Sermon: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s

imageIn today’s passage Jesus’s enemies want to catch him out. They ask him whether it’s lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor. They hope he will say no so that he gets in trouble with the Romans.

And maybe, they also hope Jesus will say yes. Then he’ll lose popular support among those followers who want him to be a freedom fighter for Israel against the Roman Empire.

Whether Jesus says yes or no, it looks like it’s win win for his enemies. They must have thought they were being very clever.

But Jesus is too sharp for them. He doesn’t answer the question they asked. He changes the angle of the conversation – something God is rather good at doing if you talk to him regularly enough to let that happen.

Jesus asks for a coin, points to the picture of the Emperor on it, and says give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s and give to God what is God’s.

That’s God for you. Always there with a fresh and unexpected way of looking at things. Always surprising.

Many people think the coin was a Tribute penny. On one side it had a picture of Livia, the Emperor’s mother, dressed up to represent Peace. On the other side it had a picture of the Emperor Tiberius, with the words “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.”

You can’t get much further from Jewish belief than that coin. It had images on it, which weren’t allowed in Judaism. It had words on it saying the Emperor Tiberius was the son of a god, that Emperor Augustus was that god.

And all this imperial pomposity, this silly human vanity was held in the hand of the real Son of God. When Jesus looked at the way Roman religion made gods out of human beings, did he ever feel he was watching children playing at dressing up?

Jesus lived surrounded by Romans. Maybe he saw temples dedicated to the Emperor Augustus. And even though Tiberius didn’t have divine status, maybe Jesus knew that there were temples and statues and priests dedicated to him too.

Augustus’s fame and glory was spread across a vast empire. It was part of the elite establishment culture.

The life of Jesus and his helpers was so different.

They were poor, misunderstood, outside the elite, and local. They weren’t celebrated from Britannia in the North down to Egypt in the South. Although of course one day they would be. And that’s God for you, always turning things around in unexpected ways.

The world expected the divine message to come through a person with the pomp and magnificence of an Emperor. It came through poverty and humility. It came through people who lived at the bottom of society, far away from worldly power. Eventually it came to ordinary people everywhere, through the Holy Spirit.

At this time the Roman Empire could be called the villain of the story, but it’s because of its security and stability that the early church is able to spread.

And after years of persecuting Christians, the Romans eventually adopt Christianity, enabling it to spread everywhere.

I’ve no doubt we’re in this church today because of the Roman Empire. In time God used them for his own purposes, as he can use anybody and anything. God is always surprising and unexpected.

So, back to Jesus and the coin.

When we read this story we can’t tell from it what tone of voice Jesus used or what his body language was. Was he casual, contemptuous, laughing, dismissive?

It’s frustrating that we don’t know, but also unexpectedly useful.

When you get home, read the story, close your eyes and imagine how Jesus is in this story. Do you see him as angry, brusque, sarcastic, gentle or laughing? Why is that?

Be aware that how you imagine Jesus’s body language and tone, says a lot more about how you imagine God than what God is really like. God is always unexpected.

In my imagination Jesus is gently good humoured in this coin conversation. He has a secure and certain faith in God’s love. He’s not threatened by the Roman religion. He isn’t going to be sidetracked by their pomposity.

He’s got his eye on what’s important, and that’s why he says give to God what is God’s. This is bigger stuff than some vainglorious emperor’s portrait on a coin. That’s just a nothing. Away with it, let us think no more about it.

That’s how the story plays out in my imagination. And to be honest, it speaks to me. As I’m sure is the case for many Christians, the attention I give to the positive love-based mission of God is far too easily sidetracked by petty side squabbles and disputes.

And when you go home and imagine the story of the coin in your own way, look to see if your imagination speaks to you too. Imagining Gospel stories is an ancient form of prayer, and helps each one of us to learn things that are unique to us.

The life of faith is complicated because God is always surprising. None of us should ever think we’ve reached an end to what there is to learn. God danced an unexpected dance with the Romans, and he dances a very unexpected dance with us.

Claire George

Equal marriage and the Church

imageThe Church of England’s stance on equal marriage is in the news again thanks to a new book by the Bishop of Buckingham.

Long known in Anglican circles and on social media for his kindly and very open support of LGBTI Anglicans, Bishop Alan Wilson is now taking the debate into the public arena.

In More Perfect Union? and elsewhere, Bishop Alan shares his view that Christian arguments against equal marriage do not have a sound Biblical basis.

He also explains that there are several types of Biblical marriage that nobody in the Church would agree with today. In the Guardian the Bishop writes:

Nor is it clear what we should mean by “biblical marriage”. Generally speaking, Old Testament marriage customs and mores reflect the social mores of the people in the story …

In Genesis 38, Levirate marriage comes on the scene. This is the involuntary marriage of a man to his brother’s widow in order to continue the line … Deuteronomy institutes another involuntary form of marriage. A virgin automatically becomes the wife of her rapist, who is then required to pay the victim’s father 50 shekels for the loss of his property rights. Unlike other Old Testament marriages, these are held to be indissoluble.

In Numbers 31:17–18 we find another form of involuntary marriage. A male soldier is entitled to take as many virgins as he likes for his wives from among his booty, but must kill his other prisoners. In Deuteronomy 21:11–14, marriage is made by selecting a beautiful woman from among the spoils of war, shaving her head and paring her nails. These marriages are dissoluble if she fails to please, but the woman is no longer saleable. Throughout much of the Old Testament, marriage does not require sexual exclusivity …

None of these arrangements, except perhaps that enjoyed by Adam and Eve, would be recognised as marriage today. Pretending that the church’s present stance is biblical is not going to fool anyone who doesn’t want to be fooled, and fewer and fewer people do.

