Saturday, October 18, 2008

The log driver's waltz

Something I'm practising up for this Tuesday's meeting of the Penicuik Folk Music Club.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Sermon for Sunday
the 19th of October, 2008

Proper 24

The Service can ge found HERE.
The sermon begins at 11:22 on the counter.

Exodus 33:12-23
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Wouldn't it be grand if everybody wished you well.

It doesn’t always work out that way. The more we engage with life – the more we open our big mouths – the more we stand up and make ourselves counted the greater the possibility that we will develop a group of people around us who don’t fancy us in the least.

With some of them you can come to an understanding. You can keep out of each other’s way. Others are not so easily persuaded. They’d just as well see us take a dive and if it ended up that they were the ones who gave us a little push well then so be it. It’s like that in business. It’s like that on sports teams, clubs and associations. I wish it weren’t so but it can be like that in community organizations and churches as well. When I was the chief executive of a charitable organization in Montreal I developed a few foes on the board of directors. I remember my father patting me on the back and saying that I’d finally ‘arrived’. If you don’t have a few enemies, he said, you must be doing something wrong.

We are at a point in Jesus' ministry – in this morning’s Gospel reading – where opposition to his ministry has finally crystallized. He now has opponents and they are waiting for one wrong move on his part which will allow them to pounce. They continue to take part in discussions he is having with disciples and enquirers. They are there on the sidelines. Their questions are not designed to enlighten or inform. There is no genuine information being sought out. They are questions designed to trip Jesus up and embarrass him. We see such questions asked in political debates – questions which have passed through a committee before one candidate ever gets to ask them of the other. Questions designed to be unanswerable without cost. We see such aggressive questions asked in civil court as well. In this case the question is asked about the payment of taxes to the occupying Roman government. Is it permissible to pay taxes to your political and religious opponent and still remain faithful? In order to answer the question Jesus asks for a coin to be handed to him. Everybody waits for his answer – much will depend on his answering the question correctly.

I have such a coin at home – a silver denarius. It’s surprisingly small – smaller than a UK penny. My coin has the head of Trajan on it. The coin which Jesus was handed would likely have had the head of the Emperor Tiberius stamped on one side. Printed around the head would have been a few letters – abbreviations, really – which read “Tiberius Caesar – Son of the Divine Augustus

And so Jesus is being asked here whether or not a piece of propaganda used to proclaim that Tiberius was the son, if not of God, then of 'a god' could be used by Jews, disciples, followers of Jesus or not followers of Jesus to pay their debts. A trap, certainly. What sort of trap is it?

Jesus has been proclaiming the imminent reign of God – the presence ahead of us, around us and within us of the Kingdom of God. It’s something which pious Jews had been expecting in the future but which Jesus proclaims as something which is already being revealed in tantalizing tidbits. It’s within us, or among us or around us but it is definitely present whenever and wherever Jesus is present. But Kingdom is a loaded word. Herod the Great initiated a massacre because of the rumour of a king being born in Bethlehem. When Pilate is asking Jesus whether or not he is a king he has a clipboard out with a piece of paper on it with a question and two little boxes – one of which should be ticked by the questioner: Does the accused claim to be a king – yes or no. At this point the Pharisees are losing patience with Jesus and their relationship with him has passed some sort of threshold a few chapters back. They are no longer his friends and are wanting to set up some situation where he will be either revealed to his own disciples and followers as a fraud or to the authorities as a risk. Much is at stake. Tax revolts were not unknown and the Roman response was swift and deadly.

If taxes can be paid to the emperor using a coin with the emperor’s head and a phrase denoting that the emperor is the son of God or at least the god Augustus then the religious life Jesus must be promoting is a privatised sort of thing which intersects only lightly with the real world. Believe in God and follow me, Jesus might be saying, but let life go on as it usually does. Jesus could then quite rightly be accused of trying to promote a hobby – something which let life go on largely as it did before and his positive answer to the Pharisees’ question – yes, everybody should pay taxes, even my disciples - would reveal this to be the case. Let’s see if he answers yes, say the opponents, and then we pounce.

But if he says no – my followers should not pay their taxes with a coin that declares the Emperor to be the son of God then he’s gone the whole hog with the idea of kingship. He’s like the radicals who have gone before and who have led the nation into disastrous conflict with Rome. His followers are members of a kingdom which is not part of the Roman Empire. Their allegiance belongs to God alone and to the Kingdom of his Christ and not to Tiberius Caesar. We can pass his name on to the relevant authorities. He can be arrested in the night as a tax rebel and a dangerous character. Either way we win. Either way he’s finished. We’ve got him

Jesus hands back the coin. Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, he says. Render unto God the things that are God’s.

It’s a trap cleverly avoided. But it’s not merely clever. Our children respond with clever phrases. I said I would do my homework but I didn’t say exactly which homework I would do and when. I said I would clean my room but I didn’t specifically mention the part of my room which is under my bed. Jesus is not merely being clever. He is not merely ‘dodging’ the question.

Jesus has always maintained that the Kingdom is like seed cast into a field. It is like yeast hidden inside a lump of dough. In like manner his followers are cast into the world – are part of village life – are part of the world’s life - unconformed to it but living within it. Eventually, to Pilate’s great frustration, Jesus will tell him that his Kingdom is not of this world. It is not Kingship as the world understands it – neither the authority of the reigning King or the rebellion of a pretender to the throne. Jesus wants no standards, no armies, no coins printed with his face. It is something other.

In this ‘other’ understanding Caesar’s coin will be returned to him to pay for roads and navies – returned freely as something owing him. You will pay your taxes though you are a follower of Jesus and a believer in God. And – in 2008 you will avoid the temptation to withdraw into the close confines of the sect. As Christianity may well have reached Great Britain in the person of Roman soldiers who were Christians so christians from your church will serve as elected councillors in local government. The Christian will wheel out his bins on a Tuesday morning shoulder to shoulder with the neighbour who is not part of the community of faith. We understand not only our responsibilities to the larger civic community around us we understood that it was intended that it be this way – that we be sent forth into the world to bring the message of God’s salvation into the marketplace, the school we attend, the workplace we frequent.

No clever dodge whatsoever on Jesus part but an explanation as much to the disciples as to his opponents that we are more than rebels. We are disciples.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Overheard at coffee time after Church....

In Japan:

- the Origami bank has folded.
- there's something fishy at the Sushi Bank
- The Bonsai Bank is cutting back.

I was holding court in St Mungo's Church on Saturday when the folks there decided that they were tired of me and so they gave me a window to decorate for Harvest. I'm not completely displeased with the results.