Proper 24A 2017: Isaiah, Matthew, and Mary Oliver

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I’m going to start with the Gospel,
which is easily explained but laboriously believed.
Then go to the Hebrew text,
which is also easy to explain
but a struggle to believe.
And end up with Mary Oliver,
which, because it is a poem,
is more easily believed than explained.

Jesus is running a gauntlet in this story from Matthew,
and will continue to do so for the next several weeks
of Gospel stories, which are highly contentious and partisan.

The opposition throws him into tension
between a rock and a hard place
when they ask him about taxes.

In the story, the Herodians – who may or may not
have actually existed beyond the literary imagination
of the gospel writers –
represent religious figures who served
at the whim of civil authority
and benefited financially and socially
from the Roman occupation of Judea.
They were slimy collaborators as depicted by Matthew.

As such, they would have benefited
from the payment of tribute and taxes to Rome.

The Pharisees,
for whom we have more historical information,
but who are also a distorted caricature in the gospels,
represent the tension between civil and religious authority –
people who believed that the Roman requirement
to pay taxes amounted to coerced blasphemy.

Other characters, unmentioned in this story
but lurking between the lines
because they were part of the social, political,
and religious fabric,
are the Zealots.
Zealots were religious militants
who may have also had an insurrectionists wing of their party,
like Sinn Fein and the IRA of Northern Ireland fame.

The Zealots believed that payment of taxes to Rome
amounted to willful participation in Evil.

So swirling around this question of taxes
were at least three different religious groups
exerting enormous influence
on the political and religious climate of the moment.
Jesus is asked the question as a cruel trick,
about whether it is right to pay taxes or not –
it is a malicious strategy aimed at his destruction.

To say yes,
would to be to his discredit among the masses
who were the most burdened by taxes,
and to be scorned by the wrath of Zealots.

To say no,
was to risk arrest for fostering and promoting treason
as an insurrectionist.

Jesus cleverly gives a response, which is not an answer.
What Jesus said could be heard differently
by people of differing perspectives.
But in fact, he penetrates the whole issue,
and even the tension as we experience it today,
with one little word.

Jesus asks: Whose icon (eikon) is on that coin?

The word he uses, icon,
is the same word used in the Creation story
in the Book of Genesis –
where it says human beings were created
in the icon of God…the image of God.

Whatever image may appear on the coin,
it is clear that you and I,
from this deeply biblical point of view,
are made in the image of God
and that God alone has sovereignty over us.

That may not seem like a very radical thing to say today
but imagine that notion in a world in which
slavery and military occupation were assumed.
Where Caesar laid claim to all loyalty,
or a master laid claim to you as his or her property,
or a husband laid claim to your every bodily function,
that ancient biblical idea would be subversive.
So too in our world. The great Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has written:
Humans bear God’s image, and wherever (we) live and operate – whether in the social, economic, political, or religious realm – (we) belong to God.  (Our) primary loyalties do not switch when (we) move out of church and into the voting booth (or the economy).”
(Text for Preaching” by Brueggemann, Cousar, Gaventa and Newsome)

Do we, with our taxes and civic life,
submit God to our self-interests and loyalties;
or do we, with our self-interests and loyalties,
submit ourselves to the sovereignty of God?

It is as radical and subversive an idea today
as it was on the frontier of the Roman empire,
even though we have been saying is quite glibly
for generations, even centuries.

We walk around with an equally powerful
but also contrary assumption
that a citizen of a country has a bounden duty
to serve that country and swear allegiance to it
as a way of acknowledging its sovereignty.

But in resistance to this,
there are earnestly faithful adherents of religions
all over the world, who are not fundamentalist,
who hear the demands of civil religion
to place the nation as the primary loyalty,
and believe such a demand to be obscene.

But most of us do not experience this tension
because we were raised and schooled in Civil Religion,
so much so, that to speak of nation and religion
as opposing realms seems disrespectful to both.

The idea of the separation between Church and State
did not begin with the Constitution of The United States,
it begins in the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
where it is understood that there should never
be any confusion between the nation and God,
or which one is sovereign.

But Jesus knew that his answer would be heard differently
depending upon which assumption his opponents began with – whether they thought the economic imprint
of a Roman icon made Caesar sovereign,
OR that the imprint of the icon of God
on all life in the beginning of Creation,
meant God is sovereign.

That passage from Isaiah is another,
also slightly disconcerting idea,
about God and sovereignty.
Isaiah puts forth a startling and brazen interpretation
of the geo-political events of his ancient world.

Isaiah says that God has anointed Cyrus.
Now please, understand
that another word for anointed, is Messiah.
Isaiah says that God has Messiah-ized Cyrus –
made Cyrus a messiah.

That may seem especially scandalous to us
because, as Christians ignorant of our Jewishness,
we think there is only one Messiah – Jesus.

But in fact, in ancient Israel,
there were many, many people
over the centuries anointed as God’s servants.

