Saturday, October 18, 2008

Render unto Caesar

Preached at St Mark's Church, North End, Portsmouth, on 19th October 2008

Render unto Caesar... Matthew 22.15-22

I have a dog. Her name is Imogen. Don't ask me how she got that name...she arrived with it, from a rescue centre. Sometimes I feel a bit of a berk, standing in the park calling out such a fancy name. But that's not why I'm telling you about Imogen. Anyone who has a dog will know exactly how they tend to behave around the dinner table. Even though Imogen has just eaten an enormous bowl of dog-food, she will still sit, with hunger oozing from every whisker, watching every mouthful that we eat from our plate. You can hear her thoughts...telepathically transmitted through her hungry eyes, and her panting mouth...."Do you really want that last bit of chicken? I could eat that for you, you know...if you need some help. The gravy...yes, that last little smear of gravy on the bottom of your plate...do you need some help with that. I don't mind...really."

And then, when you're washing up, "Do you want that bit of baked-bean juice...on that dishcloth. Chuck it here...I'll sort that out for you." And later, over coffee and biscuits..."I could eat a biscuit...actually a whole packet of biscuits...no, a whole lorry-load of biscuits. Just one biscuit...please!.

Martin Luther had a dog. He used to say, "If only I could pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, no wish, no hope"

But we mustn't give in. The vet has told us that Imogen mustn't have more food than has been carefully weighed out for her. Otherwise she'll get all fat and lumpy - and the old adage that dogs look like their owners will come true! So we have a rule in our house now: render unto Imogen that which is Imogen's, and unto humans that which is humans'.

Of course, when Jesus said the original of that saying - "render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God that which is God's" - he was thinking of some rather grander concepts than canine diets! But what was he, in fact, saying? Many scholars have debated for centuries the meaning of his words - as indeed they have debated many of Jesus' words. Some say that Jesus was advocating a separation between church and state - that he believed in disestablishing the Church of England, for example. Caesar and God are separate - and so the Church of England and the Government of England should go their separate ways.

Others, however, have argued that this wasn't in Jesus' mind at all. Those others are the owners of the longest word in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism - they are 'anti' the idea of 'disestablishing' the church. They are antidisestablishmentarianists! (Just thought you might like to know that!)

Taken as part of Matthew's Gospel as a whole, it seems that Jesus was not really all that interested in those kinds of questions. For Jesus, the concept of the Kingdom was an all embracing one. The Kingdom has the power, and the potential to touch every part of life...from the humblest interaction between two people in a family, to the great summits of world leaders. Jesus' claim is that the Kingdom, and it's principles, must (and will) infuse all life.

Jesus talks about the Kingdom (and Kingdom people) as being like salt, which flavours; or light which illuminates; or yeast which causes dough to rise. The Kingdom will spread, Jesus promises, like a sort of holy virus... transforming everything it touches... from religious institutions to whole Governments.

I have to confess to being somewhat of a fan of our Archbishop of Canterbury - Rowan Williams. Like Marvin the Parnoid Android in Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Rowan really does have a brain the size of a planet. I have to run at his books in very small chunks...because his thinking is SO complex (and his sentences SO long!) that it takes me quite a while to begin to catch up to what he is saying. On the subject of the Kingdom, Rowan offers a particularly fascinating thought. He says "there is a provisionality about the Kingdom...a sort of 'now but not yet' quality." I think I know what he means...

He means, I think, that the Kingdom is truly among us (as Jesus proclaimed)...but it is not yet completely established. We see the Kingdom among us everytime a child is saved from hunger, or an AIDS sufferer is welcomed as a member of the family of God. We see the Kingdom every time that human beings reach out with generosity to one another...and every time that love, justice and mercy are shown.

But we all know, don't we, that there are many places where the Kingdom is yet to come. So many place of darkness. So many places where the light of Christ does not yet shine.

We are called to live in this 'duality'. We live as people with one foot in heaven, and one foot on the earth. We must deal with the world as it is...and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. We must pay our taxes, and comply with all the laws that society has erected around our individual freedom. But we are also citizens of another Kingdom. We pray 'thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven' precisely because we have caught sight of what the Kingdom is like...and because we want to bring it closer. We know how good it feels to find goodness, love, generosity, and mercy. And we long for more of it. And so, we render to God that which is God's...we give him of our time, and our money, precisely because we long for the Kingdom to be fully established 'on earth as it is in heaven'.

And let's make no bones about it. The more we give, of our time and our money, the sooner that day will come. Our money is oil on the wheels of the Kingdom. Just a few weeks ago I said, from this pulpit, that God doesn't need our money...he is God, after all. He can do whatever he wants. But, God has chosen to work with humans, and through humans. He doesn't want to impose his Kingdom on the earth - he wants us to want it. He wants us to do our part to usher it in. He wants a relationship of love with us in which we give, sacrificially, in the same way as he has also given sacrificially.

And Folks...we do have to think about our giving. Did you hear the story about the £10 note who met his old friend the 50p piece in the street one day? "Where have you been?" asked the 50p piece. "I haven't seen you for ages". "Oh," said the £10 note, "I've been really busy. I've been down the pub, out to a football match, then to the cinema, and then out for a meal. Busy busy busy. What about you? Where have you been?". "Oh," replied the 50p piece. "The same old drudgery for me, I'm afraid. Church, church, and church again!".

Ouch. But there is a germ of truth in it, isn't there?

Enough said, on the topic of money. There are many other ways of being part of the great call to usher in the Kingdom. "Thy kingdom come" is something we all need to pray...if we are at all serious about this thing that we do together each Sunday. And prayer is not always done with words...often its done with actions too. St Francis, one of our patron saints in this parish, said: "Pray always...with words if necessary". We can all of us give time, and energy, and expertise to the task of ushering in the Kingdom - as of course many of you already do...and for which I am very grateful. But that's the task that Jesus give us...that's the privilege he calls us to. That's the honour he bestows on us...to rely upon us, little us, to be his co-workers in bringing his Kingdom of love, and mercy, and justice and peace into this community of North End...and around the world.

Jesus calls us to give to Caesar that which is Caesar...but to God that which is God's. He calls us to live as people who hunger after the Kingdom, as a dog hungers after her master's sausages. He calls us be people who understand that the Kingdom is both 'now' and 'not yet' - and that we are the ones who have been called to be salt and light to the world.

Amen.

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