Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

October 22, 2017 image

Lessons:

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

When I visit with people in their homes, in the hospital, at coffee shops, on the street, or even here at church, there are certain subjects that come up over and over, certain questions that come up time and again. One of the biggest questions or themes right now has to do with maintaining hope.

Here is this stream of news – a stream of mostly bad news – flying into our homes via the newspaper, via the TV, via the radio, via social media. And it’s overwhelming. Here is another natural disaster, here is another shooting, here are nations with nuclear bombs trading insults like a couple of kids raging in the schoolyard (You’re a loser! No, you’re a loser!), here are real questions about whether our neighbours can expect to have health insurance this time next year.

What do you do with all of that?

One possibility is to join in with the rage, to join in with the frenzy. Twitter and talk radio alike offer us endless opportunities to yell at our fellow citizens, to throw barbs that prove to the world our cleverness and our ideological purity. Another possibility is to engage in denial and avoidance and self-numbing, to respond to the reality of suffering and injustice with booze, with cupcakes, with shopping, with binging on Netflix, all the while shouting, “La, la, la! I can’t hear you!”

In many cases, we oscillate between the two, moving back and forth from self-congratulatory rage to self-soothing numbness, both of which leave us feeling equally isolated and worn down.

And so the question that comes up in my visits with folks, the question that we ask one another is:

Is there another way? Is there a different choice, a better choice, a more hopeful choice, a holier choice available to us?

Well, let’s go check in with Jesus and then come back to that question.

Jesus is teaching and healing and telling stories when this group of people comes up to him and, as Matthew puts it, tries to entrap him. These folks are coming at Jesus with a question designed to throw him off balance:

Is it lawful, they ask, to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

This is a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” kind of question. If Jesus says “yes,” then he is betraying his people, he is collaborating with the occupying forces. If he says “no,” then he is defying the emperor and risking the violence that comes with that.

Jesus asks for a coin, holds it up, and as he so often does, he responds with a question of his own. The translation that we read this morning renders it this way:

Whose head is this? And whose title?

The inquisitors respond: “The Emperor.” And what Jesus says in response is one of his most famous lines. Many of us know it best via the King James Translation:

Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

Now, over the years I have often heard Jesus’ words explained as an entreaty to good citizenship and to good church membership. “Render unto Caesar,” means pay your taxes, it means, “Render unto Uncle Sam.” This is the responsible and orderly thing to do. Similarly, “Render unto God” – well, we are in the middle of a financial stewardship campaign – so that means make a tithe to the church.

Amen!

Actually, let’s have a little more. While the responsible citizen/responsible steward interpretation of this passage is a defensible reading, and while maybe it is a good one, I want to wonder with you if there is another reading possible, a reading that has something to teach us about hope in a divided and a stressed-out age.

I want to notice with you that, in other translations of this passage, when Jesus holds us the coin to the ones who are cross-examining him, he asks not, “Whose head is this?” but rather, “Whose image is this?” Indeed, while a coin tends to have nothing more than a profile on it and, thus, you’d figure that the word “head” would make the most sense, a good number of scholars argue that “image” is the more defensible translation.

That one subtle change in wording changes Jesus’ question in a big way.

Because for Jesus’ followers and for the ones to whom he poses this question and for you and me who read the Bible today, the word “image” immediately evokes…

The Book of Genesis:

So God created humankind in God’s image,

in the image of God, God created them;

male and female God created them.[1]

All of a sudden, this is a serious theological question.

Whose image is this?

Amazingly, Jesus holds up the image of the one who oppresses his people – the one who oppresses him, the one who oppresses his friends, the one who oppresses even the critics who ask him this question; everyone in this conversation is living under occupation, everyone here is living with the Emperor’s brutality – and he invites all of them to see the face of God in their oppressor. To be clear, he invites them not to understand the Emperor in some kind of Roman cult way, where the Emperor more or less equals God, kind of like a modern celebrity, but in a way deeper and way harder way in which they see the genuine spark of the Divine in the Emperor, the same spark that is in themselves.

This is a staggering invitation that Jesus extends.

