A story in which Jesus and three friends go for a hike.
The three friends are John and James and Peter. They are Jesus’ closest friends, hold oldest friends. Or at least they are his first friends since he was changed, since he came out of the Jordan’s waters and heard the voice, the voice that said to him and of him:
This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!
The four of them have been on the move ever since. Walking from place to place as Jesus tells stories and feeds people and heals people and casts out demons. Walking as others have joined them.
Today, they stand at the bottom of a mountain. And Jesus says:
Today, our walk is going to take us up.
And so they go. They start walking. This is how things are with Jesus. He does things right now and if you want in on the adventure you drop your nets – be your nets metaphorical or, in the case of these three, be they very wet and very real – and you go too.
Notwithstanding all of the walking that they have done, notwithstanding the great advantage that is being young, this hike is difficult. They climb up and up, breathing hard, the world getting more quiet around them as civilization recedes and, simultaneously, the world gets bigger around them: they can see more and farther with every step that they take up.
Maybe they have brought water with them and they stop from time to time to drink it, letting their speeding hearts slow for a moment or two, looking back down the mountain and out at the immensity of the horizon. Maybe as they drink they talk – about everything that happened to bring them to the mountain, about what its summit might be like and how far it might be still.
Or maybe they say little or nothing. Maybe this is a moment for which there are not words, in which any effort at small talk feels, well, too small on the immensity of the mountain. And so the friends get only a few words in before they decide to choose silence once more.
Those maybes done, the friends resume climbing. Up. Up. Up. Up past the tree line, the place where the vegetation stops and the rock and the wind begins. Up into the brightness of the sun, a sun that, even as it leaves you squinting, does not take your cold away.
Eventually, they make it to the summit. And there the four of them stand, panting and looking around in wonder.
They are alone, the four friends.
Centuries after this moment, an anthropologist will appear in a documentary in which he will explain that, for our ancestors, for people like James and John and Peter and Jesus and billions of others, the world was malleable and permeable. Malleable meaning that categories were not as rigid as maybe we think of them as being today. To look at a drawings an ancient cave is to discover images in which someone is both a human being and, say, ox. It was possible to be both at once. This both/andness was something that people understood and accepted as normal. Our ancestors had a way of being that, perhaps, we are rediscovering a little today when we speak of being fluid or non-binary. Our ancestors lived in a non-binary or fluid or malleable world.
Permeable probably has a complicated dictionary definition, but I’m going to give it a simple one: it means that God isn’t somewhere else, that heaven isn’t somewhere else. To live in a permeable world is to trip over miracles all the time. It is to go into your kitchen to make coffee and to encounter something shining with divinity as you do so. In a permeable world, a friend will tell you that they encountered a bush that was on fire but was not consumed and you will neither assume that they are nuts nor that they are speaking metaphorically. In a permeable world, someone will walk on the surface of a lake, will make a finite amount of food into an infinite amount of food, Jesus will die and yet will talk with you and eat with you.
(These things still happen, by the way. One of the privileges of doing this work is that people tell me things. And lots of folks to this day still have profound visions, have profound God sightings. It’s just that we’ve lost the vocabulary for talking about these experiences and we are justifiably afraid that if we share them out loud people will think that we are loopy or, maybe worse still, will dismiss our most holy encounters as trivialities, as stuff that we plain-old made up.)
They are alone, the four friends. Alone on a mountaintop in a malleable and a permeable world.
And Jesus, whom doctrine says is fully human and fully divine, suddenly embodies this malleability, this both/andness before John, James, and Peter. He stands before the three friends, still the person whom they know, but shining so bright that they can barely look at him. He has become an explosion, become the sun – not s-o-n but s-u-n. The three friends look at him through their fingers, squinting. And they notice this incredibly folksy thing. They notice that no one, no matter how good they are at bleaching, could make Jesus’ clothes dazzle the way that his clothes are dazzling right now.
And the permeability comes at the same time. Elijah and Moses, those ancient prophets, gone into heaven centuries ago, are there and talking with Jesus.
Can the three friends hear any of their conversation?
Peter feels like he has to say something, like he has do something to mark this moment. And so he blurts out:
I’ll build you houses! We can stay here forever!
He does not know what to say, for the three of them are terrified.
They may live in a malleable and a permeable world, but that doesn’t make this moment into no big deal. You and I live in a world in which thunder and lightning exist. And to see a lightning bolt land on the ground before you is still to have something big and primal get touched within your soul.
But the terror, the wonder, is not over. A cloud shows up. And in a moment of fearful symmetry, the voice that comes from it utters the very words same words from the Jordan:
This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!
And then the voice is gone. And Moses and Elijah are gone. And Jesus shines no more. Or no, that’s wrong. The three friends are able to look at Jesus again. And they realise that Jesus always shone. They just never saw it clearly before.
And that’s almost the end of the story. Except that there is this epilogue. The four of them go back down the mountain and, as they do, Jesus says:
Don’t tell anyone about this, okay?
Scholars have spilled a lot of ink over this. What does it mean, that Jesus wants this moment to be a secret? Maybe it has a really complicated explanation. But maybe it isn’t complicated at all. I wonder if seeing Jesus transfigured, seeing Jesus shine, isn’t something that you can be told about and understand. In order to understand, in order to integrate the shine of Jesus into your own life, you have to climb the mountain and see for yourself.
