Bishop Ian Douglas Sermon – October 22, 2017
In the African-American, or Black Church, tradition there is a wonderful call and response phrase that embodies profound theological truths. It goes like this –“God is good, all the time.” And the response is: “All the time, God is good!” God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good!
In the face of America’s original sin: slavery, Jim Crow, and the ongoing realities of racism today –African American people have sung out through the centuries: God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good! And our lessons this morning echo these same truths: God is indeed good. All that we have, and all that we are, come from God’s goodness and love. In Jesus we are called to participate in and extend God’s goodness and love in the world. And for all of this we give continual thanks.
Our Gospel this morning reminds us that while God is a God of love, the world is not exactly one of goodness, sweetness and light. Consider the context. It’s the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus has run afoul of the Roman occupiers and the Temple elite when he rode into Jerusalem amidst shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David;” and then he literally turns over the tables of the money changes in the temple. These actions, challenging the powers and principalities, are followed by a series of parables asserting that folk on the margins and the dispossessed (tax collectors and prostitutes) would enter the kingdom of God before the priests and religious elite. No wonder Jesus was considered a political and religious subversive, a revolutionary, who needed to be stopped by those in charge, those who had power.
So the Pharisees and Herodians (the religiously and politically powerful and privileged) set out to entrap Jesus, hoping to bring charges of blasphemy and sedition against him. They ask: “So Jesus, Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Of course this is a trick question. For the Torah, the Law of the people of Israel, prohibited Jews from cooperating with a foreign occupying force. So in Jewish Law the answer should be: no. Yet under Roman imperial law, all subjects were required to pay taxes to the Emperor. Not doing so would land one in prison. It thus seems that Jesus has been caught in a no-win situation, either he goes against Jewish law, or he goes against Roman law. One way or the other, he is in trouble.
Now Jesus knows that the tax needs to be paid in Roman currency, and that as such the coin would have an image of the emperor stuck on it. So he asks for a denarius, a coin representing the average wage for one day’s work. With coin in hand, Jesus then turns the tables yet again, and becomes the interrogator. He asks: “Whose image and whose title is on the coin?” When they answer the emperor’s Jesus responds: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s . . .” He implies that returning to the emperor his own coinage is a fact of this earthly life – it does not necessarily represent an abandonment of God’s Law.
But the real power of Jesus’ direction here lies not in what belongs to the emperor but rather what belongs to God. “Give to God the things that are God’s.” Give to God the things that are God’s!
The chief priests and Pharisees know well from the Book of Genesis that God had created everything, the heavens and the earth, the oceans and the dry land, the creatures of the sea and of the land, and finally humanity in the Divine image. Hebrew scripture underscores that every aspect of creation is stamped with the likeness of God – Recall the refrain after each day of creation: “And God saw that it was good.” Caesar might be stamped on a coin, but God is stamped on all creation. To give back to God that which in creation has come from God means to return to God all that we are, and all that we have. Jesus asserts unequivocally the incredible and undeniable truth that God is the God of creation, the God of love, to which we owe everything, without qualification and without hesitation.
As Christians we affirm that God’s goodness and love, the goodness and love at the heart of creation, is so vast and so abundant that God even chose to cross the divisions that alienate us from God and each other. In Jesus, fully human and fully divine, God becomes one of us, and in doing so we are restored to unity with God and each other in Christ. That is what God is up to in Jesus, that is what God’s mission is: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. And the amazing thing is, each and every one of us is invited into that transforming mission by virtue of our baptism. Through the power of the Holy Spirit in baptism we are empowered, equipped, and engaged in the renewing work of God in the world. We are indeed called to give all that we have, and all that we are, to that mission of God in Jesus; that mission which is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
This vocation to participate in God’s mission in Jesus is echoed in the opening verses of Paul’s First Letter to Thessalonians read as our epistle this morning gives thanks to God for his his colleagues in God’s mission in Thessalonica. Paul states boldly his gratitude to the Thessalonians for their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 1:3) Paul praises God for all that God is up to in Thessalonica, all that God has given to the followers of Jesus. Paul gets it. And the Thessalonian Christians get it. They get that all that they are and all they have is of and from God. They get that in and through Jesus, as the body of Christ, they are called to share God’s goodness and love with the whole world, without hesitation, and without qualification.
So the question before us this morning is thus: do we get it? Do we get that we are created in the image of a loving God? Do we get that all that we are, and all that we have, is because of the goodness and love of God? Do we get that we are invited into, and can play a key role in God’s mission to restore all people to unity with God in each other in Christ? Can Paul say of us in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, and particularly of you here at St. Paul’s in Norwalk: “I thank God for your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus?”
My hunch is that Paul would indeed say: “I thank God for your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus here in Norwalk?” This is after all: St. Paul’s Church (or more precisely: St. Paul’s on the Green.) For if we look around us here in this community of St. Paul’s we can indeed see and experience the fullness of God’s goodness and love. God’s goodness and love: in the beauty of this building and in the music that help our souls and spirits rise to God; in the liturgy and in the sharing of God’s body and blood that feeds and sustain us without exclusion; and in the reality that all sorts and conditions of folk are welcome here, find a home here in the radical hospitality of Jesus.
This goodness and love, the goodness and love that is from God in creation, the goodness and love manifest in Jesus the incarnate one, the goodness and love in the community of Christians in Thessalonica and here at St. Paul’s on the Green, is what Carey, Ava, Grant, Christopher, and Joshua are affirming anew as they confirm their baptismal vows. Is what Russ, Jose, Elia, Ryan, John, and Andrea are coming into as they are received into the fellowship of this Communion – the Anglican/ Episcopal way of Jesus. It is the same goodness and love that we all will be invited to affirm as we together renew our baptismal promises to be about God’s mission saying together the words of the Baptismal Covenant.
So our lessons this morning remind us that God, the loving creator God, is the source of all that we are and all that we have. They remind us that God in Jesus embodies the goodness and love of God. And the tell us that in baptism, through the power of the Holy Spirit we are commissioned, co-missioned, in God’s restoring and reconciling mission in the whole world. To this loving God who has created us, who has redeemed, and who sustains with us, we owe all that we have and all that we are. God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.