On What Belongs Where
October 22, 2023
Exodus 33: 18-23
Moses said [to the Lord], “Show me your glory, I pray.” And [the Lord] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… but you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Matthew 22: 15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
This week’s sermon is titled On What Belongs Where. It is a sermon I offered in October of 2020.
A sense of belonging is something I cherish and I find myself continuously nurturing that sense in how I interact with the world. It must have something to do with being an only child, actually a fourth-generation only child along one branch of my family tree. It seems I am constantly creating a larger family around myself. Our family has only lived here for twelve years, but I feel as if I have lived here most of my life. I love this area, the community of people, this church. I love them, I love you, with a love that is ferocious and protective; I would go as far to say maternalistic. Forming these connections has had a subsequent effect that I am just beginning to name; I believe it can best be accurately described as an allegiance.
Allegiance is a fascinating phenomenon. For the independently-minded, the concept of allegiance may be threatening. I can relate to that. After all, even the word “allegiance” we find the root word “liege” and that recalls all manner of inequality in relationships from feudal times. Somewhere, though, there exists a state of being that I am not even sure if I can precisely name, but I can describe it if you will bear with me. It is very much reflective in both of our scripture readings for today, both in Moses’s relationship to God and in Jesus’s mitigation of the question of allegiance to the civic construct of government contrasted with allegiance to the divine.
Each of us, Friends, has the capacity to give ourselves over to something or someone or even someplace we care about. It is akin to surrender, but there is no loss; instead, surprisingly, there can be great gain. It is akin to allegiance, but without a sense of obligation; instead, a sense of liberation. It is a giving that feels like receiving. It is where giving and receiving become close to one and the same.
One example that comes to mind is the Muslim practice of hijab, the covering of the head and sometimes the entire body of a woman. It is so easy for my 21st century American Christian mind to judge that practice as oppressive. But isn’t it true that any tradition that is imposed, rather than embraced, can be a tool of oppression. Even within our Christian tradition are sects that do not allow dancing and do not allow girls and women to wear trousers. We leave little room for consideration that a practice embraced by choice can be something radical and countercultural, something that is personally empowering and deeply, spiritually significant.
There is a comic that was first published in a New Zealand newspaper and then picked up by American papers a few years ago. The graphic shows two women who have just passed one another on the sidewalk. One woman is in a bikini with sunglasses on and the other woman is in a full burka with only her eyes showing. The woman in the bikini thinks to herself, “Everything covered but her eyes…what a cruel male-dominated culture.” The woman in the full burka is thinking, “”Nothing covered but her eyes…what a cruel male-dominated culture.” There exists, within that extreme example, the possibility that both women feel empowered by their choices, if the choices were their own. There exists, within this example, the possibility that each woman is expressing a deeply personal truth about her own tradition and we can see that if we set our judgment aside (easy to say, difficult to do).
The ministry of our teacher, Jesus Christ, is based in a tradition that he embraced on such a deep level that it led him to question; it led him to challenge; it led him to envision a reformation within the Jewish faith tradition. His critics would say that this is an indication that he did not respect his tradition because he is questioning it. We are hearing similar sentiments in the current socio-political landscape as allegiance and patriotism of those who offer critical opinions are being questioned.
Jesus finds himself in a similar position. The necessity for critical questioning is crystal clear to him; he is convinced that the Hebrew people would be greater served by fundamental changes in the power structure of the temple, but that is a threatening notion to those in positions of power, so they try to bait him. His statement, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” is a brilliant answer to what was an impossible question. It was a question posed in concert by two groups with diametrically opposing opinions, the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees were strict adherents to the law and the concept of regarding a political leader as divine was absolutely blasphemous. The Pharisees objected to even the coin itself that pictured a profile of Caesar. The Herodians were loyalists to King Herod appointed by the Romans as a puppet king, hoping he would be respected because he was of Jewish descent. The Herodians felt that it was imperative to pay taxes in exchange for protection under the Roman Army. Even though the Pharisees and the Herodians disagree about paying taxes, they agree on this one point: Jesus must be silenced because his teachings are not furthering either one of their agendas. They see their question to him as the perfect trap. If Jesus approves of paying taxes, he will be charged with elevating the emperor to divine status; if Jesus denounces taxes, he can be charged with sedition. So what does Jesus do? He gives each party the answer they did not want and returns the responsibility of wrestling with dual allegiance back to them and absolves himself in the process. Check, check and checkmate.
Dual allegiance is something we have to wrestle with, too, in balancing our spiritual life with our civic life (unless, of course, you wholeheartedly agree with the ways in which your tax dollars are allocated). I can only speak for myself in saying I find it difficult to reconcile the differences. To have a defense budget that is eight times that of what we spend on education, for example, does not reflect my priorities. There are other programs, though, like social security and medicare and medicaid that actually feels like a sacred duty to support. Similarly, in paying my property taxes, I am sharing the responsibility of road maintenance, snow plowing, policing, and fire protection for the entire community. So even in taxation, there are places where the giving feels more like receiving because of my love for, and my allegiance to, the community in which I live.
But where should I place my allegiance according to the teachings of Jesus? The answer in the scriptures is clear and they will be the focus of next week’s sermon. My allegiance should be, first and foremost, to God. Why is that? Because God is the origin of all goodness and love and compassion. God is the source of all we hold most dear. I write like I know exactly what God is, but let me not mislead you into thinking that I know anything. I only know what I experience and what rings true to me in what I read, like in the story of Moses we have today.
Moses said [to the Lord], “Show me your glory.” And [the Lord] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” I will make all my goodness pass before you. What a window we have into an intimate exchange. One person prays, “Show me” and God replies, “I will…all my goodness shall pass before you.” How much goodness passes before us as we are distracted with other matters? How much goodness passes before us as we focus on far away events that we can not alter? How much goodness passes before us as we point out the faults and mistakes of others? How much goodness passes before us while we are busy making plans? And yet the promise remains; God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you.”
In closing, I pray that we will be moved to look up, to look out, and to look around for the goodness that is passing by us. I pray that we will be moved to place ourselves in the path of that goodness, that God-ness, so we may be swept up in the currents and carried along by a force that is beyond all we could ever imagine. The force of goodness that is God is perhaps the one force that can truly fill us. From a place of fullness it is almost effortless to give of ourselves in a gesture that is both giving and receiving all in one. Through God we are capable of this…and so much more. So be it. Amen.
Figure 4 ‘Bikini vs. Burqa’, 7 January 2011. © Malcolm Evans
Pastoral Prayer: Gracious Lord, our God, we are thankful for our immense capacity for awareness and feeling, it is surely a gift from you. Even when the weight of knowing and feeling feels too much to bear, remind us, Lord, to appreciate that we are not unaware, and that we are not numb. We pray to be strengthened and encouraged in the work that lies before us…the work of healing, the work of repairing the brokenness within ourselves, the work of holding the needs of others in balance with our own needs, and the work that You place in our minds and hearts. Help us, we pray, to say “yes”. Help us, we pray, to say “I’m sorry; please forgive me”. Help us, we pray, to trust in the goodness that You intend for us, as your children. This I pray in Christ’s name. Amen.