And To God...
Passage: Matthew 22:15-22; Exodus 33:12-23
Date: October 16, 2005
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
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Back in the days of "Windows '95" when I first turned on my computer there was a lot of stuff that came up on the screen before the nice blue desktop. The blue desktop was simple and clean. The icons all in a row along the left side. But before I got there there was an ominous black screen. And then rows of numbers and letters that normal people like me didn't understand. Things about setting blasters. A reminder that my computer knew more than I did. A confirmation that life is complicated. An anxiety producing sense that I was not really in control emerged at the beginning of every session. And a fear that the simple placid "blue-screen life" I lead could all come crashing down with just one c drive failure.
That's all gone now.
The latest versions of Windows have hidden all that complexity. Computers are simpler than ever to use. And it's easy for me to forget that complicated programs lie just under the surface. Unless something goes wrong. And then my dependence on the experts reminds me that there is more there than meets the eye. I bring this up because I have been wondering if there isn't something similar going on in our lives every day that has nothing to do with computers.
I've been wondering if I could achieve a simple life. While at the same time embracing mystery. Is it possible to avoid making life unnecessarily complicated while at the same time letting the mystery in rather than assuming everything in life has to be either obvious or untrue? Mysterious and simple yes. But NOT complicated and NOT obvious.
I set the scripture readings for this morning alongside these questions. And it seemed to me that that Old Testament text embraced mystery while the Gospel reading was a story about Jesus trying to keep it simple and avoid the trap of complexity being set for him by religious authorities.
In the Old Testament, Moses just does NOT understand God. God's been angry with the Israelites, for worshiping a Golden calf. And God has threatened WRATH against them. AND YET here in today's reading God promises STILL to be WITH the Israelites in the wilderness.
The mystery that Moses doesn't understand is how God could be ANGRY with the Israelites and still be WITH them. But that IS one of God's mysterious ways:
God seems committed to being WITH people.
Tex Sample, a Methodist preacher and professor who was one of the presenters on the DVD segment that was part of last Wednesday's evening Adult Ed. Class said it too. In answer to the question of how there could be suffering in the world and yet still faith in God Sample said: "God is determined to ONLY be God with people" God says "YES" to us even when we say "NO" to God. And Moses struggled with that. And then Moses asked to see God's face.
Maybe Moses didn't believe God could still be with the Israelites after all they had been through and so he asked to SEE God. To KNOW. And to SEE God face to face. And God answered Moses, "You may see my GLORY, but you CAN'T see my FACE". So instead Moses saw God's back side because seeing God's face would have killed him.
What IS it about God's FACE that causes the statement, "You can't see my face and live." ?? Is it God's ANGER at our disobedience enough anger to kill us ?? Or is it God's amazing love. If I had KNOWN as a little boy how angry my MOM was with me before she hugged me could I have handled it?? If I had known how my mother cried because it was difficult for her to have to discipline me when I resisted her or threw a tantrum could I have handled it?
Maybe it's better that God SHIELDS our eyes a little like God shielded Moses' eyes as God passed by and then Moses DIDN'T look God in the face. Think of all the FACES you have looked into and all that was contained there. All the pain the promises the questions the beauty the mystery.
Think of all the EYES you've looked into. The HOPE and the HURT behind the eyes of someone sick or dying. Can anyone understand the pain of another or the sorrow or the frustration? NOW imagine why it is that we can't look God in the face and live. Maybe that's NOT what we are SUPPOSED to do. Maybe it is SIMPLY ours to know the God is THERE. Which is mysterious enough.
God is WITH us. Really with us. In the midst of all that is contained in our hearts and minds when we look another person in the eyes and try to understand their reality imagine God with us in that.
What can it possibly mean to say God is with us in that? What is this mystery we try to embrace? I don't think it's a complicated science to try to figure out, but it certainly is a mystery.
In Matthew's Gospel in the reading for this morning the Pharisees and the Herodians try to make life COMPLICATED and difficult to understand. They are not about mystery at all. Instead they are about making things complicated and tricky. They want to make life complicated for Jesus. So they plot together how to trap him in his talk. They ask him a complicated question about taxation. A controversial question:
Can you imagine a controversy about TAXES ?!!? In our day the question might be: should we cut taxes? Or, what should our taxes fund or not fund?
The question in the Bible this morning is: "Should we pay taxes to Ceasar or not ??" It was a much debated question among Jews: could they be true to their Jewish Religious law and still pay tribute to Rome ?? It IS a difficult question to answer even today as we try to balance our religious and worldly commitments. As we think about the fuzzy line between church and state.
It was a problem for Jesus, because If he said don't pay taxes he was a revolutionary and they would arrest him. BUT If he said PAY then he violated Jewish law and his followers would fall away, because none of them wanted to hear their leader say "submit to Caesar".
SO, WHY did they do it ? These Pharisees and Herodians ?? They did it because they wanted to STOP Jesus. Their control was threatened by his simple straightforward talk. Talk about helping poor people and rejecting political tyranny. And THEY DIDN'T want Jesus to reveal the PLOT behind their complexity. "Keep it complicated" is their motto. Otherwise they would loose control.
And what did Jesus do? Jesus was completely unafraid of their attempts to make life COMPLICATED.
Let's look at their question again. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Ceasar or not?" Jesus SAID, "Give to Ceasar what is Ceasar's. . . " and then ADDED: "And unto God's what is God's"!
THEY had left out the GOD dimension. And when they left God out of their question it's as if they spewed out all that complicated data on the black computer screen without ever getting to the desktop. They never got the real purpose behind life. Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God . . . ." what ?
What of ours is God's? Jesus asks for a coin (look at coin) and looks at the coin they give him and on it is Caesar's image. So he says "Let Caesar have it" (throw coin). BUT give to God what is God's.
And where is God's image printed like Caesar's image imprinted on the coin? God's image is imprinted on US. And on all creation. God's image is everywhere.
As the FIRST chapter of the book of Genesis says, "We were created in God's image" So what is God's ?? Only our WHOLE selves and all of creation. Remember that GLORIOUS FACE of GOD that Moses couldn't even LOOK at an image powerful enough to KILL him if not for the LOVE of God for him? THAT powerful image of God IS ON US. Imprinted on us like a face on a coin. That image is there for us to behold in the eyes of another. If we would just have the courage to look. And we CAN!
The thing is that we CAN. We can look into the eyes of each other. We can try to behold another. We can try to understand another no matter how different their lives might be from ours. And unlike looking into God's face which will kill us if we do I wonder if we aren't killing ourselves by not looking with care and wonder at each other.
When we do look we behold the mystery and the simplicity of life and of God. And we're not supposed to UNDERSTAND it all like some kind of a complicated riddle. We're supposed to LIVE as if it were TRUE to live so that people see the God IN us. Everything around us created by God and US in God's image. But is that what we do? Is that how we look into the eyes of victims of hurricane Katrina staring back at us from the front cover of Newsweek? Or the eyes of those in Afghanistan or Iraq? Or the eyes of someone at the bus stop so different from us in economic status or dress?
These Biblical texts speak to me of God waiting for us to stop trying to make life complicated like the Pharisees with their complicated questions about taxes. God waiting for us to turn away from our Golden calfs.
God is waiting for us to RECOGNIZE the SIMPLE truth!