SERMON JANUARY 17, 2021, JOHN: CHAPTER 1, VERSUS 43-51, HONORING MARTIN LUTHER KING JR
Today I want to offer a reflection of my early life with a man I never met. I found him to be a follower of Jesus Christ. I was fascinated, inspired, confused and wanted to learn from him. I was in high school in the town I grew up in, Pecos, Texas. I was 16 years old. I heard for the first time about the work of Martin Luther King regarding civil rights. My family had purchased our first television in 1954 and I could both see and hear civil rights issues being talked about in our country. Especially around issues of school segregation. The Supreme Court had a land mark decision in the 1954 case that the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitional. The name of the case was “Brown vs The Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas”.
I will admit to being naïve on the subject of race. It only came to me over time that as a white person in the United States, I was privileged and white supremacy had a long history in our country. In my own small town of 10,000 people we had signs in restaurants that said “whites only”. At the Greyhound bus station there were separate restrooms and water fountains for “whites” and “blacks”. I asked my father about these concerns since as a well-respected attorney in Pecos. He said it was the law of the land handed down by the Supreme Court. Separate but equal meant separate schools for black and white people and there was to be no togetherness in social or religious settings. I can remember thinking at the time…I had no choice to be born white. A black person had no choice to be born black. We are all God’s children so why do we have to have discrimination? A question….I continue to ask and try to answer.
I was president of my junior and senior class in 1956 and 1957. Our school board accepted the ruling of the Supreme Court and decided to integrate our schools. I was amazed to discover that Pecos had a high school of 20 students that were black. My ignorance was such that I did not know that. The town became heated about the decision of the school board to integrate our school. My father was asked to run for the school board as a last minute write in candidate because he was segregationist. I was for integration so we had some very interesting talks. I learned a lot from him and I believe he learned a lot from me. We respected our different views and I have always respected my father. He was elected to the school board but never once punished me or degraded me for my own thoughts. Twenty students from the black high school joined our high school.
I was the manager of our football team and one of the black students was a talented end for the team who made many touchdowns. He became a hero. We would sit together on the bus to go to games and we became friends. We had a pregame meal at a local restaurant at 4:00 before our games. The restaurant was closed while our team was eating there. We entered the restaurant and the owner looked at Bubba, my friend, and said to him, “Bubba, you know you can’t eat in the restaurant. You go eat in the kitchen.” I tried to argue but Bubba did not want to argue and headed for the kitchen. I followed him and ate with him. I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. It was not right. So I grew up a little that night and that year.
Fast forward to 1968 at Grace Memorial in Portland. I was ordained a priest on January 10, 1968, here at Grace Memorial. Last Sunday was my 53rd anniversary of ordination. I worked two days a week for the Diocese of Oregon as City Missioner and four days a week as Curate at Grace Memorial. Some of us here remember the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968. The rector at the time was Duane Alvord and he and I spent many hours with black leaders trying to find our best responses for our churches and the city. As we know this conversation continues to this day.
I would stop for gas regularly at a Texaco Station on Broadway just at the entrance to the freeway. I had been ordained a short time. On the sidewalk there were several prostitutes walking on what was then Williams Avenue. As I was inspecting my car while getting gas, I heard a voice from the street, “Dick Toll is that you?” I turned to the voice and a black woman wearing a blond wig walked toward me. You can realize my surprise and wondering what in the world was going on. She came up to me and again called me by name. She said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” I said no I did not remember her and she said, “I was one of the black students who integrated Pecos High School 12 years ago.” She handed me her card with a name I did not recognize. We talked briefly and I asked her about her life style and coming to Portland. I will always remember her answer, “What is a black girl from Pecos, Texas, suppose to do to make a living?” She left to go back to the street and I left in my car wondering about the new kick in the gut I had received.
I offer this reflection because of the very fact that I look back on so much of our society that has been built on racism. We as a society have allowed our racism to enter into every aspect of our common life. Whether it be the way we treat the Native American people and still deny them their rights or the exclusion acts for Asians, Muslims, Japanese and of course our long history with slavery. We as individuals and as a society have allowed systemic racism to invade our lives. And we live in denial if we do not allow ourselves to see it and to change what we have become.
I read this publication from the Oregon Historical Society. It is a special issue about Oregon and white supremacy and resistance. It spells out in detail the way that systemic racism was built into the foundation of Oregon from it’s very foundation…the way we took land from the native Americans, the way the government would not allow people of color to own property, the laws that were reflective of the society we were building throughout our country. It took a man of the stature and vision of Martin Luther King Jr to confront our issues within our society that set us on a path of healing. But the wounds are deep and need our individual attention today.
Over the years I have learned so much from people of other cultures and observed the ways they have been discriminated against. I worked with Native Americans in the 1960 and help start the Native American Rehabilitation Center that is still in existence here in Portland. The motivation for it’s beginning was that our Native American brothers and sisters wanted to find a way to heal their additions in their own cultural way and not depend on the white man’s way. It worked and is working.
I assume you as and individual have felt punched in the gut the way I was as I watched injustices take place. And I assume you have been willing to step forward to change the situation of injustices in the work place, the neighborhood, the city government, and on, and on. My hope is the future will allow our responses more and more as individuals and communities.
