This morning, I had the joy of sharing in worship with, and preaching for, the good folks of All Souls Episcopal Cathedral. I’m grateful to Dean Todd Donatelli for the invitation.
To the words from Matthew, I add the gospel according to Aretha Franklin: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me.”
As you know, to respect, is to re-inspect–to look again. It’s to go beyond the first impression, to peer beneath the surface to another’s essential humanity and God-given possibility.
To respect someone is to remember that how things appear at first glance never tell what we most need to know about each other. We’re more, far more, than meets the eye. A person is not merely or mainly blue collar or white collar or no collar, part of labor or management, a customer of Wal-Mart or of Nordstrom’s, Republican or Democrat, single or married, rich or poor, healthy or sick, old or young, sinner or saint. We put these and countless other labels on ourselves and each other, and their effect is to distance us from what is truest and holiest and most human about us.
I believe that the Spirit ceaselessly invites us to look again; keep that invitation in mind as we listen to this morning’s story from Matthew.
The tension between Jesus and his detractors had been rapidly increasing. Among his own people, he had become a provocateur. Just days before, Jesus had staged a scene of guerilla theater in the Jerusalem Temple. He overturned the tables of moneychangers who, for a fee, exchanged Roman coins for Temple coins so that people could give their offerings to God. He drove out merchants who sold animals for sacrifices to traveling pilgrims.
The jangling noise of tables crashing to the floor and coins bouncing off the stones was the sound of judgment. He drove the money changers and animal sellers from the temple because they charged exorbitant prices, oppressing the poor and making the house of God a market of racketeers rather than a refuge of prayer for everyone.
Jesus threatened the false but workable peace that religious leaders had worked out with the Empire—the Roman government.
Jesus gave the poor and the marginalized hope that the status quo did not have to remain in place, that God would liberate them from their forced subservience to the powers that be, that they would have enough of what they needed to sustain their lives, and that they would experience more than enough joy and peace to make life worth living.
These ragtag hopers who thronged around Jesus were, more and more, in the streets, declaring him as their long-anticipated Messiah. The religious leaders knew that the Romans would not tolerate any kind of political unrest which might seem to undermine the stability of their imperial rule, and they knew that Rome would hold them responsible for Jesus, since the squabble between him and them was their responsibility to solve.
So, there religious leaders who rarely and reluctantly cooperated with each other conspired to lay a trap for Jesus. They cooked-up a question about taxes—not the temple tax, which they imposed, or the land taxes, custom taxes, public utility taxes, and trade taxes Rome and its minions collected. They focused their question on a particularly galling tax, the one which the residents of occupied Palestine most resented. For shorthand, we’ll call it the “Imperial Tax”; its proceeds paid for the costs of the Roman government’s presence in Palestine. It was, in other words, the oppressed paid to their oppressors to underwrite the cost of their oppression.
So, the plotters went to Jesus and first tried to butter him up with empty flattery: “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.” Then they asked what they were sure was an iron-clad-trap-of-a-question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
If Jesus said, “yes,” then the common people, the most destitute and desperate, at whose side he faithfully stood and upon whose wounds he had lavishly poured-out mercy, would feel abandoned and betrayed. If he said, “no,” then the religious leaders would have what they needed to turn him over to the Empire as an insurrectionist.
Instead of saying “yes” or “no,” Jesus asked a couple of questions of his own. I’m sure you’ve heard about the young Torah student who asked his rabbi, “Teacher, why do you answer all of my questions with a question?” And, the old man replied, “My son, what is wrong with my answering all of your questions with a question?”
Jesus’ first question revealed the prosecutors’ motives: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”
Then he said: “Show me the coin used for the tax.” They did so. Jesus asked: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” A better translation is: “Whose image is this and whose title does it bear?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” The coin bore an image of Tiberius Caesar and the title on it was “son of God.”
There were also unspoken but unavoidable questions: “And you, whose image do you bear? What is your title—your identity?”
Genesis says: “Then God created humankind in God’s own image, in that divine image God created them, male and female God created them” (Genesis 1:26). You bear God’s image.
And what is your title? You are God’s beloved and cherished daughter, God’s beloved and cherished son, in whom God takes great delight.
So does, and so is, everyone else. There are no exceptions, no matter how broken or shattered, no matter how sinful or shameful, and no matter race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, or sexuality. There is no one in whom God’s image has been completely distorted and no one beyond the reach of God’s embrace.
After Jesus allowed a silence in which they could answer the unspoken and powerful questions, 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.”
In this twisted, torn, and tumultuous world, Caesar, to Empire, the Domination Systems (Borg’s term), or oppressive powers—call them what you will—extract things from us. We do not have to, and we must not, render up to them our humanity, our compassion, and our commitments to joy and justice, mercy and peace.
Nietzsche cautioned us: “He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself, and if thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into thee.”
Weary of becoming dragon-like, I suggest that we can and should view the current political chaos through the lenses of our faith in the goodness, patience and redemptive power of God, rather than seeing our faith through the fog of our despairing, cynical, and divisive politics.
I remind us, too, that the world is not in the hands of the American president nor will it later be in the hands of another president; it is not in the hands of the North Korean supreme leader or of the Federal Reserve Chairman or anyone else. They are, to varying degrees, expressions of the Empire. Instead, the world is in God’s good hands. We need only and must only put ourselves in those same tender and transforming hands.
These days, I am trying to be vigilant about what I render—surrender—to whom, and I’m praying that, in this degrading and dehumanizing era, I won’t get trapped in words or actions which would diminish anyone’s dignity or demean anyone’s worth or cause anyone to doubt God’s love for him or her.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: that’s what we owe ourselves and one another–respect for the image of God in ourselves and everyone else. We look again and again, ever more deeply and lovingly, until we see in everyone the image of God.
For several years after he retired from teaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory, Fred Craddock, retired professor of preaching, served a little country church in rural northern Georgia he helped to start.
He said he was called to their small county hospital one day when a baby was born . . . . Not many babies are born in this little 30 bed emergency facility. It was obvious this was a poor, backwoods family. He met the father and asked the baby’s name. “Elizabeth,” he said.
You couldn’t hear her through the glass window, but it was obvious she was screaming. Trying to be a comforting pastor, he said to the father, “You know, she’s not sick or anything. It’s good for them to scream…clears their lungs.”
The simple father said, “Oh, I know she ain’t sick. She’s just mad.”
“Why would she be mad?”
“Well, wouldn’t you be, if one minute you were with God in heaven, and the next minute you were in Georgia?”
Craddock said he thought, “Man, I’ve got me a real mountain Gnostic on my hands. This guy’s been reading Plato.” He said, “So you believe she was with God before she came here?”
“You think she’ll remember?”
The new father replied, “Well that’s up to her ma and me. We got to make sure she remembers who she is, ‘cause if she forgits, she’s a goner” (Craddock Stories, edited by Mike Graves, p.127).
Who are you? Whose image do you bear? You bear the image of God.
What is you title—your identity? You are a beloved son, a beloved daughter, of God.