Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sermon: "The Other 100%," or, "Render unto God that Which is God's"

"The Other 100%," or, "Render unto God that which is God's"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
16 October 2011
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Texts: Isaiah 45.1-7
Psalm 96.1-9
1 Thessolonians 1.1-10
Matthew 22.15-22

"What's your plan go to do with me?
If the bell tolls, let freedom ring
And find the new ways that we must be king
Instead of leading the young to our suffering...

So study war no more this millennium
It's never again for me or anyone
So think harder when you refer to us
Rather make our children martyrs than murderers...

This is love and not treason..."
-Flobots, "White Flag Warriors"

-Earlier this week, the Pastrix and I talked about “collaring up” and heading down to Civic Center Park to interact with the Occupy Denver protestors. For me, I hoped it would be good sermon research. How could we read such a politically charged story, in which Christ, occupying the Jerusalem Temple, tells us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” without attending to the outrage stirring in our own time?

-So it was disappointing – and harrowing - to drive by the park on Friday morning to discover, not tents and signs and protestors, but packs of policemen, armored up in full riot gear, keeping watch over an empty patch of green. I came hoping to catch a glimpse of Christ, and instead found myself starting into the visored eyes of Caesar.

-But maybe, this vision was just as important for me to see. Maybe part of the ongoing success of the protests has been this unmasking of Caesar. There was something horrifyingly absurd about a powerful government like ours, in a prosperous city like Denver, sending in armed troops to deal with a bunch of unemployed, non-violent political dissidents. See, at the heart of Caesar’s power is not the promise of peace, but rather, the threat of coercion and force. Simply by voicing their demand that the “other 99%” be heard, simply by desiring to call a thing what it is, these nobodies on the margins brought forth the true identity of the Powers that Be. And the Powers that Be are...afraid. Paranoid. Power-addicted.

-I wonder if such an unmasking is also what Jesus is really up to in his rebuttal of the Pharisees’ attempts to “entrap him in his words.” OK, actually, it’s the Pharisees’ disciples, their seminarians and vicars, who come to Jesus. Because if I’m the Pharisees, I can think of no better way to torture my enemy then to afflict him with the know-it-all questions of my graduate students! No wonder St. Matthew tells us that Jesus senses their “malice!”

-Maybe it’s that malice Jesus is trying to unmask. And a political conversation is the perfect context for such a move. Because let’s be honest: political conversations have a way of bringing out the worst in us. Whether its that awkward Thanksgiving dinner argument, or the attempts to one-up each other on facebook, or the passionate rhetoric surrounding election season, or even an honest question about whether we should pay taxes to Caesar, political debate is rarely about politics itself. Maybe that’s why Jesus seems less interested in offering a political theory, and more intent on the people before him.

-If I’m honest, most of the time I enter into a political or even a religious conversation, I’m not out to listen. I’m out to win. I may not have riot police like the mayor, or armed Herodians like the Pharisees’ seminarians. But I have my own weapons: my ideologies and agendas. I have my fears, and insecurities, my own need for power and control, my own need to be noticed and to feel important. What if the real issue, which also lies at the heart of all political and religious conflict, is not merely the brutality of Caesar, but the darkness in every human heart? The fear that leads us to pay tribute to the Kingdom of the Lie?

-That’s why I feel that Jesus’ rebuke is actually a gift to these young, impressionable seminary students – and to all of us who seek to be His disciples. See, Jesus is unafraid to be unimpressed by their flattery. And, he is unafraid to speak the truth, harshly, in order to break the cycle of competition, fear, malice and manipulation that has been passed down from generation to generation. Such interventions can be nothing less than a Gift of healing from God, unmasking and exorcising the demonic systems that demonize us, and lead us to demonize others.

-Yet, Jesus is not merely against the Kingdom of the Lie. He also seeks to break the endless cycle of violence by pointing outside it, beyond it, to a more cosmic vision. Because Jesus does not occupy the temple like the Pharisees and scribes, hoping for a battle of word-wrangling and one-up-manship. He doesn’t occupy the temple like the Romans, with an Imperial program of peace won through the threat of violence. Jesus doesn’t even occupy the temple like the Wall Street protestors, claiming to represent “the other 99%” against the rich 1%.

-No, Jesus is the Incarnation of the very God who is worshipped in this temple. This Incarnation is God’s own occupation action, by which God re-claims not only a religious space, but the entire creation, the complete 100% of what God has made and loves. By which God comes to restore God’s image in every human being that God has created. By the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has initiated the ultimate subversion, the new creation. Christ comes to declare the deeper reality that, in giving to God that which is God’s, we no longer deal in the currency of tax dollars, political parties and propaganda, or personal agendas. Rather, this new creation is a Republic of Grace.

-New Creation is a truly radical revolution, getting to the very roots of who God is, and so who we are. A revolution, in which we are invited to lay down our arms, take off our riot gear, and set aside our fear. A revolution, taking up the currency of freedom given by the One who came as the servant to all, that all may be free to serve one another in true peace, under the true God whose justice is grace, and whose authority is love. It is a revolution, in which God cares far less about giving us some new political program, and more about making us into a new kind of people. A revolution, capable of creating a new politics. A revolution Dorothy Day called “a revolution of the heart.”

-I feel I caught a glimpse of this new kind of revolutionary politics, yesterday, on HFASS’ contemplative retreat. At one point, we were led down to a prayer labyrinth. If you’ve never seen one, a prayer labyrinth is basically a giant circle in which is contained a winding pathway that twists and turns its way towards a small space in the center. Its essentially a metaphor for the spiritual life, in which our path seems chaotic and unpredictable, yet, asks that we trust in the guidance of God to arrive at the heart of abundant life.

-I was one of the first to finish the labyrinth, and as I walked up the hill back towards camp, I turned around and was struck by what I saw below. The circular shape of the labyrinth resembled to me, in light of our Gospel, a kind of coin. And on that coin was not the image of Caesar, seeking to solidify his own security through inciting fear, competition and manipulation. Instead, I saw thirty fellow pilgrims, at various points on their own spiritual journeys, their pathways weaving in and out of one another’s. Like a kind of dance, or a magnificent, musical fugue. As paths crossed, I was struck by how often each party would move to the side for each other. There was no competition. Only mutual respect and service, cooperation and community, room for all, unified together in our beautiful diversity.

-Contemplating the image on the face of the coin of that labyrinth, I saw the face and the image of the Triune Troubadour, and the music she sang carried up the hillside, placing in me the insatiable desire to twirl, to dance, and to hope.

-In Christ, God has occupied creation, with dancing, with music, with the Gospel that all are God’s children, minted in God’s image. That the true grain of the universe is not violence and competition, but the crazy, unpredictable, merciful justice of grace. As the church, it is our great and only political agenda to be God’s street theatre, the vanguard of God’s occupation. To be healed by the truthful words of the Occupying One. And to go forth, like the Pharisees’ seminarians, not with malice, but in wonder, marveling in delight and in hope that thankfully, God is God, and Caesar is not. That in the Republic of Grace, our value is not tied to coins or taxes, to ideologies or opinions, but to the gold standard of the Creator’s image, and His Spirit, dwelling in our hearts. That in God, there is no “other 99%,” but only the 100%, beloved of God, and so given as gifts to one another. Amen.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cross-bloggination: Becoming a Church of the Cross

I was recently asked by the folks at the Fund for Theological Education to write a post about my experience at House for All Sinners and Saints, especially as it related to leadership and discernment of vocations within congregations. The post was published today on their website, which can be found here. Thanks to FTE for the amazing grant they recently gave to the HFASS community!