Archive for social gospel

Crude as Cold, Hard Cash

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2017 by timtrue

Emperor_Tiberius_Denarius_-_Tribute_Penny

Matthew 22:15-22

1.

I once knew a man who felt strongly that it was his constitutional right to avoid paying taxes intentionally. Let’s call him Greg.

Greg was one of these guys who, commendably, studied his Bible all the time. Whenever any sort of question about life came up—what to do on weekends, how to divide up family chores, even what kind of car he ought to buy—he consulted his Bible, searching for some kind of answer or at least guidance.

Somewhere along the way he determined from his personal study of the Bible that federal and local governments extend their authority far more than they should.

The government’s purpose, Greg reasoned, is to protect its citizenship; so for a government to provide military, police, and fire departments, for instance, is its bounden duty.

But to offer services and agencies to look out for the welfare of its citizenship—for Greg this was an absolute no-no. Public schools are out, he reasoned; anyone using them, in Greg’s mind, commits grievous sin. And, of course, all of welfare’s variations—like Fannie Mae, Medicare, and Social Security—simply cannot be an option for Christians.

One of our country’s chief founding principles is separation of church and state. As a consequence, Greg felt deeply that the church, not the state, should establish and maintain all organizations concerned with the well-being and welfare of its members.

And so Greg’s logic led him to the conviction that he, and every US citizen, therefore possessed the constitutional right not to pay taxes.

He refused to get social security numbers for his kids. He ran a business completely “under the table,” paying his (always temporary) workers in kind. And while he was off conducting business during the day, his wife homeschooled the kids.

For Greg, to avoid paying taxes was to exercise his freedom of religion. Not sure the IRS would see it this way, but there it is.

2.

Anyway, I tell you about Greg because he sounds a bit like the Pharisees of today’s Gospel.

They come to Jesus with their minds already made up, with cold, hard cash in hand, in order to trap Jesus.

The coin they hold, a denarius, has an image of Tiberius Caesar on it; as well as an inscription, which reads, “Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest.”

Good Jews find this coin simultaneously oppressive and blasphemous: oppressive because it reminds them that they are subject to an ungodly people, the Romans; and blasphemous because of its graven image and supremely arrogant message.

This highly offensive currency—whose minting and circulation is an ongoing violation of the first two commandments!—is required for the tax to the Romans: no other currency is acceptable.

So, what would Jesus do? What could he do?

If he says, “Pay the tax,” why, he’s guilty of collaboration with pagans!

And if he says, “Don’t pay the tax,” well, that’s sedition!

Either way, the Pharisees think, they have him trapped.

3.

My old friend Greg, like the Pharisees of today’s Gospel, separates church and state to an extreme. On the other hand, I also have friends who convolute their religion with their politics; friends who commingle religion and politics to such an extent that their religion becomes their politics; and vice-versa.

Do you know anyone like this? It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking Democrat or Republican. Their tendency is truly bi-partisan.

I was in seminary during the 2012 presidential election. Discussion in one of my classes turned to politics, and more specifically to the church’s role in modern America. One of my classmates commented, “I don’t know how someone could ever vote Republican and call themselves Christian.”

That same night—no joke!—a family member who was visiting expressed his similar sentiment, “I don’t know how someone could vote Democrat and call himself a Christian.”

Exact same comment—except the parties were switched!

Well, I have news for people like this. For every Conservative who claims Jesus as his champion, there is likewise a Progressive claiming Jesus for her cause.

Anyway, these folks—those who essentially equate religion to politics and vice-versa—sound a lot like the Herodians mentioned in today’s Gospel.

Did you hear it?

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians.

Perhaps the most amazing thing here is that both the Pharisees and the Herodians have come together!

That would be like my old friend Greg and my seminary classmate going out for coffee—a meeting I simply cannot envision!

But the Pharisees and the Herodians from today’s Gospel share a common enemy: Jesus.

And so they come to him together, saying, “Teacher, we know that you . . . show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

Jesus, they say, you are neither Pharisee nor Herodian; neither Conservative nor Progressive; neither Republican nor Democrat. Or that’s what you say, at least. But we’re forcing you into a corner. And we’re doing so with this coin. Where do you land? Pick a side already!

