Sermon by Mark Dewey, October 22, 2017
In my life as a seminarian, I get to try a lot of different approaches the Bible —
different people have different ideas about what it is and what to make of it.
Recently I learned about an approach known as Popular Reading, the objective
of which, “is not to interpret the Bible,” says the scholar Elsa Tamez, “but to
interpret life with the help of the Bible.”
That seems like the objective of any reading to me. In fact, it seems like the
fundamental challenge for contemporary Christianity: reading modern life
through the Bible, coherently. Because the question facing most of us today, if
we’re paying attention to the world around us, is, like, WTF?
Am I going to take that question to the Bible?
Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr suggests that the Bible works like a matrix
for knowing, a catalog of surfaces and shapes describing God’s relationship with
people, in which and through which our experience can resonate. If I’m reading
the Bible to hear what it says to me, then all my questions and concerns come
with me into every passage, and they resonate against those surfaces and shapes.
Well, what comes with me into every passage today is the fact that my father is
about to die. Does my dying father resonate against the shapes and surfaces of
this text in any way that’s worth listening to?
At its simplest level, this is a text about distinguishing the sacred from the
profane: give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give God what belongs to
God. In other words, distinguish material things from the source of all things,
material and immaterial, and value them differently.
I’m attracted to that reading because it allows me to affirm that all the stuff I
don’t have and can’t get is insignificant. What matters is the inner self, not all
that stuff. Last week, after lighting another cigar, my father dropped a match on
the floor of his office, where all his stuff is several layers deep, and some piece of
detritus started burning. He says he didn’t notice, and that may be true: the air
was full of cigar smoke and his attention was focused on the document he’s
struggling to finish before he dies of lung cancer.
All that stuff? Just let it burn. I’m busy here.
But it’s also true that his cancer is so advanced that after creeping into his office,
he doesn’t have the strength to creep out again until he has rested at his desk for
an hour — he was told in May that he’d be dead before September. So it could
be that he knew the room was burning, and that there was nothing he could do
about, and that anyone who might be called for help would drag him away from
the task he’s desperate to finish, which is writing down the thoughts he’s kept to
himself for the last 30 years.
Why did he keep all those thoughts to himself for all those years?
“It didn’t occur to me that anybody else might be interested in them,” he says.
That’s on me. If my father, or my neighbor, or the homeless guy who never talks
to anybody at the shelter where I work, assumes that no one’s interested in what
he thinks, that’s on me.
Another thing that makes this text appealing is that the bad guys get their butts
kicked, which makes the world seem orderly. The bad guys set a trap for Jesus
— that’s one of the things that makes them bad — but Jesus turns the tables on
them, and we’re like, “You go, Jesus! Kick some bad-guy butt!” Because it’s
wrong to set traps for people. It’s worth remembering, however, that Jesus
himself set a trap for those same guys the day before. That was the day he strode
up to the currency exchange booth in the temple, grabbed the edge of the table,
and dumped all those coins into the trader’s lap.
If you’ve just walked a hundred miles from another jurisdiction to comply with
the terms of your covenant with God, and you’re waiting to trade your dollars
for the euros you need to buy a sacrificial dove, how do you feel at that moment?
Do you feel liberated from an oppressive obligation — the tax you pay to God
— or are you angry that you’re going to have to wait until the guards haul out
the rabble-rouser, and the money-changer puts his business back together?
And how do you feel if you’re watching from the window of your temple office?
You probably expect the crowd to drag the dirty Galilean out of the temple by
the collar of his robe — to separate the sacred from the profane, which is what
you’ve been trying to do all morning: drag that image of your father out of your
mind so you can focus on the Isaiah scroll, but you keep seeing him glance at
those flames in his office, pause a moment to consider, and then turn back to his
computer. It’s like he’s decided to live in hell on earth if that’s what it takes to
finally share his inner life, or like that’s what happens to any person who doesn’t
share his inner life with anyone for 30 years — hell on earth — because he didn’t
think that anybody would be interested.
Well, I was interested. Weren’t there times when I would have liked nothing
better than to have a little of his inner life?
