Tuesday's Homily

I've not been putting much on the blog these past few days. Time has been taken up with Executive Council meetings in Helena, Montana. On Tuesday I gave the homily at the mid-day Eucharist. Here it is.

Homily, given at the Executive Council Eucharist, October 20, 2008, Helena, Montana. Propers "For the Nation."

Come, Lord Jesus, the Bright Morning Star, and may this age pass away. Amen.

The Gospel read just now has driven good preachers to distraction. This Gospel Passage is often titled, “Paying Taxes to Caesar.” It is a distraction, I believe, and not what is at the core of Jesus' teaching.

Jesus responds in a way that opens out rich soil for opinion by everyone from Quakers to Presbyterians. Standing alone by itself, Jesus’ answer can become a distraction, suitable for bible verse memorization, massive arguments, occasional burnings at the stake, but not much else.

But way down at the center of this account is what I believe is Jesus’ primary response: “Why are you trying to entrap me?” And that response tells us a lot.

The immediate finesse of the trap is of course to get Jesus to make a judgment, either way. If he came down on one side he is a sympathizer of the occupation Romans, if he comes down on the other he is a radical likely to put the Jews in their uneasy truce with Rome in jeopardy. The trap could be deadly and take several forms. If he did a really good job of interpreting the law he could hang out his shingle and set up a law practice. Death by practice. If not they would throw him out on his ear, or kill him. Death by rejection. Either way there would be no surprises, and no Messiah.

The response Jesus makes, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” turns out not to be about that tax business, but about death and life.

Or more succinctly, about the powers and principalities of death on the one hand and life in God on the other. The Gospel according to Mark reminds us of the cost of this argument, in a comment just before this account, that the Parsees were out to “lay hands upon him” not in blessing of course, but in order to kill him.

The question is a trap, and trapping people, tricking them into compromising statements, playing games with them, messing with their minds, is standard fare in the death dealing and the fallen condition of all people. Think of the sordid tricks of political campaigns, or the fine points of torture, or even unkind cuts in an unkind relationship. We entrap and bind people all the time.

The coin with the emperor’s image and name on it, the taxes that might or might not be paid, the whole matter of what precisely does indeed belong to the emperor, are all questions about death’s dominion. This becomes apparent when we recognize that among the “things that are the emperor’s” are all those things pledged by the signers of the Declaration of Independence – “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” At one time or another the state calls on us to forfeit our lives, turn over our fortunes, and betray our sacred honor.

The emperor, the nation, the state, all participate in what William Stringfellow calls the principalities and powers. The churches, by the way, are no slouches in the principalities and powers game. All are fallen. And in the fallen estate into which we all are to be counted, the principalities and powers exercise their control primarily by the power of death. Even the angelic forces are touched by the fallen state.

Paul states it this way, in Ephesians 6:12 “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

It is a quirk of the strange compromise made between the Church and State, first under Constantine, and ever after, that this passage has been used in an easy justification of how church and state might get along: The Emperor gets everything he wants, God gets everyone’s eternal soul.

That however leads to madness. The separation of everything material (which the emperor gets if he wants) and our soul (which God is stuck with) is informed by neither Jewish sensibilities nor the Christian understanding of the Resurrection. The settlement false to Jesus and his witness and jars our Christian conviction in every concrete “family, language, people and nation.” It generates the modern nation, whose peculiar form is the Kingdom of Fear.

It is hard to live in the Kingdom of Life, when all around are the instrumentalities of death, particularly as known in the Kingdom of Fear. This nation, the one most of us here in this room belong to, lives with fear all the time. It is an element of control in the fallen state. It is participation in death. But you know that.

This is kind of edgy to say. It doesn’t seem much like “good news.” Well these are difficult times, and maybe something like this should be said of the nations and to ourselves. I believe that if we don’t say it we participate in a kind of madness, the kind that proceeds from denial, and issues in a sort of collective, national, nervous breakdown.

We are put to the test, and unlike our Savior, we give in and being participants in the Kingdom of Fear we break ourselves down into spirit and body. Of course we deny our own fallen estate and somehow think that we can work our way out of death and taxes both.

We make the Constantinian compromise all the time. But, dear friends, the only solution for our participation in the fallenness of all creation is repentance and conversion.

Paul in Romans 13:1-10 – the epistle appointed for today – gives a rouser of a defense for paying taxes, being subject to authorities, recognizing them as God’s agents. Near the end he writes (13:7-8) “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

Paul reflects Jesus here: The answer to the test question is to give the state and everyone else their due. Don’t own any one anything – back taxes, back mortgage payments, back whatever, your life, etc. Pay our debts, and be converted out of debt to death, become indebted to Life: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Don’t get distracted: Turn from death and love one another. It’s the only debt we owe God. It is the one thing Death in all its forms cannot stand – the fact that love endures, in Jesus Christ.

There it is: this word is ended.


  1. Excellent sermon! Many unfortunate pew-sitters endure poorly prepared homilists who drivel on about society or lament something.

