Saturday, October 21, 2017

God and Caesar: Struggling in America

Augustus Caesar
 Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

It isn’t possible to erect a whole theology based on one little incident in Jesus’ life. So that’s not what I want even faintly to suggest. But there are few passages of scripture that are quite so timely as the story ending in Jesus’ pronouncement, “Render to Caesar (give to the emperor) the things that are Caesar’s (the emperor’s) and to God the things that are God’s.

It is pretty clear from the context in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all of whom tell pretty much the same story, that the purpose it serves is to illustrate how the forces of power were out to trap Jesus, whom they had already decided had to go. And it illustrates as well how they were no match for his intelligence, wisdom, and cunning.

In a way the context itself illustrates the pronouncement well. For it is a showdown between the forces of this world’s power and the values of God. Since most religion is run by people who are allied in one degree or another with power and privilege, it almost goes without saying that the default understanding of many folks through the ages has been that if the religious establishment says it, it must be the correct religious position. Of course, there are exceptions. The entire Protestant Reformation was a rebellion against the religious establishment. And long before the Reformation, there were lay movements, groups, and sects that did not gee-haw with the hierarchy. Nowadays stock in organized religion has plummeted in many parts of the world, though not in all. People are less inclined to accept docilely anything just because religious authorities say it.

But a point not to miss is that Jesus seriously questioned and ultimately threatened the forces of power, mainly those dressed in religious garb. That is in line with the tradition itself that God is always on the side of the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the slaves, and any others who are not in power. It is a matter of justice. The psalms are full of references to this preferential treatment on the part of the divine. “For he comes to judge the earth and with righteousness to judge the world and the peoples with his truth,” says Psalm 95. Judgment in the Bible is deeply connected to justice. And justice is part and parcel with equity. And righteousness, far from meaning moral perfection, actually means being in line with the right order of things, an order which is characterized by right relationships, not relationships out of whack because of an imbalance of power.

Recent history in the United States shows that a great many people have not only forgotten that, but have in fact inverted it so that political power is assumed to be the medium in which they suppose that God is interested. Bad mistake. It is not that political power is wrong. Of course not. But it is true that power can’t be assumed to be serving the divine purposes just because it is power. As flawed as they are and can be, democratic institutions have emerged as instruments for making societies more just, more equitable, more responsive to human need. We are seeing before our very eyes the rise of widespread undermining of such institutions. I never thought I’d live to see the day that some of the worst nightmares of the twentieth century, like fascism and Nazism, would rear their horrifying heads again. I never imagined a day to return when nationalism turned into nativism and once more white supremacy paraded through the streets to the toleration and downright approval of some in power. And what is, if not surprising, the most egregious development of all is that a huge swath of religious leaders are cheerleaders for those who are undermining human dignity. How do you square that with the teachings of Jesus?

In a word, there is massive confusion about the cause of Caesar and the cause of God. This is not a matter that you can dismiss as simple political difference, even political warfare. It is a profound and deepening spiritual crisis that owes its strength to a pack of lies as to who God is and what God wills. I certainly don’t believe that you can sign up with any political party and imagine that that party has some corner on the market of doing God’s will. But it is transparently true that there are some folks, notably the so-called “religious right,” whose politics are way out of line with the biblical understanding of justice and righteousness. The forces of power and privilege, ever out to protect their status and amass more power and privilege, are still trying to trick Jesus with a classic set-up. The forces of power are forever dropping broad hints that neither Jesus nor anyone else had better cross Caesar, or else.

Tintoretto, "The Temptation of Christ," 1579-81
Do you remember that story about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness? It is a key story making a profound point. All of those temptations were about using spiritual power to serve the forces of evil that corrupt and destroy the world by claiming to do the opposite. Controlling the food supply (turning stones into bread), dazzling people with displays of invincibility (jumping off the pinnacle of the temple), and controlling the empires of the world were then and are now and always have been the proven ways of clutching and expanding power.

Of course the religious people who are busy kowtowing to economic and political power have a different story to tell. They’ll tell you that God is all worked up about sexual improprieties. They’ll explain that what they are doing is actually manipulating the courts and legislatures because they want to enact God’s will on a massive scale. They’ll quickly tell you that God is in a hurry because the world doesn’t have long to go before God comes and gives the world a solid thrashing that is a prelude to wiping it out entirely. They’ll argue that somehow God is unconcerned with the trashing of the planet and the wholesale killing of species but is disgusted with people who are different because of their color, sexual orientation, country of origin. They imagine that God is a card-carrying Christian with no time for Muslims or others because they’re wrong, of course. And so on. Evil never lacks a narrative to explain itself.

Alonzo Cano, "Cristo Crucificado," 1646
But be aware that it is not powerlessness that adequately describes the difference between God and Caesar. It is rather that all power is not the same. The power of God and the power of Caesar are quite different. And how do we know? The power of God that we see in Jesus is indeed a power that can stand toe to toe with the forces of wickedness and prevail. Yet it is a power that is made perfect in weakness, as St. Paul once put it [2 Corinthians 12:9]. The irony is that the divine power that we see in Jesus ultimately empties itself and becomes nothing, going the way of suffering and death, confident that it is not amassing power or parading it to domineer that is the means of life. Rather, the way to life is to be vulnerable, to let go, and to be willing to die. What we never seem to get is that even as the Creator of all, God voluntarily limits God’s self by choosing to have a world in the first place. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. That is the lesson of the cross.

