Archive for October, 2017

What Really Matters

Posted: October 18, 2017 in Uncategorized

What Really Matters

Exodus 33: 12-33.  Matthew 22:15-22

“I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen“ The message from God to Moses is that things are not as one might seem and there will always remain the element of mystery. God’s face will not be seen.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This is one of the sayings that the Jesus Seminar Scholars judged as distinctive, unlike any known contemporary Jewish saying yet both memorable and fully consistent with the overall teaching of Jesus. It remains today one of Jesus’ most memorable statements, familiar even to people who know little about the New Testament. It’s familiar, yes, but what does it mean? We tell ourselves that there are two things that are certain in life. One is death and the other taxes, but that assumes that there exists a desire to work against that assumption because we are not comfortable with certainty.

What if we can avoid death? Maybe a supernatural God can get us past death. Or what if we can find a way to do without taxes? Change the way we fund the collective society, make it all user pays, maybe that’s the answer? We find it easier to divide the two certainties and seek a way of combating the certainty they both claim. And in doing so we miss the message that Jesus gives. His suggestion that to each their rights. Caesar and God are due their allegiance, God and the state are due a measure of allegiance, though of course our allegiance to God necessarily comes first.

Let’s just stay with the metaphor for a bit and hear Jesus says that if the state demands something that does not conflict with one’s allegiance to God, his followers should fulfill the demand. Another perhaps un fortunate but seemingly necessary corollary of this statement is that church and state should be kept separate so that people can more easily distinguish between the call of God and the call of the state. This is the way we deal with the experience that when the state begins either supporting or opposing a particular religion, or religion in general, it interferes with religion’s task of serving God, and it potentially puts religious adherents at odds with both church and state. The question is does it really do this or is this what comes with the separation? This I think is an outcome of the reformation when with Luther the religious world tried to value imagination and called it justification by faith. There has since the separation of church and state an attempt to chip away at the wall of separation be ween church and state probably because it has led to confusion about legislation, about the freedom of people to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience, and about the government’s support or opposition to particular religious groups. We are still fighting Luther’s battle.

The most important outcome of this is the constant call for Christians to heed Jesus’ clarion call to distinguish between what we owe to Caesar and what we owe to God. We think we are hard done by death and taxes but our hard done by is peanuts to what environment Jesus was talking into. Yes, we have to admit that tax collectors have never been popular.  Not in biblical times. Not in the medieval world. And not today! Yes; we need to debate the pros and cons of the tax system, because all systems need to be interpretive of needs, relevant and responsive as opposed to tools of control, taxes for taxes sake, social manipulation or ideological entrenchment, but I’m not sure that’s the point in Jesus’ words. He was advocating examination of the tax system and this we think was because the Galilee of Jesus’ time was an agrarian economy where it is likely 2 percent of the population controlled 50 percent of the wealth. Those at the top of this society were required to be two faced to achieve their wealth. They had to give allegiance to Rome and they had to buy the right to levy the required tribute and they had to maintain control of the peasantry to ensure their income because this was the basis of their business. The Roman allegiance was symbolized by the Imperial Tax.  There were a variety of taxes levied on the people of the empire, but this was the most despised of all taxes. In essence, Rome levied a tax on the people to pay for the Roman legions that controlled the region. As you might expect, occupied people never like paying the salaries of their occupiers. The tax collectors had to cover the costs of this imperial tax make a profit and maintain a business and this meant that they made loans to the heavily taxed peasants at rates that could never be met and ultimately gained ownership by default of the lands, becoming either brokers or landowners. A bit like car dealers in the 60s in this country who leased cars to people at rates they could not sustain so regaining ownership time and time again and making money of the same care over and over again. Or today’s example where rich and powerful countries topple leaders and support replacements that serve their needs and thus gain control of resources they need. Like members of the economically dominant they participate in a process designed to transform prior injustice into seeming justice. As system that rips of the peasant is justified by the outcomes for the clever, The ones who lose are the cause of their own demise whereas the ones who win are doing what all should do. Everyone deserves what they get.

In Matthew’s narrative, we are nearing the end of the journey to the cross. Jesus has already entered the city. The contest between him and his opponents in the religious and political elite is ratcheting up.  He is seen as a radical who threatens the status quo. Not because has a huge army massing against the military might, not because he has a NZ First sort of political influence but because the elite then and now fear an uprising by those living on the margins. And I am not suggesting that NZ First is on the margins but rather that the 2 percent who hold the resources are fearful of the fact that the control of the 50% of the resources will not be enough to hold off a revolution. In our text Jesus’ threat confused the Pharisees by his appeal to give both Caesar and God their due.