And we know the story: both the Pharisees and the Herodians seek to trap Jesus, to incriminate him with either sedition or collaboration; but Jesus is so brilliant he takes their question out of the political realm and into the realm of theology; and thus blows their minds.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, he says; and to God what is God’s.

It is not an either-or but a both-and proposition.

Jesus gives us liberty to be loyal to the state; yet subordinates this loyalty to the lordship of God.

4.

Which brings up a great question: just what is the church’s place in the world?

The Jewish community of Jesus’ day included both those who believed in complete separation of church and state (the Pharisees) and those who believed that salvation came through the state (the Herodians).

Little has changed in two millennia.

On the one hand, there is a message spread far and wide through today’s church that says we Christians have been called out; we are separate from this world.

And thus, this teaching tells us, we shouldn’t care too much about what happens in our world—about ecology and the threat of nuclear war and so on—for the Bible is clear that we Christians are all going to be raptured away and the world will burn up in some kind of end-times apocalypse.

Let’s call this the sanctuary view: while we Christians have to endure the trials and hardships of this bluesy world we live in, the church provides us a temporary sanctuary from the storm.

On the other hand, there is another message that says we Christians can’t know about any of that end-times stuff, whether we’re all going to be raptured away or whatever, or whether there even is a heaven or a hell.

What we do know is that Christ has called us to care for widows, orphans, the sick, the lame, the poor, and the homeless. Our call as Christians is to make this world a better place, and thus, using the present political means at our disposal, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

Let’s call this the social-gospel view: we Christians spread salvation to the ends of the earth through present society and its political systems.

There are many people in today’s church that hold to the sanctuary view; and, at the same time, there are others who hold to the social-gospel view.

Both Pharisees and Herodians fill today’s pews!

But Jesus comes along and tells us we’re not focusing on the right things: it’s not an either-or proposition; though we may feel trapped by one worldview or another, it doesn’t have to be that way.

To focus on sanctuary makes our faith all about hope: life is fairly miserable but we have the hope that some glad morning, when this life is over, we will all fly away and be with Jesus in paradise.

To focus on the social gospel makes our faith all about action: what we will do in the here-and-now for the betterment of society.

But—please hear me here—our faith is not either hope or action. Rather, our faith is both hope and action!

Our future hope motivates us to present action—action towards the common good yielding salvation to the ends of the earth.

The world’s political systems simply are not able to operate from such a place.

5.

By the way, it’s not lost on me that Jesus is dealing with money at the same time that we are launching our pledge drive.

When Jesus says to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, money is the immediate and specific application. (I don’t know how my old friend Greg skirts around today’s passage.)

And, yes, we depend on money for almost everything necessary to function in modern society. This dependence applies to us both as individuals and as a church. So, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—pay your taxes—and to God what belongs to God—make your pledge, so that as a church we can continue to accomplish Christ’s ministry in the world.

But, as we launch this year’s pledge drive, here’s a closing thought to consider.

Jesus looks at the coin’s crude image of Caesar and recognizes it for what it is: simply cold, hard cash.

All the state can ever be is a crude, cold, hard image of its human leaders. At best, it is two-dimensional, something neither to separate ourselves from nor to view as our salvation.

With the church, however, we do not see a crude, two-dimensional image but the perfect image of Christ. This image is not always easy to see; but it is there—on the faces and in the hearts of every living, thinking, feeling, image-bearing person. Even at our very worst, then, the church is nevertheless three-dimensional.

Jesus reminds us today: the church is something the state is not; the church is much more; it fills the voids society cannot.

And thus: Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High.

Advertisements

The Greater Commission

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2016 by timtrue

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

At the conclusion of last week’s service, a parishioner asked me a question about my sermon.

To recall, in last week’s Gospel we heard that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.  In other words, he was resolute about fulfilling his mission, about completing the task God had called him to do.

With this mindset, he sent some of his disciples ahead of him into a Samaritan village, in search of hospitality.  Foxes have holes, he said, and birds have nests; but the Son of Man has no place to call home.  He and his disciples were dependent upon others for hospitality—for what they would eat and where they would sleep.

So, those disciples soon returned with bad news.  The Samaritans, it turned out, would not host Jesus and his disciples.

Now, these were Samaritans!  That is, they did not worship the same god as the Jews, but some kind of false amalgamation of a god, something kind of like the Jewish god but also kind of not.

