Sunday, October 19, 2014


Today’s Gospel lesson is 3 dimensional.
We need to go at it from 3 different angles to get the point.
The first angle is the joke.
It’s important because we read the Gospels
            not just to learn what Jesus taught,
            but to know who Jesus is.

So first let’s get the context.
Remember the 2nd Commandment.
“You shall not make any graven images.”
Jews took that seriously and literally.
No graven images meant: “no graven images.”
And the Pharisees took great pride in how strictly
            they followed the law.

Keeping the 2nd commandment was awkward
            in the Roman Empire since business was done with Roman money,
            and Roman money had the image of Caesar on it.
To make matters worse, Caesar was revered as a god.
So to carry a Roman coin was to carry a pagan idol in your pocket.
Most Jews compromised on that in daily life,
            but remember the Pharisees were ultra strict.
And even ordinary Jews should not take a Roman coin
            into the Temple.
That’s why there were moneychangers outside.
They swapped Roman coins for special blank Temple coins
            that could be used for offerings.

In today’s lesson, Jesus is teaching in the Temple.
That’s where the Pharisees set out to trick him
            with a question about taxes that anyway he answers it,
                        he’ll make enemies.
But the foxy Pharisee gets outfoxed.
Jesus calls him a hypocrite and says, “show me the money.”
The Pharisee reaches in his pocket and pulls out a coin,
            with lo and behold the face of Caesar on it,
            right there in the Temple. Busted!
But woven into the joke of Jesus outfoxing the Pharisee,
            there is something profound.
That’s the second angle on this lesson.
The fact that Jesus uses a joke to make a profound point
            is also something we learn about his style.
But what is the point? Just this:

Jesus says the coin belongs to Caesar
because Caesar’s image is on it.
The late Bible scholar Walter Wink
            called the state and the market “the domination system.”
What the domination system giveth, it also taketh away.
What little wealth and authority the system gives us
            is just its hook in our flesh.
The tighter we cling to it, the tighter the system’s grip on us.
So Jesus says, “let it go.”
Give Caesar’s stuff back and get yourself free.
But then he says something really enigmatic,
“Render unto God that which is God’s.”//
If Caesar’s stuff has his image on it,
            then what belongs to God?
What is marked with God’s?

The answer is in Genesis chapter 1 verse 27:
            “God created humanity in his own image;
            In the image of God, he created them.
            Male and female he created them.”
We are made in the image of God
            because we belong to God.
Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.
Render unto God that which is God’s.
Jesus invites us to give our lives, our hearts, and our souls to God.

But it’s for quite a different reason than we render unto Caesar.
It’s because giving ourselves to God is the way
to our own peace and our happiness.We are wired for God.
In 2002, three neurologists wrote a book called
Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & The Biology of Belief.
They had discovered that the idea of God is hardwired into our brains.
Without God there is something missing in us.
Some call it the God-shaped-hole in the human heart.
That’s set to music in the song God Shaped Hole by Plumb. 

Plumb’s song and the new brain science echo an old, old truth.
1.600 years ago, St. Augustine prayed:
“O God you have made us for yourself
And our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
But the word “for” isn’t quite right.
It is more like “toward” – “you made us facing you.”
We are not whole, not complete, unless we are connected to God.

But Jesus isn’t just talking about a private spirituality here.
We won’t get this teaching without looking from the third angle.
The Pharisees’ question is political,
            and Jesus’ answer is political as well as spiritual.
For Jesus, the political is spiritual.

People wanted Jesus to take the lead of the Zealot party
            and lead the insurrection against Rome.
Tax resistance would have been the way to start that fight.
It would have been the Boston Tea Party of the day.
It would have kicked off their version of the Arab Spring.

Reza Aslan’s book Zealot imagines Jesus as that kind of leader.
But the Gospels are emphatic that Jesus was dead set against
            that kind of insurrection.
First, he knew good and well they couldn’t win.
When Judea started their revolt with a tax resistance in 66 AD,
            1,100,000 people died, Jerusalem was sacked,
            and Rome still ruled.

