Monday, October 20, 2014

Whose Image is Inscribed on You?

Earlier this week I was reading a lecture by the English bishop and scholar N.T. Wright.  In it, he argues that the Enlightenment shaped our modern worldview in two primary ways.  First, he said, it separated church and state which led to a mindset of a removed God who is concerned about heavenly things while we deal with earthly matters.  And second, it divided people into one of two camps: those for revolution verses those who seek to preserve the present order; the roots of liberalism and conservatism.  So here we are, several centuries removed from the Enlightenment and religion has become largely a private matter because God is relegated to “up there” and banned from the public square.  The liberal/conservative polarization means that every idea must be pushed in one direction or the other and then fought over rather than be evaluated on its own merits.

These assumptions of the way things are and work were not the worldview held by our biblical ancestors.  In the first reading we see Moses in dialogue with the Living God pleading for the Holy One to be present with the people and to rest in their midst.  The gospel reading gives us insight into the politics of Jesus’ day.  There were no liberals or conservatives, just a dominant foreign ruling power - the Romans.  Among the Jews, there were capitulators (like the Herodians) and there were faithful purists.  The purists were divided between nationalists, zealots, separatists, and others. 

When Jesus says “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,” we today interpret this through our post-Enlightenment worldview.  We hear it as a directive for each person to determine what he or she will give to God and we evaluate what the state does with its take based on our liberal or conservative ideology. 

Jesus’ listeners would have heard something very different.  His words cut right to the heart of the political and theological debate of the time.  Caesar demanded that every person under Rome’s control worship him as a deity.  For a faithful Jews who serve only the true and living God, this is not possible.  And Caesar’s profile inscribed on a coin is for them a graven image and a tangible, concrete symbol of this issue.  Faithful Jews avoided the currency at all costs.  It is a small but striking detail that the Herodian capitulators had to produce a coin for Jesus.  He, like all other faithful Jews, would not be carrying one and certainly not in the Temple. 

For Jesus, this teaching was not what it is for us.  It was not a message about stewardship and paying taxes.  First and foremost, it was a clever way to extricate himself from a trap that, if not handled well, could have resulted in charges of insurrection.  Beyond this, Jesus’ true intention is up for debate.  Was he calling on people to do what they had to do in order to get along?  Was he calling for people to resist, knowing that all things belong to God?  Was he doing something else altogether? 

If you like to read the bible, Peter Enns has written a helpful book titled The Bible Tells Me So: why defending scripture has made us unable to read it.  In it he sets out what he calls the 10 Commandments for reading the bible.  Let me share of few of them with you:

1. The Bible doesn’t answer all — or even most — of our questions.  Many of our questions, even some of the more pressing questions we face daily, aren’t answered in the Bible.  The Christian Bible isn’t an answer book but a story of how Jesus answers for us the biggest question of all: what God is like.

5. The Bible is open to multiple interpretations, not just one meaning.  The Bible is ancient and obscure, and its stories are “gapped” and flexible, which allowseven demandsreaders to interpret the Bible legitimately in various ways.  This is exactly what has been happening among Jews and Christians for over 2,000 years.

6. The Bible invites debate.  In fact, it can’t avoid it, given how open it is to multiple interpretations.  Winning Bible feuds with others, getting to the right answer, isn’t the end goal.  The back-and-forth with the Bible, and with God, is where deeper faith is found.

8. The Bible was written by Jews (and at least one Gentile in the New Testament) in ancient times.  This may sound too obvious to say, but it’s not.  The biblical writers were ancient writers expressing their faith in God using the vocabulary and concepts of their ancient cultures.  When we transpose our language and concepts onto biblical writers, even if we are trying to understand the Bible, we will actually distort it.

Keeping all of this in mind, let me say that debates about civic duty as well as reflection on the nature of Christian stewardship are both important endeavors for every baptized person.  These are our issues and concerns and, to use Enns’ language, we have transposed them onto Jesus’ words “Render unto Caesar…”, thus making it speak to something very different than it did in its original context. 

