Wednesday, October 21, 2020

God and the Emperor

Congressman John Lewis quote and mug shot on our street.

This is a guest post from our pastor, the Rev. Jenelle Holmes, from her sermon of October 18, 2020 to Ormewood Church over Zoom. Used by permission.

Then the Pharisees plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, [asking] “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  (See full text, Matthew 25:15-22, NRSV.)

As we inch closer to the election, any scripture that mentions anything political is bound to hit harder. This particular story about Jesus has been used as a political defense throughout history. It’s been used to defend a separation of church and state: give to the emperor, king, or president what is theirs and to God what is God’s. It’s been used to bolster the defense of high taxation when people start to grumble. It’s been used to support the argument that Christians must submit to the powers of government, just like they submit to the powers of God.

As you can tell—it is truly a very useful story for people in power.

However, before you use this passage in these ways you need to know exactly what was going on between the Herodians, the Pharisees, and Jesus.

This story in the book of Matthew happens in the dead center of Holy Week. Jesus has entered Jerusalem triumphantly on a donkey, thrown out the money changers, and offered some radical teachings that challenge those in power. All of this is leading up to the Friday of Jesus’ crucifixion. In the meantime, the religious leaders are closing in on Jesus.

And the identity of the different leaders play a really important role in understanding Jesus’ words. The Pharisees must be really desperate to get rid of Jesus because they are partnering with the Herodians, their enemies. The Pharisees are religious rule followers. They want to do their religion correctly. The Herodians, on the other hand, are the region’s ruling people for the Roman empire and have been known to make Jewish rule-following tough.

Case in point: the Jewish folks do not want to own, use, or touch the denarius coin used for the tax to Caesar. This coin not only has a graven image on it (a religious no-no), it also reads “Caesar is the son of God.” Well, the tax that the Herodians collect is exactly one denarius--so the Jewish folks HAVE to touch them.

And now the ambush. After a little false flattery the Pharisees ask Jesus a trick question: Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

Trick question. First, revisit what you now know about the denarius. If Jesus says yes, we should pay the tax, the Jews would feel betrayed by Jesus. They would claim Jesus is siding with the empire that forces them to break their religious laws. But if Jesus says that Jews should not pay the tax because of religious reasons, he is a traitor to the empire and in very deep trouble with the Herodians.

It’s a trick question. The answers of yes or no will land him in hot water either way.

But Jesus musters a rather clever response: Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Now, to the non-Jewish listener, this is a decent and satisfactory answer. The emperor gets his money and the people get their God. The Herodians most likely see this as a compromise between the state and the church, a binary of sorts that suits them just fine.

But, to the first-century Jewish listener, especially a Pharisee, there would have been no binary in this answer. Jesus answered this question in just as tricky a way as it was asked. Jesus’ final statement is “to God the things that are God’s.” Do you know what the Bible says are “God’s things?” ALL OF IT.

In fact, Psalm 24, which was used at the entrance to the temple, starts like this: The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. No Pharisee would have missed Jesus’ meaning when he says we should “Give to God the things that are God’s.” All things are God’s--even that denarius.

So while the Herodians see a nice division of labor in Jesus’ response, so too do the Pharisees see his play on words and cannot condemn him.

All things are God’s things.

And for us in 2020 this offers some insight and perhaps comfort.

In a political time like ours, where it’s easy to see people dividing up their lives based on power and political party, it is all the more important to remember that all that we have and all that we are, are ultimately to live in and grow out of the love of God. There is no binary where Christians get to divide some of our priorities to the state and some to God. That type of quarantine does not exist.

As my friend Rev. Dr. Richard Floyd says, “we only give to Caesar what can be done as a faithful service to God.” We only give to our government, to our communities, what can be done as a faithful service to God. God is our first loyalty and our first calling. In what is perhaps our most momentous and divisive election in the history of our nation, we as Christians are called to only give to Caesar what can be done as a faithful service to God. There is no part of our lives that can be lived outside of the scope of God’s reign. All things are God’s things.

And while saying that all things are God’s things is an exhortation to live a certain way, it is also a declaration of comfort. It is a declaration that God’s love knows no bounds. The Heidelberg Catechism proclaimed this comfort long ago: What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.

When you feel pulled in different directions, disappointed in the loyalties of others or maybe even yourself, when you are exhausted by all the graven images being tossed around, know that in the end you can rest in the comfort that your life belongs to God. The loyalties on earth cannot tear you apart, you are made whole and wholly made by and for God.

 

Copyright © 2020 by Rev. Jenelle Holmes. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author, venue (Ormewood Church, Atlanta) and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Forgiveness and Neighborliness

Our neighbor Mary took this slip from
her rosebush and rooted it for us.
Reminds me of The Little Prince.

In recent weeks I’ve been writing about the relationship of community and compassion. Last week I summed up my post, “Loving our neighbors as ourselves requires first recognizing them as neighbors.”  That post also explained the role of confrontation on behalf of our neighbors. This post from October 22, 2014 talks about how forgiveness plays into neighborliness.

