Sunday, October 16, 2011

God or Taxes?

Matthew 22.15-22


So now here we’ve come – right to the intersection where politics and religion meet. And again, what are the two things you are not supposed to talk about in polite company? Politics and religion. Yet today the very center of our faith, the basis of our whole religion is encountered with a highly charged political question when Jesus is asked: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Well, this certainly is not just any political question, but a question about something that colored the political discourse of our country for years now. It is a question about taxes. Taxes seem to be the one political issue that causes some of the most heated political debate to occur as we have a shared national history that literally began over a question of taxation.

And it continues to this day. One of the things I’ve seen that drives our public policy the most at the moment is the simple question: Will you raise taxes? Much of what drives our lawmakers this day is the pledge “I will not raise taxes.” A pledge that many of our lawmakers have taken in recent years. And what’s funny is that that pledge is a like a sword hanging by a small string over their heads ready to snap and slay anyone who would ever dare to consider raising taxes. The Pharisees and the Herodians in our reading for today are themselves seeking to place a sword on a string above Jesus’ head ready to snap at a moments notice if Jesus says “YES” or “NO.” But a funny thing happens as these people try to embroil Jesus into a debate over political ideals – He decides not to play their little game.

You see, what’s at the heart of much political debate is a process in which people are thrown into a discussion where ideas and the defense of those ideas is paramount to anything else in the discussion. So, rather than have a conversation about how to engage an issue in government and how to come up with a solution; politicians, the media, and protesters engage in fierce defense as to how their ideas are right and other’s ideas are wrong. So in the end, the ideas become what is important and not the problem or the issue which needs to be solved. And is that not where we err the most often in our life? Is that not our biggest sin? Do we not hold to our ideas above everything else to the point where those ideas and our pursuit of those ideas becomes the God we seek and defend through our actions?

That’s why Jesus really doesn’t concern himself with getting enmeshed into the sticky political debate. That’s why isn’t concerned with the question the Pharisees and the Herodians want him to get entangled in. Because, the question that Jesus is concerned with is the question: how are we going to relate to God; and, through that, how are we going to relate to one another? This question goes beyond and breaks us out of our self-absorption and reorients us upon God. For Jesus is not so much concerned with what people give to the Emperor. He is greatly concerned, however, with how people relate to God, because that relationship, and only that relationship has the ability to give us life and show us exactly where our life, everything we have, and our hope comes from. Only God, and not our own powers or own ideas, only God has the power to give us life. And here’s the thing! God gives it to us abundantly!

Moreover, God gives this gift of life to everyone else around us as we are all created in the image of God and given the command to care for all of creation and the things that live upon it as well. You see, our political convictions never abdicate us from the reality that we are all God’s good creation and that we are all given grace upon grace to live and share the love of God with those who are around us. Jesus doesn’t get enmeshed in the political debate, because he points us towards that which we should truly care about in our lives.

You see it is very simple. Our love for God is shown in our love for our neighbor. That is made very clear when Jesus gathers the disciples for that last supper together and tells them “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) These are the things with which we are to consider if we are truly to live out our identity as followers of Christ. Being a follower of Christ does not mean forcing your ideas upon others in society, rather it means having what we say and do come forth from the setting of our eyes upon the Lord who truly does have the power to give us life.

It is very simple, yet as we know, it can be very hard for us because we are not always able to discern what is our own ambition and what has sprung forth from setting our hearts and minds upon the God who alone gives us life. But that is why grace abounds. That is why we are promised the Holy Spirit in our lives to inspire us to faith in the one God who gives us life. My prayer is always that the Holy Spirit may guide us from ourselves and to God and those around us.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Praise to you, O Christ? --> Praise to you, O Christ!

