Thoughts on the Gospel reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost:
In this strange story, we find Jesus being approached by Jewish representatives of two opposing ideological camps who are working together to trip him up: the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. The pairing of these two groups is rather odd; while the Pharisees were a religious sect who opposed Roman imperialism (they were a religious class "for the people," truly the religious Tea Party of their day), the Herodians were a political movement of Jews who were supportive of Herod Antipas and the legacy of his father, Herod the Great, and were very likely supporters of the Roman occupation.
Faced by these opposing views, the question is asked of Jesus: "Do we pay taxes to the Empire, or don't we?"
If he says, "Yes, pay those taxes," he is supporting the Herodians and their enthusiasm for the political power of the Empire, suggesting that Jesus himself is more Roman than Jew; if he says "No, don't pay the taxes," he is liable to be arrested, or worse, executed as an insurrectionist and all-around rabble rouser.
The writer of Matthew is very interested in the relationship between the power of the Kingdom of Heaven and the power of earthly authority, especially when it comes to money.
Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus and his disciples are approached by the collectors of the Temple didrachma tax, asking if the Teacher "pays his dues" to the established religious order. Jesus suggests to Peter that children of the Heavenly Father should be exempt from paying such a tax, but—so as not to offend—he sends Peter to catch a fish, and in the fish's mouth is a stater coin (a tetradrachm, or four-drachma), which serves to pay the Temple tax for both Jesus and Peter. Strangely enough, the demands of the human institution are satisfied by nature's provision.
The miracle of the fish exposes the triviality of the entire Temple tax system.
In both stories, Jesus is actually somewhat flippant, in a way that recalls his answer to Peter's question about "the disciple whom Jesus loved" at the end of the Gospel of John:
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’—John 21:20-22
In a dualistic world, Jesus is a perpetual proponent of the "third way." Jesus almost always answers with a non-answer to show that the issues which seem most pressing to us, in an eternal sense, are really non-issues. We betray our own humanity by consistently asking precisely the wrong questions.
"What about him?" we ask. "What about him?" Jesus answers.
So what is it that serves to "tax" you?
Jesus, do we pay taxes or not?
Jesus, do we support gay marriage or not?
Jesus, do we vote Democrat or Republican?
Jesus, do we support our five wars or not?
Jesus, do we shop at Wal Mart or not?
Jesus's response reminds us that the answer is both strikingly simple yet intimately complex:
"Don't bother me with trivialities. As for you, you follow me."
The Kingdom has bigger fish to fry.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Sunday, October 9, 2011
I have spent the last evening and morning throwing on the pottery wheel, and the results of my labor have been a dandy little coffee cup and a tall, thin, eucharist chalice.
Before bed last night, I began a loaf of sourdough bread, and left it to rise overnight. By the morning, it had tripled in size. I formed it into a loaf and baked it.
I am quickly (although somewhat reluctantly) learning to be grateful for solitude. With Alyssa working and going to class, I rarely see her. And while my fascination with community is still strong, I am starting to realize how much I can accomplish on my own, whether or not other people in our community want or are able to join me in some of my endeavors. If I don't get caught up on having to have someone enjoy my interests with me, I become free to fully enjoy them on my own.
Maybe I'll can some blackberry jelly this afternoon.
Wendell Berry wrote a series of Sabbath poems over the course of many years. This is one of my favorites:
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we're asleep.
When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
I hope this Sabbath brings you the peace that comes with solitude, and the courage to enjoy it.
Friday, October 7, 2011
"I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life."—Leo Tolstoy
Where next, God?
Where next, God?
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Thoughts on the Gospel reading for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Growing up, I attended a tiny United Methodist church in my hometown. It was there that I developed a fascination with church liturgy and holy day observance that has continued (with the occasional lapse here and there) to this day. We hung the greens for Advent and decorated the Christmas tree with chrismon ornaments that my great-grandmother had made, we held baptisms in the river not far from our chapel, and each spring practiced a number of somber observances for Holy Week.