We as a society have been honored by the lives of people like Martin Luther King Jr. He chose to follow Jesus just as we heard in the Gospel today when Jesus tells Phillip, “follow me”. One thing I have learned from my black brothers and sisters is the deep longing for the Gospel message to be shared in music and in song. The song I am going to sing was written by Thomas Dorsey, considered to be the father of gospel music. He wrote this song in the 1930’s after he lost his wife and son in childbirth. He closed himself off from the world as he grieved and gave us this beautiful hymn. It was sung by Mahalia Jackson at Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral in 1968. The name of the hymn is “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”.
Of all the stories that Jesus tells, there are few or maybe none that I find more confusing and more troubling than the one that we just heard. This is the story that is sometimes titled in Bibles: The Parable of the Talents. And I reckon that it troubles me so much because, here in the West, here in 2020, it is so, so easy to read it as an allegory – an allegory that functions as a celebration of individualism, of the wild accumulation of wealth, and of God’s love as something that you and I must earn. And indeed, an allegory for how God will punish us if we do not earn God’s love.
In other words, it is so easy to read this story as an allegory for a very particular, very Western, and very modern way of living your life.
Within this allegorical understanding, the guy with the money is clearly God.
The story goes like this:
Once upon a time, a CEO went on going on a long business trip. And he summoned three senior managers into his corner office, high, high up the in sky. To one manager he gave five billion dollars, to another two billion dollars, to a third one billion dollars.
The first senior manager took the five billion and bought Amazon stock. And he doubled his money. The second took his two billion and bought Home Depot stock. And he doubled his money. The third took his one billion and bought a term deposit. And his investment didn’t even keep up with inflation.
The third senior manager was a total loser.
One day, the CEO came back – the managers knew the time and the hour when the CEO would come back because the CEO’s personal assistant texted them ahead of time – and the CEO summoned the senior managers into his corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me five billion dollars and I made five billion dollars. Here is ten billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me two billion dollars and I made two billion dollars. Here is four billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. And then the third came forward. (Remember, in jokes and in parables, things happen three times: twice to establish the pattern, a third time to break it.)
Before the third senior manager handed over his money, he made a speech. He explained his actions. He said:
Boss, I know that you are a massive jerk. You take things that don’t belong to you. You’ll do anything to get rich, no matter how much your actions debase you and everyone around you. And because of that I am terrified of you. My knees knock when I am in your presence, I am actively working not to wet my pants right now.
Here’s your one billion dollars.
And the CEO replied:
You know that I take things that don’t belong to me, did you? You know that I will do anything to get rich, did you? Then you should have done like the other senior managers and invested my flipping money. I’m taking your one billion and giving it to the guy with ten billion!
Hey first senior manager! Hey second senior manager! Open the window of my corner office in the sky.
And they did so.
And now grab senior manager three’s legs! Let’s throw this senior manager three out and down, down, down onto the hard pavement below.
And they did so. And as the third manager’s screams receded and then abruptly ended, the CEO looked at senior manager one and senior manager two and he said:
Well. The rich get richer. And the poor get poorer.
The Word of the Lord.
What do we think about that? Via the CEO’s behavior, have we just witnessed the actions of God?
No. No, that cannot be the right reading of this story.
While God totally gives us gifts or talents and God delights when we live into them and we thrive, God does not make God’s love is in any way conditional on what we do with our gifts. God never responds to us by sending us to a place where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. You know that from scripture and from your every encounter with God.
Here’s the good news. Jesus agrees with you.
Here are a few clues.
First, remember that Jesus is telling this story to a group of folks who are living under occupation, most of whom are of modest financial means, many of whom live in poverty. Few or none of the people listening have any firsthand experience with investing, least of all with investing at the scale that Jesus talks about in this story. (There is considerable debate, by the way, as to how much a talent is worth in modern dollars. Some scholars reckon that a talent is equivalent to as much as 20 years wages. Regardless, it is a staggering amount of money.) So, none of these three servants or slaves in the story are going to be someone with whom the listeners identify. This story isn’t a story about them, it isn’t about whether they are trying hard enough in life. Unless you are absurdly wealthy, it probably isn’t a story about you.
Second, notice who gives the moral of the story. Often Jesus will tell us a parable and then, at the end, he will share a moral with us. But that doesn’t happen here. The wealthy man pronounced judgment on the third slave. And then the parable continues. And it is the wealthy man who says, For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The wealthy man isn’t God. The wealthy man is a wealthy man.
Third, Jesus constantly contrasts the Kingdom of God with violent human kingdoms. Jesus consistently says: God’s Kingdom isn’t like Caesar’s. Be not afraid. Do not worry. You don’t have to earn your way in. You aren’t going to get punished if you do it wrong. Remember just a few weeks ago the Parable of the Vineyard. The laggards, the latecomers get paid the same. Jesus tells us this persistently through his teaching. And he tells us most emphatically via the cross, whereby he refuses to respond to Empire’s violence with violence of his own. And notwithstanding his refusal to pick up a sword or a gun or to drop a bomb, he wins anyway. Love wins anyway.
In the resurrection, the Kingdom is victorious. And the only blood that is spilt is that of God’s.
