Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Month: October, 2017

Rendering to Caesar

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on October 22, 2017, the 19th Sunday after Trinity. It was the last week of hearing “Stewardship Testimonials,” parishioners offering a brief reflection of why they give, in advance of our “Pledge Sunday” when we receive pledges of support for the next year. This year the lectionary offered one of the most classic, and notorious, passages on giving – Jesus getting pigeonholed by the Pharisees about whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. My sermon tried to reframe the question around the larger matter of Duty, as contrasted with Generosity; which could just as easily have been preached on the similar passage, “A man cannot have two masters; you cannot serve both God and mammon.”

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in Christ hast revealed thy glory among the nations: Preserve the works of thy mercy, that thy Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of thy Name; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 45:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Yesterday, October 21, marked the two hundred and twelfth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. If you know the story you’ll remember it was one of the most significant battles in western history. Napoleon was busy seizing control of Europe, and planned for his coup d’grace a massive invasion of Great Britain. He had assembled both the French and Spanish navies, and had given orders to his admirals to sail their ships north for the final moment. But just as the French and Spanish fleets had gathered, the English Admiral Lord Nelson, with his own officers and ships managed to catch them in port. Though he was outmanned and outgunned, he drew them out and defeated the entire combined fleet without losing a single ship of his own. The war continued on for the next decade, but Napoleon never again attempted an invasion of England, and for that matter could never again challenge England at sea. The British became the world’s dominant naval power (and consequently imperial power) for nearly the next one and a half centuries.

Part of the mystique and pathos of the battle was that Nelson himself was shot and killed in the action. His body was preserved in brandy and was returned to England months later, where it was received with great pomp and circumstance and laid to rest in the chief place of honor in the crypt beneath St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His last words to the fleet came by signal up the mast of his flagship, in the final minutes before the battle began. He told them, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” It became a slogan of sorts, even a national motto, for the understated, dutiful, and noble disciple to do what is required in matters of great urgency and danger. “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

It’s a great story and a thrilling moment. But why do I tell it this morning? Because, for all his heroism and legend, I think Nelson might have sympathized somewhat with the question the Pharisees ask Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” What is our duty toward the state, given our other personal loyalties? It’s worth remembering, the Pharisees, for all their appearance as “The Bad Guys” in the Gospels, were actually keenly interested in doing their duty, both by God and by their fellow countrymen. They weren’t exactly happy paying homage to Caesar, but for the most part they did not support rebellion against the Romans; and for that matter they were happy even to make friends with them if it meant they could gain influence and authority. 

For the Pharisees there was something about Jesus’ preaching that seemed seditious to them, unpredictable, unstable, as if it aimed at subverting the status quo, or any productive way forward for religion and society. So they try to trap him in a question about duty. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” It’s a carefully designed entrapment, so that whether Jesus replies “Yes,” or “No,” they can accuse him of not doing his duty, either to Caesar or to the God whom he calls Father.

But Jesus, typically, sees through the entrapment. The question is not really about taxes, or about the law. Rather it reveals an important underlying assumption about the people to whom Jesus is preaching, and presents him with a golden opportunity to articulate and correct their error. The question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” is fundamentally about duty. What ought we do in order to fulfill our obligations? The problem that Jesus identifies is with the notion that duty is what faith is about in the first place; with the idea that fulfilling our obligations is the end, the point of sufficiency, when we achieve what we owe and are rewarded with our just desert; and when we can get on with doing what we really want to do now that the box is checked and our duty is done. 

Jesus’ reply cuts them to the quick. It cuts because it forces them to think first, what is it exactly that Caesar claims? In the Roman world, Caesar claimed not only taxes but absolute loyalty as well, to himself, the son of a god. At Caesar’s behest the empire took land and life as it willed, and was not obligated to recognize either rights or even personhood of anyone who wasn’t Roman. In short, Caesar claims everything for his own. And yet faith asserts that God is the Lord of heaven and earth, “The sea and all that is in it,” and he demands much, much more than Caesar. If Caesar already gets everything, what’s left for God? In the question of parsing out duties, the Pharisees had come up with a vast series of pragmatic compromises to keep both Caesar and God happy. But Jesus’ reply articulates the tension between God and Caesar in its starkest possible terms, and makes it clear that duty simply cannot resolve all the demands placed upon it.

I can’t help but think that Jesus, in his reply, is also offering a little foreshadowing, a hint at things to come in his own life. In only a few short chapters, Jesus himself will render to Caesar exactly what Caesar demands: his own life, on top of his dignity. What could there be left to render to God on the cross? 