This apparently reminded two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, of a story in their scriptures of a certain prophet of the Most High named Elijah; and how he once called fire down from heaven on four hundred priests of a god named Baal, you know, a god kind of like the god of the Jews but kind of not.

So James and John said, “Jesus, how could they?  Just give us the word, and we’ll call fire from heaven down upon these inhospitable Samaritans!”

But Jesus rebuked them.  They were simply to wipe the dust off their sandals and go on to the next village.

And so Jesus, I explained, had brought us a new plow.  This new plow was not like the old plow of Elijah’s era, one that demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Jesus’ new plow, rather, was a plow of love.

Love your enemies, Jesus said.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Turn the other cheek.

This is the new plow upon which Jesus has called us to set our hands and not look back.

Anyway, that was my message from last week in a nutshell.  And the question the parishioner brought forth went something like this:

So then, Father Tim, is Jesus saying we should wipe the dust off our feet regarding followers of other religions? that we should have nothing to do with them?

It’s a worthwhile question.  For we know we are called to love others.  This is the plow to which Jesus has called us.  And loving others often results in discomfort for us.  To seek hospitality from others requires a certain vulnerability on our part.  To put another person’s needs and wants ahead of our own requires an uncomfortable level of humility.  And if we’re rejected, it requires a certain amount of self-control merely to wipe the dust off our feet and walk away rather than calling fire or other curses upon them.

But what if we’re certain—or almost certain—ahead of time that it’s a fool’s errand?  What if we just know already that our vulnerability, humility, and self-control—our self-inflicted discomfort—will simply fall flat?  Can’t we just avoid such discomfort altogether?  I mean, wouldn’t it be more productive to take Christ’s message of love somewhere else, where its objects are potentially more receptive?

Well, to cut to the chase, the answer is no.  Christ’s mission of love is for all, whether or not their minds are already made up against it—against us.

We infer this answer from last week’s text.  For Jesus in fact sent his disciples into a village he knew ahead of time to be Samaritan.

He knew ahead of time that these villagers worshiped a different god from his.  He knew ahead of time that Samaritans didn’t normally associate with Jews.  He knew ahead of time that racial animosity between Jews and Samaritans was commonplace in Palestine.  He knew ahead of time, in other words, that his disciples would almost certainly be rejected.

And yet he sent them ahead anyway.  For his was (and is) a mission of love.

But this answer is made even clearer in today’s Gospel.

For promoting Jesus’ message and ministry required the disciples to allow themselves to become vulnerable; to humble themselves; and, facing almost certain rejection, to exercise seemingly superhuman self-control.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.  The disciples were to go from place to place, preaching the Good News of Jesus, curing the sick, and accepting whatever hospitality they were offered.

And this was in Palestine, a half-forgotten province of the Roman Empire.

The religious context there went something like this: the Jews did their thing, the Samaritans did their thing, and those of a pagan bent did their thing.  Each group was content with its own religious identity, its own religious ideology.  As the woman at the well so eloquently put it, the Jews worship in their way and the Samaritans worship in their way.  One day all the differences will be cleared up.  But in the meantime, never the twain shall meet.

When it came to religion, there were established traditions and ideologies.  And these established ideologies conflicted with each other.

And now, in Jesus, something else, something new was happening.

His message and ministry seemed Jewish.  Mostly Jewish anyway.  Still, over and over Jesus had opposed the Jewish leaders—of both major parties: both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  His was a message of peace.  But, ironically, the peace he proclaimed was highly conflictive.

So Jesus’ message and ministry flew in the face of the established religious ideologies of his day.

It also flew in the face of political ideologies.

Politically, Rome was in charge.  This meant good things for the privileged classes.  If you were in an upper class, you fared well—as long as you were self-focused and pushy enough to keep yourself in your privileged position.

Rome’s way was thoroughly hierarchical.  This meant you could lose a privileged position.  This also meant others could climb social ladders, sure.  But for a place like Palestine, on the fringe of the Empire, most people were simply half-forgotten.  Most were economically challenged, i. e., lower class.  And there was nothing they could do about it.

Occasionally a messianic figure would come along and offer an uprising, a violent protest against the powers that be.  Judas Maccabeus is perhaps the most well-known example.

But Jesus came along and said, yes, there is in fact an oppressive hand over us all; but, no, we are not to protest violently.

