Denying the Claims of Empire: A Sermon for Proper 24A

This sermon, offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Madison Wisconsin, on October 22nd, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the readings assigned for Proper 24A in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

This sermon was preached without notes from the center aisle.  What follows is a recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 celebration of the Eucharist and a transcription of that recording.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Please be seated.

Whew…  Well you couldn’t have written a better made for TV drama scene then this one.  Imagine how it felt to all of those people gathered there in that place when the Pharisees and the Herodian arrived together.  Two groups of people representing different power bases, with different interests, and different backgrounds, they never reached across the aisle to work with one another.  You know they say politics makes strange bedfellows but this was pretty shocking.  So in they come, the Pharisees and the Herodian, and everybody took a deep breath.  And then they approached Jesus.  And everyone knew that Jesus was really getting under their skin.  So something was going to happen.  And then they asked him this question that was so clearly a trap.  It must’ve sucked all the breath right out of the room.   “We know that you speak for God and that you treat no one with partiality.  Tell us what you think.  Is it right to pay taxes to the Emperor or not.”

There is no good answer to this question.  Say no and you are speaking out against Rome, and you’re liable to be charged with sedition, and we all know what kind of punishment empire metes out.  Say yes and all of the people who followed you here to this moment are likely to turn their backs on you in disappointment and disgust.  So everyone held their breath to see what Jesus would say.  And then he comes up with the perfect non-answer.  “Give to the Emperor the things that are the emperors, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

Everybody took a deep sigh a deep breath of relief.  And the Pharisees and the Herodians left amazed at Jesus’s rhetorical dexterity.  And the story moves on.  Except that there’s something else happening here.  There’s something beneath this non-answer that’s really an indictment if you think about it.

It’s only a non-answer if you believe that there are things in your life that don’t belong to God.  It’s only a non-answer if there are parts of your life that you can wall off, and stand behind, and say God’s not over here.  God’s not watching.  Or, you know, God’s not entitled to this piece of me so I’m just going to hold this in reserve, and I can do what I want with this, and I can give it to the Emperor.

The fact that they had a coin with them, there in that place, with the Emperor’s likeness and title on it, was a sign that they had somehow figured a way to bifurcate their lives and hold God in abeyance in places where they weren’t comfortable with God’s presence.

We will, in just a few minutes, when Mother Dorota invites us, we’ll all stand here around this font, with this child in our arms, we will renew our baptismal covenant. The book of common prayer holds out for days there especially appropriate for baptism and this isn’t one of them.  We baptize babies whenever there are babies to baptize.  Those four dates in the prayer book aren’t always convenient for out-of-town family, and it’s such a joyful thing to baptize people into the body of Christ, we’ll do it pretty much any time someone asks.  But the fact that this isn’t one of those four dates means that we rarely get to hear this story on the same day that we reaffirm our baptismal covenant.  That lends a certain urgency and sense of intention to what we’re about to do.

Jesus was preaching a subversive gospel: that all people are worthy of dignity and respect, that all people are beloved in the eyes of God, that all people should have what they need to thrive, and to live, and to flourish.  In the face of Empire Jesus was preaching that true power comes from giving power away, not from taking it from others.  It was a subversive gospel then and it’s a subversive gospel now.

We all know how scary it can be to bend a knee to something other empire.  The truth that Jesus taught was true at the beginning of all things.  It was truly in first century Palestine.  And its true now.  And it is every bit as dangerous to defy empire now as it was then.  Bending the knee somewhere else can get you sidelined and left out of the game.

But that’s what we’re being asked about today.  Jesus is standing here with a coin in his hand and he’s asking us “Whose face is this and whose title?”  And he’s asking us if we are prepared to bifurcate ourselves and to say there are some parts of our lives where I don’t have to pay attention to the things that I’m about to promise.  There are some parts of my life where God is not invited.  There are some parts of my life that we can hold apart.  How can that be?  When we stand in just a few moments to baptize Carolyn Elizabeth into the body of Christ, and reaffirm our promises to seek and serve Christ in all people, to respect the dignity of every human being, to work for justice and truth…  We are making the choice about where and to whom we will bend our knee.