Messiah means, literally, “anointed one,”
as in anointed with oil.
As I like to say at baptisms, Messiah means oily head.

So, God anointed Cyrus.
Who is Cyrus?
Well…he was the king of Persia.
He was not an Israelite.
He was a total, utter Gentile.
That is a brazen claim.
To assert that God chose a Gentile –
but not only a Gentile,
a Gentile king,
of a Gentile nation,
which had just become the superpower empire of its day –
is a shocking image to Isaiah’s contemporaries.

But there it is: God has made Cyrus a messiah,
anointed him as a servant
of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It’s crazy!

But there is more.
Isaiah actually says, God is holding Cyrus’ hand!
God is holding the hand of the Emperor,
and taking a stroll with Cyrus
to make sure he uses his power the right way.

The ancients listening to Isaiah’s poetry
or reading it later as time passed and events changed,
would have heard it as an astounding and scandalous claim.

It would be like some popular television evangelist
claiming that God has anointed
the President of Russia,
or the Ayatollah of Iran,
or the Chinese Premier
as president of the world
and guardian of the United States.

But that might not ignite too much heat
from most of us moderns of the 21st century.
We would probably just shrug
and shake our heads at another crazy preacher.

We wouldn’t get too upset about it
because we don’t believe God is sovereign anyway.
The scandal for many of us, even church-goers,
is the implication that anybody’s empire would belong to God.
The idea that God has the power or will
to guide anybody’s hand…
let alone Donald Trump’s
or Vladimir Putin’s
or Ayatollah Khamenei’s…
is simply beyond the pale for 21st century-ites.

But before we drift over to Mary Oliver,
I want to note two little things about Isaiah’s prophecy:

First, the Biblical assumption
that God reaches beyond any religion
and any boundary
to touch and call anyone as a servant.
The second is to note the presumption
that it all belongs to God anyway.

Isaiah and Jesus are two coots in the same blanket,
both asserting that the icon of God
is imprinted upon all Creation,
and that there is nothing and no one
that has not been stamped with that icon.
You can believe that or not,
but please understand that there is no idea
more pervasive in the biblical religions –
whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim –
than the assumption that everyone
and everything
has been stamped with the icon of God.
Pull out that thread
and the whole garment unravels.

  • (In Islam, the idea that humans were created in the image of God is not seen as true, but the notion that all of Creation belongs to God is upheld).

Conversely, there is no more pervasive idea
in the modern, capitalist economic worldview,
than the one that says we are all individuals,
each person the master of his or her own destiny,
and that what we are able to procure belongs to us.

We have all been imprinted,
from birth and by cultural assimilation,
with the icon of individualism,
and its presumed rights of personal ownership of property
independent of the needs of others.

I want to notice and assert,
that the modern worldview
and the biblical one,
are at total odds.

Let’s just bracket that for a moment – holding and allowing
these two opposing ideas to grimace at one another.
And as we do, let us drift over to Mary Oliver.

I will not be explaining Mary Oliver’s poem.
A joke that must be explained is no longer funny,
and a poem that is explained by someone who presumes
a singular interpretation, sucks the life out of it.
Instead, I commend it to you.
Take it home and enjoy it like a daily prayer.
Get so familiar with it, it whispers to you like an old friend.

Today, holding hands as it does
with Isaiah and Jesus, I will just extract one thread.

One or two things are all we need
to travel the landscape –
some deep memory of pleasure,
and some cutting knowledge of pain.

But to lift the hoof, that requires an idea.

Mary Oliver is brilliant like that.

I dare say, it needs to be said
in this literalistic culture of ours, in which science is god
and imagination is brittle,
that ideas are not facts.
Ideas may or may not be factual,
and the truest of ideas may have no basis in fact.
Ideas organize what we know
and give us the power and the grace
to live, and move, and take action.

The ideas we harbor define who we are.
Your ideas, and mine,
define who we are
and determine how we act in this world.
Our ideas matter.

If our ideas are rooted primarily in self-interest,
we will live primarily self-interested lives.
If our ideas are rooted in the sovereignty of God,
the practice of our citizenship
will not be primarily to a temporal power.

The ideas we hold
shape who we are, and animate our actions.
I invite us therefore, to take a fearless moral inventory
of our primary ideas.

Write them down.
Make a list.
Dissect them.
Analyze them.
What are their implications.
Who gave you that idea?
Are those ideas the ones you want to be remembered for?

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished into the world.”

There is an idea – not rooted in fact
but derived, most likely,
from accumulated knowledge and experience,
which are always partially rooted in facts;
but only partially.

What are your ideas?
What are your biggest ideas?
What are the ideas that make you tick and tock?
Take them apart and see what is in them.
Discern, and determine,
if they are the ideas you truly want to live by.

Are they the ideas you want to be remembered for?

Our ideas about life and love and God
are not just some empty bubble thought appearing
mythically above our heads, rather,
they are the muscle and sinew
connecting our values with our actions.