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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Micah, Matthew and Me

I must admit I rather despaired when I looked at this week’s readings. What on earth am I going to say about them? But then I had a second look, and decided that the Micah and Matthew readings were saying much the same thing, but to different people in different ways. I wonder, though, what they have to say to us today. And then I listened to the news.....

Micah was a prophet in 8th-century Judah, more or less a contemporary with Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, particularly, as in our reading, because they were simply dishonest and then expected God to cover for them: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us.” But Micah said, “Ain’t gonna happen!” As one modern paraphrase puts it: “The fact is, that because of you lot, Jerusalem will be reduced to rubble and cleared like a field; and the Temple hill will be nothing but a tangled mass of weeds"

An archaeologist called Roland de Vaux has excavated village sites only a few miles from where Micah is thought to have lived, and he has something very interesting to say: “The houses of the tenth century B.C. are all of the same size and arrangement. Each represents the dwelling of a family which lived in the same way as its neighbors. The contrast is striking when we pass to the eighth century houses on the same site: the rich houses are bigger and better built and in a different quarter from that where the poor houses are huddled together.”

During those 200 years, Israel and Judah had moved from a largely agricultural society to one governed by a monarchy and with a Temple in Jerusalem. The distinction between the “Haves” and the “Have nots” had grown, as it does still today. But Micah tells the powerful ones – the judges, the priests, the rulers – that God will have no interest in propping up any so-called progress that is built on the backs of other people. For God, justice and equality matter far more than progress or growth.

Thus Micah. So what of Matthew?

Here we have Jesus lambasting the religious leaders of the day. Or not. He says to listen to their teachings and follow them, but not to imitate them. They put on a huge display of being holy, when they really aren’t. They lay huge burdens on people. As I’ve said many times before, the trouble with the Pharisees was that they really did want to follow God, but they had misunderstood what was wanted, and thought that in order to be God's person, you simply had to follow the law absolutely exactly. To help them do that, they had added some incredibly detailed “what ifs” and “in this case yous” to the Law. The Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, provided for every single detail of life, and if you failed to keep it absolutely perfectly, then, they thought, God wouldn’t want to know you.

Well, that was all very well. The Pharisees meant well, of course, but they were imposing impossible burdens on people. It was quite impossible to keep the Law in their way. And the Pharisees themselves made one very big mistake: they rated keeping the Law more highly than human relationships. They were more concerned about the way people obeyed, or did not obey, the Law than they were about who people were, and how they were hurting, and why. And, of course, somewhat inevitably, they tended to be rather proud if they managed to live as they thought right, and then they looked down on those who didn't live as they did, believing God would exclude them. Jesus takes this further, and says that not only do they place impossible burdens on people, but they also then don’t follow the law themselves – they are too proud of being holy, too proud of their position. They compete to wear the biggest phylacteries – a phylactery, incidentally, was a small leather box which you put a verse or two of Scripture in – often, I believe, the verse that goes “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One” – and then wore bound round your forehead and on your arm during prayers. Only the Pharisees tended to wear theirs all the time, which wasn’t the idea at all. Remember how Jesus, elsewhere, told his followers not to show off when they prayed, or to make a big fuss when giving to charity?

Jesus also rebukes the Pharisees for enjoying their status, revelling in being looked up to, getting the best seats and so on. It’s not about that, he says. It’s not about status or standing – it’s about following God.

I am not sure quite why vast swathes of the Church have disregarded the instruction not to call any man “Father”, and address their ministers or priests as such, but there you go. But the point is, Jesus says, that the greatest among you must be your servant, just as he was to wash his disciples’ feet before the Last Supper. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus has said that elsewhere, too. A great deal of Matthew’s gospel is devoted to this concept – those three great chapters 5, 6 and 7 which contain the distillation of Jesus’ teachings we call the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, and then these later chapters. For Matthew and his congregation, the emphasis was very much on serving others, on putting yourself last, on being there for other people.

So, then, for Micah it’s all about being honest, not taking bribes, not giving dishonest weight, not expecting God to be on your side no matter how you behave. God is more interested in justice than in growth. For Matthew it’s about not putting on side, not being puffed up because of your position. And what, then, is it for me? For us, really, but that doesn’t start with “M”!

