The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r062.htm
s062g02 St Agnes Grange Sunday 29 20/10/02
"aware of their malice" Matthew 22.18
It is interesting to me that both of these questions put to Jesus by the religious authorities are questions of putting things in their proper place - who owns what or who owns whom. So the first question, about taxes, centres around how individuals could minimise their taxation and temple contributions. They considered the wealth they had acquired *theirs*. Jesus refutes this. A proportion of what we have acquired belongs to Caesar and another portion belongs to God. It is not all our own.
And the second question revolves around whose wife will she be? Again it is a matter of who owns the woman. And perhaps we start to see how Jesus perceives the malice in both of these questions. People whose main consideration is what is theirs inevitably are motivated by malice and will resort to malice if something of *theirs* is denied them or is taken away.
I believe that it is good news that in the resurrection people are not married or given in marriage. We will not be *someone else's* - we will be ourselves. At the end of time we will see ourselves not as an enigma "in the glass darkly" - but our true selves and God at work in us.
And it is interesting that this malice resides in the religious authorities of Jesus' day, so this alerts us to be wary less malice and preoccupation for what is *rightfully ours* resides in us.
For these religious authorities make a point of flattering Jesus. They want Jesus to support their side of the argument and to not support their opponents' side. And this should make us wary lest our worship is also not flattery in the hope that God will support us over another.
These religious authorities flatter Jesus with words which betray what really irks them. They say that Jesus did not show deference to anyone. In particular and especially galling to them is that Jesus didn't show deference to *them*! Is the expression of our faith done in a hope that God will defer to us?
So Jesus didn't regard people with partiality. This phrase echoes the invariable first lesson for Easter Day, each and every year, words from Acts 10.34, which are the conclusion of a long and involved conversion experience for Peter. Here was someone who, if anyone knew Jesus, surely Peter must have known him the best. Yet here was this most beloved of disciples needing to be converted, and the realisation which was the basis of this conversion of faith, was that God did not show partiality.
The religious authorities of Jesus' day wanted Jesus, and ultimately God to approve of them regarding people with partiality. They wanted, what they actually thought was in fact already divinely ordained - permission to continue to pick and choose between people. And the same question is eternal, for we too can look at our religion as supporting partiality in all sorts of ways - race, faith, gender, sexuality, or whatever.
God does not show partiality. The religious authorities of Jesus' day were put out that Jesus sat down and ate with sinners - which, in their culture, denoted acceptance and respect. Jesus actually showed deference, not to no one, but to everyone, and this threw the perceptions of the religious authorities upside down - and they were not amused!
No matter how much we flatter God in our devotion and worship, we cannot ever forget that God loves others just as much as ourselves. We must never loose sight of the fact that Jesus was sent to live and to die and to rise again for others, as well as for us. Indeed of course, it was precisely the religious authorities desire to stop Jesus deferring to others that led them to have Jesus killed. This is the logical outcome of the malice which Jesus' perceives behind the flattery and the questions. And the resurrection is our guarantee that these efforts of the religious authorities to stop Jesus associating with others were ultimately doomed to failure. (Hopefully) it is our joy in the resurrection that the risen Jesus continues to be found in the lives of people other than Christians, people of other faiths and in the lives of people of no explicit faith.
Recently I was reading a lovely article in "Eureka Street" by Brian Matthews (Oct 2002 page 18) about the naming of streets here in Australia, and it made the comment that so much of our nomenclature comes from "faded shreds of Empire, royalty and remittance". And there is nothing especially wrong with this, except that it betrays a lack of confidence in our own experience and perceptions. Brian wonders if we will ever have a "broad and triumphant "Boulevard of the No-to-Conscription Referendums"?" such as might be seen on the Continent.
This actually reinforced a perception I had recently when I visited the United States. The magnificent Cathedrals and Churches I visited are mostly modelled on Cathedrals and Churches in the "old countries". And they were and are beautiful, and we have done precisely the same here in Australia, rather less successfully, of course. Does this not point out a fundamental mistrust of anything new? There is a tendency to trust the religious perceptions of another, more "orthodox" antiquity - when the reality is that God doesn't defer to that orthodoxy in preference to our own perceptions. God doesn't hear prayers any more clearly if they are uttered in the most beautiful of Cathedrals. God hears equally clearly the prayer uttered in the clamour and confusion of the crowded subway at peak hour.
One of the sacred sites I visited in New York was the Dakota Building, where John Lennon was shot and killed, so long ago now. In Central Park, just opposite, is the section called "Strawberry Fields" and at the intersection of two paths is the mosaic "Imagine". Some of the lyrics of that song are "Imagine ... no religion too". For if religion means, as it did for the authorities of Jesus' day, something centred on what is mine, and how much can I keep to myself, then I would welcome a world without religion too. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is what John Lennon meant when he composed these words. And the fact that John Lennon was inspired to compose these words centuries after Jesus - means that the same dynamics prevail today as they did so long ago. And John Lennon is looking at religion as expressed by mainstream Christianity and seeing it as promoting rather than lessening partiality.
There is, of course, no difficulty in finding examples of malice and hatred around us. It is so often associated with what is perceived to be *ordained*. The Promised Land is a classic example, and one must say we must come to a conclusion about whether God gives anything to one people for themselves or gives everything for the recipients to share with others. But again I would caution. These words, which we can so easily think are directed towards others, apply just as equally to ourselves, to myself. I think that we may be deluding ourselves if we think we can fix the world if everyone *else* changes their ways.
Remember Peter, the first and greatest apostle, still had to learn the truth of today's lesson, even after Jesus had been killed and raised to life.
As I look back on my words there seems to be the good news and the bad.
The good news is that we don't have to hide behind an architectural or doctrinal orthodoxy, for God does not have favourites and we are loved just as surely and just as dearly, just as we are. We, each and every one of us are loved - no less than God loves the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. But this very fact means also that we share the love of God equally with others, and this very giving away of any special status before God, means the blessing does not in fact become a curse for us.
I have alluded to the fact that I have recently been in New York. In fact I had my four week's holidays there. I went alone, and spent the time living in a small youth hostel. I found the conversations over my Fosters and crisps in the evenings with the young people there as interesting and as inspiring as the wonderful sights of that city. I saw examples of courage, of charity, and comradeship which would be hard to replicate except in that (rather odd) environment.
God's work is done, or not done, as we pay our taxes, not just when we put our collection in the plate. God's work is done when we relate to other people not as objects to own or convert - but as individuals to respect and defer to. The God I worship is much more concerned about our day to day living than in the form of words and worship we use in this sacred space.
God is not *ours* - the Lord is not *my* shepherd - God is God "of the living". We do not have to defer to the experience of the patriarchs, for God doesn't defer to them either. God defers to us, and to all the living, equally.
The Collect for last week says: "Almighty God, in your wisdom you have so ordered our earthly life that we must walk by faith and not by sight:" It is my suspicion that we have to walk by faith precisely because we need to consider the other, not be so confident of our faith journey that the faith journey of others is diminished or relegated to obscurity.
We are told that the crowd who heard these words, "were astounded at his teaching" and perhaps it is astounding to our ears still - for it is indeed good news, for us and for all. And there is no need for malice whatsoever.
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