“And”: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 18, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 22:15-22:

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

“Tell us whose side you’re on,” the Pharisees and the Herodians are asking Jesus today. “Tell us who has the ultimate power: the God of Israel, or this Emperor to whom we owe our taxes?”

They are trying to trip Jesus up with this question, of course, because taking a side in this particular dispute will either undermine the Roman authorities (bad idea) or disappoint Jesus’ Judean followers. A perfect conundrum, his inquisitors assume. 

But do you remember that moment, early in his ministry, when the people of Nazareth get really angry at Jesus’s preaching and try to drive him off of a cliff, and then somehow, inexplicably, he simply “passed through the midst of them and went on his way”?

Yeah, he pretty much does the same thing here. Jesus is really good at transcending these no-win situations. His answer, as simple as it is, stuns the questioners—“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It’s the first century equivalent of a mic drop–and so they just sort of shut up and go away. 

But I don’t think our takeway is simply that Jesus is really good at giving clever answers or getting himself out of a bind. No, what we see here is that Jesus brings an entirely different mindset to the world than that of his challengers. Unlike them, he does not see things as a choice between binaries—this world OR the next one, insiders OR outsiders, attentiveness to the realm of God OR Caesar. 

Instead, Jesus is someone who almost always operates in terms of “both/and.” He demonstrates, time and again, that a meaningful response to the complexities of the human condition require us to live in the tension of opposites, making space for both THIS thing and THAT thing, THIS person, and THAT person. We don’t get to opt out of loving God or our neighbor just because things are complicated and nuanced.

I had a professor in seminary, Caroline McCall, who taught us to drop the word “but” from our vocabulary when we were engaging in dialogue with one another—ie. I like what you said, BUT, I think my idea is better.  That is important, BUT this is more important.

Instead, she encouraged us to say “AND.” That is important. AND, this is also important.

I came to understand from Caroline’s teaching that this wasn’t just a strategy for civil discussion; it was a social and theological lens that allows for the coexistence of diverse values and perspectives. It is a way of communicating that invites more ideas into the circle, even paradoxical ideas, even ideas we might not agree with, and in doing so our hearts and our minds become just a bit more open, charitable, Christlike. I might disagree with you AND I am still committed to loving you.

And this is, in effect, what Jesus does to answer the Pharisees and the Herodians today. He is saying: take seriously the demands of the present social order AND love God and your neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. Engage as a participant in this world, as imperfect and broken as it might be, AND never forget that God is breaking in, forging a new world all around you.  Do both. Be both.

Those who are committed to binaries, to zero-sum games, to seeing the world as winners and losers, are likely to be challenged by this. Still, as followers of the way of Jesus, we need to embody non-binary thinking now more than ever.

When we are confronted in our own lives by people who always try to force us into picking sides, into seeing the world as nothing more than a never ending power struggle in which we must vanquish our perceived enemies, we need to pause, and take a breath, and pass through their midst. Not out of fear or apathy, but because the answer to every question lies on the other side of our enmity.

And I know how tempting it is in these polarized times to pick a team, to pick a side, to think of everyone as either an ally or an enemy, but I am telling you this: if the church doesn’t lead the way in opting out of this binary way of thinking and categorizing the world, if people of faith and good conscience don’t do it, then it will not happen, and we will continue to grow more suspicious of one another and farther and farther apart, long past any particular election season or pandemic. And if we are suspicious and apart, we will never flourish, not one of us.  

The change has to begin here, now, among us and within us, because first and foremost we are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and that is a place fundamentally shaped by the word “AND”: a place that is just AND compassionate, free AND interdependent, abundant AND equitable. Rooted in history AND looking towards the future.

And you know what is so fantastic, so beautiful? It is that we are already doing this; we are already living in this spirit right here at Trinity. We demonstrate this every week by coming together with people—people similar to us and people very different from us—to turn our hearts towards God and one another and by saying YES: yes, life is hard, yes, the world can be angry and cruel, yes, I am exhausted and scared and money is tight and my relationship is on the rocks and my dog is sick and I am so tired of political ads on TV–

AND…

AND life is a gift, and God’s blessings are everywhere, and Christ is in the face of the person next to me, and how amazing it is to be alive today, to breathe the crisp fall air, and how good it is to strive for justice and mercy in this land, and how perfectly imperfect is this very moment, here in the presence of Jesus who is passing, lovingly passing through our midst, passing through our fears, passing through our binaries, guiding us out into the True Answer to every question.

How gut-wrenching it is to love him, to follow him where he goes AND how necessary, how grace-filled, how complete.

We will only glimpse God’s fullness, brothers and sisters and sibilings, when “AND” becomes the vocabulary of our hearts. When we live as though there is space enough for everyone, and mercy enough for everyone, and peace enough for everyone, and food and shelter and justice enough for everyone. There can be. There will be. Because no matter how many blustering emperors come and go from this earth, we worship a God who is ultimately on everyone’s side–a God who will not rest until the day we are all resting together. 

That day feels a long way off sometimes. A long way off.

And:

We will get there.