If Jesus were interested only in fulfilling his duty, Caesar would have everything, and there would be nothing left for God. But in rendering to Caesar all that Caesar demands, Jesus reveals that there is one thing Caesar cannot claim, and that is what Jesus renders to God. Caesar can take what Caesar wants. But he cannot steal what is freely given. He cannot conquer what is freely offered. He cannot rule what is freely delivered. Jesus goes to the cross at Caesar’s demand. But hanging there he offers his life to God, offers his forgiveness to his tormentors, offers his love to Mary and John and his compassion to the thief hanging next to him; and in the end he gives his spirit into the hands of his Father. Jesus goes to the cross to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But he conquers the cross by rendering to God what is God’s, even in the moment of his own death. And that free gift, indomitable, conquers the grave.

Caesar can demand what Caesar likes. But in his free gift of himself, Jesus establishes a new economy, a new kingdom, which reveals the insufficiency of mere duty, and invites you and me to do likewise: to give ourselves, in whatever circumstances we face, to the fullest extent we possibly can.

What does that mean? It means that duty is not sufficient. The minimum is not good enough. The requirements demanded by Caesar and by everything else in our lives will always be more than we can meet, no matter how many resources are at our disposal, no matter how small or great our capacity to obey. So what hope is there? How is Jesus’s witty reply Good News for us? Because the cross is where we see what it really means. And what it means is this: that no matter how small your gift, if freely given, in the moment of its giving, you will join with Christ in his victory over death: “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” he says to the thief, and to you and me. Any gift given, whether time, talent, treasure, affection, or compassion, when given for the sake of giving and not for the satisfaction of fulfilling obligations, launches its giver into the priesthood of Christ himself — the central mystery of the cosmos, in which the gift of everything back to God results in the creation, the healing, and the fulfillment of all things.

“England expects that every man will do his duty.” But Nelson himself did much more: by putting his own ship in the front of the battle, and commanding his troops from the deck rather than from safety, he put himself in a position to pay for his extravagance with his life. He is remembered as one of the greatest heroes of this or any age. 

How you decide to give your own life is a question that only you can answer. You and I will probably not be remembered like Nelson. You and I will probably not be remembered at all, in the grand sweep of things. And yet, by giving ourselves away in the small and uncertain moments of our small and uncertain lives, we participate in the gift of Christ himself upon the cross, and we bear witness to the final, enduring freedom of the Kingdom of God — no matter the demands placed on us by duty or our ability to fulfill them.

The measure we give will be the measure we receive, not the measure we pay, not the measure we save. Let us therefore freely give and forgive, that in rendering to God what is God’s we might receive our own freedom, and our own life besides.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.


This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 8, 2017, at CSMSG. This year every week seems to bring with it some new disaster, some new crisis of faith, and this week especially with the news of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. In this context it’s all the more natural to ask “Why?” especially of God – but one of the perennial troubles is that God is not always forthcoming with an answer. This sermon is an attempt to point the way towards a specifically Christian response to the matters at hand, as well as to the larger question of faith and suffering.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who live the and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

I’ll never forget, in the first weeks of being ordained a deacon (I wasn’t a priest yet) I went to the hospital with my father to see my grandmother. She had just undergone a complicated procedure for pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis which had taken her — and all of us — completely by surprise. Most of my dad’s four siblings were in Grandma’s room with us, and we were all talking quietly while she slept off the residue of the anesthesia. One of them asked me point blank, knowing I’d just been ordained, “So all right Blake, now tell us why this happened.” I confess I was at a total loss for words. I’m sure I mumbled something unsatisfying, and the conversation carried on.

Or another case, years before: a friend of mine committed suicide after graduating from college, after suffering through depression and various family issues for years. In his last email to me before jumping in front of a train, he said the one thing that troubled him the most, was “Why anything at all?” Not just, “Why is there bad in the world?” or, “Why is there good?” but, “Why is there anything at all?” He’d grown up a person of faith, but something about that particular moment in his life prevented him from seeing any reason at all behind any of the things he was facing. There was no satisfactory answer I could give.

The last time I preached, Houston was in the middle of historic flooding after Hurricane Harvey. In the few weeks since, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria have both hit, and we’ve just had yet another record-setting public shooting, this time in Las Vegas. “Why” is still the question on my mind, and I’m sure it’s an important question for many of you too — whether about these specific incidents or something else you might be facing. Are there any answers to be had from Christian faith? And if none are finally satisfying, why should we bother in the first place?

This is where the parables in the Gospel, and actually the whole Gospel itself, really begins to shift us out of our comfortable patterns of thought. In today’s parable about the vineyard and the wicked tenants, Jesus is telling a parable about himself, among other things. He is the son in the parable, who willingly goes to the tenants, and gets killed by them. Why on earth is this the way it works? We don’t know, though we’ve spent the last two thousand years coming up with one theory after another about why it has to be this way. The son gets killed by the tenants in the Gospel parable. The Son of God gets killed by those he comes to save in the Gospel. Why does it have to be this way?

