Admiral Akbar says, “It’s a TRAP!”
REV. CHRISTIAN BARON – October 19, 2014 – Year A: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
On Friday, I was at my second office, Simpatico, the coffee shop. I was there all week actually, frantically trying to get my ordination homework done before Jen got home from her vacation. When I’m there, I order my coffee, plug in my headphones, crack open the books and get to work. Sometimes people sit down at my booth. As an extrovert, I’m always happy to chat. On Friday the manager of the coffee shop sat down. We knew each others names, but not much else. She knew I was a clergy person because of my collar, but didn’t know if i worked at a church. She sat and asked me some questions because the shop was empty. We chatted about coffee and about how important it is for Christians to pay attention to the kind of coffee we buy. We talked about future partnerships. It was a nice conversation.
Then when I was packing up my books and lap-top and commentaries, the man sitting in the booth next to me said, “I see you are reading the book The Study of Anglicanism. That’s interesting. Are you Anglican?
“Why yes I am!” I said.
“Oh, what church do you work for? What Anglican church do you go to in town?”
I thought to myself, “this is why I study at the coffee shop. Soon the entire city of Holland will be attending Grace!” I gave my spiel about being an ordained transitional deacon and how I hope to be ordained a priest soon.
I explained that there is only one Anglican Church in Town… Grace Episcopal. I asked him if he goes to church someplace…
“Oh, well I go to the “Anglican church” here in Holland.
Oh no! I thought… You see he was attending the gathering of one of the split off groups of the Episcopal church. He belonged to an Episcopal break off group that has caused a lot of problems for the Episcopal church. This wasn’t a Grace Holland, breakoff group but a breakoff from the National Church… and… Confession time… I wasn’t prepared to be charitable or to talk shop with him. We awkwardly chatted a few more minutes and then I headed to church to wrap up my day.
Back at Grace, I joked with Gail and Jodi about how I stared into the face of the enemy at the coffee shop. I explained to Gail that the fellow’s church… the split-off church… that they were the bad guys. They were the ones who fractured the Episcopal Church. I was really feeling exceptionally righteous at this point. But Reverend Jodi… who is often times less competitive and much wiser than I, quicker to forgive and always at the ready to see the good in all people… reminded me that PEOPLE are NOT the enemy. And though it was difficult to hear, she was right. Though I do think that their beliefs led to an unhealthy atmosphere in the church and though it caused a rift and split… they are still, even if I don’t understand it fully, the body of Christ… even if we are estranged. Even if I think they are dead wrong… Even if I think that their actions have caused great damage to the Body that i have dedicated my life to serving… It is painful and difficult to think about being charitable when you know… when you think you know you are right… isn’t it? It should be noted at this point, for clarity, that i am not in any way endorsing these groups. This sermon isn’t even about those groups really but about how I process… how we process… our feelings of disdain or anger or when we feel hurt.
Because things are so much simpler when we’re the good guys and the OTHER… those folks over there… are the bad guys. You see…all it takes to bring a group of people together is a common enemy. We need a villain to bolster support and to steer the masses in the direction we are willful about. To steer my allies in the direction that we are certain is the truth. We want things black and white. Cops and Robbers.. Liberals and Conservatives… Us and them.
This is what the gospel is about today. These “black and whites” that we desire. The desire to huddle together and to defeat the other… the gathering of all those around us for a power grab… Is the economy of another Kingdom. An economy of competition and exclusion. An economy that Jesus is well aware of and that he knows cannot be and is in opposition to the Kingdom of God.
Things are really starting to ramp up now in Matthew’s gospel. Everybody is mad at Jesus. The Pharisees and the Herodians have teamed up to trap him. They know that Jesus threatens both groups and that together they can destroy him and squash his rebellion. The best way to understand this partnership between the Pharisees and Herodians would be to grapple with these odd partnerships… Imagine Greenpeace and The Tea Party deciding to work together… on anything? Or can you imagine the Michigan and Michigan State football teams getting together for brunch next Saturday morning before the big game? Or perhaps… Darth Vader decides to patch things up with the rebels and invites Admiral Akbar to a brainstorming session on how to serve the Galaxy better. Look out Jesus… it’s a trap!
The Herodians and Pharisees hated each other. The Herodians were overt collaborators with the Romans and disciples of Herod, the Judean King. The Pharisees had their own ideas about power and authority in Judea that were very different from the Herodians. The only way they would work together is if they had a common enemy. Luckily, they had Jesus. In Jesus they had both an enemy and a threat to their power… Jesus threatened their position in the established systems. And the closer the gospel gets to The Passion, the less willing Jesus is to share. The less he is willing to bend on anything… He refuses to compromise on anything that does not belong in God’s Kingdom. So they kill him… eventually.
But in the meantime, Jesus is still teaching those around, about another way to live. He’s teaching them about a new Kingdom with an economy that is noncompetitive. Is it lawful, Jesus, to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor? The trap is set…. the tension builds… The Herodians and Pharisees know that if Jesus says “Yes, pay the tax to Rome” that the people will see him as a collaborator and he will lose many of his followers… and his power… and maybe even his life… And, if he says, “no, don’t pay the tax to the Emperor” that it will get back to the Roman authorities, and they will crucify him for sedition.
What happens next is the best part of the story… Jesus, puts his hands into the front pockets of his tunic… finding nothing he reaches in his back pockets and then says,” Actually, I don’t have a denarius… do you have one?” You see, it went against Torah for the people of God to have currency with a graven image on it. The Emperor claimed to be divine. The ten commandments said Israel should have no graven images… and have no other God’s. God does not compete. He doesn’t share his Kingdom. But the Herodians and Pharisees produced the coin with the graven image. In so doing they get caught in their own trap.
The tax that the Herodians and Pharisees are speaking of was a temple tax. A tax to the Romans for the use of the Jewish Temple. A tax that was marginalized the poor and a tax that kept people from worshipping the creator of the universe. It was just the tip of the iceberg of a kingdom that oppressed, killed and destroyed God’s beloved. It was the absence of The True Kingdom… God’s Kingdom. This absence of justice… this absence of what is good… This absence of God is the definition of evil.
Today we can look around and see God’s kingdom can’t we. It takes intentionality, but we can see the goodness in one another. We can see the purity in those around and inside of us. We have a filter to help us separate God’s Kingdom from the kingdom of the unholy One… In our gospel the currency used is the danarius, and competition, and jealousy and murder and power. In Philipians, Paul identifies the currency of God’s Kingdom.
He lists them as…
When you see these things, you know you are in a good place. With these things God manages his house.. with these things he manages his Kingdom. The bickering and competition that comes with the unholy Kingdom is a trap.
Simpatico on Friday was an example of the Kingdom already come but not yet fully realized. Because of places like Simpatico, a more just world for coffee farmers is coming. And yet later, the emperors coin sat there in my pocket. The image of the kingdom of the unholy one stamped on it… I guess I’ll place it in the collection plate and on the altar.
In a few minutes, as we pray… think of these things. Imagine the Fruits of the Spirit and remember that the Kingdom is near.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.