So I hope that as we reaffirm these promises today we are cognizant of just what it is that we’re doing.  We are proclaiming a subversive gospel that seeks to turn the world upside down and to make into this… make this world into vision, God’s dream: life, light, and love.

When you come forward this morning to receive communion there will be water in this font, and having just made those promises anew, I hope that you will dip your hand into this water and remember your own baptism.  Remember the promises that you have just made.  And to know that there is no part of this world no part of our lives, that this water cannot touch.

Amen

 

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Are You Envious Because I am Generous?: A sermon for Proper 20A

This sermon, offered on September 24, 2017 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, by The Very Rev. Andy Jones , is built around the readings for Proper 20 in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary. 

You can find those readings here.

This sermon was preached without notes from the center aisle.  What follows is a recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 celebration of the Eucharist and a transcription of that recording.

Laying the Gospel Book on the altar, turning and wandering down the center aisle, and then turning to come back…

Oh!  I’m sorry…  Everybody sit down.

I just so distracted and upset I don’t know what to do.   I mean yesterday started out just like any other day.  Me and my crew showed up at the parking lot at the Home Depot early in the morning.  And Eli showed up just like he always does.  And hired us to come work in his vineyard for the day.  So we got to the vineyard and we’re out there making our way up and down the rows plucking the grapes off the arbors… and at about ten after nine Eli showed up again with the more people.  Now that’s happened before.  It’s not that unusual but usually that happens when it’s been rainy and wet and there are lots and lots of grapes and there’s an order in and we need to really get everything picked that day.  But that’s not the case right now.  It’s been dry and so there weren’t that… we could’ve handled it…

Well then, about noon, he comes back with another bus load of people.  Some of these people, you know, I just know…  They didn’t speak the language.  They didn’t know what they were doing.  I don’t know why he needed them.   And then at 3 o’clock… some of the people he brought back… some were even tall enough to reach the grapes!

We didn’t know what to think of all of this.  We have this relationship with you…  We worked for him forever.  We trust him.  He knows us.  He knows we can get the job done.  But if that wasn’t bad enough… the crew that he brought back at about quarter after five to work the last 45 minutes of the day… they could hardly make it off the bus.  They stumbled down the steps.  They struggled to get across the parking lot.  They hadn’t even picked a row worth of grapes before the bell rang and we were all called to the paymaster to pick up our day’s wages!

So me and the crew, you know we’re in good with Eli, we walked right up to the front of the line but the manager said,  “No, no, no.  Take your folks to the back of the line.  You guys are getting paid last today.”  Well we didn’t know what to make of that until we saw that those people that arrived at quarter after five… they got paid a full day’s wage!  And so we were pretty excited.  Not sure what’s going on here.  Maybe Eli’s come into some inheritance or something.  But if they’re getting paid the full day’s wage we must be in for a bonus.  This is going to be really good!  Well we got to the front of the line paid the same as the people who worked for less than 45 minutes.  Well needless to say we were pretty unhappy.   I mean, we’ve known Eli forever.  He’s always been there for us.  So how can this happen, that we weren’t treated any better than these people who showed up at the end of the day?   And then, and then Eli heard one of my guys complaining and he got right in his face and he said, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

I have to tell you, I have to tell you, I felt set up, because he could’ve avoided all of this if he just paid us first and let us go on our way.  But he made us stand in the back of that line and wait to get ours and see how well he treated the people before us… just so we could ask me that question!  I really felt set up.

 

Yeah.  Set up.  Here’s a situation that we can find ourselves in all too easily, that we can imagine. in the marketplace working, being called out to work, and in the end… not receiving what we believe is our due.  And all of this designed just ask us that question.  “Are you envious because I am Generous?”

