St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1788

E-mail: office@stmarymags.ca


The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

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Sermon

October 18th Pentecost 20, 2020                      John Marsh


Exodus 33, 12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22


A preface:


If we live, it is impossible to avoid life’s messiness. If we try to do so, we do nothing but make more of a mess!


Is it possible, as followers of Christ, that we are to be mystics meandering in the mess!¹


Is it possible we are to attend to the mess while also seeing beyond, beneath, behind it.


Is it possible we are to be people pointing to alternative ways of seeing in a world where many assume sight.


~


"Give…to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."      Matthew 22:21b


This gospel is not about piety but about power and authority, who exercises it, where and in what way.


There are few passages which have been as misunderstood, few passages as hermeneutically twisted.


To illustrate, the response of certain church groups to the humanitarian issues of Latin American refugees in the American Southwest generated the following comment of one Arizona resident, “these groups should listen to Jesus who said, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ which means that Christian’s should always obey the law of the land.”


While this interpretation is profoundly perverse, it is historically all too common.


That the ‘good news’ has been so twisted into its opposite is a testament to the extent, the subtlety, and the perversity of accommodation. So, let’s be clear, the intent of the text is to entrap Jesus; this was no faithful inquiry.² Later accommodationist interpretations represent a post Constantinian context not the teaching of Yeshua.


We need to remember that the accommodationist spirit of the Herodian’s, the hypocrisy of some Pharisee’s has never gone away nor is it ever far away.


To illustrate, centuries ago ‘the two-kingdom theory’, put forth by Martin Luther, is a testament to the creativity of accommodation.  


The two-kingdom interpretation of Jesus’ saying posits the presence of two kingdoms: the spiritual realm of god to which we owe spiritual and religious allegiance and the political, economic and social realm of empire to which we owe everything else.


Within these two realms³ one can be an honourable citizen of the world (so yes, obey the law, pay taxes, serve the nation and support the military) while, at the same time, honouring god whose kingdom is not of this world but of a heavenly realm beyond this world.


Ideally, these distinct realms were complimentary, the good of the one supporting the good of the other, but practically, especially with the advent of the enlightenment, they came to inform the separation of church and state - the one involving all matters of public life, the other the private and the personal.⁴


(Remember the accommodationist spirit of the Herodian’s, the hypocrisy of some Pharisee’s, has never gone away nor is it ever far away.)


This spirit of accommodation allows the world, the way of empire - the Roman, the American, the corporate, it matters not - to function essentially unimpeded, often with institutionally sanctioned religious blessing.


But while so blessed, there is a price to pay. (There is always a price.)


It seems that the seductive and alluring ways of normative civilization wizens the soul and with wizened souls we cannot help but distort whatever is stirring within the name of god.


With wizened souls, we are led to do one thing and believe another, all the while blinded to accumulating contradictions, led to say ‘All Lives Matter’ while blinded to the freight and weight carried those deemed other, First Nations, Black, Brown, Asian…


Religiously speaking, with wizened souls, we project all power on to god claiming little or none for ourselves.


Culturally, with wizened powerless souls, we claim no responsibility (it’s always ‘above our pay scale’, even if

we are the CEO).


With wizened powerless souls, we maintain innocence (it’s not our department, not our job, our hands are tied, there is nothing to be done).


Truth to tell, if no one is responsible everyone is innocent; if everyone is innocent, innocence is meaningless and accountability, personal or otherwise, vanishes like a wisp of smoke. And so, without power, without responsibility, without accountability, we are a hollowed people no matter how hallowed we believe ourselves to be.⁵


As people so hollowed, we are emptied, and, as nature abhors a vacuum, we fill our emptiness: we rationalize, we justify, we consume, we produce to consume, perhaps coming to tacitly believe that, as a bumper sticker in the 90’s proclaimed, we are ‘born to shop’ or perhaps, as a song suggests, ‘born to be entertained’.⁶


As one’s entertained, as one’s ‘born to shop’, we, as dutiful consumers (nee citizens) blindly and blithely support the political and corporate systems which fuel the engines of the normalcy of civilisation.


Now with circuitous logic, with emptiness momentarily filled, with civilization at stake, we do our part: we must fulfill our responsibilities as consumers, be accountable to the system and assert control over the engines of destiny.


Now we have the best of both worlds – systemically we’re innocent, without responsibility or accountability while free to believe that we are in control of our lives, the masters of our own destiny.⁷


Talk about ‘freedom’ – control without responsibility, choice without accountability!


Oh, the glory of it all!


But what if - and here’s the fly in the ointment:⁸


What if that which we name as god infuses, haunts the whole - the public and the private, the personal and the structural?


What if we are but cosmic squatters, here today, gone tomorrow?


What if despite what we say – it’s not simply ours?


What if despite what we believe – we have responsibilities?


What if despite what we think – we have accountabilities?


What if despite what we have built – we have built on sand?


