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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.

How Much More Humility?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2016 by timtrue

maccari-cicero1

Luke 18:9-14

This past Thursday I attended Fresh Start: a monthly gathering of clergy new to the diocese, or to a new position in the diocese. Father Paul was there, as he has just started a position as Priest-in-Charge in El Centro and Brawley.  Some newly ordained priests and transitional deacons were there too.  It’s a collegial group, whose purpose is to gather and discuss issues pertinent to our unique calling to the ordained ministry.

On the docket this month was a somewhat provocative question: How should we preach about politics, especially in light of the upcoming election and recent feelings of increased polarization?

It’s a good question to consider.  The election is less than three weeks away.  Which leaves me only today and two more Sundays to address it.  Should I name the political elephant in the room?  Or, on the other hand, should the church be the one haven in our world where we can still find a vestige of refuge from the political circus all around us?

Of course, different preachers take different approaches.

You may or may not know that in 2004 the Rev. George Regas preached a sermon in All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, which led to an investigation by the IRS.  Regas explicitly stated he was not endorsing one candidate over another.  Yet in his sermon—an imagined conversation between Jesus, John Kerry, and George W. Bush—he very much advocated for issues supported by Kerry and opposed by Bush.  And thus, yes, despite him saying he did not endorse one candidate over another, it sure seemed otherwise—to the IRS anyway!

And the IRS matters!

For, according to IRS code, if a preacher tells his congregation how to vote, that preacher’s church can lose tax-exempt status.  To be sure, if I were to stand up here this morning and tell you why you should or shouldn’t for one candidate or another, the IRS would consider St. Paul’s in violation of church and state laws: we could lose our tax-exempt status.

In fact, in recent months our own bishop raised some eyebrows in a diocesan letter in which he named Donald Trump and argued why we shouldn’t vote for him.  Concern was raised over whether the entire Episcopal Diocese of San Diego might fall under the IRS’s scrutiny, and what that would mean for congregations in the diocese (including St. Paul’s).

Preachers in favor of naming names in letters or sermons, including the bishop, rightly argue that as ministers of the Gospel we need the liberty to preach the full Gospel of Christ.

To which other preachers, including me, say, yes, we do need such liberty; but can’t we have it without naming names? Without endorsing or opposing a specific candidate?

To muddle the waters just a little more, during his earthly ministry even Jesus himself named a political figure, Herod; and called him a fox!

Anyway, such was our clergy discussion on Thursday. And thus we come to today’s Gospel: a thoroughly political text.

For, in the first place, I can’t help but associate at least one of the major candidates of this presidential race with the Pharisee.

Two men went up to the temple to pray.  One, a Pharisee, said (essentially), “Dear God, thank you that I’m better than everyone else.”

I mean, doesn’t this sound similar to the political debates?

Just for fun, what if the moderator of the final debate, Chris Wallace, would have asked, “Candidates, as this debate begins, I’d like you each to offer an opening prayer.”  What would that prayer have been?

It’s not hard to imagine the words of the Pharisee: “Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that [other candidate], right over there.”

It doesn’t matter which candidate you happen to favor.  It’s the same for both sides.  One prays, “Thanks that I’m not a thief, like her”; whereas the other prays, “Thanks that I’m not an adulterer, like him.”

And, if you’re like me, you’re left scratching your head wondering when anyone’s going to give a reasonable answer to any of the issues at hand.

But we don’t really identify too closely with the Pharisee anyway.  Or at least we don’t want to.  Isn’t he the real reason the system is so messed up in the first place?

He’s a leader in society, in the established system.  But what is his position of leadership but to enforce the rules and regulations established by the system in the first place!

The Roman Empire’s really messed up when you sit down and think about it.  There are masses of people led by smaller and smaller groups of leaders until finally you reach the top of the pyramid: the emperor.  The Jewish leaders are really just one layer, about halfway up the strata, orchestrated ultimately by the system in order to keep the masses in check.

The Pharisee’s in a position to do something about it.  So why doesn’t he?  He’s a community leader.  Why doesn’t he then lead his community out of the oppressive system that enslaves them?  Why does he instead keep the system in place, perpetuating the bondage?

At any rate, that’s not us.  We really can’t identify with him.

Instead, we really just want to associate with the tax collector. After all, he’s the one who said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and beat his breast and repented and went home justified by God.

So can’t we just focus on him today?  Can’t we just come to church and forget about the political circus?  Can’t we just gather with others, pray and sing together, listen to a normal sermon (for once!), gather at the Lord’s Table, and just go home justified by God?  Can’t we?  Please?

Oh, I wish it were so simple!