But instead of dragging out the Galilean, the worshipers are hauling in the blind
and the deaf and the lame, and they’re asking Jesus to cure them, like put out
the flames of all those hells on earth, and he’s doing that somehow, one flame
after another, while the crowd presses in from behind, and hollers “Hallelujah!”,
and you wonder if this Jesus ever yearned to know what was happening inside
his father, and if he ever asked.
How come I never asked?
How come thinking of my father always makes me feel like I’m still eight years
“Who gave you authority to do these things?” you ask this Jesus, and he
answers with a question of his own, one that’s clearly designed to trap you
between a rock and a hard place.
“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” he
You can’t say that it was human, because the people who dragged in all those
cripples were all baptized by John, and you can’t say that it was divine, because
you were not baptized by John. So you have to answer that you don’t know —
and that pisses you off. In anger you go back to the office, wishing you could
keep your head in the game so untutored so-and-so’s from West Virginia
couldn’t get the best of you, and you call the Herodians, whom you despise
because they serve the puppet king installed by Washington — I mean by Rome
— and you ask them to help you hang this guy with his own rope. Together, you
come up with your own unanswerable question: is it legal to pay taxes to the
emperor, or not?
It’s a clever ploy, because the people in that temple hate the Romans with the
sort of hatred we reserve for those who keep us from believing what we say
about ourselves.”So you’re ‘the favored ones,’ the people chosen by quote
Almighty God unquote to be his favored people? Right. Pay up.”
One of the challenges of knowing someone else’s inner life is that we don’t know
what to make of what we see. One day, for example, 40 years ago, the day before
my father was scheduled to begin a new job at the University of Illinois, writing
code for their primitive computers, he asked me to join him on an errand. He
needed to drive to the neighboring town and pay off the shoes he had bought on
the installment plan several months before. He had been unemployed for three
years when he bought those shoes, which were good for doing nothing in
particular, he said, which was the fate he had lost all hope of escaping when he
bought those shoes. Now, before heading off to start a life that would require
different shoes, he wanted to make the final payment, with his final
unemployment check, on the shoes he’d bought for doing nothing in particular,
and he wanted me to watch him do that.
It’s a clever ploy, because this particular tax is especially obnoxious: not income
tax, or sales tax, but existence tax. It would be like paying the president $1,000
every year for the right to be alive under his governance, which you despise, so
all those people in the temple are thrilled by this question — do we have to pay
existence tax? — because they think Jesus is about to say that Donald Trump
can put his money where the sun don’t shine.
The problem is that if he says that in the presence of the Herodians, his goose is
cooked. So he stalls: “Show me the coin,” he says.
This request does two things: first, it implicates the Pharisees in Roman
exploitation: they’re the people who are supposed to be in charge of the things
that belong to God, and their pockets are full of the things that belong to Caesar.
And I’m like, “You go, Jesus! Teach those clever buggers what it means to be
But the value of the text can’t be that Jesus out-clevers the Pharisees, because
then he would just be them, only smarter, and my father is the smartest person I
know. The value of the text has to be that Jesus isn’t the Pharisees, doesn’t it?
Give cleverness to Caesar, because people made it and own it or are owned by it.
God doesn’t give a damn about cleverness.
“When they produce the coin of the realm,” commentator Lance Pape points out,
“Jesus makes one more thing clear: ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ he
asks” — which is like saying, ‘Now, what’s this guy’s name again? Bump? or
Hump? or Stump? or Rump?—Oh, that’s right! I forgot.’
In other words, give those forget-able people forget-able things, like money and
cleverness, and give God what’s unforgettable.
Let’s complicate the matter here by holding up another text appointed for today:
Isaiah 45:1-7. “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus: I will go before you
and level mountains and break down the doors and cut through the bars, and I
will give you the treasures of darkness and the riches hidden in secret places so
that you may know that is is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by
And I’m like wait: what? Cyrus is God’s anointed?
Cyrus was the king of Persia who conquered the kingdom of Babylon, which
had previously conquered the kingdom of Judah and taken the Jewish elite
away into captivity. Those are the people Isaiah was speaking to. They would
have known Cyrus as the Caesar of their day — the king of the world — that’s
what he called himself: “I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, legitimate
king,” his cylinder says.