I wonder if we Christians would be better served by adopting the worldview of our biblical ancestors.  By doing so, we would hold to God’s intimate presence in all aspects of our life and we would set ourselves apart from capitulation to the dominate Caesar of our day – the modern secular culture that lifts up pleasure, possessions, and personal freedom as the keys to happiness.  We live in opposition to this as we live faithfully into our baptismal promises.  The tension between modern culture and our baptismal covenant is every bit as deep and as layered as the tension between Rome and Jerusalem was in Jesus’ day.  Can we live with a foot firmly entrenched in both kingdoms or do we need to make a decisive choice for one over the other?  Now there is a question that invites debate and is open to multiple interpretations.  How might render unto Caesar and render unto God contribute to our conversation around this question?

I keep a folder for every specific Sunday in the three-year lectionary cycle.  In each folder I keep printed copies of my old sermons, commentaries and snippets on those passages, and an occasional note or two.  Earlier in the week I looked through today’s folder and found a note I had written to myself 3, 6, 9, or 12 years ago, I don’t remember.  I have a vague memory of a thought that came to me sometime during a service when I preached on this text.  I thought it might be worthy of further exploration in a future sermon and I didn’t want to forget it.  The note says only this, “Whose image is inscribed on you?”

Whose image is inscribed on you?  What values and beliefs does your life reflect?  What witness is made by the way you live your life?  Are you a product of the culture or a person baptized into the Christian faith and life?  Whose image is inscribed on you? 

The other day I saw a picture of a man who got a tattoo so that his bald head looked like a New England Patriot’s football helmet.  That speaks loud and clear about something that is central and dear to him, doesn’t it.  You and I bear a tattoo on our foreheads where the oil of chrism at baptism marked us as Christ’s own forever.  It is, of course, an invisible inscription that we make visible through our lives and actions.  Is that the image you want people to see inscribed on you?

Invitation & Expectation

The king said to the man without the wedding garment, “How did you get in here”?

One of the most popular movie genres going is the heist where super-smart, super-patient, super-criminals pull off a super-complicated robbery.  The Italian Job, Ocean’s 11, and The Thomas Crown Affair are fascinating films because of the intricate, elaborate detail involved in the plot.  And in end, standing in an empty vault, some poor police detective is left to ask, “How did they get in here?”  On an August weekend in 2005, a real-life team of robbers managed to steal over $81 billion dollars from a bank vault in Brazil, but it didn’t take authorities long to figure out how they got in.  The bandits left behind a tunnel the length of a football field.  They had spent months digging under buildings and city streets in order to launch a stealthy, subterranean assault on the bank.  One of my all time favorite lines from the movie Police Squad, a spoof on heist films, is when Leslie Nielson encounters a suspicious man who appears to have broken into a building.  “Who are you and how did you get in here,” Nielson’s character demands to know.  The person answers, “I am a locksmith, and I am a locksmith.” 

“How did you get in here?”  In Jesus’ parable, it isn’t that the person without the proper wedding garment breaks in to a place he is not supposed to be.  He was, after all, invited at the last minute.  His offense is wrapped around how he presents himself.  He is inappropriately dressed for the occasion (and let me assure you from personal experience that is not a good feeling!). 

Jesus’ parable revolves around a king, a wedding, and the invited guests.  In the Hebrew culture of that day marriages were often arranged between families.  A bride and groom were given in marriage, but before they live together the husband goes off to prepare a home.  It may be in the same village or it may be far away.  It may take a few weeks to complete the task or it may take many months.  When all is made ready the groom returns for his bride and a celebration begins.  Typically these feasts last for days and days and they are “don’t miss” occasions in the life of a community.  No one knows exactly when the groom will return for his bride, but when he arrives, all work stops and everyone makes ready for the celebration.

Given this background, some of the elements of the parable begin to make sense while others leave us scratching our head.  It makes sense that the king has to send out messengers to alert the invited guests.  It does not make sense that the guests casually refuse, preferring rather to go about the drudgery of daily business.  This would be puzzling no matter who hosted the feast, but standing up the king is an unthinkable offense.  When given a second chance, the invitees seize the messengers and mistreat some while killing others.  The king is enraged.  Now, instead of messengers, he sends troops.  The judgment is swift, severe, and (given the times) predictable. 

Messengers are now sent throughout the region to invite any and everyone to the feast.  The wedding hall is filled with guests.  The party appears to be a smashing success but just when everyone has settled in and is having a good time, the king notices a person who is not wearing a wedding garment.  Scholars vary on this detail.  Did the king supply his guests with a wedding garment or did they bring one of their own?  In the end it matters not because everyone else managed to appear with the right thing on except this one individual.  What is equally clear from the story (and perhaps lost to us as listeners from a very different era) is that the absence of the robe is an egresses offense and a horrible insult.  The king has the person bound and thrown out of the party. 

