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Sermon for March 8, 2009 -- Lent II

Conflict and Crisis
Mark 12:13-17; 28-34

A friend of mine posted some old Superbowl ads for his friends on Facebook. In one ad, a man is preparing a romantic dinner. He chops vegetables with a large knife, while tomato sauce simmers on the stove. A white cat jumps on to the counter, knocks the pan of sauce onto the floor and then falls in to the mess. Just as the man picks up his tomato-splattered cat, his wife opens the door. She sees him holding a cat dripping with red sauce in one hand and a large knife in the other. You can image what the scene looks like to her. Things aren’t always as they first appear – even when we’re sure that there couldn’t be another possibility. Sometimes we assume we know the right answers to questions. But our assumptions can betray us. Let’s try a little exercise to get our ears, minds, and hearts ready to hear in a new way today. It’s a story about a man named Mullah Nasrudin. Nasrudin is a favorite character in stories throughout all of the Middle East and Central Asia. Children in Afghanistan hear Nasruddin stories just as American children hear Mother Goose rhymes and folktales. Here is one tale:
As Nasruddin emerged from the mosque after prayers, he ran into a beggar sitting on the street. The following conversation followed: “Are you extravagant?” asked Nasruddin. “Yes Nasruddin,” replied the beggar. “Do you like sitting around drinking coffee and smoking?” asked Nasruddin. “Yes.” replied the beggar. “I suppose you like to go to the baths everyday and maybe amuse yourself by drinking with friends?” asked Nasruddin. “Yes I like all those things,” replied the beggar. Nasruddin clucked his tongue and gave him a gold piece. A few yards farther on, another beggar who had overheard the conversation also begged alms. “Are you extravagant?” asked Nasruddin. “No,” replied the beggar. “Do you like sitting around drinking coffee and smoking?” asked Nasruddin. “No.” replied the beggar. “I suppose you like to go to the baths everyday and maybe amuse yourself by drinking with friends?” asked Nasruddin “No, I want to only live meagerly and to pray.,” replied second beggar, whereupon Nasruddin gave him a small copper coin. The second beggar wailed, “Why, do you give me, an thrifty and pious man, a penny, when you give that extravagant fellow a gold coin?” “Ah my friend,” replied Nasruddin, “his needs are greater than yours.
What if I told you that there is a valuable life lesson in this story. How would you interpret it? Who represents God? Who is foolish and who is wise? Is Nasruddin a troublemaker or a sage? To whom is God’s will served? To interpret the story, you need to reference your assumptions—what you know about the character of God and the nature of humanity. Given time, I bet you all could come up with a great interpretation of the story that compares it to our modern lives.

When we read the stories of Jesus we also need to be in touch with our assumptions. Today’s gospel readings are a case in point. In our first reading, we heard Jesus teach that what belongs to Caesar, give to Caesar, and what belongs to God, give to God. With that episode in mind, I invite us to listen to another story from Mark 12:28-34.
One of the teachers of religious law was standing there listening to the debate. He realized that Jesus had answered well, so he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The LORD our God is the one and only LORD. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” The teacher of religious law replied, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other. And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.” Realizing how much the man understood, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.
As often happens when we read the Bible, we have a habituated way of interpreting these passages that gets in the way really understanding its meaning. Consider our first reading. In the centuries after the gospels became sacred scripture, this passage was often used as a divine pronouncement about how all Christians should live their lives. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render to God the things that are God’s. Jesus’ words became a solemn statement about the relationship between church and state. These words have been interpreted to mean that there are two separate realms to human life. One is religious and one is political. There are things we give to God and things we give to our government.

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render to God the things that are God’s. In our history, people in authority have manipulated this message to demand compliance from their followers . Hitler used these words, commanding German Christians to give absolute obedience to the state. Monarchs used these words to legitimate their authority. American Christians used these words during the civil rights era to criticize acts of civil disobedience. Some argued that we are to be obedient to civil authority, even when we want to modify its laws. The thinking is always the same: religious obligation and political obligation are separate realms. Navigating these two worlds should be like putting food on a fussy child’s plate: don’t let the peas touch the potatoes. Everything has its place.

But, let’s question our theological assumptions. All theology serves someone. The question is whom does it serve? Who benefits and at whose expense? When we are finished cooking up our interpretations of the text, who reigns and who suffers? Who profits and who gets pushed to the margins?

Let’s think about another interpretation of these verses that puts them in context of the action, as narrated by Mark. It is Tuesday -- the day after Jesus gets angry and cleanses the Temple. He goes right back to the place where he caused such a ruckus the day before. Jesus is angry that the supreme religious authorities conspire with Rome. A few people rule at the top of the local government – the temple authorities headed by the High Priest and some local aristocrats. Mark calls them “the chief priests, elders, and scribes.” Their primary obligation to Rome is loyalty and collaboration. They make sure that the annual taxes are paid to Rome. And since Rome does not want rebellions, the local leaders must maintain domestic order. The Temple is the central symbol of this domination system. The Temple is the place that gives theological legitimacy to the domination system. The message preached by the ruling authorities is if you love God, you will be a good citizen and pay your taxes. This is how God wants it.

