches in the world are in places where Christians are being persecuted. It’s been noted that, in China, a new church is being planted every seven minutes. In some places in Africa, it is reported that someone comes to faith in Jesus every three minutes.

But here in Alberta, where Christians are culturally coddled, where we have historic institutional credibility, where we have everything we need to thrive, churches are suffering dwindling memberships and are closing their doors.

I think that’s a powerful lesson for us. The closer we get to worldly power, the weaker is our proclamation. Christianity thrives when it is in the minority. Churches spiritually stagnate when we achieve institutional credibility.

Does this mean that there is no place for Christians in the public sphere? Not at all. We need Christians in public office. But not to protect our own interests, not to look out for ourselves; but to be the voice for those who cannot be heard, to be the power for those who have been shut out of society, 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 defining 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 voices of justice, as living contradictions to the prevailing powers of Caesar that rules through might and force and conflict.

Jesus says to speak with another power; the power of the cross of Jesus and the power of his resurrection; the power of suffering for the sake of another; the power of self-giving love for neighbour as well as enemy. The power of God’s promises of good news to the poor. 

The power of life and salvation for everything God has created.

This is the power that creates. This is power that gives life. This is the power that the Caesar’s of the world don’t understand because it’s a power that is not about them, it’s not a power that dominates, that sees the worldly activity as a zero-sum game; but a power that comes from God for US - for YOU, a power that rules with love, a power that governs with mercy, a power that transforms with peace.

So give to Caesar the things are Caesar's, because all he has will one day pass away. And give to God the things that are God’s, for everything that comes from God lasts forever.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Pentecost 17A

One of the things they tell us in preaching class is to NOT use ourselves as positive examples of gospel living. The preacher should never be the spiritual superstar in the sermon.

It’s arrogant. It assumes that the preacher is on a higher spiritual plane than the listener. It suggests that it’s the preacher’s behaviour that the listener is supposed to model rather than Christ’s.

It puts the preacher in the centre of the sermon, rather than God. And the pulpit is not the place to show off the preacher’s spiritual prowess.

St. Paul would have failed that class. He wouldn’t have listened to instructions. He’s not afraid to plop himself down right in the middle of his proclamation. He inserts himself into a story that he did not create.

Just look at verses 4-6 in today’s second reading. That’s a killer resume Paul has, isn’t it? And he doesn’t hold back. It’s sounds like a humble brag; complaining about the great things in his life as they were bad things, as a way of bragging. If it were anyone else it would seem that Paul wanted the church in Philippi to know with cold clarity, just how awesome he was, and the cost he paid to be a Christian.

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,” he says, “I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

In other words:

“Yes, I was amazing at everything I tried. I was born into the right family. I went to the right schools. I graduated at the top of my class. I reached the top of my profession. And when I was at the height of my powers, I met Jesus, and gave it all away. And now I count all my former success as losses because I have gained Christ. So, I hope you realize the sacrifices I made to follow Jesus.”

Paul is clearly contrasting a “before” and “after” picture of his life. His “before” picture is his life as a religious leader, a protector of tradition, obedient to Jewish law, and a fully-fledged, card-carrying, enthusiastic member of the religious establishment.

His “after” picture was one of loss, loss of status, prestige, authority, and wealth. He renounces everything about his former life, content to live out his days as a wandering preacher, planting churches where ever he found himself.

He says he’s gained everything since receiving Christ. His old life is past. He just wants to forget about who he once was. 

That’s why, as you may recall from the Book of Acts, he changed his name from “Saul” to “Paul” when he met Jesus, to mark the birth of the new person in Christ. Saul was dead. Paul was alive.

But I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I’m not convinced that Paul’s life is as clearly marked as he would like us to believe. Paul was still deeply invested in his past, no matter what he says.

It’s not that I’m saying that Paul was lying, or was a fraud, or was somehow being disingenuous. I just see fingerprints of his old life all over this letter. And all over his other letters. I see his old life popping up everywhere in his new life. I see his old life underneath everything he writes.

