Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sermon: Learning from Children

Sermon for October 19, 2014
Proper 24A, 19th Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
For readings click here

I speak to you in the name of one God
Source of all being, incarnate Word and Holy Spirit. Amen

Today is the
National Observance of Children’s Sabbath.[1]
A day to join other faith communities
in commitment to care, to protect and
to advocate for all children.
A day to learn from children about God.

Several years ago, I heard this now familiar
story of about a three-year-old girl,
firstborn and only child in her family.
But now her mother was pregnant again
and the little girl was very excited
about having a new sibling.
Within a few hours of her parents
bringing a new baby boy home from the hospital,
the girl made a request:
she wanted to be alone with her new brother
in his room / with the door shut.
Her insistence about being alone
with the baby / with the door shut
made her parents a bit uneasy,
but they had an intercom system
so they let their daughter do this.
They listened in from another room.
There they heard their three-year-old daughter
pleading with her three-day-old brother:
Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.”[2]

This “haunting and evocative” story suggests
that while we know
we come from God early in life,
we somehow, eventually forget. 

A psychological research study reported this
after asking young people the question
“Have you at times felt that God is particularly close to you?”
The results show diminished experience of God,
for in the 1st grade, 84% said “yes”,
but in the 5th grade it was 69%,
7th grade it was 57%,
And by the 11th grade, 47% - less than half.[3]

This is not just a modern phenomenon. 
For in today’s Gospel,
Jesus’ response to the entrapment question
suggests that
his opponents might have forgotten about God.

Jesus’ response might imply that
“the question behind the question”
his opponents ask
as something like the 3-year old’s plea,
“Tell us about God – we’ve almost forgotten.”

= = = = = = = = =
This is the first-of-three upcoming “tests”
to entrap Jesus as he approached Jerusalem.
The Pharisees took the initiative
and conspired with the Herodians. 
These strange bedfellows cooperated
only because of their mutual desire
to see Jesus removed from the scene.
There, they asked the now-famous question:
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

See, the Pharisees were committed
to every detail of the Jewish law. 
They resented and resisted
the “census” or “head” tax.
Rome had imposed the tax on Judea
when it became part of the Roman Empire. 

The Pharisees opposed the tax,
not only for the occupation the tax represented,
but also because the tax could only be paid
with a coin minted by Rome. 
The coin itself had this inscription,
“…Tiberius Caesar, august son of divine Augustus, high priest,”[4]
thus violating the first and second commandments:
“I AM the Lord thy God,
thou shalt have no other gods, and
thou shalt not have any graven images...”.

The Herodians overtly supported Herod Antipas,
Roman ruler of Galilee and Perea. 
Herod had been named “king of the Jews”
by Rome. 
The Herodians, needless to say,
supported paying the tax to Caesar.

The Pharisees hoped Jesus will say yes,
so that the Jewish community
would see Jesus as
a Roman sympathizer and blasphemer.
The Herodians hope that Jesus will say no,
so that they can accuse Jesus of treason
or sedition against Rome. 

Jesus’ opponents confronted him
with this dilemma. 
It seemed he was trapped.

= = = = = = =
This is not just a first century challenge.
Our “opponents,”
whether society or culture or family,
confront us with dilemmas all the time,
making it seem that we are trapped.

What do we do when allegiance to our “Caesar”
conflicts with our allegiance to Christ?

What do we do when the God we serve and
the government to which
we have sworn allegiance
pull us into divided loyalties?
How can we Christians respond
in the face of wars in the Middle East? 
How can we Christians respond
to the use of torture by government,
even if it provides information
to help the war on terror? 
How can we Christians respond
to immigrant refugees and their families,
now split up, who wait
while their asylum case
lingers in the courts?
What do we do when the God we serve
and the family of which we are a part
pull us into divided loyalties?
If a family member violates
our Christian sensibilities,
how do we respond even while we risk
breaking the relationship? 

