Sunday, October 18, 2020

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 24 A - October 18, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Robert Magliula, OHC

Over these last weeks, our readings have expressed how the circle of God’s embrace expands to include more people in God’s unfolding story of salvation. This portion of Isaiah was probably written toward the conclusion of the Babylonian Exile, before Israel returned to rebuild Jerusalem and reclaim its identity. Isaiah names King Cyrus of Persia, as God’s own anointed, the only place in Hebrew scripture where a foreigner enjoys the sociopolitical title of messiah. The reason is that when Cyrus conquered kingdoms, his policy was founded on tolerance and understanding, permitting local cultural and religious identity and autonomy. 

As we are learning in this pandemic and foreign political climate, the experience of exile and return deepens self- understanding for all of us. The prophet invites us today to affirm the utter mystery of God and of divine action in the world and to perceive it in unexpected times and places. We get in trouble when we attempt to domesticate God---when we dare speak of God as part of our group alone. God cannot be owned and never will be.
Today, Matthew, continuing to recount the dispute between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day relates a deceitful plan to trap Jesus in a no-win situation. As a colony of the Roman Empire the Jews were paying taxes that supported the occupying army and government. They were required to use a special coin bearing the image of the Emperor which the Pharisees saw as a violation of the first and second commandments. If he advises not paying the tribute tax, he will be accused of sedition. If he advises paying, he sets aside the law of God.
Jesus widens the question by placing it in the context of identity by asking “Whose image is on it?” None of us are exempt from discerning what belongs to whom. Tertullian, writing in the early third century said, “Render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin, and to God God’s image, which is on the human.” 1 Coins bearing Caesar’s image belong to Caesar. Human beings bearing God’s image belong to God. 

Caesar will get his coins, but the coin of our flesh and blood is the image of God. Every life is marked with the inscription of the One who is its source and destination. The theological point that Jesus makes about God’s interest has nothing to do with power, as Caesar’s does.  The God to whom we render our days is the God Isaiah describes from the midst of exile. The tender compassion of God for God’s children is the product of the inspiration for all the rendering we do, and the taproot of our politics. For Christians, baptism is the watermark of our true currency. At our baptism we are marked with the sign of the cross. Even so, all of us walk a fine line in negotiating the currency of our identity: collaborators some of the time, subversives some of the time. I find a sort of comfort in Jesus not making this an easy question. The answer is easy only for those who regard Caesar as god or as the devil.

Our true image can sometimes be difficult to recognize. Virtually all great spiritual traditions share the conviction that humanity is the victim of a tragic case of mistaken identity. When we look at each other, or in the mirror, we tend to see the inscriptions that our business with the world has left on us: you are what you look like, what you have, what you wear, what you do, the company you keep. There is a “self” with a small “s” and a “Self” with a capital “S”, and our fatal mistake lies in confusing the two. The small self is how we define ourselves outside of love, relationship, or divine union. After spending many years building this small self, with all its labels and preoccupations, we become very attached to it. Existing outside the reach of God’s will and love—outside of reality and life, it cannot help but be an illusion. We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves. For most, there is no greater subjective reality than this small self. Sensing its fundamental unreality, it clothes itself in myths and symbols of power. It begins to convince itself that it is what it does. The more it does, achieves, and experiences, the more real it becomes. It frames reality in a binary way: for me or against me, totally right or totally wrong, my group’s or another group’s opinion. That is the best the small egotistical self can do, yet it is not anywhere close to adequate, and hardly mature wisdom. The small self is still objectively in union with God, it just doesn’t know it, enjoy it, or draw upon it. For most of us, this objective divine image has not yet become the subjective likeness. To move beyond it always feel like losing or dying.

The question of our ultimate loyalty and deepest allegiance can only be discerned through our true identity. Our lives are God’s, and all that we do is to be marked by that conviction. There is no higher claim upon us, nor can there ever be. All claims and allegiances are evaluated and understood in the light of whose we are and whose image we bear. The challenge is what to do when allegiance to God and government pull us into a situation of divided loyalties where both entities have a rightful claim and neither side can be dismissed.
As this election approaches and tensions and divisions deepen, the issue for us isn’t about paying taxes. It’s about paying attention to what our government is doing, and whether or not, in good conscience, we can support those actions. The neurotic news cycle is increasingly driven by a leader whose words and deeds incite hatred, sow discord, and amplify the daily chaos. The pandemic that seems to be returning in waves continues to wreak suffering and disorder with no end in sight, and there is no guarantee of the future in an economy designed to protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and those subsisting at the margins of society. It’s no wonder the mental and emotional health among a large portion of the American population is in tangible decline. We have abandoned any sense of truth, objectivity, science, or religion in civil conversation; we now recognize and can no longer deny that we are living with the catastrophic results of centuries of systemic racism. 

We are, without doubt, in an apocalyptic time. Our spiritual bankruptcy has robbed us of our shame. We need to become human again. We need to see that what has led us to pretended moral power has really led to our peril. Power has become our national obsession. Even as churches, we have given more energy to our institutions, than we have to the gospel. We cling to the image of the Warrior God in the face of the God of Love. We mix the national religion and the Christian religion as a matter of course. We presume this country is especially favored by God, under God’s singular protection, and distinctly chosen to do God’s will. We abhor violence but we do not study nonviolence. We are stricken with a fear of sharing that closes our borders and deports the defenseless. 

The fulfillment of the law is that which grows out of complete devotion to God, expressed in love of one’s neighbor. The opening of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is a powerful statement of what that looks like. As with Isaiah, God is active, empowering, encouraging, and persistent, illustrating an intimate connection between the life of God and the life of God’s people, who have come to know this God by coming to know and appreciate one another. 

Our occupation and vocation as monastics and believers at this time must be to first restore the Divine within by holding it and fully occupying it ourselves. The spiritual effect is to become a people of peace, too strong to be intimidated even by our own, too involved to be silenced. The function of the peacemaker is not to shirk combat with evil. The function of the peacemaker is to find ways to confront evil without becoming evil. God cannot abide with us in a place of fear, a place of ill will or hatred, inside of so much angry noise and conscious deceit. God cannot be born except in a womb of Love. So, we must offer God that womb. In these coming weeks, we need to stand as a sentry at the door of our senses so that the toxicity cannot make its way into our soul. Our life’s goal is to illustrate both the image and the likeness of God by living in conscious loving union with God and each other. 


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