Matthew 21:33-46


There are certainly times throughout the church year where we’ll get done reading the Gospel lesson for the day and it just feels weird to say the words “Praise to you, O Christ” in response. The thing is, those are usually the times when we’ve heard a reading from the gospel that is filled with condemnation against God’s people or a group of God’s people. It feels disjointed to proclaim thanks and praise to God when we hear words like, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Somehow those words don’t make me feel terribly safe, don’t make me feel terribly forgiven, don’t make me feel terribly loved.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it gain: I have never stood here in this pulpit and lied to you all. So when I say that God loves us and embraces us each all, I believe that message to my absolute core with every fibre of my being. So what then are we to do with this odd feeling we get when we say “Praise to you, O Christ” in response to a text that could make us feel like we have been raked over the coals? Well, for one thing, maybe we simply don’t feel like the message proclaimed by Christ is a message for us, because, surely God would not speak like that to a people as righteous as we are, right!? Yet even as I say those words, how can I not remember that Jesus is speaking to the righteous and Godly people of his day? This parable is a parable told specifically to the priests and elders, the leaders of the Jewish society! So to think that our righteousness and godliness saves us from these words being directed as us is folly. Moreover, as we take a closer look at this parable Jesus tells this day, can we not begin ourselves to identify with these wicked tenants?

It may not happen all the time in our life, and it may not be the way we generally view the world; but I wonder if there has been any time in your life where you could have possibly said to yourself, “I worked so hard to get to the place where I am at this day. I’ve put in long hours of study. I’ve been dutiful and conscientious with my time and money and not been frivolous. This life that I have now is mine, and I’ll not let anyone take it from me!” That very well may be true, but it does lose sight of some other truths along the way. No one has gotten where he or she is today all on your own. Family, friends, teachers, mentors have all helped us along the way, and if you are a Christian who believes that God the Father is indeed the creator of heaven and earth, the maker of that is, seen and unseen then you at the very least owe some kind of debt or gratitude to the one who has given you your very life!

And this is exactly what we see going on in this parable today. This landowner is the one who planted the vineyard and did everything necessary for it to produce fruit. Yet the tenants want to claim all of the fruit as their own. So the great sin committed in this parable is not so much that these tenants have beaten and killed everyone whom the landowner has sent to collect the harvest, as it is the profound foolishness that they thought that they could keep the whole harvest and then the inheritance for themselves. And in seeing that, the elders and the priests proclaim themselves a harsh judgment upon those wicked tenants.

So if we are like the elders, the chief priests, and these wicked tenants from the tale, what is the hope for us especially after this Word have fallen on us and crushed us? The hope lies not in what we can do to change God’s mind about this judgment. It lies in how God comes to the earth and acts. Again, look at the parable. When the landowner first heard word that his servants were beaten, stoned and killed, how does he respond? He sends more servants! And when that doesn’t work, he sends his very own son alone. If this landowner is indeed a representation of how God acts within the world, then I think we can see clearly that God acts, not in a way that brings destruction against these wicked tenants, but in a way where God continually seeks us out and seeks to bring us back into community!

Furthermore, let’s not forget where in the Gospel of Matthew this parable comes. This comes near the end of the Gospel, as Jesus has begun teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, before he is betrayed, tried and executed at the hands of Pontius Pilate. This parable comes to us as Jesus is in the very midst of going to the cross for our sins to reveal to us that our God is a God who gives up everything so that we may indeed see that we are forgiven and freed from our sins and death. This parable comes in the midst of the very thing that makes all of what we proclaim here to be GOOD NEWS!! And that is where our hope lies: In Jesus Christ our Lord.

There’s a song you may or may not know very well, but it is a song that I have gotten to know well over the years. Its lyrics come from a very early document that strove to teach the earliest Christians the Christian life. “As the grains of wheat, once scattered on the hill, are gathered into one to become our bread. So may all your people, from all the ends of earth, be gathered into one in you.” There are definitely times when it just may feel like we have been dashed, broken and scattered upon God’s judgment, but God does not leave us there. God seeks to gather us up, to gather us in, so that we indeed can brought into that warm embrace which holds us all even as we are sinners deserving death. And that why in the end, as much as this gospel reading crushes me this day, I can boldly say, “Praise to you, O Christ.”