A group representing the Pharisees (we’re told that these were students) and the Herodians (a party that supported the client royal family, and therefore would have supported the tax system) raises the issue of paying taxes with Jesus. Note how they approach Jesus – offering him a degree of “respect” that they in reality didn’t accord him. It is assumed, that flattery will get a favourable response. They obviously knew that if he said that they should pay taxes then he would alienate his base, which included many nationalists and people just fed up with Roman occupation in general.  If he responds by saying they shouldn’t pay taxes he would put himself in hot water with the Romans (thus the reason for the presence of the Herodians).  It’s a good tactic, but Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap. He simply offers an enigmatic statement about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, to God what belongs to God.  In one sense he puts their challenge back in their lap.  It appears that he is not going to say one way or the other, but like all Jesus words there is, something subversive about his answer. Paying taxes to the Romans wasn’t something people enjoyed, but the people had little hope of overturning Roman rule. Jesus understood that, which is why he didn’t appear to follow the messianic predilections of at least some of his followers. Jesus may have had Zealots among his followers, but nothing in the biblical record suggests that he was one himself. Instead, he took a very different path. This made him very difficult to pigeon hole or categorize. And as we have said on other occasions his approach wasn’t a “spiritual” one as opposed to a “political” one, but it was one that was secular and realistic.  He pursued a path of bringing wholeness at a people level to the neighbourhood, inaugurating the kingdom through his preaching and through his healing actions even if he knew that the forces gathering against him would not be happy. We talked about kingdom language the other week and it might be more accurate to talk about the empire of God in this context. There was an understanding of empire and it was a Roman empire and God’s empire was a challenge to its very existence.

In our case; what Jesus did was ask for a coin. Then he asked the inquirers whose image lay upon the coin (a denarius). Of course, they said – Caesar’s. Coins of the realm were all stamped with the Emperor’s image, along with a statement hailing the Emperor as son of God. Of course, coins have always born the images of those who rule. Our own coinage bears the image our Queen but even these hold a certain sacredness. They are produced by the government and made available to us so that we can participate in an exchange value culture by buying and selling what we need to survive.

Since the government produces the money, they have the right to ask for something back so they can provide the services we desire. Give to Caesar what is Caesars and God what is God’s. Yes; we know that not everyone is exactly happy about the way the government spends its money. There are those who resent having to spend money to pay for some aspects of social welfare, especially that which makes people dependent or enables people to avoid their shared responsibility. There are others in some counties who are outraged that they have to pay for a military that they believe is illegitimate and unnecessary.  The fact is we don’t get to individually choose which programs our taxes pay for. Parliament and an elected government make those kinds of decision. We note here of course that in our case we can vote for or against these representatives whereas Jesus’ and his hearers couldn’t. Their economic environment was much more oppressive than ours. But more important for us is the second half of the response – giving to God what belongs to God. To whom does our allegiance ultimately belong? Even if you believe, as I do, that governments have a legitimate purpose and therefore one should expect to pay taxes to support such a government, as followers of the Jesus Way, the government doesn’t have our ultimate allegiance. Long before Constantine it seems that Jesus followers believed that they were good citizens, they just couldn’t worship Caesar. Paul affirmed the legitimacy of government (Romans 13) as did the Second Century Fathers. And even though I think that the Church Fathers were drawn into error about the constitution of a doctrinal approach, they also understood that they stood under a higher law. Peter said to the Sanhedrin, one has to obey God rather than human authority when the two come into conflict (Acts 4:19-20). The challenge is the when, where, and how we do this. and this is our task. Not to advocate that people not pay taxes where taxes are due but rather to carefully consider whether the tax system is the best way of caring for each other. As a human system there is always room for improvement.

So what belongs to God?  Well, I don’t think it’s about belonging to, but rather about responsibility for, or stewardship of. The question is how do we use what we have? Maybe the key to the answer is the issue of image. The coin bears Caesar’s image. That which bear’s image is the human creation (Genesis 1:28). Humanity has been created in the image of God, and therefore humanity is part of God. And God and humanity have a responsibility – to steward creation, or be creative as engaging in creation. Perhaps in the sense of Jesus’ words, humanity as image of God already has a higher place than Caesar.