Well, one very important thing happened this week – Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser resigned his post at St Paul's Cathedral because he could not countenance the Cathedral's decision to have the protesters forcibly removed from outside it. He believes that the Church should have no part in violence, and has paid for his principles with his job. The Revd Fraser Dyer, a vicar who was a part-time chaplain there, also resigned for similar reasons.

All the comments I've seen on Facebook and elsewhere make it clear how much Canon Fraser and Mr Dyer is being admired for their stands. They are people who know what they believe is right, and not only say so, but Caonon Fraser, at least, has put his money, quite literally, where his mouth is. He is the antithesis of the religious leaders that Micah and Matthew condemn.

And those people who have been protesting outside the Cathedral are also standing up for what they believe in. Canon Fraser apparently commented, back in August at the time of the riots, that people in the City were no better, really, only out for what they could get. And the protesters would like to see that changed. We may or may not agree with their methods, but can we disagree with their viewpoint?

Our passages today condemn greed, they condemn self-seeking and they condemn vanity. We will, I'm sure, say if we're asked that we know all that, that we wouldn't dream of behaving in the way Matthew and Micah describe. No, I don't suppose we would – but would we go as far as Canon Fraser did? I wonder! Still, we aren't, right now, called to do so – although you never know what lies around the bend in the road.

But it really isn't easy not to be complacent! We so often fall into the trap of considering ourselves – not exactly better, but perhaps wiser or something – than our neighbour.  Do you remember the story Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector, where the Pharisee thanked God that he was so much better than the tax collector, and his whole prayer was thanking God, not for what God had done, but for what he had?  I heard a story of a Sunday-school teacher –  not, I hasten to add, one of ours – who told her class this story and then said, “Now children, let us thank God we are not like that Pharisee!”  

Well yes, we might laugh – but I didn’t laugh when, meditating upon that story, I found myself thanking God that I was not like that Sunday-school teacher!  Oops!

See what I mean?

It isn’t easy, but it’s not meant to be an impossible burden, either.  It is, after all, for freedom Christ has set us free, so the Apostle Paul tells us.  We shouldn’t be burdened by guilt, or by anything else that our leaders choose to put on us.  Sometimes we preachers – oh yes, I’m quite sure I do it, too – sometimes we accidentally make it very difficult for people to follow Jesus.  

We assume, often quite without realising it, that our way of following Jesus, of being Christ’s person, is the only valid way, and then when other people have a different experience, we try to tell them there’s something wrong with them!  

One of the things that really impressed me in the interview the BBC had with Canon Fraser was his insistence that the Chapter of St Paul's wasn't split over the issue – they disagreed, yes, and he felt that his principles meant he had to resign, but he respected that other people had different views to his. How refreshing to hear someone say, almost in so many words, that different doesn't necessarily mean wrong!

This, I think, is why Jesus tells us in Matthew not to put our teachers and preachers and ministers on a pedestal.  That only ends up showing up their feet of clay!  Only God is the perfect Teacher, and what filters through us is, at best, flawed and at worst can be pernicious – look at some of the things that Christians do and say in the name of Christ.  Things like “God hates Gays”, or that “Unborn children are so precious that the mother’s life and health don’t matter.”  Or, the hardy perennial: “Give lots of money to God – or rather, to the preacher – and you will be rich and healthy!” Getting back, yet again, to Me First!

Listen, we're not supposed to be discouraged by all this! Jesus makes it quite clear that religious leaders can lay impossible burdens on their followers, and that's not just the Pharisees! We look at people who do great things for God and despair because we're not like them. We would be reluctant to resign our job on a principle. We don't want to let go of our complacency. We would like lots of money and frankly, our own wants do tend to come first with us! And we find preachers who tell us Not To Be Like That very difficult to cope with.

The thing is, as so often, it's about allowing God to work in our hearts, to change us into the people we were designed to be. And then when the time comes that we might be called on to give up something precious for the sake of the Gospel, like Canon Fraser, when we might be called to live with less money for awhile, or to yield to someone else's agenda, and we never do know what's just round the bend in the road – if and when that time ever comes, if we are really serious about God, and about allowing Him to work within us, then we will be able to cope. Without him, no. But with him – well, it might not be easy, it might well be very difficult indeed, but we will cope. Amen.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

What belongs to God

Has anybody got penny on them? Or even a pound coin? Okay, whose picture is on the front of it?

