26 Oct Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Trinity, Year A
The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.
Sunday 22nd October, 2023
“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said.” Now, if you’ve spent any significant time with the gospels, you can see that this is not going to work out the way the Pharisees want it to. I can partly understand their motivation though. Jesus has created chaos in the temple, turning tables and driving out the money changers, and he’s told a sequence of stories which all seem to point the finger at the religious authorities, declaring that they may not, after all, inherit the kingdom of God, unless they change their ways and start listening to this Galilean upstart who has the crowds so mesmerised.
So they come up with a question which they are sure will finally force him to choose a side. It’s a simple choice: pay taxes to the emperor, yes or no. If he says yes, then he’s proved his loyalty to the regime that oppresses them over his supposed loyalty to God. And if he says no, he’s a traitor and a revolutionary, clearly out to overthrow Roman rule, which tends not to end well. And Herod’s people just happen to be along for the ride too, upping the stakes even more.
Jesus, however, is not playing ball, and his obvious yet cryptic reply reminded me a little of my first few months in this community. As I was introduced to various different domestic jobs – ironing, drying and washing up, cleaning, laundry etc., I would invariably hear at some point, “this is how I do it, but you’ll find your own way”. For me and the way my mind works, this became one of my least favourite sentences. I did not want to find my own way. I wanted to know what the right way to do the job was, so that I could do it correctly and collect my little gold stars.
Over time I have come – occasionally somewhat grudgingly – to understand that the community’s approach has something to recommend it. It has forced me to think, to make decisions based on the principles of our life, to discuss with others, and to be prepared to be challenged. I’m still working on that last one!
And this is sort of what Jesus does in our reading today: he offers a basic principle – “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” – and leaves his questioners to work their own way through any decision that might follow. When the text says that they “were amazed; and they left him and went away”, I imagine it’s omitting a good amount of frustration and gnashing of teeth.
That frustration is understandable, even if the question itself was a dishonest attempt to trap Jesus, rather than a genuine exploration of the ethics of empire in relation to faith. I can imagine though that Jesus’ answer might have been much the same had the question been asked in good faith.
So how, then, are we to reconcile the competing demands of the Christian life and a world that seems to get more, not less, polarised, materialistic and messy? What might Jesus’ answer, and our other readings from today, have to say to us?
To begin with Jesus’ answer, I think he shows us that the dilemma is real. There is no one perfectly correct way to live the Christian life. We do live in a world of competing demands, and competing good choices and we do have to make real choices. Who to vote for. How to prioritise our spending, and our giving. None of us can solve all the world’s problems, and so we must discern and decide how God is calling us in this moment – while bearing in mind too that God has given us intelligence and reason. Following in God’s ways is not about being a mindless automaton; we are called to work with God, with the Holy Spirit, in sharing the Good News of Christ in as many different ways as there are followers of Christ.
An American writer, Rev’d Dr Will Willimon calls it “that peculiar way God uses you, creation of God, in God’s salvation of the world.” He goes on to say, “Vocation is what God wants from you whereby your life is transformed into a consequence of God’s redemption of the world. Look no further than Jesus’s disciples – remarkably mediocre, untalented, lacklustre yokels – to see that innate talent or inner yearning has less to do with vocation than God’s thing for redeeming lives by assigning us something to do for God.”
Turning to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, we begin to see how this being-and-doing might work in practice.. He writes, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” Imitation here is about faithful improvisation, not becoming a carbon copy – which in any case is impossible, because whomever we take as our examples, and hopefully we have many, the context of our lives will not be identical. Which is to say that there are many good ways to live, and many good ways to live the Christian life. Note that verb, to live. One certainty in all of this is that sitting it out, staying neutral, is not a viable long term strategy, not least because we then end up allowing other forces to rule our lives – the market, advertising, the increased violence and polarisation that are making thoughtful discussion ever harder. And neutrality is all too often a tacit siding with power and oppression.
Being engaged in this way also means being open to God’s surprising ways, as we see in our reading from Isaiah. At the beginning of chapter 45, we read, “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him– and the gates shall not be closed”. Cyrus is a pagan king. As ruler of the Achaemenid empire, he conquered Babylon and put in motion the return of the Jewish people to the kingdom of Judah, ending their exile. Some of us might baulk at even a relatively beneficent conqueror and ruler being called God’s anointed, and perhaps with good reason. I would mostly describe myself as a pacifist, and yet I vividly remember being profoundly challenged on hearing the then Chief of the General Staff, the head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt being interviewed on Radio 4, some 15 years ago. He talked about his own deep personal Christian faith, and how he saw his work in the Armed Forces as a clear outworking of this faith. He was living out his faith in the way that he felt called to, and I could not deny the conviction with which he spoke, nor his truth as one that stood alongside mine, in a way that disturbed me, but that could not be ignored. Would I still describe myself as a pacifist? Yes, and I see in this stance an outworking of my own Christian faith. Can I reconcile the two? No, but I can – I must – recognise that God may be at work in ways that are utterly alien to me. Once again: there is no one true way. God is a god of endless surprises, and there is, I believe, no situation that cannot be woven into his tapestry in some way, shape or form.
And this is perhaps where some Benedictine wisdom can find a space. At our profession, we make vows of Obedience, Stability and Conversion of Life, and these last two in particular interact as two sides of the same coin. In stability, we ground ourselves. We ground ourselves first and foremost in Jesus Christ, as promised at our baptism, and we ground ourselves secondarily in this monastic life, with these people – and the unknown others God will send our way – in this place, according to these rules and customs, under this superior and his or her successors. We choose this place to stand and be rooted, and in so doing we also choose and promise change – conversion. We commit ourselves, through the listening and deep attention of obedience, to be open to our ongoing conversion into Christ. And of course, no two monastic lives are ever the same, for as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.” God chooses all of us and all of us – each and every one, in his or her or their entirety. May we then continue to follow him faithfully, confident in the love that will hold us into eternity. Amen.
Image: Roman Coin of Caesar Augustus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=59709 [retrieved October 26, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aureus,_Auguste,_Lyon,_btv1b104440369.jpg.