How do I endorse what belongs to God and reject what belongs to Caesar if
God pours holy oil on Caesar’s head? Maybe that neat division between things
to endorse and things to reject is no more important to God than cleverness.
Lance Pape urges us to notice the similarity between Jesus’s question — “whose
image is that?” — and the language in Genesis 1:26, where God says, “Let us
make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” I’m inclined to see
that connection as specious because the texts are of such different natures, and
because I can’t imagine what that means — made in God’s image and likeness?
Pape sees Jesus flipping the coin of the realm a couple of times before casting it
aside and turning to the Pharisees with an unspoken question: “‘And you, my
friend: whose image do you bear?’”
The honest answer to that question is: my own. The terrible honest answer.
In fact, the theme that runs through all the readings appointed for today isn’t
being clever, or sticking it to the man, or living between a rock and a hard place,
or distinguishing the sacred from the profane: it’s identity.
I’ve had trouble understanding the concept of identity for most of my life: what
do you mean ‘who am I’?
“There can be no doubt what Jesus means here,” asserts Clayton Schmidt,
another commentator: “Give yourselves to God, because it is to God that you
belong.” And I’m, like, wait: the Isaiah passage implies that there is always
doubt, that clear-cut distinctions between what to endorse and what to reject
belong to Caesar, not to God. Besides, I don’t know what that means either —
give yourself to God.
If I want the Bible to help me interpret life in America today, or help me
interpret my own life, I have to say what that language means.
“It is God who claims us,” Schmidt continues. “We do not belong to anything or
anyone else. We don’t even belong to ourselves,” he says, and that’s where my
resistance has to end. I’m tired of belonging to myself. I want to belong to my
wife, to my children, to my dad. Belonging to myself has begun to feel like
stamping my own image on a coin.
I first saw my father’s face in my own when I was thirty-five years old. I was
standing in the bathroom, tying my tie before work, and there it was: my father’s
face in the mirror. It was mostly the eyes — something behind them trying to
come out. The inner life, trying to come out, because it isn’t really mine.
The baptism of John: was it from heaven, Jesus asks, or was it of human origin?
That question puts me between a rock and a hard place: if I say it was from
heaven — if any of us who were sealed as Christ’s own in the waters of baptism
say it was from heaven, he’s going to ask us: why then do you live as if you
belonged to yourself?
That language may sound vague and slippery — live as if you belonged to
yourself? — but I know what it means: it means that no matter how well I might
be ‘living my own life,’ sooner or later I’ll find myself lying in bed at the end of a
good day, staring into the darkness and wondering how the prospect of another
useful, fruitful day of self-made personhood can be so hard to face.
Last night my father told me that he needs another 18 hours to finish writing out
the inner life he hasn’t shared with anyone for 30 years, or 40 years, or 50 years.
And I saw that image of him glancing at the flames, pausing to consider, and
then turning back to his work. Maybe he can get another 20 minutes before
anybody finds out he’s on fire. He didn’t say he wished that he had stopped
belonging to himself when he was younger. He didn’t say he wished that I had
asked him what was in his heart and mind. And he didn’t say what I have always
wanted him to say, which is: you are my son, in whom I am well-pleased.
Can any reading of the Bible can help me interpret that image? What I mean by
‘interpret that image’ is protect me from the chaos that it causes — the grief, the
loss, and the regret. But the Bible isn’t going to do that. Neither is Christianity,
or Jesus himself.
The word Jesus uses for “render” or “give back” means to put something away
from myself by giving it up or handing it over, especially some kind of burden.
Perhaps the burden Jesus wants me to put away from myself is the belief that I
should be protected from the chaos of a world where cleverness belongs to
Caesar, and the sacred mixes up with the profane, and people’s fathers set the
house on fire and decide to let it burn so they can finish doing what they didn’t
do before, because they didn’t think that anybody cared.
That’s on me. The Bible won’t protect me from the way that feels, or tell me that
it doesn’t matter — yes it does — or tell me I can pay my debts or earn my way
by going to seminary, so I can get an office in the temple, with a window to
protect me from whoever might be out there asking clever questions, or curing
cripples, or trying to tell me what it meant to be my father before the cancer kills
him, or the house goes up in flames.