We’re used to our coins, aren’t we – we barely even notice that they have a picture of the Queen on one side, and a few odd remarks in Latin printed round the picture. They basically say Elizabeth, and then DG, which means by God’s grace; Reg, short for Regina, means Queen, and FD means Defender of the Faith – a title, ironically, given to Henry the Eighth when he wrote a book supporting the Pope against the Protestant Reformation, long before he wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon and had to leave the Catholic church.

When I was a little girl, though, before decimalisation, coins were even more interesting, as they didn’t all have pictures of the Queen on – the old shillings, sixpences, florins and half-crowns had often been issued during the reign of George the Sixth and pennies were often even older – it was not unusual to find penny that had been issued during the reign of Queen Victoria, even! My father used to make us guess the date on the coin, based on which reign it was, and if we were right we got to keep it. Not that we ever were right, so it was a fairly safe game for him, but it made sure we knew the dates of 20th-century monarchs!

Different countries have different things on their coins, of course; if you look at Euro coins, they have a different design on one side depending on which country issued them: the German ones have a picture of the Brandenburg gate, or a stylised eagle; the Irish ones have a harp. Those Euro countries which are monarchies have a picture of their monarch on them, as we would if we joined the Euro, and the Vatican City ones have a picture of the Pope! That might be a fun game to play with my grandson in a few years’ time - guess which country this euro-coin comes from, and you may have it. Assuming, that is, that the Euro survives its present crisis, but that’s another story.

This convention, of showing the monarch on your coins, dates back thousands of years, and was well-known in Jesus’ day. But unfortunately, this raised a problem for Jesus and his contemporaries, as the Roman coins in current use all showed a picture of the Emperor, and the wording round the side said something like “Son of a god”, meaning that the Emperor was thought to be divine.

You might remember how the earliest Christians were persecuted for refusing to say that the Emperor was Lord, as to them, only Jesus was Lord? Well, similarly, the Jews couldn’t say that Caesar was God, and, rather like Muslims, they were forbidden to have images of people, either. So the Roman coins carried a double whammy for them.

They got round it by having their own coins to be used in the Temple – hence the moneychangers that Jesus threw out, because they were giving such a rotten rate of exchange. But for everyday use, of course, they were stuck with the Roman coins. And taxes, like the poll tax, had to be paid in Roman coins. You might remember the episode where Jesus tells Peter to catch a fish, and it has swallowed a coin that will do for both of their taxes. But that was then, and this is now.

Now, Jesus is in the Temple when they come to him – in the holy place, where you must use the Jewish coins or not spend money. “They”, in this case, are not only the Pharisees, who were out to trap Jesus by any means possible, but also the Herodians, who actually supported the puppet-king, Herod.

The question is a total trick question, of course. They come up to Jesus, smarming him and pointing out that they know he doesn’t take sides – so should they pay their poll tax, or not? If he says, yes you must, then he’ll be accused of saying it’s okay for people to have coins with forbidden images; it’s okay to be Romanised; it’s okay to collaborate with the occupying power. And if he says, no don’t, then he’ll be accused of trying to incite rebellion or terrorism.

So Jesus asks for a coin. I expect it was the Herodians who produced one – the Pharisees would probably not have admitted to having one in their pockets, even if they did. And he asks whose image – eikon, the word is – whose image is on the coin? And they said, puzzled, Caesar’s of course, whose else would it be?

And we all know what he said next: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God what belongs to God.

It’s kind of difficult, at this distance, to know what he meant. Was he saying we need to keep our Christian life separate from the rest of life? God forbid, and I mean that! If our commitment to God means anything at all, it should be informing all we do, whether we are at worship on Sunday or at work on Monday or out at the pub on a Friday! There is a crying need for Christians in all walks of life; whether we are called to be plumbers or politicians, bankers or builders, retired or redundant! Wherever we find ourselves, we are God’s people, and our lives and values and morals and behaviour need to reflect that.

So what is Jesus saying? It’s about more than paying taxes or not paying them. It’s not about whether we support our government or whether we don’t. We know from Paul’s letters that in the best of all worlds, Christians should pay their taxes and live quietly under the radar, exercising their democratic right to vote and not taking part in violent overthrow of a legitimate government. Doesn’t always work like that, of course, but by and large.

