by Kathleen D. Billman
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Pastoral Theology, Director of the Master of Divinity Program
What a season in our public and corporate life to hear this story! Although not making top billing in internet news, the Occupy Wall Street movement continues this week, with continued demands for a more equitable distribution of wealth. Some members of the LSTC community joined a crowd of 3000 people in Occupy Chicago last week. As Kwame Pitts describes the event in the LSTC Door, “Voices are raised in anger and frustration; voices have been silenced in weeping, but our fellow brothers and sisters bound together by a common thread have heard, gathered, and marched for change.” For a good many people the economic gap being protested has been in place for a terribly long time—but now that gap is being felt by increasingly more people, bringing together wider, and in some cases, unusual, coalitions.
Here at LSTC, conversations are occurring about other kinds of gaps, gaps between the way the church would “like to be,” as Emily Ewing put it in the Door, and the realities of who we are—people who live between the church we are called to be and the church that is. We are people who live in the gap, sometimes keenly aware of that gap, sometimes not. I remember a moment from almost 20 years ago at LSTC. It happened in a class where the subject was conflict, and an African American student and I were beginning a conversation about race. And I still remember what she said that day. I had made the observation that the moment race was mentioned, in a classroom where the majority of us were white, the atmosphere in the room changed—I said that I felt that atmospheric change in my body when my stomach clenched. And she said, “You know, it was when we began to speak out loud about race that for the first time in this class, my stomach unclenched.” She reminded me, in such a profound way, that there are realities borne by others (and sometimes by ourselves)—with anger and frustration, with voices silenced in weeping, unheard in public places—that come from living in that painful gap between the world that is and the world as it should be, the world of shalom that God intended and to which we are called. It is worth facing anxiety to take any step on behalf of that world.
The gap is always there, of course, between the world as it is and the world as it should be, but sometimes the pain and frustration of it is widened, more deeply acknowledged and voiced. It becomes more visible in life together—sometimes in groups as small as families and friends, and sometimes in the more public domains of classrooms and congregations; cities and nations; and sometimes it seems we do hear the whole world groaning in travail. And when large numbers of people gather, problems are named aloud, and voices are raised, hope sometimes stirs that yes, things can be different, and we sing one of humanity’s—or at least Christianity’s—most hopeful questions, “Could the world be about to turn?”
Could the world be about to turn? I wonder if some of that sense of hope is in, with, and under the lines of the story we heard this morning, with excitement and energy packed into the little word “then,” used three times in seven short verses. The encounter described in this story takes place after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where crowds have gathered and shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” It takes place after Jesus has overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple and in the middle of a number of confrontations between Jesus the powers that be. So the first “then”—“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said” picks up the sense of mounting excitement, conflict, and danger. And the other two “thens,” it seems to me, carry a little bit of glee. The either/or question posed by the strange coalition of Pharisees and Herodians was designed to force a reply from Jesus that was either seditious (to Rome) or offensive to Israelites burdened by the census taxes of a military regime that occupied their country. The second “then” in verse 20 introduces a turning. The questioned becomes the questioner. Imagine the excitement of passing on this story! “Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’” And they said…“Then he said… and, finally, “When they heard this they were amazed, and they left him and went away.” HAH! Another round won. Antagonists: 0. Jesus 5! And there’s nothing between verse 22 and 23 but a heading to separate this round from the next one. “That same day some Sadducees came to him…”(Mt. 23), a story that ends with the words “they were astonished at his teaching.”
But I doubt that Matthew preserved this story (and the others that surround it) simply to demonstrate Jesus’ ability to triumph in a battle of wits. After all, in Matthew’s world the emperor was still the emperor, his country still an occupied territory, and the masses of poor were still poor. And people still had to struggle with the place of the emperor, especially if Jesus is Lord. I speak with humility about any motives of Matthew’s. But I can say what I hear as Good News on this day, in this season of life together.
I can say that it is both painful judgment and amazing grace to hear Jesus say, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Because in that moment Jesus reminds us, not by evading the question the Pharisees and Herodians ask but by widening it, that we are each called to discern, in the seasons of life we live, what bears God’s image. “The things that are the emperor’s”—that is, the reach of empire—is not just about the likeness of a head on a coin—it was more than that in Jesus’ day and it is more than that in ours. Giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s has to do with the way we spend ourselves in service to the images of empire reflected all around us.
We cannot pay for our groceries without passing the magazines that tell us what we should look like and aspire to (give ourselves to, spend ourselves for). Sometimes the juxtaposition of messages is crazy-making, even hilarious: the magazine that tells us how we can have the best butt ever is located right beside the magazine that features the best dessert we could ever make. Messages about what kind of homes we should aspire to and what really counts in life are given to us from the moment of our birth—invitations to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s are everywhere.
And these messages are seldom all bad—that’s where the discernment comes in—the sorting out. It’s not a bad thing to be in good physical shape, to enjoy what bodies can do when they are cared for and fit, for example, or to create with loved ones a hospitable and comfortable home where beauty is found and even treasured. But it is amazing good news that the image of God each person reflects is not lost when the ability to control the body is lost, or when a home is destroyed by flood or fire, or precious things are lost.
This semester, because of a course I am teaching about care for the dying and bereaved, I have been reading a number of reflections from people who accompany the dying through all kinds of journeys: journeys with cancer, with AIDS, with dementias and other illnesses that take an awful lot away from people. And now I’m harboring the idea that if we want to know the extent of empire’s reach, all we have to do is imagine facing our own process of dying from a disease that will take away so much that we associate with “being human,” and ask ourselves the question: what would constitute losing the dignity that comes from being made in God’s image? Would it be losing control of bodily functions? Would it be losing cognitive ability; the capacity to remember? Is there anything that would erase the image of God in us? As I do my own reflective work I come up against a host of my own fears and feelings, which reveal to me how far I am from seeing myself as someone made in the image of God without a host of conditions attached.
But as I witness the actions and read the reflections of those who care for the dying, and what those who are dying have to teach the living, I find compelling portraits about how people give to God the things that are God’s. How many the portraits, when we look for them: sisters and brothers tending the earth; tending bodies and their need for warmth, comfort, and shelter; tending the life of the Spirit—decolonizing all the spaces in human life that are entrapped by views of life together that are tainted by empire’s influence. And a greater hope, a greater trust is nourished and watered. How needed, this witness, that whatever tempests may come, God’s abiding presence in and around us will never be withdrawn—no matter what. How did Angela Nelson put it in The Door? “We are the body of Christ, here and now. God is doing a new thing and the ancient thing of being with people through the stress of change and grief.”
And it is good news as well that the drama of all these moments in the life of faith:
- the unlikely coalitions that work for good and for ill,
- the push-back to empire; crowds singing with fervor, “Can the world be about to turn?”
- … and the crushing pain when it doesn’t—or at least when it doesn’t turn according to what we hoped would be its timetable—
are shared by the Jesus we proclaim as Lord? The One who brought amazement and astonishment even to his foes knew the pain of shame and the degradation of defeat. These, too, are moments in a story that is held in the embrace of God—but they are not the ending of the story. At Jesus’ table, when we share a loaf meant to feed everyone and not just the few; when we drink from the cup that still has power to nourish passion for shalom, we are gathered into this story, this great embracing story—we taste it, and we sing. Amen.
Matthew 22: 15-22