Second, Jesus knew that armed revolt, or any sort of power play,
            just replaces one gang of thugs with another gang of thugs.
Maybe you get Bashir Assad out, but then you get ISIS in his place.
Mubarak out; Muslim Brotherhood in.
Muslim brotherhood out; martial law in.
Jesus had a different kind of insurrection in mind.
He imagined groups of people gathering together
            to render unto God that which is God’s.
He imagined groups of people cracking the shell of the Old World Order
            by collaborating to live godly lives.

But godly lives were not something you could impose on others.
It was about power within each person,
            not the power of one group over another.
That’s what the Christian Coalition never got.
It wasn’t about a strict code of rules to follow.
It was about people caring for each other.
It wasn’t about judgment.
It was about grace and mercy.

And it wasn’t about solemn proclamations.
It was about jokes, stories, and unexpected gestures
            like foot washing that expressed people caring for people.
Jesus didn’t teach an ideology.
He instilled an attitude of appreciation, humor, kindness, and caring.
It was an attitude that honored the poor and the outcast
            more than the rich and the inbred.

If one person goes genuinely Christian, just one person,
            It makes a little difference in the world.
If two people who don’t know each other go Christian,
            It makes twice as much difference.
But if the those two people come together
            -- as we do in Holy Communion --
            the power multiplies many fold.

You get a dozen of those folks
            and they can go out into the world
            making disciples of all nations.
The deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk,
            and the domination system begins to crumble
            before our very eyes.

Perhaps you are wondering why the domination system
            is still calling the shots.
G. K. Chesterton replied:
            “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting;
            it has been found difficult and not tried.”
But we could try it – any old time now.
Nobody said it was easy.
It is the way of the cross.
But it is the way to life and peace,
            not just for a few believers,
but for the whole of creation.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


The first congregation I served as a priest
            was Christ Church, Macon, Georgia.
In the mid-19th century, the rector, Mr. Reese,
was of the Protestant persuasion;
until he spent a sabbatical studying with Anglo-Catholic Bishop Onterdonk.
When Mr. Reese returned to Macon, he put candles on the altar.
The uproar was --  well -- uproarious.
In the end, Mr. Reese and half the congregation
            left Christ Church and set up shop as St. Paul’s across town.

The plot line is too familiar to be of interest,
            except for the endnote.
By the time I got to Macon in 1990,
            Christ Church had become the high church in town,
            and St. Paul’s was rigidly Anglo-Presbyterian.

We were playing that same uproar game
in  1555 with the Oxford Martyrs.
But it  didn’t start there and it hasn’t ended yet.
Recently, the battle lines have not been
            high versus low as often as left versus right.
But it’s the same game.
We heat the pot up to a level 4 or 5 conflict boil.
Level 4, in Alban Institute categories, means someone has to leave.
Level 5 means after they leave we track them down and kill them.
So we ratchet up the emotionality.
Then someone stomps out of the room
in a melodramatic imitation of Martin Luther,
            as if their stomping proves their integrity.
And the other side says “good riddance.”

I say this as a hard truth, but I swear I speak it in love.
I challenge anyone to seriously read the Epistle to the Philippians
            or 1st Corinthians, either one, but Philippians is more explicit.
Read Philippians and explain to me how this mutual intolerance
            for each other accords with Apostolic Christian Faith.
“I appeal to you,” Paul said, “make my joy complete
            by being of a single mind, one in love. . . .
Let your behavior be free of murmuring and complaining. . . .
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come
to an agreement in the Lord.
And I ask Syzygus to really be a partner and help them.  . . . .
Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus . . . .
who humbled himself to become servant of all.”

In Galatians, Paul lists partisan spirit as a work of the flesh,
            which corresponds to Ego or concupiscence,
which in Augustine equates with original sin.
From Paul’s and Augustine’s perspective
            our dogmatic convictions look like pretexts
            for the assertion of our own egocentric wills.
Our certainty that we are right justifies
            our aggression against our brothers and sisters in Christ.

High and low, left and right are all equally susceptible
            to that partisan spirit.
This Fall my own seminary is self-destructing
            as students are caught in the crossfire of mutual power plays.
Each side appears confident of its own righteousness.
Today, with God’s help, they may find a way forward.
We prepare for General Convention by drawing battle lines
            over who gets power over what little piece of turf.