Every year on the morning of Good Friday, the 20 or 25 members of my church would gather together for a somber recitation of a Good Friday litany, followed by a breakfast of homemade hot cross buns, coffee, and "Russian Tea" (which I later learned was really just hot tea, orange juice, and cinnamon). For me, this simple gathering and observance of one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar has dug itself into my memory, and it has become an integral piece of my outward expression of my own faith.
Every Good Friday for the last three years, I have tried to uphold the breakfast tradition so familiar to me from my childhood. Each year I wake up at 3 a.m. to begin making the hot cross buns from scratch; I keep a silent vigil while the dough rises, and at around 7 a.m., I put on some liturgical music to listen to while I wait for people to arrive. When everyone has gathered, we participate in a litany that I have written, followed by prayer, and just being together.
However, in the last three years combined of keeping this tradition, I'm pretty sure I can count on one hand the number of people who joined me for Good Friday breakfast. This year, only one person showed up—our friend Lake. Alyssa and I were left with two enormous pans of fluffy, newly-iced hot cross buns, and no one else to eat them.
At the time, we lived in a coffee shop, and the shop was open on that day. After it was clear that no one else was going to join us, Lake, Alyssa, and I took the hot cross buns downstairs and shared them with our community of friends there. Folks that came from a variety of backgrounds—very few were religious at all, let alone Christians who observed Good Friday. Gay, straight, Pagan, art students, biology students, young folks, older folks. People who came to mean a lot to us during our time at the shop. These were people that we loved.
Perhaps not everyone grasped the gravity of the holiday—heck, we were giving out free buns! who cares about the religious tradition?—but we all certainly felt the importance of community and we all enjoyed one another's company. Though no one showed up to our planned event and we felt disappointed and under-appreciated for the briefest of moments, we were given the gift of celebrating community with food and conversation. To this day, that Good Friday has been one of the most memorable holy day observances I have ever experienced.
In our work for the Kingdom, sometimes we operate under the assumption that If you build it, they will come. And, most unfortunately, this is very often quite untrue. Sometimes people just aren't going to show, no matter how big you build it, or how well it is built. Sometimes our best ideas fall flat simply because of a lack of interest from others. Sometimes folks just don't want to get out of bed, even if for some delicious hot cross buns.
There are many possible pieces of Christ's parable of the wedding banquet to fixate upon: the seemingly over-the-top rage of the king that essentially leads to the genocide of all who are "too busy" to come to the wedding (surprisingly, not an option I have previously considered for my Good Friday gatherings); I could go into Jewish wedding customs from the time of Christ; I could analyze why the king calls the mysterious robe-less man "Friend" before proceeding to throw him into the darkness for showing up without the proper attire (seems pretty harsh—beggars shouldn't be choosers, after all).
But to me, the entire parable hinges on verse 10. Those who were welcomed to the feast initially but turned down the invitation suddenly become the subject of the king's wrath. So his servants take to the streets dragging in everyone they can find. Good and bad, all are brought to the wedding feast together. The great message here is that it doesn't take the people who are "worthy" to build the Kingdom of God. It takes everyone: good and bad alike (we might say insiders and outsiders). A wedding without guests is lousy. So is a Kingdom without people who are willing to help build it together. Perhaps, if we personally commit ourselves to building it regardless of who shows up to help us, we just might receive the unexpected surprise of unintentional community. And therein lies unexpected grace.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
It's been a long-standing joke between my good friend Tyler Tankersley and myself that our passion for Biblical academia has evolved in almost opposite directions. Tyler's love of the Hebrew Bible rivals that of most rabbis I know (okay, I don't really know any rabbis), and I have been more and more fascinated by the Gospels since I took my first New Testament literature class my first semester of college, almost six years ago.
A couple weeks ago, Tyler started a little experiment with the weekly Hebrew Bible readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, posting his thoughts each week, so I decided to copy his idea and provide some of my own thoughts for the correlating weekly Gospel readings (I'm not much for the Epistle passages, personally).
So stay tuned for my new series on the Gospel readings for each week, Everyday Revo-Lectionary (see what I did there?). Looking forward to posting and hearing some of your thoughts.