That’s what parable does.  A parable gives us a story that feels very familiar, that feels very solid, where we think we can navigate our way through the narrative and the characters who are involved, and suddenly there’s this little twist… that gets you, that makes you think.  Oh!  What’s really happening here?   What’s really going on?

That’s where we are.  Here we are and people who have only worked for the last 45 minutes are being invited into the vineyard: people without the proper documents, people who don’t speak the language or know the customs, people who may not have even worked in a vineyard like this before, people with preexisting conditions, people who may need to take extra leave to bear children…

And Jesus is standing here in this moment and asking us that question.  “Are you envious because I am generous?”

There seems to be this thing within us that evaluates ourselves, that ranks ourselves, that tells us who we are based on the way we’re treated compared with other people.  And so when other people are getting something that we think we have worked to earn or deserve, and they haven’t measured up… it rubs us the wrong way.

The first time I caught a confirmation class I took the kids in that class to visit all of the downtown of mainline churches, and we looked at their architecture, and we looked at what was in their building, and asked the question “what can this tell you, what does this tell you about this community and the way they worship?”  It was a great Saturday morning!  But the next week I had older siblings of those kids and their parents confront me in the parking lot and say,

“this isn’t a real confirmation class.”

I said, “Well, what do you mean?”

“Well here’s the book that I had to memorize.  And here’s a checklist of all the things that the Bishop was prepared to test me on.  This is confirmation class lite!”

I said “Oh.  So you want me to haze them the same way that you were hazed?”  I said, “Ok.  Right here on page 3.  Answer this question…”

“Wha… Well I can’t answer that question…”

“Oh.  So it was really effective… Yeah.  Okay.”

Why is that we get so upset when someone else is getting something that we think we deserve? Now, clearly this is a parable about the marketplace, but Jesus tells parables to help us to understand something about God, and the kingdom of God, and Jesus is telling us how it is that God operates, and relates to us God’s children.   And what Jesus is saying is that it doesn’t matter when you come to the vineyard.  It doesn’t matter how you get there.  You are beloved and will receive God’s grace and love and favor just like those who have been here, part of the tribe, forever!

But I think that this parable also reaches in to our own lives in a way that we need to pay attention to, because as Jesus is describing to us the way that God behaves, he’s also describing the way that we are called to behave.

So how can we become as generous as God?  How can we let go of that piece of us that wants to grumble, complain, or be envious?  I think the solution to that is gratitude.

Gratitude…  If we think that all that we have is the result of the sweat of our own brow, our own hard work, the strength of our own back, for the twinkling of our own intellect… then we are in danger, at any given moment, of losing all of it; because the strength of our back can fail.  Our mind can betray us.  And if the only way that we have value or worth, the only way that we get what we need is through our own effort, then we are at risk of losing it at any time.  And if someone else is getting some of what we want or need through less effort than ours then that can be pretty irritating.

What if we see everything that we have, whether it be the goods we need to survive or the love we need to feel whole, as gift, something that is showered upon us because we are beloved…

I don’t think that’s too big a stretch even if were talking about the marketplace because the things that we have and the things that we are given are in large part an accident; an accident of our birth, of our complexion, of the gifts and skills that we might have, the language that we speak, the customs to which we adhere…  All of those things play into our ability to get the things that we think we need.  So if we can begin to think of them as gift… then instead of fearing their loss we can begin to rejoice in the generosity that has showered them upon us, and feel a sense of gratitude that’s not threatened when somebody else get some too.

Here this morning Jesus is telling us a parable, a parable about the marketplace and the ways that some people are included and some people excluded.  But at the same time he’s telling us a story about the kingdom of God where everyone is included, where everyone is nurtured and sustained, where everyone gets a daily wage that will nourish and support them so that they might flourish.

It is God’s dream and vision for all of creation that we are called to facilitate and to enable. By embracing a sense of abundance and gratitude, by forswearing a sense of scarcity, and by opening our arms and allowing others to enjoy the fruits of our labor, the fruits of God’s love, the fruits of a world remade, as we follow in Jesus’s footsteps.  Amen.