But here’s what happens when we come to church and focus just on the tax collector.  We meet, pray, sing, and commune; and we go home justified by God; and we turn on the news or open our computers or look at our phones; and all of a sudden we’re thinking, “Dear God, thank you that I am not like these ridiculous presidential candidates.  Thank you that at least I have the discipline to go to church.  Thank you that I pray and give.  Thank you that. . . .”

And we end up proud.  We end up justifying ourselves.  We become the Pharisee.  And we forget the point of this parable: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

And yet, even so—even if we focus just on the tax collector—I’m sorry to say, here too, in the second place, we can’t avoid politics.  For the tax collector is part of this oppressive Roman system too: tax collectors were employed by the powers-that-be to control people economically.

Think of the modern credit card economy we live with.

Do you ever feel enslaved to it?  Do you ever feel as if the powers-that-be calculate interest rates to be just the right amount—just enough to keep you in debt but not so much to bankrupt you?

That’s how the masses felt towards the tax collector.  Except it wasn’t a big company to be mad at, like Chase or Capital One or the Emperor’s 1st Bank, but at an individual person.

So this made the tax collector wealthy, sure; but also very alone, a kind of middle-manager outcast.  You can almost imagine him waking up one day and asking himself, “How did I get here?  Back when I was going to college and decided to major in finance, I never dreamed I’d end up here.  Yeah, college!  Those were the days!  Back then I lived on $600 a month.  Now, what with two kids in college and ever-increasing medical costs, I can’t even make ends meet with six figures!  I’m trapped forever in middle management!”

No wonder he leaves the temple humbled instead of proud!

The Pharisee is more like an executive, a more active player in perpetuating the system that’s in place, a system of rules and regulations; a system of boundaries which keep people in their place.

Either way, though, the present system has both the Pharisee and the tax collector in a kind of bondage!

Maybe you relate more to the tax collector.  How did you get here?  Now that you’re here, what can you do about it, if anything?  You feel trapped.

Or maybe you find yourself more able to relate to the Pharisee.  You’re a leader of society, a public figure.  Everywhere you go you’ve got to mind your Ps and Qs—lest some sort of Yuma scandal break out!  From time to time you wonder about issues of social justice and whether you can do anything to change injustice or maybe if in fact you’re part of the injustice.  You feel trapped too.

Either way it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t really matter who we are or what we do—whether we’re presidential candidates or parishioners in a pew; whether we identify more with the Pharisee or the tax collector.

God is after a broken spirit and a contrite heart.

God justifies the humble Pharisee just as much as the humble tax collector.  On the other hand, God humbles both the proud presidential candidate and the proud parishioner in the pew.

God calls us to be humble. We learn this from the tax collector who teaches us to focus on individual humility: he beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”; and went home justified by God as an individual.

But there’s more to it than just individual humility.  This we learn from the Pharisee.  He turns our thoughts outward, to society.  He’s not just an individual working within an oppressive system (like the tax collector), but a representative of the system.

And thus, turning our thoughts outward, a question confronts us: What about our systems?  Is God humbling us not just as individuals but also as a society?

Think about our immediate system, the Church.

We lament over the Church’s decline of the last four decades.  Attendance has been steadily falling.  Budgets have been continuously shrinking.  Many congregations around the country and the world are finding that they can no longer sustain their programs and buildings.

Is this decline God’s doing?  Is God humbling the Church’s pride?

Maybe.

Whatever the case, this so-called decline, which so many people see as negative, has a positive side: the Church is asking important questions that have needed to be asked for a very long time—questions about gender, sexuality, race, and authority.

In essence, the Church is looking around and saying, “How did we end up here?  Back in the early days we lived on $600 a month.  Now we can’t even seem to make ends meet on six figures!  God, be merciful to us sinners!”

We see a corporate humility.

Nevertheless—I don’t have to tell you—much pride remains in the Church.  All too often, the word bishop is interchangeable with ego.

How much more humbling needs to take place?

Now, let’s look at the bigger system: What about our nation?

With this election cycle, American democracy seems to have changed fundamentally.

Is this God’s doing?  Is God humbling our nation?

Maybe.

As a nation, we’ve begun to ask the right questions; questions that have needed to be asked for a long time; questions about gender, sexuality, race, and authority.  Attempts are made at righting past wrongs.  Strategies are developed to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.  Thoughts are turning toward the common good.  These are all signs of national humility.

Nevertheless, there’s quite a lot of ego floating around.  And I don’t just mean in the presidential race!  Our whole country is wound tight around pride and self-justification—around ego!

How much more humbling needs to take place?

I won’t tell you how to vote.  But, when you vote, please, consider this very important question.