The cross tells us this story ain’t an allegory, that it cannot be an allegory. And I wonder if what I talked about earlier – how this story leaves me confused and troubled – isn’t actually a deliberate choice by Jesus. I wonder if he is saying, through this tale, the same thing that he says when he declares that the love of money is the root of all evil. If you love money, this story says, you will end up doing evil things, things that leave you confused and troubled, things that leave you ashamed and hurt and that leave people around you ashamed and hurt.
Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that people fear you: don’t be like the boss. Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that you need to be afraid of your boss: don’t be like the servants.
Money’s a tool, sometimes a necessary one. But money is totally unworthy of your heart, of your fidelity, of your worship. So choose the Kingdom. Choose love. Be not afraid. Instead, be free.
 This sermon draws on the work of Sarah Dylan Breuer and Paul Nuechterlein.
Today is All Saints’ Day on the calendar. You have just listened to the Beatitudes which represents the teaching of Jesus as he spoke to the hearts of people…people that surrounded him on the Mount of Beatitudes at the edge of the Sea of Galilee.
I have visited this site in the Holy Land many times. It is always awe inspiring to look out on the Sea of Galilee and hear once again the words of Jesus. In my visits the most memorable was when I got up early at a hostel that I was staying at across the road from the Mt of Beatitudes. I arrived as the sun was coming up. And I was the only person there. Usually I have experienced hundreds of people with tourist groups. I found myself in a deep meditation while walking and meditated upon on the words of Jesus that have been a hallmark of the Gospel message for centuries. Teachings to live by…..Blessed are you! Teachings that people found meaningful to the point that history defines people who have followed in the foot steps of Jesus to be called “Saints” because of their exemplary lives…people who are good, kind, honest, patient in accepting Jesus into their lives.
You have offered names of those to be honored this day and we will lift them up in prayer.
I believe that today is a day that we remind ourselves where we come from. In the hustle and bustle of modern day life we often do not explore history in the lives of those who have given of themselves in their own times and generation. These persons who are known and unknown who are the saints within history. We need to capture these moments of the past that have provided some very special people who continue to speak to us today. My thoughts turn to Francis of Assisi who is a favorite saint.
But, we may forget he was a spoiled rich kid who grew up and went off to the crusades in the 13th Century. He was so distressed by the violence during his time in the crusades his effectiveness was realized when the Muslim Sultan of Egypt allowed his order of Franciscans to become the custodians of the Holy Land in 1217.
Well after his death, his supporters claimed the Holy Sites in the Holy Land and even until today make them available for pilgrims to visit. Franciscans remain on the front line in trying to keep Christians in the Holy Land. In the 1940’s, Christians were 18% of the population. Today, it is less than 1% and it continues to shrink.
I have stayed at their pilgrimage site at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and celebrated communion at a chapel that goes back to the Roman Empire. The followers of Francis still reflect the prayer of Saint Francis, “Make me a channel of your peace.” We are recipients of this wonderful human being and his relationship with the person of Jesus in his life.
When we look back into the lives of these individuals who have defined the meaning of Jesus Christ in their day and time, it helps us to find our way through the challenges of our own day. We do not spend enough time reflecting where we come from out of history and those people who in their own time confronted good and evil . Their choices are still resounding in our lives.
I have found over the years that moments stand out for me. What do I mean by that? And ahh hah moment, a sermon that I remember, a book that I read that clarifies for me an issue, a conversation that comes back to me.
When I was in seminary, I was struggling with my background of being raised in a culture in Texas that was quite literal and fundamental in its Christianity. I was caught up with issues of creation, evolution, science, and religion. Who were the saints I was suppose to listen to? What did they have to offer me?
One day a professor at the seminary was sharing the thoughts of Saint Augustine of Hppo….a 4th century bishop who was converted to Christianity in his early 30s. He is well documented in his writings and opened many doors to the people of his time. The professor pointed out his views of Creation. What we experience in the discovery and our learning of Creation and it’s mystery of what God has created and is ours to discover and relate to. We are given gifts to explore the meaning of Creation which is already there and is up to us to find it’s meaning. Scientists have always been a part of All Saints throughout history.
I have often been put off by the way science and religion have conflicted over the past few centuries. Much of the religious argument dismisses science. It gives a bad name for Christianity. When I was six years old, my appendix burst. My six year old life was in danger. I can still remember the pain of lying on the couch and screaming. My Father called the doctor who came by the house and sent me to the hospital. It was 1945 and penicillin was a new drug that saved my life. I received shots every four hours, night and day. Science and life.
I had open heart surgery in May with two values replaced. I put my trust in God, prayer, and my doctors and I thank God for the skill of those who have helped me through this period and the prayers of this parish. I do not remember a lot of what happened before and after surgery but one memory is very real. I was being wheeled into the operating room and I was semi-conscious as the surgery door opened. I thought to myself…I should say a prayer…so I tried to mumble through The Lord’s Prayer. As the doors opened to surgery, I got to the end of the prayer and instead of saying “Amen”, I said “Ut-Oh”. I woke up ten hours later in ICU looking at my wife, Elaine.
Again, God has given us Creation to live in, to explore, to choose our path of learning, to be All Saints.