Leading church history academic the Revd Dr Charlotte Methuen, responds to Bishop Alan with this book review on the Thinking Anglicans blog. She says:

The style suggests that this is a book written in haste, and it certainly speaks to the moment. But that is necessary, and right: and it is much to be applauded that a bishop of the Church of England has chosen to speak out on the question of equal marriage.

At the weekend The Sunday Telegraph reported on a letter signed by 300 Anglicans in support of any Church of England bishops who may wish to come out.

A Sermon for Harvest Festival

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Everything we have comes from Creation. The only real wealth we have is the Earth and all it does to support us. It’s easy to forget it in our society. We’re so far removed from nature our society would collapse and many of us would die if the shops closed for a couple of months.

Nature should be enough for us. If we were content to live in small homes in the forest and to devote our days to finding or growing food and sharing it with others, nature would be enough. God has given us everything we need, but it’s because of how we behave that people are starving.

Overpopulation comes from people not trusting that their neighbours will look after them in old age. Deforestation, species extinction and quite a bit of developing world poverty come from folk like us in wealthy countries buying products we don’t really need. So many of the world’s problems are because of people, not because Creation isn’t enough for us.

God has given us much to thank him for.

It’s very hard to walk away from the bad habits that cause so much damage to the world. Just before writing this sermon I ate a piece of chocolate that contained unethically grown palm oil. Unethical palm oil production is driving the orangutans to extinction. I knew that when I bought the chocolate, so that’s a real blemish on my soul.

We all have bad habits that harm Creation, whether it’s cigarettes, having the heating on full blast or buying too much stuff. It’s very difficult to go cold turkey and cut ourselves away from all that. Uncomfortably for us, it’s what Christ calls us to do. Christ’s attitude to giving things up is radical and uncompromising.

One of the earliest examples of a man going cold turkey for Christ is St Matthew, whose saint’s day it is today. He was a wealthy tax collector who dropped everything to follow Christ into poverty. That was a very brave decision. I can only conclude he must have felt God calling him in his heart.

The Good News is that in the spiritual sense, St Matthew didn’t abandon wealth for poverty. He gave up the spiritual poverty of a life lived for the sake of money, and took on the richness of life lived on the path of compassion and kindness.

God’s wealth is about the heart, not material goods. That is amply illustrated in today’s Gospel story about the rich man who hoards his wealth instead of sharing it with others. In the end he dies suddenly and is called a fool by God because rich man riches are not the riches of the soul.

Coming back to this year, 2014 …

What are we to do in our own lives? If you have lots of people depending on you, you can’t really do a St Matthew and just give everything up at once. It’s not practical.

But we can ask God to help us go cold turkey on the many little bad habits that harm his Creation. Driving when we could walk. Buying luxury products that they had to cut down forests to grow. Being too lazy to hold onto your rubbish until you find a recycling bin.

That’s how we can pay respect to Creation and thank God for what he has made. If we don’t care for nature and all that is in it, all the songs of gratitude we sing at Harvest will be empty, meaningless, nothing more than lip service.

If we need reminding to do this, and we will, let’s think about what our society looks like to the indigenous peoples around the world.

I’m talking about the Native Americans, the First Nation folk, the aborigines, the Inuit, the Arctic circle reindeer herders, the Maori, the peoples of the rainforests.

They are many many nations, but traditionally they all know how important it is to live in harmony with Creation rather than work against it.

To them (I gather this from reading what some say on the internet) our society looks like a big giant, a big baby giant, that tramples over Creation, too concerned to get what it wants to think about the consequences for the next generation.

Now, don’t be too miserable about all this. Moaning and whinging never accomplished anything. In today’s Gospel reading Christ tells us that worrying does no good. We need to act, not worry.

We need to stay positive and be full of thanks because God has given us teachers in the indigenous peoples of the world. The time has come for Christians to listen to them.

We mustn’t idealise them or stereotype them. White people talking about them as if they were almost magical woodland spirits has put a heavy burden on them in the past. They’re not nature saints, they’re ordinary human beings of the modern world just like us – but their societies and the ways they follow God, are two things we need to pay attention to. There are things out there for us to learn.

So, this St Matthew’s Day, let’s not forget to say a prayer of thanks for our Native Alaskan and Non-Native Alaskan friends at St Matthew’s church in Fairbanks. Long may they work together and continue to inspire us.

Claire George

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Stoptober!

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This October will you love those around you enough to join Stoptober? Sign up here to find out.

For non-smokers spending time in buildings where people smoke is a miserable experience. The World Health Organisation assesses that spending a lot of time around people smoking will significantly increase their lung cancer risk.

For children and babies living with smoking adults increases their risk of asthma, lung infections, middle ear infections and sudden infant death. If they don’t grow up angry with their parents for exposing them to so much smoke, they may take up the habit themselves.

As for the environment. Tobacco farming in some places keeps poor farmers in poverty, it exposes child workers to dangerous amounts of nicotine and pesticide, and it contributes to loss of forests.

If you really can’t give up smoking, do it away from other people and don’t pollute homes with this terrible smoke which contains 4,000 chemicals, some of which are poisonous and cause cancer.

If you can give up smoking, why not use Stoptober to start you on your way? Your lungs and heart will thank you, the people around you will thank you, and planet Earth will thank you.