And like you and me most of the time, his critics can’t or won’t say “yes” to it.

So they answer him literally: “Yeah, that’s the emperor.”

And so Jesus says: Okay. If you are going to subdivide the world in that fashion, a fashion in which you look at some places and some people and say, “God is somewhere else,” then Okay. Here’s an answer that makes sense with a bifurcated or subdivided world. Give to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor: give to God what is God’s.

And – again like you and me a lot of the time – Jesus critics go away confused and amazed. They go away haunted by the sense that they have just missed something big.

It doesn’t have to be that way. They don’t have to walk away from Jesus having missed the point. We don’t have to walk away from Jesus having missed the point.

I just read Brené Brown’s new book, Braving the Wilderness. Brown is a researcher at the University of Texas, she is likely most famous for her work on shame and vulnerability, but in many ways she writes and talks like a theologian or even a mystic. (Maybe there’s a clue to that in the title: to my ear, Braving the Wilderness can’t help but evoke the stories of the Bible.) And Brown says that, in her research, she has found that people who know joy and know meaningful connection in this life are the ones who have, as she puts it, zoomed in.

To zoom in is to focus on real world relationships with real people, including people who challenge us and confuse us and maybe even frighten us. To zoom in is to talk to and listen to the homeless guy outside of Lloyd Center, to the guy with the massive and slightly intimidating beard at the coffee shop, to talk to your uncle or your neighbour whose political opinions and lawn signs strike you as strange and maybe even unhinged.

And then after inviting us to zoom in, Brown says something amazing. She says:

It’s hard to hate close up.

I think that Brown is saying much the same thing as Jesus today. Jesus is saying: Get close enough to your neighbour to see Divinity, get close enough to see the image of God. The image of God isn’t somewhere else. God isn’t somewhere else. God is right here, if we are willing to look.[2]

Let’s go back to our question. Is there a more hopeful way of being in the world? A way that is neither rage nor numbness?

Yes.

But it’s hard. It’s hard because it means getting close enough to another to give up our easy stereotypes about them. Actual human contact will not allow us to sustain the comfortable and lazy story that “All conservatives are like X” or “All lefties are like Y.” These stories are seductive idols, and we have to decide whether or not we are willing to give them up.

I believe that giving them up is worth it. I believe that zooming in is worth it. It’s worth it because it makes for a better world. And it’s worth it because it gives you and me a lighter heart, a more hopeful heart. You may not be able to see the image of the Divine in Caesar right away – doing that is Varsity Level discipleship – but zooming in will transform you.

Zoom in by limiting your diet of that which is zoomed out: the Evening News and Talk Radio and Twitter are designed to get us wound up and angry and afraid. I’m not saying to bury your head in the sand, to engage in denial. Zooming in is not numbing. I am saying go easy on the screens and other electronics, the heavy use of which leaves us agitated and anxious and depressed.

Zoom in by praying, by being mindful, by allowing quiet into your life. Since the Catechumenate last spring, I have found that I am falling more and more often into the prayer that is neither petition nor argument nor praise but, rather, is just breath. This is the Jesus prayer: I breathe in while internally saying the words, Lord, Jesus Christ. And breathe out saying, Have mercy on me. It keeps my mind, for at least a moment, from being somewhere else. It keeps me here.

And then zoom in by listening – really listening – to those whom you struggle to understand and struggle to like. Zoom in to those folks in real life, not online, not on the TV. Zoom in close enough to see the pores in their hands, to see the spark of Divinity that you and they share.

If we zoom in like this for long and deliberately enough, it will change us. It will lead us into hope. It might even lead us to a place in which we will meet Jesus. A place in which Jesus will hold up a coin or a photograph. Here is a picture of someone who has hurt you or disappointed you profoundly. Jesus will show you the coin or the photograph and he will ask:

Whose image is this?

And you just may surprise yourself by saying in response:

Oh my God.


[1] Genesis 1:27.

[2] When I gave this sermon, I added a reflection here about James and Deborah Fallows – although I am embarrassed to confess that I made the twin errors of forgetting to mention Deborah and of referring to James as James Parker! You may find out about their work, here.