On the Tuesday before Easter, Jesus returns to the Temple. He goes straight back to the place where worshippers change their money into shekels to pay the annual temple tax. They buy animals to be sacrificed on the altar and spend time in the temple in prayer. Jesus plants himself in one of the large open-air courts where worship-traffic is heavy. Then he begins to teach. As you might expect, a crowd gathers. And you know how quickly bad news travels! In no time, the temple authorities elbow their way to the front of the crowd. They have already identified Jesus as a troublemaker, but because he is so popular with the crowds, they decide to try a new strategy with him. They try to trick him. They try to make him look like a fool in front of the crowds. “Jesus should we pay taxes to the Emperor or not?”

It’s a hot question. Roman taxation is burdensome. It also symbolizes the fact that the Jews do not govern themselves. The trap is skillfully set. If Jesus answers no, he will be guilty of undermining Rome’s authority. If he says yes, he loses his credibility with the crowd. Jesus asks for a denarius - -a silver coin equal to a day’s wage. He holds it up and asks, “Whose head is on this, and whose title?” We all know the answer: The Emperor’s. At that moment, Jesus instantly discredits Rome’s puppet government. There were two types of coins in circulation at the time. Jewish coins had no human images on it. Roman coins had Caesar’s image along with an idolatrous inscription heralding the Emperor as the Son of God. Jesus holds up the Roman coin and says, “Give to God the things that are God’s.” For Jesus, the real question is: What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? And for Jesus, everything belongs to God. Israel belongs to God – not to the local oppressors, not to Rome. The whole earth belongs to God. What belongs to Caesar? In the end, nothing.

Ever play monopoly? There are two types of monopoly players. Those who put their money and real estate into a big sloppy pile, not sure of what they have until the end of the game. Then there are those who know precisely where everything goes – each denomination of currency, the houses and hotels, the cards of Chance and the Community Chest, the dice, the deeds to the property, and the tokens. These people don’t want $10 bills to mix in with the $100 bills. They are horrified to find the Baltic and Mediterranean property mixed in with Park Place and Boardwalk.

In my peaceable kingdom, my closet is ordered like that. In my opinion, there is a divinely-ordained place for white shirts, a supremely-ordered location for blue shirts, and a providentially-designed place for striped shirts. I’m uneasy when I find a pair of black pants mixed in with the khakis. It infringes on my state of serenity.

There are those of us who profess Christ who, either carelessly or unintentionally, relegate Christianity to some small, ordained place in the closet of our lives. Sometimes we think of our lives like that monopoly board. Everything has a place and a purpose. Work is for certain times. Family life is ordained for certain times. Expression of faith are reserved for Sundays, Easter and Christmas Eve. What happens when we compartmentalize our faith? What happens when we consign our faith to Sundays, but refuse to let it permeate our lives the rest of the week? What happens when we reduce our religion to some antiquated tradition but deny its power?

A compartmentalized faith becomes like an addendum to a book or a postscript to a letter. It’s like a side street rather than a major highway, a strip mall rather than a downtown shopping district, a pinch hitter rather than the starting line-up, the appetizer rather than the main course. When Christians fail to integrate their faith into the whole of their lives -- when we think that faith has no place in the neighborhood, the school campus, the factory, and the marketplace – we run the risk of allowing faith to become an entertaining sideshow rather than the main act of life. True spirituality is incredibly practical, robust, and workable no matter where you dwell or what you do.

We need to question our assumptions about faith and life. There should be no separation of our devotions. Everything we have, all that we are, all that we hope to be belongs to God. Give to God what is God’s. Jesus sums it all up by reminding his listeners of the greatest commandment. Love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. There’s a follow up commandment, too. Love your neighbor and love yourself.

Would you try a little experiment with me this week? Sometime, this week, when you are not doing church stuff, will you pray and ask God to bring to your mind one area where your faith and life intersect. Will you ask God how an ordinary person can get to the root of what it means to love? Will you ask God to show you how we made such a mess of the world and how an ordinary person can help restore it? Will you ask God to give you an idea about you’re your faith can bring some more peace, some more interdependence, some more peace, and some more sanity into our fragile world and our fractured relationships? For a few moments, will you pray, and ask God to show you where you have allowed your faith to become a diversion? Will you listen to God, and allow your faith to become a gentle whisper that influences all parts of your life? Will you give to God the things that are God’s? Will you ask God to help you love with all your hearts, soul, mind and strength? Will you ask God to help you love your neighbor and love yourself?

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