Maybe the clue is in that word image - eikon. For are we not told that we are made in the image of God? If our picture were on a coin, it would say round the side “A child of God” - not, as for the Caesars, meaning that we are gods ourselves, but meaning, quite literally, that we are God’s beloved children.

Sure, sometimes God’s image gets marred and spoilt, when we go astray. I’ve seen coins that have been buried in the earth for years, and they go all tarnished, and sometimes, if they’ve been there for centuries, they build up an accretion of gunk round them to the point that you can’t possibly tell what they are. But even that gunk can be cleaned off, with care – and you’ve all seen those Cillit Bang ads where he dips a penny into the fluid and it comes up bright and shiny again!

Maybe Jesus is saying that this is not an issue to divide people – Caesar gets what belongs to him, which is the coin, and God gets what belongs to him, which is us! No need to choose – you don’t have to be either a quisling or a resistance worker. We don’t separate what belongs to Caesar from what belongs to God – we give ourselves to God, and the rest follows!

Is it, then, about possibly owing a small amount of money in tax, but owing God a far greater amount – our very being? Yes, that is definitely part of it. It was, I think, forty years ago this week that I first consciously said “Yes” to God; and yes, that does make me horrendously old! But the more I go on with God, the more it seems not only possible, but also sensible. You see, God created us in His image and likeness, and not only that, but God redeemed us through Jesus, and empowers us, by the Holy Spirit. So yes, we do owe God our very being – we are created by him, and without him we wouldn't exist. It's not so much that we owe him the duty of giving ourselves back to him – we do, of course, but we know that! It's more about not being able to fulfil our potential on our own. We are made in God's image, but unless we allow God to indwell that image, to empower it, we will never really fulfil our potential as human beings. So we owe it to ourselves, almost as much as we owe it to God, to say “Yes” to him, to open ourselves to Him.

So we are made in God's image, and as such we owe it to both God and to ourselves to give ourselves back to God. But we also owe it to God and to ourselves to make sure that our image reflects God.

We owe it to God and to ourselves to make sure our image reflects God. There's a wonderful book by an author called Georgette Heyer, I don't know if people read her much these days, but this book is called “These Old Shades”, and in it, one of the characters – a child – is taken to Versailles and sees the king, and her rather sleepy reaction at the end of the evening is, “He is just like on the coins!” I wonder whether anybody would recognise God after having seen us. Would they say, “He's just like on the coins”?

The thing is, we do mar God's image in us – I mentioned earlier how coins can be so covered in the gunk of ages as to be unrecognisable. But coins can be cleaned – again, remember the Cillit Bang ad. Our prayer of confession today was one of the alternate Anglican ones, which I have always loved for the words “We have wounded your love and marred your image in us.”
This, for me, reflects the fact that we are made in God's image, and that sometimes that image gets distorted.

I am well aware that this sort of thing is apt to make us all feel guilty, apt to make us feel we must be terrible Christians, and so on. But that's so not what I want to do here. After all, there are plenty of other ways of distorting God's image – look at the Pharisees, for instance, who tried to turn God into a set of rules and regulations. Or in our own day, look at some of the more extreme Christian sects in the USA who want to preserve unborn children at all costs, including the mother's right to her own body. Or that church that proclaims that God hates gays.

Yet all of those are following God to the best of their ability. Yes, they have got things tragically wrong. Yes, they are distorting, marring, God's image in them. But they are not, I think, any more evil than you or I are. And God will, I pray, help them find their way back.

Because that, in the end, is what God is all about. God minds far more about our relationship with him than we do! We wander off, we get lost, marring God's image in us, distorting Christianity into something very much less than it is – oh yes, I've been there and done that – and yet, every time, the Good Shepherd pulls on his Barbour and his Wellies and goes looking for us to bring us back into the fold. We don't have to do it ourselves. Indeed, it's when we try that the distortions are apt to happen. We just need to be open to allowing God to keep us clean and polished and ready for action!

The coins that bear Caesar's image on them need to be given to Caesar. But the coins that bear God's image – we ourselves, each and every one of us who names the name of Christ as Saviour and as Lord – those coins need to be given to God, reflecting His glory, and allowing Him to work in our lives to make us more and more like Him, and more and more the people He designed us to be. Amen.