You may know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian in the Second World War, who refused to collaborate with the Nazi state and found himself in a prison camp, where he was executed mere days before the Allies liberated it. In the letters he wrote from prion, he observed that asking why was always the wrong question, because it revealed two flawed assumptions. First, asking why is the wrong question because it assumes that knowledge will always fix things; and second, because it assumes the chief function of God is to satisfy our curiosity. The problem with this first is that knowledge simply doesn’t always fix things; more often than not it creates further problems of its own. And second of all, if God exists merely to satisfy our curiosity, then God can be dethroned in our hearts by anything that offers a more enticing or convincing explanation. This is the heart of all the so-called “Science and Religion” debates. If God exists to offer explanations, and if science offers a more detailed account of how atoms work (or whatever), what reason is there for holding the doctrine of creation?

But this is not what God is for, this is not what doctrine is about. God is not here just to offer explanations for thorny questions, questions about either the nature of reality or the painful experience of suffering. Jesus did not take on human flesh in order to answer our questions or to give us a satisfying “Why.” Instead, he came to cast a vision, and to live it out to its end: a vision where the Son of God shows up in our world not as the enforcer of some kind of divine fairness, or the all-knowing oracle who untangles all knots — in our parable today the son does not successfully demand anything out of those tenants, or convincingly explain to them their error. No. The Christian vision is where God himself shows up and gets murdered; where Jesus shows up in the world he made, and reveals himself not the enforcer but the victim; the Victim whose offering of himself on the cross breaks the whole economy of death and bridges the chasm between heaven and earth. For Jesus there is no answer to suffering, except to suffer it himself, and in so doing establish the victory of life over death, out of which victory he brings healing to the nations and to your heart and mine.

This is the paradox, the mystery at the heart of Christian belief: that in suffering, in loss, in pain, injustice, and unfairness, somehow God is present and heaven is near: not as the solution to a problem, not as the explanation, not as the cause, but as the victim, whose death breaks the power of death forever, and whose life is the source, the pattern, and the guarantor of all human flourishing and joy.

No, Christian faith does not answer any questions. It does however question us: do we really want to embrace the vision which Jesus casts? Do we really want to live in a world where the Son of God is the victim and not the cavalry; the suffering servant and not the righteous landowner? Do we really want to live in a world where the last are first, and I might not get what I have coming to me after all? Do we really want to live in a world where justice and righteousness and even law itself do not avail but only mercy, weakness, and love? Do we really want to live in a world where the meek inherit the earth, and where the rest of us will have to be content with a backseat when it comes to the priorities of God?

Make no mistake, this is not a satisfying answer, logically or rhetorically. And yet it is the answer which God offers, both in today’s parable and in the Cross. If the Cross is an answer at all, it is the answer to a question no one is asking. It doesn’t answer our “Why?” to Harvey or Irma or Maria. It doesn’t explain Stephen Paddock, pancreatic cancer, depression, suicide, or Bonhoeffer’s Nazi captors. But the God who is last, who puts himself into the breach and suffers the consequences he neither asked for nor deserved — this God is our God, whom we worship here this morning and whose table we will approach in a few moments.

No this is not a satisfying answer. But somehow I think we intuit that it might be the correct answer. We are always moved to see the photos of people shielding one another from bullets with their own bodies. We sense something deeply right about this, even while we know the cost is too much to pay; and it helps with sketching out the only response the Gospel offers. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is never to fight fire with fire; never to come up with reasons why it must have been the will of God; never finally even to pass or repeal legislation. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is to step into the breach with our own lives after the pattern of our Lord — and find, when the darkness closes in, that a Light shines there which the darkness cannot comprehend. In this way Heaven continually breaks into our world from within, not standing offering explanation or escape from without.

This is the only way the Gospel could be Good News to my grandmother. At that point there was no stopping the cancer. It could only be what it was, while the rest of us could only sit and watch in dismay. There was nothing anyone could do to fix it. Yet in her own quiet way, even as she slept in that hospital room, she gave the answer I could not offer. In her graceful dying, concerned only for the well-being of her family, she bore witness to Christ himself on the cross giving Mary and John into each other’s care; and, finding Jesus there in the midst of her dying, there is no question that he himself carried her home.

So, if you find the vision compelling and you really do want to be a part of the Christian response to the suffering in our world — don’t try to explain it, or offer some kind of half-baked solution that only makes yourself feel better and does no justice either to those who are suffering or to the God who claims them for his own. Rather, if you want to offer a specifically Christian response, put yourself in the way of heaven; put your own life into the breach. Let heaven break into the world, into your heart, from within; not reserving it to judgement or escape from without. Go where life is most threatened, most vulnerable, in the world and in your own soul. There, say with Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And find: that, embracing the God who is last and least, the victim of all earthly powers, his strength will transfigure your weakness, his death will transfigure your life into his own eternal love.

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Amen.