Sunday, November 5, 2017

The God of Creative Tension (Sermon)

“The God of Creative Tension”
Matthew 22:15-22
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Jesus has been pushing the envelope with the Jewish leaders. In an effort to rein in this renegade rabbi, and to try to restore a sense of normalcy, at least in their own minds, some Pharisees hatch a scheme to ambush Jesus with a question.
         “Is it lawful,” they will ask, “to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
         The plan is for Yes and No to be equally dangerous for Jesus and equally expedient for the Pharisees. Depending on what gives them the most leverage over Jesus, the Pharisees are willing to position themselves as either loyal Jews first or loyal Roman subjects first. Now, the tax at issue has to do with harvests and personal property.1 Like a sales tax, it’s regressive. It imposes a much heavier burden on the poor than on the rich. If Jesus says Yes, he will appear to be double-crossing the Jews in general, and the tax-oppressed poor in particular – the very people on whom Jesus’ ministry has focused.
On the other hand, if Jesus says No, the Pharisees can simply report him to the Roman authorities for sedition.
         It seems like a fool-proof plan, unless, of course, the plan has been hatched by fools – fools, in this case, being those who are motivated by fear and revenge, yet tell themselves that they’re champions of righteousness and justice. One aspect of Pharisaic foolishness is to separate the world into dualistic categories – Jew and Gentile, male and female, clean and unclean.
How many times have you heard someone say, “There’re two kinds of people in the world”? Those eight words almost always precede some kind of mind-closing statement of opposing absolutes. And such statements usually imply that one side is strong, or right, or good while the other side is weak, or wrong, or bad.
         The genius of Jesus is that he teaches attitudes and models actions which are righteous and just while living in such a way that he doesn’t bisect the world into opposing factions. It’s his followers who divide the world into saved and unsaved, lost and found, good and bad. And how can disciples justify polarized and polarizing living when the one whom we claim to follow goes out of his way to be not only in the presence of but in relationship with everyone, including those who oppose him?
         It seems to me that Christians often practice Pharisaism in order to maintain a sense of authority, security, and even supremacy in the world. And I think we’re tempted to do it all the more viciously when the world seems to be falling apart around us. Remember, the Jewish world is falling apart during the first century, too. Rome holds all of its territories in a kind of social, political, and economic choke hold. Caesar finances his continuing wars and conquests by emptying the pockets of the peoples he has vanquished. For the Jews in Palestine, everything familiar is ending. The future is unfolding toward something unknown and terrifying. Trying to regroup and to return to what was is futile. They’re in the midst of an all-encompassing death, and to the Pharisees, Jesus seems to be just another sign of the world’s demise.
         As an Easter community, the Church proclaims that Jesus is God’s sign and promise of all that’s new and hopeful, all that’s righteous and just. Even when familiar things are dying around us, following Jesus means following him into that death. The crazy and beautiful thing for Jesus-followers is that entering death means entering, at the same time, into resurrection. Not only does Jesus transcend all the fragmenting categories of opposites, he transcends all that appears to separate life and death.
         Looking at the coin used for the tax, Jesus asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
         “The emperor’s,” they say.
         “Give…to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
         Stunned and speechless, the Pharisees leave Jesus alone.
         The Pharisees try to bait Jesus into to dividing the world into two kinds of people – those who collect taxes and those who pay taxes. And Jesus won’t bite. What’s more, he won’t even divide the world into spiritual and mundane. His answer reveals that the creation is a place in which holiness and worldliness are woven together into an indivisible wholeness.
         In his book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, Richard Rohr observes that, in the first creation story, it isn’t until the third day that God begins to call the creation good. The first two days had been about making separations – light from dark, sky from earth, up from down. When water and land begin to coexist, when plants and animals begin to appear on the same ground and in the same waters, only then does God begin calling things good.2
In the story of Noah, the Hebrews weave the ancient Gilgamesh epic into their own story. And in the Hebrew version, an ark gets inhabited by all these opposites – male and female, clean and unclean, predator and prey, things that fly and things that creep. And God confines all these opposites together in one place. The ark is a magnificent metaphor. It’s a microcosm of the entire creation. The ark is the earth! And we all live in it, together!
“The…reason that Jesus is the icon of salvation for so many of us,” says Rohr, “is because he [holds opposites] together so beautifully.”3
Discipleship means doing what Jesus does. It means learning to live in the “paradox of incarnation,” holding within us “flesh and spirit, human and divine, joy and suffering.”3 To be fully human means living in that relentless but creative tension in which we encounter and embrace otherness. We cannot experience God as good, nor can we experience the creation as good outside of this tension. As the body of Christ, we are called, individually and corporately, to commit our time, our money, our very lives to bearing witness to the God of creative tension.
Jesus does make one clear distinction in today’s story. There’re two kinds of people in the world, he says: Those who think they’re God, and those who know they’re not. When Jesus says to give to the emperor that which is the emperor’s, and to God that which is God’s, he’s saying that, contrary to what the Caesars of the world believe, they are not God. That’s exactly what the signatories of The Barmen Declaration were saying back in the 1930’s. Jesus is Lord, not Hitler, not the Third Reich, and not the conspicuously pious, Christian Pharisees who were selling their souls to save their lives by colluding with those who were trying to use genocidal fear, prejudice, and violence to return their country to prominence, and to keep it pure and Aryan-nation white. God is never behind the easing of the tension of opposites. God is always right in the thick of it.
“Give…to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We hold those things in the same two hands.
As human beings, our Sitz im Leben is the tension between holy and worldly opposites. We can deny that reality, but we can’t change it. We can’t legislate, preach, or bomb our way out of it. Nor should we try, because, for Jesus-followers, living in the tension means that every day, every moment, every encounter, and conversation presents us with opportunities to experience both our humbling, human limitations and the transcendent power of resurrection.
Look around you. Look across every aisle you can imagine. Giving to God that which is God’s means recognizing and giving thanks for the mystery and holiness that lives within every corner of the known and knowable creation – including your own life.

1Susan Grove Eastman, Feasting on the Word, `(Year A, Volume 4), David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds., Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2011. P. 191.
2Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, OH, 2008.
Pp. 32-33.
3Ibid. Pp. 36-37.