What if despite our individualistic bias - we are in this together?


What if despite our assumptions of separation - we are inter-related and inter-connected within creation?


What if within interconnections, life, sometimes named as god, as holy, as sacred, lures us?


What if our justifications are but equivocations, lies told to ourselves?


What if ‘control’ is our creation, our fantasy?


What if as creatures, as citizens of the common, we were to see ourselves as interdependent within creation, within that which we name as god, not all powerful but not without power, not in control but not out of control!


What if we were to see power as neither god’s nor ours, as not a personal attribute but a relational dynamic!


What if power is an energy, a dynamic of our relationship with the other, that sometimes named as god, stirring within creation, involving us within the fabric of creation, within life’s lures, directed to greater creativity and the possibility of greater good within ongoing conversation, discernment, and work! ⁹


Power involves us but not just us; what if power involves the holy but not just the holy...


Power involves us and god stirring within the whole…


It involves all creation but never apart from that which is stirring within the name of god, the human and all life…


A postscript:


As we are so conditioned by the norms of civilization, questions of power and authority are difficult for us to address.


But I pray that we are enabled to remember that:


No one is as powerful as they think themselves to be not even god - omnipotence is our fantasy not god’s identity!


No one is as powerless as they feel themselves to be except – if I may be playful for moment – for god; perhaps god’s ‘power’ is a weak force, a haunting, an invitation inviting responses, a ‘gravitational' lure¹⁰…


Those of us who feel powerless need to rediscover our original blessing – we are children of god, blessed, beautiful and gifted each in our own way and, if this is not too fine a point, we are not children of the church nor is faith, hope and love founded or grounded upon ecclesial structure! Truth to tell, faith, hope, and love does not eschew structure yet the powerful need to rediscover the reality of hubris, remembering they are of the earth, created of the dust!


Those most in need of our prayer are those whose power is cloaked in powerlessness for they cut a huge swath through life and are blinded to its effects; they need the discipline of honesty and love, they need to follow the way…


…we know, brothers and sisters, beloved of god, that [god] has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…                                                                                                             1Thessalonians 1:4-5



 ¹ This line is an echo of a line in the poem, Paradox – ‘I’m a mystic who meanders in mess.’

 ² To clarify entrapment, the Herodian’s were those few who accommodated the Roman’s benefitting from occupation. They wish to trip up Jesus and draw him to the attention of the Romans. The Pharisee’s, well known for their public resistance to the ways of Caesar and the realities of occupation, wish to trip up Jesus and draw down on to Jesus the ire of the populace. That certain Pharisee’s and the Herodian’s were willing to work together speaks to the truth that ‘politics makes strange bedfellows’.

 ³ I was so tempted to use the descriptor ‘separate but equal’ which was the segregationist’s justification of black segregation in the American south. This ‘code language’, so subtly simple, is deceptively violent.

 ⁴ To be clear, this is not advocacy of a theocracy or a return to religious wars but rather to point to increasing historical sensibilities that religion has nothing to say about politics and the state.

 ⁵ This lies behind the problem with being the ‘victim’. It is not that there is no such thing as being victimized but to identify as a ‘victim’ is to remove agency and ultimately to render the victimized as helpless.

 ⁶ Regarding this latter point, see Nirvana’s song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ which contains the lyric, ‘Here we are now, entertain us’.

 ⁷ You may think that this is a paradoxical situation but there is, in fact, an inner coherence – deluded into a state of seeming powerlessness we can eschew all responsibility, accountability and maintain innocence - someone else is responsible which sets the stage for avoidance, denial, repression and/or scapegoating. As one innocent, we can be remade into anything and so we yearn, search, for the right partner, the right job, the right life, the right house, the right church, the right response to make all things right.

 ⁸ With the foregoing overview of the ways of the world I am not suggesting that the only faithful response for followers of the way of Jesus is to isolate oneself, living a ghetto existence separated away. Christians must be involved in the common life; but they must do so as followers of Jesus! Imagine what the board rooms, the cabinet rooms or the senate floors would be like if someone (dare I say a few) were to ground their debate and decision-making on the commandment to render unto god that which is god’s (i.e. everything)!

 ⁹ Where there is greater creativity, there is also the real possibility of greater destructivity and greater evil. Hubris and naiveté are dangerous because we are led into the ‘swamplands of the soul’. Paralysing fear is dangerous because so immobilized we cannot stand up when needed, saying no to the onslaught of evils suitably, necessarily justified. Ultimately, despite our desires and delusions, no one is innocent; no one is free of the dynamics of the world. Here we need to be so grounded in the holy (‘in Christ’) that we claim our birthright (original blessing) without denying our weakness and shortcomings (sin). Opening to rhythms of grace, it is hoped that we can become a people without hubris and without humiliation, a people who refuse to exercise power without the holy, the other.

 ¹⁰ Gravity is a weak force. If it were stronger, we would be immobilized perhaps flattened.