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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