    Your sermon is cautionary, certainly biblically-inspired and irrefutable, and ends with hope.

    Teach this level of preaching somewhere and TEC will shine for God.

  2. Had I been more on the ball, I would've crashed the party in Helena to hear you preach.

    I hope you weren't trapped inside all the time and got to enjoy some of our local scenery.


  3. "...respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due".


    Was Bonnie Anderson present to hear this excellent sermon? Apparently among your Council's resolutions was a goal for reconciliation with the Common Cause Partnership. Yet Ms. Anderson noted at Grace Cathedral (see ENS) that she is a "recovering Roman Catholic". What a slap and churlish comment from our highest lay official. That went down well. The large segment of Anglo-Catholics that Ms. Anderson will "reconcile" with heard that.

    Reconciliation doesn't start with a superior and insulting attitude. How can the reconciliation overtures from TEC's Executive Council be believeable with attitudes such as dishonor and disrespect coming from the highest lay official? It WAS your Council's resolution so I believe that you want it, but I'm afraid that key players in TEC are going to kill it off with attitudes like that.

  4. The article in question is 'Stand up and speak up, 'Bonnie Anderson urges Grace Cathedral congregation

    Allen, you grab a small phrase and you draw inestimable conclusions that make no sense. The article does not place this statement by Dr. Anderson in any context from which you can draw one conclusion. Other than to say she used to be a member of the RCC, went to a TEC service and has been in the TEC ever since.

    If her statement has anything to do with the article, the flow was regarding TEC's bicameral structure, the HoD being the Senior house in GC, and then comparing that to the Lambeth Conf, which makes statements which only come from bishops, so the statements do not represent the voice of the whole Communion, for only the ACC can represent the voice of us all.

    Perhaps the statement about being a recovering RC was to reflect that it is a church where a Pope and bishops make all the decisions and have the only voice, as opposed to what she just explained about TEC and the ACC.

    There should be nothing there that would offend we who are Anglo-Catholic. We are Anglicans, the structure that she described is the structure we embrace. Many of us with female lay leaders, deacons, priests and bishops! But neither should it be offensive to those who do not embrace female lay leaders and ordained.

    Any Anglo-Catholics who really want the structure of the RCC would then swim the Tiber and embrace that structure.

    If all you do is hunt and peck for ridiculous things with which to find fault, you shall never be happy!

  5. David, I can only assume that you are not familiar with the Americanism. The term "recovering Roman Catholic" (derived from "recovering alcoholic") is most definitely a derogatory remark against Roman Catholicism and cannot be taken any other way. Allen is right. Besides, you might give credit to Allen for his kind remarks about Mark's sermon, where he found no fault.

    I liked his sermon as well. I hope, however, at some point that the Executive Council would recognize that its unqualified support for abortion via the RCRC is certainly participation in the Kingdom of Death that Mark opposes (whether Mark himself recognizes it or not). But I will say no more on that subject. It is indeed an excellent sermon.

  6. A splendid sermon, with an insightful and original take on a familiar passage from the Gospel.

    In this election year, I must try to remind myself that while these things are important -- we are responsible for our custody of our neighbors and our world, we are our brothers' keepers -- I should not set my heart too fondly upon these stately things.

    I once heard someone define the world as over 200 separate countries who all hate each other's guts; whose leaders are all more or less corrupt and use the fear of other nations to keep themselves in power and legitimacy, no exceptions.

  7. It also seems to me, that the Church (as usual mirroring the world in which it must dwell and being the sum of the people make it) is hundreds of denominations each convinced that all the others are agents of the devil and bound for the eternal fires.

    I once had an Israeli friend who said that Jerusalem is unique among the cities of the world because everyone who lives there is convinced that the neighbors are all going to hell.

    As Jonathan Swift observed, we have just enough faith to make us hate, but not nearly enough to make us love.

    I wish you and the reconciliation commission every success.

  8. Sigh.

    Having researched the fundamentalist mindset, you see this pattern again and again: ALWAYS view (i.e., judge) the person speaking, NEVER what the person actually SAID.

    Ergo, when they encounter any cognitive dissonance ("Huh: I actually liked the sermon by that heretic"), it's quickly OVERWHELMED by "But What Abouts?!"

    "But what about Bonnie Anderson said?"
    "But what about RCRC?"

    ...all to reinforce the ABSOLUTE TRUTH for fundies: "[Person X] is a heretic!"


    Lord have mercy!

  9. jcf,

    Neither allen nor myself called anyone a heretic. The only one calling anyone names is you.

    BTW, I am not a fundamentalist. I doubt you know what the word means. I know you don't know me well enough make that judgement about me. I know some fine people who really are fundamentalists, and I respect them, but I am not one of them.

    If you disagree with us, why don't you tell us why you disagree, rather than calling us names?

    I rather feel like you judged the person speaking, rather than what the person actually said.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with comment moderation but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.