Do you think that this crazy message of new religion and non-violence would have been received by anyone?  It wasn’t just those of a different religious persuasion who would reject Jesus’ disciples and his message.  The disciples also faced almost certain rejection from those most like them, namely, the poor, half-forgotten Jews of Palestine.

Jesus never said following him would be comfortable, simple, or easy.  If anyone is telling you this, don’t listen.  Rather, Jesus says following him will be uncomfortable, even difficult.

This was true for his disciples in Palestine under Roman rule; and it’s true for his disciples in Yuma today.  For, at its core, Jesus’ message and ministry—a message and ministry we carry on to this day—are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Okay, maybe you’re thinking, now you’ve gone too far, Father Tim.  What do you mean that Jesus’ message and ministry “is about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world”?  Jesus’ message and ministry is a personal one, about love, peace, and salvation; it’s about saving my soul from sin and eternal damnation.  No one ever said this life would be easy, true.  But that’s just Jesus’ point.  There’s nothing he could do about it; and there’s nothing I can do about it—except to make sure that my walk with Jesus is on the straight and narrow.  That’s all anyone can ever do!

And then you stick your fingers in your ears and break into song:

Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away . . .

To which I say, yes, in the Great Commission at the end of the book of Matthew Jesus commands his disciples to go out into the world, making disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So, yes, there is in fact a very personal element to Jesus’ message and ministry.

But here, in Luke, we see another perspective in another commission.  In fact, in Matthew, Jesus sends out twelve; but here, in Luke, he sends out seventy.  So, arguably, the commission here in Luke is an even Greater Commission than the so-called Great Commission of Matthew.

At any rate, here Jesus commands his disciples to accept whatever hospitality (or rejection) they’re shown, cure the sick, and (whether received or rejected) proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.

Do you see?  Doing works—i. .e, ministry—is first.  Preaching—i. e., message—is second.

And as for the message: what is it to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near but to proclaim that all that is now wrong is being made right?

Jesus’ ministry and message is to make wrongs right presently.  It has a personal element, sure.  But, maybe even more, it has a social element.

Jesus’ ministry and message are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Well then, this begs two questions.  First: Do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in our world today?  This is America, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  And second: If so, are we able even to do anything about them?

As to whether oppressive or exclusive systems exist in our day, hindsight is a good place to begin, for, as they say, it’s 20/20.

In relatively recent history, we see now how wrong slavery was.  But did slave owners see slavery as oppressive or exclusive in their day?

As we know, our country was bitterly divided on this issue.  Did you know the Episcopal Church was divided over it too?  On the one hand, slave-owning Episcopal bishops argued from scripture that slavery was an acceptable institution for society’s greater good.  On the other hand, parishes such as the Church of the Transfiguration—still thriving today in Manhattan—were stations on the Underground Railroad.

So, can we learn anything from hindsight?  Our nation and Church were divided over slavery back in the day.  What divides our nation today?  What divides our Church?  This is our starting point.  Then ask: Are any of these divisions based on oppressive or exclusive systems?

An elephant in the room here is human sexuality and the present debates over issues stemming from it:

Does a county clerk have the religious right to protest a gay marriage?  What bathroom should or shouldn’t a trans-woman be able to use?  Is it contrary to the authority of scripture to ordain a homosexual person in a monogamous relationship?

Another elephant, of course, revolves around the second amendment (no pun intended).

And what of all our technological opiates, the healthcare crisis, and our economy, which is founded on credit—or should I say indebtedness?

So, do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in America today?  Sadly, they seem to be everywhere and inescapable.

Perhaps the most important questions in these debates should be about the dignity of all persons.  In our opinions, in our political and religious ideologies, in our constitution and amendments, in our judicatory proceedings, in our bills and laws—for the sake of Christ and his kingdom—we must fight against systems that enable one group of people to oppress or exclude another.

But, you ask, what can I do about it?  I’m simply one individual in an ocean of humanity.

True.  But so were Jesus’ disciples.  And Jesus didn’t call them simply to throw up their hands in a helpless shrug.  Instead, he commissioned them to become vulnerable, to seek out the hospitality of others even though it meant almost certain rejection, to offer healing to others, and to proclaim that the kingdom has come near.

And you know what happened?  These few rag-tag, seemingly insignificant disciples went out and did what Jesus commissioned; and they returned to him with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

Beloved, it is the same with you.  Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!