What do we do when we are spiritually inspired
to support the transformation of lives
through ministries like ASMP,
Casa Maria, Interfaith Community Services,
or any number of others,
but financially we are on a fixed budget?

We are faced with these dilemmas all the time.
It seems our allegiances
are pitted against each other.  

It seems we are trapped, like Jesus was.
= = = = = =
And yet, the solution that Jesus offered
amazed them. 
Jesus reminded them about God
and God’s sovereignty –
about the breadth and depth
of God’s creative power. 
He opened the trap when he said,
“Give (more accurately, render) …
to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s
and to God the things that are God’s.”

In Greek, the word for “render” means
“to give what is due by obligation.”
Thus, Jesus suggested a dual allegiance –
to give to both
what is due by obligation;
the obligation to live fully
into the teachings and commands of God
the obligation to live lawfully
with the government under whose laws
they live. 
Neither side could be dismissed.
Neither side could be “right.” 
For in fact, it’s all God’s. 

Jesus reframed the whole issue
With a “both/and,” not “either/or” solution. 
Jesus reminded them about God,
the creator of all things,
who also created Caesar.

Jesus transfigured their perspectives.
= = = = =
And Jesus transfigures our perspectives. 
Jesus reminds us, in this text, that  
God is the creator
and we are the created. 

By living fully AND by living lawfully,
giving what is “due by obligation,”
we become citizens of both
an earthly realm
and a spiritual realm. 

And, in the midst of those
dilemmas that contradict,
God, in Jesus, is right here. 
God, in Jesus, places us in a position
to dance with these choices. 
God, in Jesus, empowers us
to choose wisely as we can or
to sit and wait
until an answer arises from the Holy Spirit.  

Trappist Monk Thomas Merton once wrote,
“God makes us ask ourselves questions
most often when [God] intends to resolve them. 
God gives us needs that [God] alone can satisfy
and awakens capacities that [God] means to fulfill. 
(go slowly)
Any perplexity is liable to be
a spiritual gestation,
leading to a new birth
and a mystical regeneration.”[5]

He juxtaposed the moral and the mystical life
through the presence of contradiction. 
He said, “When we move ourselves as [humans],
we end up hanging on one horn of the dilemma and hoping for the best. 
But when we are moved by God, mystically,
we seem to solve the dilemma
in ease and mystery,
by choosing at the same time
both horns of the dilemma
and no horn at all and always being
perfectly right.”[6]

When we invite Jesus into our dilemmas,
Jesus transfigures our perspectives
with the sovereign presence of God.
Today’s Good News is that
God, in Jesus, often appears
in the midst of dilemmas,
in the midst of trick questions,
in the midst of a child’s plea,
in the midst of –
well, the stuff of life
that we humans can’t solve
and can’t make sense of.

God resolves contradictions,
which are not just our dilemmas, but God’s too. 
It’s all God’s. 
And in God’s
abundant, creative and generative love,
solutions are found.
Joy is spread.
Hope is at hand.
Suffering is transformed.
If you don’t believe,
Just find a child and plea to her:
“tell me about God, I’ve almost forgot!”


[2]  Story excerpt from Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 2003) p.113, note 21. Borg gives additional credit to a couple who first shared the story with him and to Parker Palmer who tells a similar story in one of his many, fine books.
[3] Borg, ibid., p. 114, note 22: K. Tamminen, “Religious Experiences in Childhood and Adolescence,” in International Journey for the Psychology of Religion 4.61-85 (1994), 61-85. This study is reported in Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi and Michael Argyle,  Religious Behavior, Belief and Experience (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp.149-150.
[4] Richard E. Spalding, “Pastoral Perspective,: Feasting on the Word: Year A, (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p.190
[5] Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas: The Day by Day Experiences and Meditations of a Trappist Monk, (Garden City, Image Books Edition/Doubleday, 1956), p. 186
[6] Merton, ibid. p. 273

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