This leaves us with an important question: what are we to do?

First, there is no way to understand the difference between divine power and worldly power short of being intimately familiar with the biblical story. And we can’t pick and choose the parts that support our already fixed positions. We have to look at the whole thing. Otherwise we’ll be sunk with a bunch of internal contradictions.

Second, the theme of scripture really lies in the word “covenant.” From beginning to end, the sacred story is God’s saying, “I will be their God and they shall be my people, and I myself shall be with them.”  Never forget that.

Third, when in doubt, look at the teachings of and the story of Jesus. His life and death reveal it all. It is not self-explanatory for sure. But rather than trying to figure it out and make it make logical sense (because it won’t), just keep in relationship with Jesus. Read him, talk with him, and understand that he is not remote but is nearer to you than the air in your lungs and just that much a part of you yourself.

Fourth, divesting ourselves of our alliances with worldly power starts with having a practice of self-examination and repentance. Otherwise we get trapped in arrogance and begin to believe in our own self-importance. But repentance doesn’t mean just being sorry for the stuff you think you should not have done. It means living differently. And ironically one of the things that we need to repent of is letting ourselves be trampled on without standing up for our own dignity. I know. It sounds counter to all I’ve said about vulnerability. But there is an ironic twist in all this. Claiming our worth is not the same thing as amassing power nor being enchanted with the power of others. It is precisely in knowing that we are sufficient just as we are that allows us not to be abused by the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy.

Finally, be as concerned about the powerless, the vulnerable, the outsider as you are about yourself. Maybe even more so. When worldly power serves those who are weakest and in biggest need—and it sometimes does—then worldly power indeed does become an instrument of repairing the world itself. Start that process, or continue it, by using your own power for good. That is rendering unto God the things that are God’s, one of which is that power to do good with which he has lavishly endowed the children of humanity, including you.

A sermon based on Matthew 22:15-22.  

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Heaven Is No Place

“Heaven. Heaven. Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t going there. Heaven. Heaven. When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes and dance all over God’s heaven.”
—“I Got Shoes,” Negro Spiritual

Heaven has for a long, long time been the name of that place where we are headed. The spiritual “I Got Shoes, You Got Shoes,” is a very good example of what heaven means to a people when there seems to be no possibility of life getting much better on this side of the grave. For most of Christian history, the dominant narrative has been that the whole point of Jesus’ death and resurrection was to give us a way to get to heaven when we die. That possibility takes on urgency when things get worse and worse in this life, to the point that we can see little hope for change except to get to a place where the entire game is different.

Matthew’s parable of the Great Banquet[1] is his own adaptation of a story that was circulating in different forms in Early Christianity. You can read a different version in Luke’s gospel and there were others. Matthew has the habit of talking about “the Kingdom of heaven” as opposed to the more primitive form “the Kingdom of God.” So when we hear this or some other story from Matthew and catch the word “heaven,” little wonder that our minds immediately click into what we already imagine heaven to be:  the place where we are going in the next life.

I want to invite you to take a look with me at that. I’m not going to suggest that this is wrong necessarily, but that it obscures something very important, namely that heaven is not a place but a reality, not in the future but now. This may strike you as not necessarily the news, in which case I’d say you are lucky. Or it may land on you as downright bizarre, in which case I’d ask you to stick with it as we open it up.

First of all, where is God? That was the first question in my catechism when I was studying it at the age of 8. The answer was, “God is everywhere.” Think about that. There is no place that God is not. There is no place in the entire universe that God is not, because God is the true life, the source, the very essence of existence itself. As the psalmist says, “Where shall I go then from your Spirit? Where shall I flee from your Presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in hell, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall hold me and your right hand hold me fast.”[2]  Take it further. There is no place inside you that God is not. There is no place on or in your body that God is not. You can get down to the smallest microbe in your intestinal tract and there is God. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”[3]

So if heaven is where God is, then heaven is everywhere. And if God cannot be located in one place, neither can heaven. And if heaven is eternal, then it can’t be measured in time. Heaven is no more future than it is past. The eternal is timeless, not infinite time. So is God.
Heaven is everywhere, neither up nor down.
To be sure, these are elementary lessons, but key to understanding what follows. And what follows is that if God is eternally present, the entire question for you and me is how does the presence of God impact us. What difference does God make in this world of space and time?

And that ultimately is the question that Matthew is addressing in his gospel. He does it in a way that is unmistakably clear to his readers. They knew the Biblical story. That story was one in which messengers (the prophets) had repeatedly called Israel to change. By and large the prophetic word had been rejected time and again. So another batch of messengers (Christian disciples) goes out into the world on a mission to announce the Good News. They, too, are rejected and mistreated, in many cases murdered. So Matthew takes these contemporary headlines and tailors the story to fit that situation. It is clear that the King in the parable is God, that the wedding banquet is the feast in honor of the Son (Jesus), and that those who are invited to the banquet encompass all and sundry, the bad, the good, the ugly. Don’t look for the parable to make logical sense in all its parts, because it won’t. Look instead to the point of it.