And if talking about allegiance, and I am not always comfortable with using that word, then our ultimate allegiance belongs to God, to the mystery, the I am, or the No name, or the face that is never seen; then what does that mean for the way we live our daily lives. How do we live in this world and yet not be defined by its rule?  In the Constantinian system there has long been an assumption that membership in the church is the equivalent to citizenship in the state. While NZ has never had an official state church/religion, we have had an assumed reliance on the Church of England as our Civil Religion and this means that we have not been considered a Catholic Nation as opposed to a Protestant one. There was a time in my childhood that we were considered the second most secular nation in the world after the Netherlands. But we have always to my knowledge been considered a Christian nation.  Our anthems etc confirm this assumption despite attempts to change the words of parliamentary prayers etc. swearing oaths on the Bible, express this vision.

With regard to Jesus’ response to his inquisitors, in his answer, he offers us a way of navigating our present realities. He reminds us that our alliances are always temporary, dictated perhaps by the demands of the circumstances, but ultimately directed by our relationship with the creation and in that image that we share. This means that following Jesus’ counsel is always a matter of discernment, prayer, and confession, always a matter of interpretation. The passage seems to be saying; think about what it means to live as a follower of Jesus and as a citizen of a nation-state. What “compromises” are required of us? Where do we draw the line regarding our engagement in the public square? Do we separate ourselves from worldly affairs, or do we (even as church) engage with it, do we challenge it in our pursuit of the common good?  Amen.

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‘Kingdom or Folly, Fear or Love?’

Pentecost 18 8.10.2017

Exodus 20: 12 -21 Matthew 25: 37 – 39

Last week we looked briefly at what being a Christian in today’s world might look like and we explored briefly what some guides might be that we could use to undergird what the behaviour of a progressive Christian might look like. We talked about humility, and what a familial and communal approach might be. We talked about the place of scripture as conversation stimulation about the function of forgiveness and healing as selfish acts in the process of transformation and we talked about language, and action as service and renewal. We also talked about compassion as suffering with and not just doing our bit. We talked about prayer being a conversation with ourselves that takes seriously the power of awareness and the call to pray without ceasing. And then finally we talked about a simple life as less about what one needs, to live as a Christian, and more about how one lives one’s life here and now.

After last week’s service Gordon raised the question of charitable works. I might be wrong but I think he was asking what the place of ‘doing’ good things has when ‘being’ was so important in being Christian. I revisited last week’s sermon and in partial response to Gordon, I think the last suggestion of a ‘simple life’ touches on where I want to go today and that is, to explore the idea of the kingdom or the realm or the collective that we name as God’s world. Not as somewhere to go or be but rather as perhaps as an example of life.

Perhaps we might begin by touching base with some of our traditional ideas and assumptions about God’s kingdom and then see the differences that Jesus seems to be suggesting. In church tradition, the kingdom of God has meant God’s Rule, (basileia regnum, imperium) The kingdom has been a place where God is our pilot, where God has been at the controls and where the world has been subject to the rule of God. It has been implied that God makes our enemies our footstools. There has been no doubt that the Kingdom is the domain of the high and mighty where God steps in and takes over when needs be and the powers and the principalities are scattered, brought to their knees, and made to rue the day they were so foolish as to take on the Almighty.

This means that the coming of the kingdom means that the tables are turned on a world that is made up of fools and it is God who holds all the cards. But what if that is not so? What if the turning of tables that Jesus was on about is that very world? What if the world is not made up of fools, and what if God doesn’t hold the cards? What if the ‘rule of God is a kind of divine irony in itself that does not hold with the almighty idea or with any form of violence or power over? What if the business of the kingdom is conducted according to the logic of the cross? What if the kingdom is actually a folly in terms of the powers of the world. Paul seems to be saying this in his first letter to the Corinthians 1: 18-25.

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

19 For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.

22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,

23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

What if the kingdom is foolishness rather than what counts as a kingdom in today’s world?

In this idea of the kingdom the folly of God is something unconditional and without sovereignty. When we speak of God we are speaking in terms of a weak force with no army or if you like as John D Caputo says the powerless power of the kiss, not of the power of the sword. And let’s be clear hear we are talking about both the kingdom and God differently. Another kind of kingdom. A kingdom without a king; a kingdom subject to the soft sway of something unconditional without power as we understand it. This is not the power of achievement or winning and weakness is not a strategy to be used by God to make the winning move.

