A professor of mine once remarked that the central dilemma in being a Christian in America, is that it’s just too easy. In spite of our chronic social problems, like income inequality, an endless series of wars, and the virulent hatred that chalks swastikas on the walkway in front of Durfee Hall, as Christians, we’re often too distracted or overwhelmed to figure out how to respond. And frankly, part of the problem is today’s text from Matthew’s gospel.
The conventional wisdom about this text is that it creates a sharp divide between social concerns, labelled as “politics,” and our faith, which is seen as private and personal. And we all know there are two places where politics are never discussed – at the dinner table and in the pulpit. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “… give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”? This text has been used over the years to justify anything the government deems legal – slavery, women as property, and homophobia to name a few.
What a contrast with Paul’s letter to the community in Thessalonica. He’s writing to his fellow believers in prison, jailed because they broke the Roman law that allowed you to worship any weird God you’d like, so long as you continued to accept the official Roman gods. In fact, Paul himself is writing from prison, jailed for the same reason.
Apparently these early Christians found it natural to spend time in jail – sort of like the cost of doing business of speaking truth to power. They would have resonated with William Sloan Coffin’s famous challenge to his congregation at Yale, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
I wonder if the Pharisees get the delicious irony in how Jesus responds to their trap. By saying “Give to God what is God’s” he echoes one of the major themes of Hebrew Scripture, put most succinctly in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything that is in it.” In other words, everything belongs to God. What we do have has been temporarily given us to steward according to God’s values, not our own. And if everything is God’s – our intelligence, our networks, our relationships, this fragile earth, everything – how should we treat what we’re given?
This can be a pretty tough lens to view reality through when we’re busy pursuing social, academic and financial success, or simply our own happiness. Understanding that all the resources at our disposal really don’t belong to us, and really can’t be used any way we‘d like, can make things not only inconvenient, but scary – upsetting whatever stability we have, the reputation we enjoy, the future we hope for.
But what’s the alternative? We could stay numb, and grow into adults who acknowledge a smaller and smaller God, one who occasionally inspires us to be kind to family and friends, to pursue a modest level of community involvement and charitable giving.
I have a dear friend, a monk, who grew up that way. “It was in the Midwest,” he quips, “where our version of Christianity could be summed up as, ‘Be nice to others, and they’ll be nice to you.’”
Unfortunately, this is the same God who seems to develop laryngitis when it comes to integrating our faith into a competitive corporate culture focused on personal gain; a God who falls into a deathly silence when we scan the news about the horrors we humans are inflicting upon one another.
That’s why we have to be careful about listening to scripture with our eyes and our hearts wide open – we might be changed by it. We might come to believe that such a private faith, and such an autonomous life, make no sense in light of the essential interdependence of all creation. We might even start to feel like we’re actually part of the larger Body of Christ around the globe – each person beloved of God – and so integrally connected that when one hurts, we all hurt, and when one is victorious, we all have reason to rejoice.
We might come to believe that the Christian invitation to live in a spiritually healthy relationship with ourselves, with each other, with creation, and especially with God, is only possible through opening ourselves to how much God loves each and every one of us – and that this love is the only constant, the only foundation that makes sense out of the day to day complexity and confusion of our lives.
Depending on the day, your time at Yale may feel like a burden, a mass of confusion, or just a yawn, but in truth, it’s an extraordinary gift; an opportunity to move through each day with intention, staying aware of the sacred within the ordinary, remaining attentive to God’s claim on you. It’s what we Anglicans call “incarnational living”, and it offers a depth of appreciation and purpose that can make you feel utterly alive.
The laboratory for living with this kind of consciousness lies in developing what we might call “holy habits,” ways of nudging ourselves to be aware of the sacred all around us; of the spiritual significance of what occurs in our everyday lives; of the implications of our faith for each of the choices we make every day, large and small. Holy habits – like spending time each day deepening your relationship with God – through meditation, a long walk, time for yoga, whatever works for you. Holy habits – like surrounding yourself with people who will affirm your counter-cultural values; maybe deepening your connection to a faith community like this one – where you’re welcomed just as you are, wherever you are. Holy habits – like finding opportunities – near and far – to be of service in this hurting world.
Last week, Mike Angell preached a wonderful sermon about how much Yale, this ECY community, and the world beyond this campus, all need your gentleness and joy. But to offer these gifts to others, you need to find ways to stay connected to the sacred in your own life, a set of holy habits in which you are restored, and nurtured, and loved. It’s never too late to start building those, and then to wait and watch… and see how they transform your life.