And the point can be found at the very end in that strange part about the man who shows up without a wedding garment. It makes no sense if we look at it logically. Why should a man who has been randomly rounded up with a bunch of others from the streets even have a wedding garment? And where did all the others get theirs? And so on. Think about the wedding hall as the gathering of a faith community, called church. Everyone reading Matthew in the first century would know that the most common way of speaking about baptism was reflected in the way that at the entrance into the life of Christ every newly baptized person was clothed with a new garment symbolizing how the old life without Christ was gone and the new life in Christ had been put on. As Paul had said it earlier, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” That is the “wedding garment” that Matthew has in mind. And it is not too hard to see that the fate of the poor guy who failed to wear the garment is cast into outer darkness, for that is a metaphor of the Last Judgment. Either you come to the Light or you dwell in Darkness.
Early Christian baptism:  candidates stripped naked, descended into the water,
then donned the new robe symbolizing Resurrection Life.

But don’t be distracted from the point here, which is not to get us to wondering about what happens in the future or to begin pondering whether God is really just and so forth. The point is that this entire project of God is in fact a wedding. It is a joyous occasion. Invitations come from the hand of the King himself who displays an inordinate amount of grace and patience, trying again and again to share the joy with people. So the issue is how do people (we) respond to the invitation?

The answer is pretty simple, although the implications of it are not. The answer is to answer yes: accept the invitation. Then come to the banquet. I don’t know about you, but I get invitations all the time. I never get on my computer that someone isn’t trying to sell me something, attend some event, give to something or someone. 99% of the mail that comes daily is full of invitations to join, contribute, attend, support, and buy. I would do virtually nothing else for half a day on average if I took the time to respond to all of those invitations of various sorts or even investigated what they were all about. Most of them either get the delete button or the trash can. So what is different about this invitation? In a word, unlike all the other invitations that you’ll ever get, the invitation to the wedding feast of God is an invitation to engage in a lifelong process of being changed. Yes, changed. And that already should sound an alarm in our heads, for change is something that on some level nearly no one really wants. Like all forms of life, we prefer to continue doing what we are doing until the cost of doing so exceeds the benefit of doing something different. Like all forms of life, we are busy adapting, accommodating ourselves to the forces that press upon us so that we can survive. Resisting is costly. Changing lifelong patterns is difficult. How many people do you know or have you known in your entire life who have kicked over the traces and actually undergone radical transformation? You have probably known some, but getting past four or five would put you in an exceptional category.

One of the ironies of the Christian Church is that we often, as a global community, specialize in getting people, beginning with our children, to adapt more than we support folks in making radical changes. Indeed, we tend to look with deep suspicion on anyone who is odd, an outlier, a misfit. And the pressure is on full blast to get that person to adapt or else. The way I read and understand the teachings of Jesus is that he was constantly saying that life with God is a great adventure that at many points is diametrically opposed to what human society prescribes. The life of God is a life of unqualified generosity, profligate love, unexpected grace, countless mercies, fathomless forgiveness, infinite welcome, and inclusiveness. The life of God by its very nature demands focus, hard choices, discipline, mindfulness, purposefulness, and accountability. But at its core it is a great party.

So the old spiritual had it right: When I get to heaven, that is when I get to living the life of God, I’m gonna have shoes and I’m gonna dance all over the place. And I’m going have a robe (notice that!) and I’m going to wear it. And I’m going to have a harp and I’m going to play it. And I’m going to be able to fly all over God’s heaven. Oppressed, beaten down, overburdened, abused, you name it: those who first sang that of course looked to a future that was beyond their lives. And you and I know that we can do that as well, because eternal is the love of God who throws the party in the first place. The banquet never ends. But neither does it wait until we die to begin. Those very barefoot slaves singing about having shoes in heaven were in a profound way already there. They were hoping, dreaming, singing even when there couldn’t possibly have been a dry eye among them. And because of that, they and tens of thousands of others have tasted the glory on their very human tongues even before that glory was fully revealed and realized.

That is what living your faith is all about. But it is living it now in the reality that God is no farther from us than the air we breathe. Those early Christians who came up from the waters of baptism, having been stripped naked of all that belonged to their life before Christ, put on the robe of Christ’s resurrection. That resurrection was not only a promise of dwelling in the land of the immortals but a reality that would take careful tending every day, constant renewal and return to the center, an open mind and an open heart, the courage to persevere. But boy was it a joy! Life became a wedding thrown by the Maker of the Universe for every single soul as if that soul were the Prince or Princess of the realm.

And that prince or princess is none other than you.

The Great Banquet at the Son's Wedding:  Lady Wisdom blesses the marriage of Christ and the soul.
Icon in the Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa (Episcopal), San Francisco 

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017


[1] Matthew 22:1-14
[2] Psalm 139:6-9.
[3] Gospel of Thomas, 77b.