The Church that is Willing to Die: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 21, 2020 for the online services at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 10:24-39

What does it mean to be the church in a time such as this? At this turning point in our national life, when old values, old practices, old ways of being are called into question, when the mythic landscape of American history is being challenged and reordered by pandemics, protests, and political turmoil, when certainties are few and far between, here and now we are urgently led to revisit this question: what does it mean to be the church? Who are we Christians in this fraught moment: this moment of lament, this moment of reckoning with the unjust systems we have built and sustained, this moment of questioning the bedtime stories with which we have comforted ourselves about blessing and destiny and progress? 

What is the church now when the wind comes howling in through the open window, when the doors to the building are locked and the bottom drops out and we are falling, falling down into the gloom of an unknown tomorrow? What are we then? Who are we then?

For so much of our nation’s history, to be part of the church has been a designation of institutional membership, a cultural practice encoded in spiritual language handed down from generation to generation; an elegant packaging of some laudable core values, and a safe, enclosed space in which to work out the meaning of life according to those values. In this understanding of church as institution, which patterns itself according to the societal contexts in which it operates—the world outside the walls—there are usually a number of factions, organized along political, liturgical, or ideological spectrums, and whoever dominates in numbers or funding tends to dictate what we stand for and the ways in which we do so. It’s not that we ignore the gospel in this mode of church; it’s simply that the “good news” we share often sounds like the good news we want to hear, or more specifically, the good news that the powerful want to hear. 

For many, being church in this way feels very navigable—it maps rather neatly onto the rest of our lives, it absorbs the language of the zeitgeist like a sponge, such that the progressive and the conservative, whatever those labels happen to mean in a given moment, have equal opportunity to bedeck themselves in Scripture and silk vestments, to continue their eternal struggle via the proxy wars of theology and church politics. 

This is not a new thing, and perhaps, for much of our history, this mode of being the church felt sufficient for the majority of people. Since the peace of Constantine in the 4th century, when Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire and later adopted as the religion of that Empire, there has been little distinction between the idealized values of citizenship and the  core teachings of the sacred in dominant Western culture—especially for those of us who enjoyed the privileges and powers that such citizenship affords. The easy mix of civic and ecclesial agendas was simply a given. Church was, in effect, where you learned how to be a good and loyal participant in the realm, to support its structures, to promote the peace of the established order.

But established orders tend to fall apart eventually. Structures give way under their own weight. And what is the church, then? Who are we, then? 

Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel:

Do not think that I have come 

to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, 

but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus’ words today remind us that there is another choice when it comes to understanding the meaning of the church—a choice that is unsettling, a bit scary even—one that looks nothing like the established order in which we are tempted to become comfortably numb. He describes the cost of following him in the starkest of terms—it is to give up family bonds, it is to give up one’s safety, to give up one’s own life, even, in order to find and participate in whatever strange, magnetic sweetness he seems to carry within himself.  This is not a metaphorical invitation. It is quite serious.

To be church in this way—to relinquish, to descend, to die—has little to do with the striving and the strategies that characterize so much of public life in the West.  It is, instead, an intentional upending, a deconstruction of those values, especially whenver they deny life and dignity to the least among us. For, as Mary proclaims, He has lifted up the lowly and the rich he has sent away empty.

To be the church that responds to Jesus’ invitation is to search for the cracks in the veneer of decadence, to find them and to tear them open,  to name what is rotten underneath and, crucially, inescapably, not simply to name and to criticize, but to cast ourselves, with equal measure of grief and  hope, down into the rottenness, down to the places where we do not want to go, down to where we will finally see what is true, what endures, what refuses to die, even there. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Here and now, in our present turmoil, some of that work has been done for us. The veneer is already cracked. Some of the rottenness is already exposed. But we still have to choose whether we will get down there and look at it. We still have to choose whether we will do something about it. Nobody will force us to, not even God; and the urge to look away, to go back to the old mode of being, will continue to be powerful. But what we decide will determine what sort of church we are part of. Are we an insitution of the present order, subject to the whims of history, or are we a community of disciples, of learners, of passionate lovers of God, seeking Holy Wisdom into the uncomfortable places she calls us?

Most days, I doubt that I have the strength and the courage to choose this latter vision. Most days, I just want to roll over and go back to sleep. It would be so much nicer to stay on the surface of my Christian identity, to let church function as an ornament, as a daydream where we talk about forgiveness and love in hazy terms without ever submitting to the fierce demands that such things actually require. 

But then, always, there is Jesus, with his unsettling words and his compelling gaze that cuts through me like a sword. I see him looking back at me from the cross, forgiving my weakness, unimaginably patient with my fear. I see him in the faces of my homeless neighbors, my black and brown neighbors, my lgbtq neighbors, my conservative neighbors, my liberal neighbors, my neighbors of every background and belief, and I hear his voice: 

Follow me. Follow me wherever it might take you. Follow me out past the church you thought you knew, out beyond a brittle, compromised peace, follow me out past certainty and cynicism, follow me into the heart of the world’s sorrows and see what lies on the other side of fear and lamentation. I promise you, everything real, everything joyful, everything good, is there. I am there. 

If we listen to Jesus, if we really listen to him, what other choice can we make?