And let’s not fool ourselves here. To shift our thinking to the view of a weak God or a kingdom that is folly is not easy when the opposite is so deeply grounded in our culture and one might even say our very way of being. The issue of this approach is that the kingdom of God does not need God and maybe even having a supreme being at all is dangerous. Not dangerous because without God we have nothing but rather that without God we have to go beyond God into the mystery itself. In this approach it is a waste of time to ask whether or not God exists because that question cannot be answered. It is more important to ask what is beyond theism, atheism. What is the coming of the kingdom about if it is not the arrival of someone in charge with all the control and power. What if is about understanding the powerless power of something unconditional yet without power as the world knows power?

When we pray saying ‘let your kingdom come’ what are we asking for? Is it for the Supreme Being to intervene in history, to come to our aid and do something here below in space and time, to make something happen? Are we then left in suspense waiting for a response? Is the mystery we name God or the kingdom to come at some future date set by the Supreme Being? Our question might be ‘how does this make sense when we no longer believe that myth? What if the kingdom we are seeking is one that would actually be impeded by such a coming? If the Supreme Being turned up in all his glory, surrounded by his angels, seated on his throne with all the nations arrayed before him would it not be bad news because such a kingdom is what Jesus most feared and spoke against.

The folly is that the kingdom calls unconditionally, without the power to enforce its call or to reward or threaten its responders. As Caputo says, “The ikon of the God in the kingdom of God is an unjustly crucified man who forgave his executioners and whose disciples scattered in the moment of maximum peril. There is no greater folly than that.” In this sense the call of the kingdom is a call to itself. The coming of the kingdom is the call, the promise of something ‘to come’, while our come is the response, the hope, the prayer, the dream of a form of life that lures us on its own and not form above, beyond or from on high. The kingdom of God is within us and not a powerful force from without. We could say it runs or operates under the impulse of the events that already pulse through it and not ruled from above by a strong if invisible hand. It is always to come, always almost come, but not as a state of affairs, It is the certainty of the almost already begun thus already here, and already soliciting us. It is found every time the displaced are given shelter and the hungry are fed, every time the poor are comforted, every time the imprisoned are visited.

It is here that I want to say that as I was writing this I was encouraged to hear that a fellow Presbyterian had told a ‘St David’s Friends’ supporter they were missing the boat. The call of the kingdom was not to preserve buildings but rather to provide spaces and places where community could gather and find support. The Church needs places where community meets and supports itself, church only needs a chapel to celebrate but it needs to be a place where community is created, valued, enhanced and encouraged. His comment was that with the changes in the living environments and the intensification of living it is even more important that the church is involved in space for community connections such as a school where families can be families.

To return to my argument, it has to be said that the kingdom to come is not about a future presence but rather the weak force of a call for something coming. The rule of God takes place by way of the gentle provocation of a poetics, without a powerful metaphysical theology to back it up; without a Supreme ruler who dispatched a heavenly host of warrior angels to come to our aid; without an apologetic theology to defend God’s rule against its detractors, and without a worldwide system of divinity schools and seminaries to work out its logic and train and commission its emissaries. The rule of God is more unruly, more disarmed, more like an outright folly.

Perhaps I could end here today by saying that the kingdom is like love. It is a weak force, not one of the principalities that threaten reprisal if it is not headed and promises a reward if it is. The works of the kingdom and love are performed without the ‘why’.

This means that the weakness of God requires our strength and courage to make God whole and the folly of God is to let so much depend on us. The folly of God requires our courage to take a risk on God, our courage to let go of control, safety, security, certainty, and absolutes and to risk engagement in the weakness of God. Unconditional loving calls us into the weakness that is the nothing is guaranteed place, the place where nothing says the worst will not happen. The place where there is no invisible hand ensuring a good outcome. A weakness where there is nothing that says the good will triumph or that evil will be overcome. To pray for the coming of the kingdom is an exercise of hope and the kingdom is sustained best if at all, when it abides by the searing, searching, and simple account of the unconditional in Matthew 25: 37-39.

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

Amen.

John D Caputo, ‘Does The Kingdom Of God Need God?’ Fourth R Volume 30 Number 5 September/October 2017.