I recite the Lord’s Prayer daily, and often the most challenging phrase for me is the second part of “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Though I’ve received everything I have from a generous and gracious God, it’s hard to let go of grudges and wrongs and the feeling that others owe me something or that somehow I have unfairly missed out.

Or if I pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I think about how often I impinge on God’s territory by profaning the sacred, by judging or pre-judging others, by invading the space of one of God’s creatures, by polluting God’s property: earth, water, and air; or by playing God—a role which, in all modesty, I play rather well. 

To the poor who followed Jesus, “forgive us our debts,” must’ve sounded pretty good. It sounds pretty good to us today, weighed down as we are with loans, credit cards, church pledges, expectations from elderly parents or children of any age or our beloved pets, not to mention Comcast bills.

To the sinners who followed Jesus, “forgive us our trespasses” or “sins” must’ve sounded pretty good. It also sounds pretty good to us today, burdened by moral failings, hurt we’ve inflicted on those we love most, toes we’ve stepped on or boundaries we’ve crossed, injustice we’ve ignored.

Thank God, there’s a lot of forgiveness in the Bible, and, according to Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann, longtime oracle of Columbia Theological Seminary, forgiveness may involve money, land, power, politics, morality, and religious pretensions.

Religious scruples are what the late-converted apostle Paul often addressed. Paul when he was Saul was a Torah fundamentalist who followed every jot and tittle of the Law of Moses, not simply the Ten Commandments on which it’s based, but all the interpretations, applications, court rulings, and explications of Mosaic Law.

As we know from our own Christian tradition, no one can claim the moral high ground better than a self-righteous legalist, traditionalist, or fundamentalist. As an aside, Brueggemann also points out that no one can claim the moral high ground better than a self-righteous liberal, progressive, non-literalist such as myself. All of us tend to equate God’s views with our own, what Brueggemann calls “the cunning little secret of certitude.”

And that’s the tension in the early church—legalists wanting other Christians to follow the Laws of Moses, including dietary restrictions and Sabbath observance, and others who experience freedom in Christ as to such spiritual beliefs and practices. Paul comes down on the side of freedom in Christ, but urges all Christians to respect and regard one another’s positions. Paul is truly a recovered fundamentalist, but doesn’t twist others’ arms to come to 12-step meetings of Legalists Anonymous.

“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Paul rhetorically questions the Romans, and then observes, “It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Christians have entered into a covenant with Jesus and with one another that requires the interweaving of our lives, beliefs, and practices. Every strand is needed to create the fabric of our spiritual community, one that hopefully reflects Jesus’ meaning for our neighborhood and for the world.

Discussing the Ten Commandments in his book of essays, The Covenanted Self, Brueggemann affirms that the first three commandments about Yahweh give rise to the other seven, which all have to do with living in community, being good neighbors, and loving the neighbor as oneself.

In awe of God, we are called to, in a sense, privilege the neighbor to be truly neighborly and faithful to God. We are to consider their needs, their beliefs, their practices above our own needs, beliefs, and practices. It’s like what is said about marriage, each partner must give 150%. 50% doesn’t cut it, not even 100%. But if we strive to give 150% we are more likely to make a marriage or a spiritual community work.

That requires forgiveness—forgiving that the other is not all we expected, forgiving mistakes and ignorance and insensitivity, forgiving wrongs and inabilities and limitations. And forgiving ourselves these things as well. We are not perfect people. We are forgiven people.

Our model is Jesus, of whom our Christian tradition says that he emptied himself to be a servant. Jesus emptied himself into the neighbor, Brueggemann asserts, and urges us to “imagine that neighborliness is more important than good economics or good politics or good morality or good orthodoxy.” While accepting that challenge, I would add that truly good economics, politics, morality, or orthodoxy must be based in neighborliness.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of a woman who invoked the name of the Buddha hundreds of times a day for ten years, but “was still filled with anger and irritation.” Noticing this over the years, a neighbor knocked on her door and called to her. Annoyed, she struck her meditation bell hard to make it clear she was chanting. The neighbor called again and again, and finally the woman shouted, “Can’t you see I’m invoking the name of the Buddha? Why are you bothering me now?”

The neighbor responded, “I only called your name twelve times, and look at how angry you have become. Imagine how angry the Buddha must be after you have been calling his name for ten years!”

 

Related posts:

Recovering Compassion

Compassion and Community

Donations to Progressive Christian Reflections may be given safely by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Compassion and "Good Trouble"


I’ve continued and now completed reading Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrison, and Henri Nouwen. Like my post about the medieval Christian classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, I find myself wanting to simply list some of the outstanding insights of these three Catholic authors who collaborated on this 1982 book.

One insight that startled me in my “well-deserved” retirement is this: “Are we really servants when we can become masters again once we think we have done our part or made our contribution?”

There’s a part of me that wants to conclude “I’ve done my part.” Nearly 40 pages later I am brought up short by this truth: “As the years go by, familiar images and ideas are often pushed out of place. Ways of thinking, which for many years helped us to understand our world, come under criticism and are called old-fashioned and conservative.”

