I preached this sermon on Sunday in North Adams, MA. It was based upon the morning’s gospel reading Matthew 22:15-22. I also made slight allusions to the morning’s psalter, Psalm 96.
Jesus’ answer to the tax question was laden with more meaning than appeared in that moment. His clever answer allowed him to evade arrest. It also encapsulated his intentions of an entire week. This exchange took place between his entry into Jerusalem the day before and his execution on a cross four days later.
Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. He also directly challenged the Roman Empire. It was a confrontation between two visions for the world. One vision was ruled by Caesar, which we know as the Empire. The other vision was ruled by God, also known as the realm of God, the kingdom of God, heaven on earth.
Jesus’ answer, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” distilled his ministry and his intention. The Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to arrest him. Jesus was too much trouble. He disrupted Roman peace. He agitated for the people, especially those who were poor or otherwise unable to share in the Empire’s wealth because the political and economic structures were organized against them.
Jesus’ death on a cross was a moment of triumph for the Empire. Crucifixion, execution on a cross, was a punishment meant to humiliate and literally break the criminal in order to demonstrate the state’s power. It was reserved for people who the state believed posed a threat. By executing Jesus, the state believed they put down the insurrection they feared. It was the apex of the Empire’s power.
As it was the apex, it also was the beginning of Empire’s end. When Jesus rose from the dead, the finality the Roman authorities believed they had on that Friday was demolished. The New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N. T. Wright wrote in his most recent book The Day the Revolution Began, “The death of Jesus launched the revolution; it got rid of the roadblock between the divine promises and the nations for whom they were intended. And it opened the way for the Spirit to be poured out to equip God’s people for their task.” In other words the ways of the Empire were over, albeit its death took hundreds of years, and was a call to God’s people to bring about peace and justice rooted in love.
The first century Palestinians did not see Jesus’ death as their path to eternal life. Jesus’ death signaled their liberation from a daily life where fear maintained peace and where scarcity organized its economy. Jesus’ death was a rejection of the wealthy increasing their wealth at the expense of the poor. Jesus’ death was the affirmation that love transforms the world and secures true peace not weapons of destruction. Jesus’ death meant that the justice for all people was not some dream, but could be a reality.
We cannot ignore, however, that Christianity is truly strange. The gospel, the good news, is the world overturned. The ways of this world are contrary to the ways of the kingdom of God. Think of it this way. How truly weird it is that we follow a God who was tortured, humiliated, and left to die in a most hideous execution? No other religion began in this manner.
I think we forget this. Whereas in Jesus’ day if we walked along the roads, we would see crosses on the hills. Some were empty. Some had bodies. The state invoked fear with those crosses to keep the peace. Today, we’ve tamed the cross; we wear it as jewelry.
Jesus’ answer then remains relevant today, perhaps even more than in first century Palestine. We need to see the cross for what it was, a brutal instrument of torture which became a sign of hope that another world is possible. Doing so becomes the opening to understanding that peace and justice rooted in radical inclusive love is real.
That’s what has sustained me over the past several months as I’ve thought about the world in which we live. I don’t want to convey that I’m depressed and without hope, but am I alone in thinking that something is really wrong in this nation? How is it that a gunman can spray bullets from a hotel window into a crowd without outrage from political leadership? Why is it that in the richest nation in the history of the world we tolerate more than 20% of our children living in poverty? What does it say about a nation where people hold a spaghetti supper fund raiser to pay for cancer treatments? Where else do we see political leadership pressing for tax relief for the very rich while the disparity between rich and poor grows wider every year? And it’s not just political. Is there logic to our celebrity culture where people, like the Kardashians, are famous for being famous? What drives the increased hostility towards Muslims and people of color and immigrants? Then, I think of opioid consumption. According to a United Nations study in 2015 our daily consumption per 1,000,000 people, the United States consumes 50,000 doses, whereas the second highest nation, Canada, consumes just over 30,000 doses. Maybe we are truly sick?
If there is a time when we need the ways of God, it’s now. We need that illogical, upside world of the gospel. We need to end our fears and put our faith in love remembering that perfect love casts out fear. We need to remember that God’s creation is abundance not scarcity. We need to trust that the bread and cup will do more to transform this world than a stockpile of weapons of violence and destruction. We must strive to create the common good. We must turn our inward gaze outward to end our self-centeredness. We have to stop celebrating wealth and power and embrace servanthood as true leadership. We can’t continue to measure wealth by how much we have. The cross tell us that we measure it by how much we give away.
In this world we hear a siren’s song. It beckons us. It is sweet music sung with voices caressing every note. Its words are promises, but they are false promises. They are promises for material riches and fame as the path to glory. They are promises that enable us to deny aging. They are promises that elixirs will relieve our ailments and suffering. They are promises that celebrate external beauty as our path to upward mobility. They are promises that we can remake ourselves because we’re not good enough as we are. They are promises that we have nothing to fear as we will be protected by the power and might of the state. They are promises that shield us from our mortality. It is a loud song that with its beauty overwhelms and intoxicates our senses. However, the promises in this song can disappear in an instant.
God sings too. Though an old song, today it may sound new. Though not quite as loud, it is the epitome of simple beauty. It is a quiet song with words reminding us to live generously and always giving thanks. It is a song about love’s transforming power and reassures us to trust love, especially in times of fear. It teaches us that the rewards for today may be greater if we wait until tomorrow. It promises that we don’t suffer alone and that our suffering can be redemptive. It promises that by our aging we grow wiser. It promises that we are fine just the way we are. It promises forgiveness. It promises eternal life. God sings a song of promise. Those promises are eternal and will give us the eternal peace and justice rooted in radical inclusive love that we all seek. Those promises are real.
We must listen for God’s song. We must follow it. We must learn it so we can sing it too. We will learn it in the church. We will learn it so we can sing it in the streets. We will sing it in places where hope is in short supply. We’ll sing it where our community needs a healing balm. We’ll sing it to tear down the walls of injustice. We’ll sing it because the world needs to hear a song of shalom. Friends, here in the church we sing this song. Let us sing this song together.