The parable suggests that with the invitation there are certain expectations.  “How did you get in here?” is a way of saying, “Why did you accept my invitation if you were not willing to meet my expectations?”

Remember how Jesus begins this parable: “The kingdom of God may be compared to this story I am about to tell.”  It is a simile and not at all a kind one to Jesus’ audience at the time.  He told it to a group of religious leaders and politicians on a Wednesday afternoon in Jerusalem.  They perceive correctly that in Jesus’ parable God is the king and they are the initial invitees who refuse the invitation, at first rudely but later violently.   They are so enraged by Jesus’ condemnation that within forty-eight hours they will have him hanging from a cross.

You and I are a part of this parable as well.  We are among the second wave of guests, each called in a unique and distinct way.  Look around the church this morning.  How did you get in here?  Some of you were born into this parish; either the second, third, or even fourth generation of members.  A few of you married into St. Paul’s.  Some of you are Episcopalians who moved here from another city.  Some of you have been attending for only a couple of years or months, or even weeks.  Each Sunday over the last month and a half we have had people attend a service here for the first time.  I believe that no matter who you are and no matter what your story is, you are here because God invited you – YOU – to this place, to us, to St. Paul’s.  No one is here by accident.  Carried inside each person who walks in the door is a story.  Embedded in that story is the reason God drew you here – HERE – today.  And that is the reason why every person, from the first time visitor to the oldest living member of the parish to a new born baby to a lost and hurting soul, is welcomed here with open arms.  We want you here because God wants you here.  We are like the kingdom of God when we welcome you into the marriage feast that is our common life together. 

That is the invitation that God issues to each one of us.  But what are the expectations that accompany it?  What does the wedding garment represent? 

Among Evangelicals it has become popular to associate the garment with St. Paul’s theology of righteousness.  Christians ‘put on’ the robe of Christ’s perfection in order to be justified in God’s eyes.  If we don’t put on Christ, but rather insist on relying on our own goodness to be saved, we will be rejected.  The only way to be saved is to put on Christ’s righteousness.  I tend to play down this kind of theology because it makes the whole pursuit of religion sound like some heavenly transaction that has little to do with us and our response.  It makes “believing in Jesus” feel like little more than purchasing car insurance: I’m covered so I am good if something happens.

Jesus’ expectations of his followers were more basic and concrete than Paul’s esoteric ideas.  First, like John the Baptist, he called on people to repent.  It was not so much a demand in order to get into the kingdom but a path you walk that leads away from the destructive nature of sin and toward the life and health of faithful obedience.  Next, Jesus called on people to believe in him; that he was sent from God and that his words and witness reflect the life God offers to all.  Finally, Jesus says that his followers are to pattern their lives after his by loving God and their neighbor.  If you accept the invitation than the expectation is you will repent, believe, and follow. 

So again, how did you get in here?  What ‘invitation’ brought you to this place?  And, are you meeting the expectations that come with accepting it? 

If we were to ask the people in today’s first reading “How did you get here?” they would answer, “Well, Yahweh brought us out of Egypt and delivered us through the waters of the Red Sea, and led us out to here into the wilderness.”  If you were to ask them how they are doing at living up to what is expected of them, they would look at the golden calf, look down at the ground, kick their feet in the sand, and have not much to say. 

In Jesus’ parable, the judgment on the first guests as well as the judgment on the person without the wedding garment is excruciating and final.  Every parable has its limits.  It tells us something of what God’s kingdom is like, but not everything.  No one parable can do that.  The truth is this: in this life there is no final judgment.  When we do wrong, with that judgment there is always the offer of mercy and grace.  There is always an opportunity to repent and return to the Lord. 

I have said before that my favorite image of the Christian life is the way or the path.  It suggests that we are moving from where we were and making progress getting to where we want to be.  Some days we make more progress than others.  Some days the path is easy to navigate while other days it is difficult and rugged.  Some days we make no progress at all and there is the occasional day when we lose our way altogether.  But always and every day we never walk alone.  The One sent from God gives us the very Spirit of God as a companion on the way.  And the One sent from God invites us into communities of faith so that we can walk with others who are on the way as well.  Each of us accepts the invitation and seeks, as best we can, to repent, to believe, and to follow.