I want to make a point today with our history as the Episcopal Church and All Saints. I believe it is true that the Book of Common Prayer has been second only to the Bible as the book that is most read by people. The Book of Common Prayer came into use during the reformation in the mid 1500’s. It was in English. Now it is in many languages throughout the world. Much of the Reformation issue was in offering the use of the Bible and worship in the language of the people. Individuals were burned at the stake because of this issue of language. The Bible and Prayer Book were given to us by many Saints throughout history. Most of them we have no idea who they were. I have here a Bible and Prayer Book from 1578. It is in English and is 30 years before the King James Bible. It is known as the “Breeches Bible” because in Genesis when Adam and Eve saw they were naked they put on their breeches. How English can you get?
The Prayer Book that is part of this book had only been in usages for about 30 years. It was written by people, some known and many unknown who were the saints of history. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 1540’s and 50’s was the chief architect of the Book of Common Prayer. The Catholic Queen Mary of England at that time refused to accept his recantations of not accepting the Pope. I stood on the spot where he was martyred in Oxford, England in 1556. Some of the prayers in our Prayer Book can be traced to the early 4th, 5th and 6th centuries of the Church.
The All Saints Collect for today is the same Collect in this Prayer Book of 1578. I wonder who was holding this Prayer Book and Bible as the Spanish Armada invaded England in 1580?
Let me encourage you to read through the Book of Common Prayer as you live through this pandemic and discover for yourself all the Saints, known and unknown, who gave us this book.
We honor ourselves on All Saints Day. Remember who we are as individuals. Each person within creation…you and me…we are unique to creation. There has never been and never will be anyone like me or you. We are unique. Each of us. Our gifts, our history, our experiences, our relationships, our decisions, our faults, and on and on. There has never been another person in the world like who we are and never will be because each of us is unique. I have a mantra I try to pray as I go through life. It helps to center me and to keep me focused, “God I am yours you have created me for yourself and for your purposes alone have I been created.”
It is within this perspective that we need to realize that we make a difference in the way Creation moves forward. It may be our special gifts, our relationships, our intellect,…it may be any number of things, but we make a difference. It may be our vote. I am often moved by the astronauts in space that have taken pictures of our planet and how small we are amidst the vastness of the universe. But like a grain of sand on the beach, we are part of a total that God had created. We are to nurture the saint within us and those who offer their sainthood to us… past and present.
One of the modern day people we honor in our own history is Mother Theresa from Calcutta in India. She is so well known as to her ministry with the poor, the sick, and the dying. What a unique and wonderful human being she was. A quote from her is well worth remembering on All Saints Day.
“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
The lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow Sunday by Sunday, continues to take us in a sequential way through the Gospel of Matthew. We have listened for a bunch of weeks running as Jesus has told us short stories. And it is apparent that these stories have alarmed at least some of the religious and civic authorities who are listening. Because they decide today that they need to push back – more than that, that they need to trap Jesus. And their traps looks like this: They are going to ask Jesus whether or not folks like him and his followers ought to pay tax to Rome.
This is a question that has no good answer, especially when it is asked in public. If Jesus says yes, that is an insult to all of his followers, to everyone who is enduring the oppression of empire. To say yes to paying tax under occupation and within a system in which tax collection is corrupt (tax collectors are something like the Ancient Near East’s answer to the Mafia) is for Jesus to announce that he is okay with being a collaborator and with participating in a crooked system.
To say no, however, is to insult empire itself. And that, as anyone who has endured life within a dictatorship can tell you, is to risk getting disappeared in the middle of the night. When you are living in East Germany or modern-day China or Israel under the boot of Rome, announcing that you will not be giving your money to government is something that you do at your peril.
This is a gotcha question, a deadly question.
But if this question phases Jesus, if his heart starts racing when he hears it, we see none of that on the outside. Jesus tells them to bring him a coin. If this scene were happening right now, maybe he would ask them to produce a twenty-dollar bill.
And he asks them:
Whose head is this?
Although folks who know ancient Greek tell us that the question might better be translated a little differently. They suggest that the question that Jesus is asking would more accurately be rendered:
Whose image is this?
That’s a significant distinction. Because if you are even passingly familiar with scripture, then and now, you know that to ask about someone’s image is to evoke the Book of Genesis:
God made them, male and female, in God’s image.
It is after making humanity that God says that everything that God made was very good.
Whose image is this?
And suddenly it is the folks asking seeking to trap Jesus who are in a dangerous place, who have no right answer. Because to answer that coin depicts someone made in the image of God is to announce that there is an authority far greater the emperor. And in a time when the emperor controls life and death, when Rome says that the Emperor is a god himself, to suggest that the emperor is subject to anyone or less powerful than anyone is to engage in a reckless act of subversion. But to deny to this is God’s image is to engage in sacrilege, it is to declare that there are places and people to whom the power of God does not reach.
Maybe there is a moment of excruciating, expectant silence as the authorities weigh their answer. Jesus is giving them a holy opportunity to offer a daring response. And the authorities – well, they are suddenly wondering why they began this conversation in the first place.
And then, after pausing forever, at last they speak. And because the fear of Empire has beaten down their theological imaginations, they answer Jesus’ question literally:
That is the emperor’s image.
And Jesus lowers the currency. Like a magician done with his trick, he hands it back to whoever leant it to him.
he says to the authorities,
I guess you’d better give it to the emperor. And give to God the things that are God’s.
