Friday, October 20, 2017

To Whom Do We Belong? Thoughts on Matthew 22.15-22 (RCL Proper 29A, 22 October 2017)

To Whom Do We Belong?
Thoughts on Matthew 22.15-22

RCL Proper 29A
22 October 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

Matthew 22.15-22

            22.15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said.  16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.  17 Tell us, then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?  19 Show me the coin used for the tax.”  And they brought him a denarius.  20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  21 They answered, “The emperor’s.”  Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

            For most of my childhood every school day began with the same ritual.  We stood up from our desks, faced the American flag that was at the front of the classroom, placed our right hands over our hearts and recited these words:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United Stated of America and to the republic for which it stands:  one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

As a child I gave little thought to the meaning of the words that my classmates and I recited.  I knew that the pledge of allegiance was shorter than the two creeds we recited at church and that its words were a little more comprehensible to an elementary school child.  It was later in my life that I learned that 'liberty and justice for all' was very much a work in progress rather than a reality.

            When I was a teenager, my parents received a letter from the U.S. government indicating that my citizenship status was unclear.  Although I had been born of a U.S. citizen parent who was overseas on the business of the U.S. government and who had married his English bride with the permission of his superiors, I had no documentation of my U.S. citizenship other than the official report of my birth to the U.S. embassy in London.  So I went through a process of certification that included the recitation of another pledge of allegiance:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

I received the necessary certificate, complete with a glum photograph of my fifteen-year-old face, proving that I was a natural-born U.S. citizen.  It was later in my life that I learned that Her Majesty's government still thought of me as a British citizen with potentially divided loyalties.

            Then twenty-seven years later I stood with my family in the ballroom of the Italian Cultural Centre in Vancouver to take another oath.  Paula and I had come to believe that the best way we could serve the interests of our children was to become Canadian citizens so that we could exercise the right to vote.  So, there we were, surrounded by people from all parts of the world, in the presence of the citizenship judge, a member of the Order of Canada and two RCMP officers to declare that

I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.

It was later in life that I learned that there were and are moments when I am reminded that I am an immigrant to this country rather than someone born from its soil.

            As I look back over my life it would seem that I have pledged my allegiance so many times that some people might wonder if I have any genuine allegiance to any country at all.  It’s a fair question and I know people who do not approve of any person having more than one nationality.  We can almost hear the question, ‘When push comes to shove, whose side are you really on?’  But I do know to whom I owe my essential and undivided loyalty --- even though it is not an easy loyalty to maintain.

            You and I know to whom we belong:  We belong to God, the Holy One of Israel, who has dwelt among us in Jesus of Nazareth and whose Spirit leads us into all truth.  At some point on most mornings I recite Jesus’ summary of the Law:  ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  This is the first and the great commandment.  The second is like it:  Love your neighbour as yourself.  There is no commandment greater than these.’  And at some point, every day of my life, I fail, in one way or another, to be faithful to my primary allegiance.

            And why do I fail?  Why do we all fail?  We fail because, despite fundamentalist claims to the contrary, our Scriptures, our reason, our traditions do not give us absolute and concrete answers to the three fundamental questions that shape our loyalty to God:  What does it mean to ‘do justice’?  What does it mean to ‘love kindness’?  What does it mean to ‘walk humbly with our God’?  Our efforts to answer these three central questions of Christian loyalty to God are often led astray when we confuse patriotism and national interest with the good news of God in Christ.  There are times when doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God require us to kneel rather than stand at patriotic moments, to question duly constituted authority or to risk the disapproval of our friends and neighbours.

            Perhaps the most faithful way we can demonstrate our allegiance to God is committing ourselves to a life-long struggle as individuals and as a community to answer these three questions.  God knows --- God knows --- that we will disagree, that we will have moments of doubt, that we will fail to be true to our commitments, that we will discover that we have taken a wrong turn.  But faithfulness to God is more often than not revealed in the effort to be faithful rather than in perfection.

            Towards the end of my career at Vancouver School of Theology, the graduating students did me the honour of asking me to send forth from their commencement with a text from the Scriptures.  I chose my favourite from the prophet Daniel.

3.16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter.  17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.  18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.

You know the story.  They stand before the blazing furnace but refuse to worship the king’s golden idol.  No doubt they hope God will save them, but their allegiance is not dependent upon their rescue.  They face the furnace unshaken in their loyalty to the Holy One who created all that is, seen and unseen. 

            God is God whether we are rescued or not.  God is God whether we succeed or not.  God is God whether our religious institutions endure or not.  God is God whether the nations of the world learn peace or not.  God is God whether we understand or not.  God is God.

            I know that this is the One in whom I trust.  I pray that my trust in God endures all the tests that life in this world brings.  I know to whom I belong.

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