Paul was DEEPLY schooled in greco-roman rhetoric. So, the literary forms he uses in his letters expose his educational past. He knew how to write in ways that educated, upper-class, Roman citizens could understand. His letters are masterpieces of an ancient literary tradition that he knew intimately.

For example, by using himself as an example of exemplary living he was employing an important device used in Roman persuasive arguments. 

That’s how people wrote, according to Roman literary tradition. He wasn’t being arrogant. He wasn’t inserting himself where he didn’t belong. He wasn’t putting himself at the centre of the sermon. He was outlining his credentials like he was supposed to do.

Paul was writing according to the tradition in which he was formed. So, without Saul, the zealous Pharisee, blameless under the law, there could be no Paul, the letter-writing, church-planting, rabble-rousing, evangelist, whose suffering for Christ counted as gain.

No matter how hard he tried to run from his past, it was always there. In his mind there may have been a clear mark between his past life and his present vocation, but in his work, his past is always present, even if he didn’t see it.

As Christians, we often have a difficult relationship with our pasts. We like the language of growth. We like to feel that we’re moving away from one thing (sin) toward another thing (a strong relationship with God).

We like to feel that we’re moving toward a spiritual goal, a deeper connection with God. A bolder proclamation of what God is doing in our lives. We want to know that our faith is growing, that we are somehow, getting better at following Jesus.

And those are worthy aspirations. Aristotle rightly noted that human beings are “teleological creatures” which is a fancy way of saying that we humans are goal-oriented, that we need a purpose for living, that we want to grab hold of something that is always in front of us.

And of course, Paul knew his Aristotle. That’s why Paul said that he “presses on toward the goal...” 

Paul needs something in front of him to keep himself going. He keeps looking for new challenges, new quests, new experiences. 

His feet never stay in one place for long, and his hands are always occupied. His eyes are persistently looking for the next opportunity, and his lips are forever singing a new song. 

Paul is in constant motion, running another lap in the race that has been set before him.

But if Paul is running this race to escape his past, then that is race that he’ll never win. Nor should he. God used his past to make him the great Christian thinker and preacher that he was. 

Without all those years in school, Paul wouldn’t have been able to share the gospel so effectively. 

Without persecuting Christians, Paul wouldn’t have learned the humility he needed to connect with other believers. 

Without his Jewish background, he couldn’t have understood what God was doing through Jesus.

The past is not something we can run away from. Nor should we. It was Paul’s past that made him into who he finally was.

And God uses YOUR past to create YOUR future in Christ. It doesn’t matter if your past is something to brag about or something to be ashamed of, God uses both the dirt and the splendor to build the kingdom of God.

That’s why YOU can run the race that has been set before you. YOU can press on because Christ Jesus has made you his own.

But that race is fraught with fits and starts, successes and failures, gains and losses. Triumphs and trials. 

We make our way up the mountain with skinned knees, calloused heels, and bloodied fingers, and just when we see how far we’ve come, just when the summit is within our line of vision, we find ourselves falling backwards and landing back on the spot where we started from. And then we begin again, tired. But stronger. And wiser.

Paul says to forget the past and push toward the future. And you may forget your past but your past does not forget you. Your past follows you, reminding you of who you were. 

Sometimes, it’s your past that pushes you backward down that mountain, because that’s where your eyes have been fixed.

And other times, it’s circumstances beyond your control that knock the breath right out of your body, the brokenness of human life and the messiness of human relationships, hit you so hard that you tumble backwards, grabbing hold of any branch that you find, but landing on your back, eyes looking at the sky, and seeing just how far you have to go just to get back to where you were.

That’s why God picks you up to begin again. God has as much faith in you as you have in God. God knows that you can stay in the race. God knows that you can keep moving. God knows that you can still put one foot in front of the other.

God redeems your past, and trains your eyes towards God’s future. Your past may have made you who you are, but your past will not make you into who you are becoming.

So you press on to what lies ahead.

You press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

You press on because Christ has put you on the path that leads to God.

You press on because God has given you the strength to meet the days ahead.

You press on because that’s all you can do, now that you have gained everything in Christ.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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