The authorities are, the text says, amazed. Although gobsmacked might get closer. Do they leave with their tails between their legs? Or do they leave with a crack in the armour, with an opening to something beautiful and new?
Today, McLeod has discerned a call to be baptised. Normally, this would be an occasion for many people to gather to celebrate. But we can’t do that in pandemic: there are just a few of us here in the courtyard. But we are trusting that there are many more of you on the far side of the screen, that there we are surrounded by what Paul wonderfully calls so great a cloud of witnesses right now, not only in heaven but also on the internet.
As McLeod enters into the baptismal waters, Jesus us will ask you and me the same question that he asks of the authorities. Jesus will introduce us to McLeod and say:
Whose image is this?
And in the pause before we answer, Jesus will speak again. He will invite us to look around us. If you are here in the courtyard, look at the other people with you in this place. If you are home, maybe look out the window. Perhaps there is someone walking past your home. Maybe, if you don’t live alone, there is someone sitting beside you or working in your kitchen. Jesus says:
Whose image is this?
And again, Jesus will speak before we can answer. Jesus will show us the earth itself. The trees, the birds dancing across the arc of the sky, the ground beneath our feet. God’s first creation, what Augustine calls the first Bible. And Jesus will ask:
Whose image is this?
And then once more – I know that jokes and parables tend to feature things that happen three times, but Jesus is asking us a fourth time this morning – Jesus will show us that in the baptismal waters we can see our own reflection. He will point at that reflection and say:
Whose image is this?
How shall we answer? This question maybe isn’t frightening in the same way that it was in Jesus’ day: the secret police aren’t going to come get us if we answer in the wrong way. But I want to suggest that it remains a life and death question. And it remains a question to which this world, to which the powers and principalities, to which what Dorothy Day called the Dirty Rotten System invites us to give theologically unimaginative and dangerous answers.
This System invites us to look at our fellow human beings and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: That is a consumer. The primary value of this person, maybe the entire value of this person, is in their capacity to spend money, to buy stuff. And the world is very clear about who someone who no longer has money. That person is a loser.
The System invites us to look at creation itself and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: This is a resource to be used up. The primary value of this earth and the creatures upon it is the goods and the services that creation can yield to me.
The System invites us to look at ourselves reflected in the waters and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: Here is someone who is inadequate. My skin is not great, my tummy is too big, my hair is kind of sad. I am difficult to get along with. I may be unlovable.
Notice that all three of these answers are about money, about the love of money. Jesus is still holding a coin as he asks us about them.
And each of these answers to Jesus’ question is a God damn lie. Each of them is heresy, a rejection of what God has told us about our neighbour, about creation, about ourselves. We know that there is a better answer, a holier answer. We know what the answer is. So let’s offer it.
Now, I know that Episcopalians don’t like shouting stuff out, and I know that it is kind of weird to be at home and shouting stuff at the computer screen (although I actually do that fairly often) but I’m going to challenge us to see if we can put down out academic reserve a little bit and to shout out our answers this morning. The question is Whose image is this? And the answer is, This is the image of God!
Do you want to do a practice run? Whose image is this?
This is the image of God!
As McLeod gets ready to step into the waters of baptism, we look together at him. And Jesus asks:
Whose image is this?
This is the image of God!
We look around the courtyard at one another or out the window at our neighbour or at our family members or roommates, people whom we have maybe seen slightly too much of these past few months. Jesus show us each of them and asks:
Whose image is this?
This is the image of God!
We look at creation. The fragile wonder of it. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the ground which holds us up and to which, one day, we will return. And Jesus asks:
Whose image is this?
This is the image of God!
We look at ourselves. This one, for some of us, will be the hardest. Our hands. Our feet. Our lungs breathing in and out. Our faces. And Jesus asks:
Whose image is this?
This is the image of God!
If we take the answer to Jesus’ question even passingly seriously, it cannot help but change us. If the man lying on the street is the image of God, dare we ignore him? If the earth is the image of God, dare we abuse it? If you are the image of God, dare you speak to yourself with anything less than love? We are the Body of Christ. We are, somehow, not only followers of Jesus but participants in Jesus, members of Jesus. His story is our story. And remember what Jesus discovers in baptism. It is what you and I discover in baptism. We are the image of God. In the waters, the dove descends upon us, descends upon you. And the voice of the Father says, This is my child, the beloved. In whom I am well pleased.
We are in the middle of a run of stories by Jesus. The lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow across the year, is taking us Sunday by Sunday through the Gospel of Matthew as Jesus tells us one parable or one folk tale after another.
On September 13th (and I’m identifying each of Jesus’ stories by the titles that they are traditionally given) we heard the story called The Unforgiving Servant. On the 20th followed The Generous Vineyard Owner. September 27th gave us the tale of The Two Sons. Today we hear about The Wicked Tenants. And next week we’ll hear the story of The King’s Son’s Wedding.
These run of stories feature themes such as power, duty, obedience and disobedience, reversal of expectation, violence or even revenge. Maybe most of all, they feature the themes of forgiveness, of love, of new life.