The inveterate obstacle to our becoming the Body of Christ
            is the power of sin  to skew our view
of the very nature of Truth itself.
We arrogantly and irreverently act as if Truth is something we can grasp,
             and use as a weapon to assert our wills over someone else.

The poetry of Jorge Luis Borges, however,  celebrates the way
            Ideas bounce against each other striking sparks
                        In the darkness.
To Borges, no idea in itself captures truth.
Truth is the spark struck when ideas collide.
More accurately, ideas are at best partial truths.
But when we strike them against each other like subatomic particles
            in a nuclear reactor,
            the collision emits a light, the light of Christ..

For example, Rebecca Goldstein’s clever book, Plato At The Googleplex,
            convinces me that Plato and Socrates were not Platonists.
They did not intend the things they said
to add up to a comprehensive system.
They were striking ideas against each other like flint and steel.

This axiomatic Epistemology 101 runs
from Augustine and Dionysius the Aereopagite
to Marin Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur.
Once we clear on this, all sorts of things fall into place.
 Ideas are linguistic constructs that contain only partial truths,
            but the interplay of ideas sheds a larger light.

That’s why the Hebrew Scriptures
            do not present a sustained religious teaching
            but rather, as Walter Brueggemann says,
            they are an ongoing argument between conflicting
            visions of God and human life.

That’s why Jesus didn’t come out and say,
            in some direct, comprehensible way,
                        “This is how it is” – but rather spoke
            in zinger stories that leave us scratching our heads.

Jesus didn’t give us mind-closing final answers because
the Body of Christ is “a learning community.”
We learn from the interplay of multiple viewpoints,
            not from monotonous group-think conformity
Look at the disciples Jesus assembled
-- Zealot rebels and Roman collaborator tax collectors,
      sinners and Pharisaic moralists, mystics and fishermen,
      Greeks, Galileans, Judeans, and Canaanites.

It was an assembly of the mismatched and wrongheaded,
all of whom called him” Rabboni,” “Teacher,”
not because he told them how it was
      but because he made them think fresh thoughts,
‘     and see the world through new eyes.

Jesus challenged dogmas with his parables,
so they killed him;
much as Athens killed Socrates
for asking too many questions.
We need the cross, the stake, and the vial of hemlock
to prevent at any cost
the interplay of ideas that might light the world up.

The concupiscent partisan spirit that drove Catholics and Protestants
to torture and kill each other in centuries past
is desperately anxious to keep the subatomic particles
segregated in their own safe silos,
lest they collide and emit the disturbing light of truth.
You see, friends, the easy harmony of like-mindedness
            does not challenge our egos.
The easy harmony of like-mindedness will not sanctify us.

When St. John of the Cross said,
            “God has so ordained that we are sanctified
            through the frail instrumentality of each other,”
            he meant we are sanctified by learning to love
                        those who are the most disturbingly different
                                    from ourselves.
We need each other.
We need each other for the sake of our own sanctification.
We need each other in order to be the Body of Christ.

I confess I did not always like my seminary class.
Truly most of us did not want to be there.
Most of us wanted to be at a different seminary
            that was more pure from the perspective
            of a particular faction of the Church.

The liberals wanted to be at EDS.
The conservatives wanted to be at Trinity, etc.
But their bishops had not let them.
So there we were – thrown up against each other in my class.

My own bias, as an ex-Southern Baptist, was against fundamentalism.
Sure enough there was a died-in-the-wool fundamentalist in my class.
Her presence made me very uncomfortable
            and I don’t think she was any happier to have me around.
We did a lot of small group work in those days.
And sure enough, God so ordained that she was
            in every single one of my small groups for three years.
By the end of the third year, we understood each other
            a little better and liked each other a great deal.

Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a big net
            that catches all kinds of fish.
I suppose the angels may sort us out some day.
But not now. And it will never – never, ever -- be our job
to do the sorting,
either by driving someone out or stomping out ourselves.
Our calling is just to be all kinds of fish,
            caught up together in the net of grace,
all of us good, all of us bad,
all of us essential to one another.