As a preacher, you don’t want to follow Michael Curry. As a Christian yes you do.
But as a preacher you never want to follow, because you pale in comparison with something like those two amazing sermons our Presiding Bishop gave last Sunday which brought us up to the heights of the mountain with Jesus and then sent us out into the streets in his name.
So I am happy to be here this morning because I still feel, through Bishop Curry’s sermon, and the Holy Spirit in our midst, the power and the presence of Jesus Christ. And we want to keep that going, because any second now the power of Cesar can crash upon us. Any second the Gospel of the Empire can come down and consume us. Any second the fear can set back in. So let’s move forward.
Cesar appears in the Gospel today and I wonder if we fully understand what Cesar meant to the people. Not who he was, but what he meant. We know he was the Roman Emperor who ruled from the years 14 to 37 there in the time of Jesus. But he meant more than a person or politician or another leader.
Cesar meant power. He was the symbol of the power of armies and an empire which stretched, as far as the people knew, across the world. From end to end. It was a power they would never have, a power which ruled their lives and controlled their actions, and was a constant reminder that they did not in any way matter. As long as they kept putting that money into the pot. As long as they kept quiet and did their work. As long as they didn’t rise up. They themselves were food for the machine, and their money, what little they had, was the fuel that drove the engine. And Cesar was the head.
That coin that Jesus brought out today would have had an image of Cesar’s face and it would have had an inscription reading: “Tiberius Cesar Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus,” which basically means the Majestic Tiberius Cesar, son of the Divine, which is basically saying: son of God. Meaning that Emperor Tiberius Cesar called himself the Son of God. Does that sound familiar to anyone? Do you see what Jesus is up against?
This is the power of that figure, the power of all Cesar means, claiming to be God’s holy Son. And so when the people go to the temple to pay their tax, they reach into their pockets and pull out a coin and are given the message that your God is not the God of your ancestors, and that your God is not the God of the Temple. Your God is not the God of the Scriptures, and not the God of the 10 commandments.
But there on that coin it states clearly that your God is Cesar, and the Empire he represents, and the might of the army he leads, and the wealth he has amassed. That this is your God, this is who possesses you, who controls you, who determines your worth. And this is whose you are.
I can still remember the words that Jim Munroe used to say as he offered the final blessing at the end of the service here in the Cathedral. He would say: “Remember whose you are.” Such a powerful message. And I would often think – alright now, whose am I? Who owns me? Am I of Jesus? Or perhaps has Cesar come to own my heart and the Empire my soul.
It’s such a balance we walk, we Christians, between these powers of Cesar and Jesus. Because we live in the world. We’re Christians of course, and the Christians live in the world. And it’s not like we are in nice cloistered communities. We’re out there. In about thirty minutes we’re going back out there. And even when we’re in here we’re still out there. And Cesar is everywhere.
Open your wallet, there is Cesar. Go shopping to get some food or buy some clothes, there is Cesar. Turn on the TV just for one second just to check the news or look at the weather, and there is Cesar, luring us into the same message they had in Ancient Rome back at the height of the Empire, this message that God is based not on love, but on power. And security comes not from the God’s care, but from strength and might. And that our worth comes not because we are human, but because of our wealth, or our good looks, or the fact that we are born into the right class or race or sexual orientation. And that what matters is not the care we have for each other, but what really matters is me. And that is Cesar. And we are caught in that Cesar thought pattern and belief system every day of our lives.
And yet we are Christians, so we know there’s more. There is an alternative, that there is the power of love. That there is the security of God’s care. God cares for us. That there is an inherent worth to every human being, and that we can and we should be concerned for more than just ourselves. We can love others just as ourselves. We can love God with all our heart. And that’s Jesus. That is his message. We have these two competing messages.
As we pray and meditate on the message of Jesus, as we take out our Bibles and steep ourselves in them, we have to know that the Empire is always going to fall, that it cannot last. That sooner or later it will because. Because what it is up against is the living God.
We know how the story goes with this Roman Empire. The man on the coin today, Cesar Augustus gave way to Tiberius, who gave way to Caligula, who gave way to Claudius, then to Nero. Then the Flavian dynasty ruled, then the Nerva Antonine dynasty ruled, from 96-192, then the Year of the Five Emperors and the Severan Dynasty until 235, then the Gordian dynasty to 285, then from there the Tetrarchy ruled until, in 313, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan and the Roman Empire became Christian. And some time after that the empire dissolved. We know how that story goes. Empires do not last.
But what of today’s world, what of our empire? For love is still not what really guides us. Kindness and compassion are still not the way we are encouraged to move forward and treat each other. Concern for my brother and sister, and justice for the poor and compassion for the weak are still not the guiding and driving principals upon which our world is built today.
Jesus Christ and his message and his movement are still at the edge. And just like 2000 years ago, it’s still hard to be a Christian and see the state of the world. And if it’s not hard, it should be. For really, Jesus demands more than our conformity to life under Cesar.
Years ago, when I was in Honduras, I went with the Bishop to visit this remarkable little church which was in the mountains and was only accessible by foot. It had been built by the people in the community and out there, there was nothing more than the church and a social hall and a couple bathrooms and a few cow paths leading into the mountains where the people had their homes. It was beautiful. But it was the most remote place I had ever been.
And I remember that as I went to use the restroom there in this remote, isolated church, I noticed that on the wall someone had written, probably a youth, the word Nike and had drawn the big Nike swoosh, that symbol on the shoes. There that was on the bathroom in this most remote place I had ever been, a small yet powerful sign of the Empire. And I thought: It’s everywhere. You cannot escape Cesar. But you do not have to conform to him.
So give to Cesar what is Cesar’s. Let him have our clothes, let him have the fruit of our labors, let him have some of our attention and some of our time. But don’t let’s give him our hearts. And don’t let’s give him our soul. That we give to you, Jesus.
I have always looked at the discipline and practice of the church as the way to keep myself on the side of Jesus. If anything’s going to do it, it’s me being involved in my church. And in particular there are three or four basic things which, when we do regularly, help us not to conform to the world.
And they include, first, participation in the Christian community, which is just being here. Just showing up gets us points with God because there’s something about being in the space of a beloved community that touches our soul, even if we do nothing. So keep coming back.
Second, we can vastly improve our spiritual outlook when we pray and study regularly, especially with other people. It is the togetherness which helps because I don’t know everything. You don’t know everything. Cesar thought he knew everything and he could do it alone. But the rest of us need others to guide and teach and motivate us on the way. It is so important to have guides and teachers, and for us to be guides and teachers to others.
And third, we need to do service. We need to serve others just as Jesus did, especially those on the margins. And last Sunday, one of the things Michael our Presiding Bishop said was that our Cathedral certainly walks the walk. He said that. That is to say, we have tried to go to the places where Jesus went, to be with the poor, the hungry, the needy, and the captives. And this is part of what helps break the bonds of an indifferent empire, when we take time to care and act.
And finally, in order to give to Jesus that which belongs to Jesus, we must give. And let the power of that coinage, the power of money, the power of wealth, not be the thing that defines us, but to show Jesus whose we are. I am yours Lord. And to remind ourselves of that, we give freely to him. And that’s why we pledge. That’s why we are given these cards on which we are invited to say: I estimate that in 2018 I can support the ministries and the presence of Jesus Christ at Christ Church Cathedral in this way.
We are invited to say: I may not be perfect, or the best Christian, and I may not be entirely free of Cesar. But I’m with you, Jesus. And here’s one way I can prove that.
So give to Cesar since we must, but let’s give our best to Jesus, and show him exactly whose we are.