And four of the five of stories begin in a way that gets totally lost in almost every English translation. In the original Greek, four of the five begin with a double identification of the first character whom we meet. (I’m drawing here, and throughout this sermon, on the wonderful scholarship of Paul Nuechterlein and Andrew Marr.)
The Unforgiving Servant tells us of a man, a king.
The Generous Vineyard Owner speaks of a man, a housemaster (or a landowner).
The Wicked Tenants, today, is the same: There was a man, a housemaster.
And next week, in The King’s Son’s Wedding, we’ll hear of a man, a king.
Do these double identifiers mean anything? Possibly not. Clearly most translators think that they don’t, as witnessed by their choice to collapse the double identifiers into a single one so that today, for instance, we simply here there was a landowner. And the translators may well be right, this may just be a manner of talking in Greek and, before that, in the Aramaic that Jesus and his friends spoke. Certainly, English is full of double phrases that add little or no meaning: An added bonus is the same thing as a bonus; a free gift is the same thing as a gift; twelve midnight, it turns out, is midnight.
But I wonder. There is so little superfluous information in scripture. A modern book will tell you how tall someone is and what they are wearing and what the weather is like because these things help you to envision the scene. Scripture generally doesn’t do that. If scripture tells you about these things it’s because the story won’t make sense without them: we hear about height when Zacchaeus meets Jesus because otherwise we won’t understand why Zacchaeus is climbing the tree; we hear about clothing in the story of Joseph because otherwise we won’t get the fullness of his brothers’ jealousy; we hear about weather in the calming of the storm because without it we won’t understand the danger that the disciples face.
There was a man, a landowner.
Why does Jesus give us this double identification?
Here’s a guess.
There is a long history or habit of reading the stories of Jesus as though they were straight-up allegories. This habit might be particularly intense in the time in which we now live. This way of looking at scripture is to understand it as something like a puzzle which it’s our job to decode. In the case of a parable, it’s our job to figure out which characters represent which people. Which characters are the stand ins for the Roman occupiers? Who are the stand ins for the religious authorities? Who is the stand in for God?
And to be clear, this reading isn’t wrong. I read the story of The Unforgiving Servant exactly this way a few weeks ago. But what it isn’t and mustn’t be is the only way of reading Jesus’ stories, the final way of reading Jesus’ stories. To do so to reduce them to a riddle with which, once solved, you need no longer wrestle. I have that parable figured out: check! No! The parables have a surplus of meanings. If we approach them with curiosity, they will always be new to us.
I want to suggest that the most common allegorical reading of the series of tales that we have been hearing is to cast the person with power in the stories – the king, the landowner, the housemaster – as God.
What if Jesus is cautioning us against that through his double identification?
There was a man, a landowner.
In other words, Jesus says, there was a landowner, and that landowner was a human being. Not God!
Let’s listen to the parable again.
Once upon a time there was a landowner. A landowner who, in case you were wondering, was a human being. This landowner made a vineyard. And boy, it was nice. There was a tasting room and everything. But business took the landowner to another country. And so he leased the vineyard to some tenants.
The tenants did not turn out to be awesome.
They didn’t pay their rent. And when the landowner sent his employees to collect, the tenants beat and killed the employees. The landowner sent more employees. And the tenants did the same thing. And so the landowner said: I know! I’ll send my son. They will be sure to respect my son. And so the landowner sent his only child.
But the tenants murdered him too.
And Jesus as he often does, ends the parable with a question. A question for everyone listening, a question you and me:
What will the landowner do to those tenants?
And his audience answers:
The landowner will come with an army and put the tenants to the worst death you can imagine.
Which is such a reasonable answer. The landowner gave these guys chance after chance. One envoy. A second envoy. His own son. Three strikes and you’re out. Violence is exactly what a reasonable person would reach for in a situation like this one.
And if God is the landowner, then we have just learned something about God. God is generous, maybe even generous to a fault – sending his son might have been a little reckless. But in the end if we cross God enough times: look out. God will crush us.
What do we think about that?
Here’s what I’d like us to notice. I’d like us to notice how this story about a man, a landowner contrasts with the story of the Bible and, in particular, with the story of Jesus.
God sends the prophets. And they are greeted with contempt and violence. God sends John the Baptist. And John is greeted with contempt and violence. God sends God’s only son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus. And Jesus is greeted with contempt and violence. Jesus is murdered by the state. But the one whom Jesus calls Father raises Jesus from the dead.
And what happens then?
Well, Jesus tortures and kills everyone who was ever mean to him, right? That’s how the story ends. Isn’t it?
I can’t see you through the screen, but I trust that you are shaking your heads right now.
That isn’t how the story ends.
In the resurrection, what Jesus does is what he did in his earthly life. He tells stories, he teaches, he feeds people.
In the resurrection, the violence of empire is defeated. Empire does its worst, and the power of God turns out to be greater. Greater in the sense that even death cannot hold back Jesus, cannot hold back God. And greater in the sense that God reveals the futility and brokenness of the state’s violence by refusing to participate in it. For Jesus to come back and kill everyone would, in a real way, be a vindication of empire – it would be an announcement that empire’s philosophy, empire’s way of being was right the whole time. You will know who is right, you will know who the winner is because their violence is greatest.
And God says: No. God says what one of his prophets, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King would famously said all those years later. You will see these words on lawn signs across Portland:
Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.