Between these two observations the authors discuss the role of “voluntary displacement” in living a compassionate life, as Jesus did: “He did not think equality with God as a thing to be held onto, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…” (See Philippians 2:6-7).

Now, we can theologically dither over this early understanding of Jesus’ nature, but let’s take it as a metaphor of God letting go of everything God-like to enter our world and become God-with-us. In an earlier post I explained the authors’ belief that compassion first requires community—sensed, actual, and/or geographical. In this early Christian confession of faith, the apostle Paul is illustrating how Christians are to be in community, “in humility regard[ing] others as better than yourselves.” (Phil 2:3)

I thought of entitling this post, “Compassion and ‘Voluntary Displacement,’” but doubted that would attract readers. Our late Congressman John Lewis’s understanding of “good trouble,” that is, protesting injustice, has a far richer ring to it.

From Compassion:

We cannot suffer with the poor when we are unwilling to confront those persons and systems that cause  poverty. We cannot set the captives free when we do not want to confront those who carry the keys. We cannot profess our solidarity with those who are oppressed when we are unwilling to confront the oppressor. Compassion without confrontation fades quickly into fruitless sentimental commiseration (p124).

Saying “no” to evil and destruction in the awareness that they dwell in our own heart is a humble “no.” When we say “no” with humility, this “no” is also a call for our own conversion (p125).

From first grade to ninth grade, I attended a Christian school where my mother taught first grade for thirty years. Each classroom was assigned a missionary for correspondence and contributions, a kind of “voluntary displacement” that took us out of our privileged and largely white American world. When the missionaries came back to the United States on furloughs, they would regale us with tales of their travels and work. As much as I enjoyed those stories, I prayed to God that I would not be called to the foreign mission field—I didn’t want to eat beetles or have a dirt floor. That was a voluntary displacement I did not want!

But I was given a different kind of mission field—an involuntary displacement, so to speak: being gay! I guess you could say my “voluntary displacement” was being open about it and becoming an activist and author.

Right now you and I have been given another involuntary displacement, coping with a worldwide pandemic. And those of us who are white have heard a call to voluntary displacement as we recognize our white privilege (yes, again!) and welcome Black Lives Matter.

Around the world, those who colonized or enslaved, infected or exploited other peoples face involuntary displacement as we come to appreciate their lives, their customs, their suffering, our sins and our privilege. We may form the communities the authors of Compassion affirm are the prerequisite for compassion, Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.”

Loving our neighbors as ourselves requires first recognizing them as neighbors, members of our communities, residents of our countries, and fellow citizens of God’s Commonwealth.

A beloved LGBTQI activist giant died last week. Co-authored with Letha Scanzoni, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s signature book, one of the earliest of our movement, raised the question, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?” Thanks be to God that so many people throughout the world are finally answering “yes”!

The question “who is my neighbor?” asked of Jesus came from someone possibly hoping to limit the possibilities, and so Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, a member of a hated “foreign” “mixed” race of a different faith who proved redemptive for a victim of violence.

 Jesus thereby teaches the universality of our neighborhood.


Related posts:

Recovering Compassion

Compassion and Community

Thanks to a reader who informed me the above image is of the sign board outside the United Methodist Church’s general board of church and society building in Washington DC, across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court building. As I recall, other denominations also have offices in that building.

Donations to Progressive Christian Reflections may be given safely by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Leader I'd Like to Have


In thanksgiving for the leadership of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 

                                                            because I have been anointed

to bring good news to the poor,

to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to those without vision,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

I would not like a leader so presumptuous as to say this when proclaiming her or his candidacy, nor giving an inaugural speech. Only Isaiah and Jesus could get away with that, in my book.

But I would like a leader who repeated this privately as a prayer at the beginning of every day in office, and before every meeting and every decision. It’s good for leaders to be reminded, not just of their prophetic and pastoral roles, but of their responsibility to do what’s right and best.

Note that Jesus left off God’s vengeance from Isaiah’s declaration, a sign not only of good editing, but of good politics. We’ve had too much vengeance and not enough favor from our politicians, as well as those who provide political commentary. True of religious leaders as well.

Of course only Jesus could dare to tell his listeners that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Or maybe these words reflect the later judgment of his followers. Only history can vindicate any leader’s judgment, so humility should be expected. Over my six and a half decades I have witnessed leaders with messianic pretensions fail even their avid fans. And here I mean leaders of every stripe: political, religious, moral, economic, you name it.

A similar humility is called for in the electorate. Our leaders reflect our own civic harmony or our own civic disarray. In reflecting on every candidate for office and every issue on the ballot, we may remind ourselves of our limited perspectives and grasp, seeking wisdom from our deepest thinkers and most experienced practitioners, not just our loudest and most commonly available opinionators. Above all, we must be guided by the compassion proclaimed in every faith and by many philosophies.

We too best begin every Election Day prayerfully meditating on the words of Isaiah read approvingly by Jesus so long ago:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because I have been anointed

to bring good news to the poor,

to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to those without vision,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.


Today and last Wednesday I am revisiting two posts relevant to the upcoming U.S. elections. This post appeared on Nov. 2, 2016. 

Donations to Progressive Christian Reflections may be given safely by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.