One there was a man, a landowner. And he behaved the way that human beings so often do. He responded to violence with violence. But not God. God responds to violence with resurrection.
Back when I was first working as a stagehand at the start if the 1990s, I had a colleague whose driver’s license said Michael but whom we all knew as Woody. I don’t know if Woody liked being called Woody, I don’t know if it was a name that he would have chosen for himself. In fact the evidence suggests that it was not preferred name.
The way that touring Rock and Roll shows work is that there is a core crew that travels with the band and then there is a local crew, people who live in the city where the band is playing and who supplement the travelling stagehands. And the two crews meet at the beginning of the day on the loading dock, everyone tells everyone else their names. Hi, I’m Martin. I’m Chris. I’m Sarah.
Woody and I were on the local crew. And at the start of the day, Woody would say, Hi, I’m Mike. And it didn’t matter. Within half an hour, everyone on the road crew was calling him Woody.
The lore, the rumour, is that the origin of Woody’s nickname was not a charitable one. That he was so called because his head was thick, like wood. If that’s true, then I understand why he wanted to be Mike. And I regret, I am sorry for not honouring the name that he wanted to be called.
In the Gospel, there is this guy named Simon. But somewhere along the way, folks start calling him Rocky or the Rock. In most English translations of the Bible he is called Peter. And because Peter is just a plain-old name in English, we can forget that this is a nickname, laden with meaning. Other languages don’t have that forgetting problem: if you are reading the New Testament in French, the name Pierre is also a noun that means rock. In Biblical Greek, Petros means rock. And in Aramaic, which Jesus and Simon speak to each other, Simon’s word/name is Kepha, which is sometime transliterated in English Bibles as Cephas. In other words, in the scene that we just heard, Jesus says to Simon:
You are Kepha. And on this kepha I will build my church.
Some English translations try to preserve that. They have Jesus say:
You are Rock. And on this rock I will build my church.
So here is the question. Much as Woody had a driver’s license that says Mike, the Rock has a driver’s license that says Simon. And I wonder: does the Rock feels the same as Woody? Does he wish that people would call him by his real name?
I am asking this question in seriousness. It may seem like it has a thoroughly obvious answer: today, so, so many churches are called St. Rock’s, St. Peter’s, and we know that the Rock went on to be the first Pope, the founder of the church. But I want to suggest that the answer might not be obvious in Jesus’ time. And might be especially unclear if we didn’t have the Gospel of Matthew. Because this is the only Gospel in which we hear Jesus use the name Rock in the way that we just heard him do.
Remember where else and how else we hear about rocks and stones in the Gospel. Rocks are things that you trip over, they are stumbling blocks. Rocks are things that are tied around your neck as punishment; here is the millstone. Rocks are things that you hurl at people as a means of execution; here is the woman who is caught in adultery. Rocks are things that you would never give to your child when the child wants bread. And – remember we heard this story just last month – rocky soil is where the seed doesn’t grow, where the word is received with enthusiasm but the hearer falls away as soon as hardship or persecution shows up. Given what we know about the Rock, about Peter, and how the story of the passion goes, it would be very easy to read that as a shot at him:
You are the Rock, the one without depth, the one who grabs the seed for a moment and then lets it go and runs when things get hard.
So, we can well imagine that in this moment when Jesus calls Simon Rock, that Simon’s shoulders slump. This is the nickname that he has been trying to shake forever. And he thought that, with Jesus and with his new friends, he had found a community that could love him as he is, that could honour his real name, that didn’t need make themselves feel bigger by tearing him down, that wouldn’t call him Rock.
You are Rock.
And Simon tries to be a good sport, he tries to keep on smiling. But you can see the pain in his eyes.
But then Jesus keeps on going. He does something that Simon totally doesn’t expect. He reinvents his nickname, he gives it a whole new meaning.
You are Rock. And on this rock I will build my church.
I imagine Simon standing there stunned. Wait a minute, he thinks to himself, wait a minute. I always thought that to be a rock is to be thick or dangerous or incapable of growing things. But Jesus is talking as though to be a rock is to be strong and solid and stable, to be that from which everything else rises.
What if? What if what Jesus does for Simon today is something that he also does for you and for me? Maybe there is a name that you have been carrying for a while, for years. It could be something as literal as an unchosen and unwelcome nickname. Or that name could be something a little more like a story, a story about how you are unlovable or a bumbler or always saying the wrong thing or never meeting the standard that everyone else meets, a story about your deep and secret wound.
And when you meet Jesus, he says your old name out loud. But unlike everyone else who has discovered your wound and named it, he uses your name not to hurt you but, rather, to set you free. He shows you how your hurt is what allows you to be empathetic, how your failure is what allows you to understand your neighbour, how your rejection is what allows you to love.
You are the Rock, says Jesus, and on this rock I will build my church.
Simon, who just a second ago felt like he had been punched in the guts, starts laughing out loud, laughing with joy.
Yes, he says. Yes! I’m the rock.
And all of his friends start laughing too, the way that friends do sometimes even when they don’t quite understand the joke. The slap their sides and howl and tears roll down their cheeks and one of them says:
Does anyone know why we’re laughing?
Maybe Jesus is thinking of this moment, of this sudden and free and joyous laughter, of the Rock, when he says:
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.