St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Ranking laws

Listen!
Matthew 22:15-40
So, as promised, this week we return to the passage to which we were only able to give a little time last week – and added to it the two vignettes that follow on.

The setting is Jerusalem; the time is the last week of Jesus’ life. The triumphal entry and the clearing of the temple lie behind us; the last supper and the crucifixion are just ahead of us. And Jesus comes, finally, face to face with his theological and political critics. And one after another, he silences them – such that in the final verse of Chapter 22, we read “from that day no one dared ask him any more questions”.

So first up are the Pharisees, with their question about taxes. And Matthew leaves us in no doubt about their motives: they “plotted to entrap him”. And that motivation is crystal clear in the very next sentence: “they sent their disciples along with the Herodians”. It’s the sort of throw away line that passes us by, but the Herodians – supporters of King Herod, the ultimate collaborator with Rome, alongside Pharisees, the most vehement critics of Roman rule: this is not a group of people who went to same dinner parties or joined the same clubs. And the question they ask is the one that divides them: Jesus is going to have to upset someone – upset the Pharisees, and lose popular support, or upset Rome, and face the consequences.
And of course Jesus sidesteps their trap, because that’s what a good Jewish Rabbi would do; shift the question. “Give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, give to God the things that belong to God”. It’s an answer no-one can argue with.

Except, of course, that it really doesn’t answer the question. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar? It seems to me that what Jesus has done – what Jesus so often does – is not answer the question, but instead tell his listeners the question that they ought to be asking themselves. He refuses to do the hard work for them; refuses to give them simple black and white rules to follow; instead he guides them into how they ought to be thinking about the questions they ask.

“You ask me about paying taxes,” he says to them, “but instead you should be asking yourself – what belongs to who? what belongs to Rome, what belongs to God?”

And from there, those who heard him could go in all sorts of directions. The coin is stamped with the image of Caesar – does that mean that it belongs to Caesar? But you can’t stop there. For if the coin, and the wealth it represents belongs to Caesar, to the anti-God pagan empire, then what does it mean that so many of the people of God are still so keen to possess them?

Still fresh in people’s minds was the clearing of the Temple, the throwing out of the money changers. Why were there money changers in the Temple? Because Roman currency, bearing the image of Caesar, was not acceptable for making offerings – or even purchasing sacrifices – in the Temple.

If this coin, this wealth, is not good enough for God, then what are the people of God doing getting so caught up with it, spending so much time and energy – as we do – worrying about it? If it’s ok to pay tax because the coin is of Caesar, then doesn’t that mean that Caesar’s whole financial system is an anathema to the people of God?

Or perhaps the mind might run off in a different direction. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to God what is God’s. A good Jew – a good Christian – might well respond by saying that everything belongs to God. “I will pay Caesar exactly what he is due – nothing at all.”

But more likely, perhaps, and more productive, would be to reflect on the logic of Jesus’ answer. For – and this is not at all a novel observation, when Jesus points out that the coin is stamped with the image, the likeness of Caesar – and implies that it therefore belongs to Caesar – and then asks, by implication at least, what belongs to God, the mind of one soaked in the Hebrew Bible surely goes straight to Genesis 1, and the creation story –

So God created humankind in God’s image
in the image of God, God created them;
male and female God created them.

For if the coin belongs to Caesar by virtue of the image it bears, then people belong to God, by the virtue of the image they bear.

And even more than that – for Caesar himself is stamped with the image of God. Enemy, pagan, blasphemer though he might be, the image is there. Look again at that coin. You see the face of a man, a cruel dictator, an oppressive ruler, an enemy to all that you stand for. But I see a man, and in that man I see the image of God. Distorted, hidden, twisted, no doubt. But he too is made by God, loved by God, owned by God.

But what then does it mean? It seems to me that Jesus leaves that question with those who hear him. For they were amazed, and left him and went away. Away to regroup? To plot? Or perhaps even to think about what he has said to them.

The Sadducees then came and challenged Jesus with a rather different sort of question, one which really seems a bit esoteric to us – a bit of the “how many angels can dance stand on the head of a pin?” sort of debating point. But it was a real question – for a significant topic of debate in Judaism at the time of Jesus was the question of life after death. It’s not an unambiguous theme in the Old Testament, but by the time of Jesus it was a major theme dividing the Sadducees from the Pharisees. And it was a question which had practical impliations – for belief in life – and justice – after death made it possible for some to stand for their faith even in the face of martyrdom.

So the Sadducees try to prove that there is no resurrection, by claiming a paradox. And while the details of Jesus’ reply – and what it says to us about the life hereafter – are the subject of a whole different sermon, I just notice that for once, on this question, Jesus comes down unambiguously on one side.

In the question of the resurrection, the life hereafter, Jesus – unusually, one might say – takes a definite stand.
And the Pharisees, of course, liked his answer – and even more, I suspect, liked the fact that he made the Sadducees look bad. So they come back. Perhaps they’ve just begun to realise the implication of Jesus’ “render unto God” reply. For now, at least, comes a real question. A test, yes, but not a trick. Not a trap. Not wrapped in flattery.

“Which commandment is the greatest?”

And of course we know the answer Jesus gives. But before we look at the answer, look again at the question. “Which commandment is the greatest?”

Because hidden in that question is a very significant assumption: that the commandments of God can be ranked. That some of the law is more important than other parts. And the need to decide which commandment is more important only arises out of a recognition that there are times when the commandments come into conflict with one another, when we need to decide which we will obey.

And this is really quite a radical admission – for it was not an uncommon assumption that to break one element of the law was to break the whole thing; and that the law of God, in its perfection, would never require that one part be broken in order than another be kept.

Yet here is the far more realistic admission – there are times when we must choose. Choose between two goods commanded by the law – or even choose which of two rules we are going to break. If that were not the case, the question “which rule is greatest?” would make no sense – the answer would simply be “keep them all”.

But that isn’t Jesus’ answer. Once again, he actually gives them the answer they need. If you have to decide which law to keep and which to ignore, there is one rule that stands above them all: love God.

And then he adds a rider. And in other tellings of this story we have the words “the second is this” – as if the command to love others was important, but not quite as important as loving God. Here Jesus phrases things differently “there is a second commandment that is like this first one”.

How are the two alike? How is love of neighbour like love of God?

Still fresh in the Pharisees mind is Jesus’ answer to their question about taxes, his pointing them to where God’s image is to be found. I don’t think it is too hard to imagine that Jesus is drawing them back to that same idea. Loving your neighbour is like loving God, for it is in your neighbour that you find the image of God. “How,” the apostle James will ask in his letter “can a man love God who he cannot see if he does not love his brother or sister that he can see?”

Love of neighbour – and never forget Jesus’ radical redefinition of neighbour in the parable of the good Samaritan – is not something we do because we love God and God wants us to do it – loving others, loving those who are created in God’s image, however distorted and hidden that image may have become – is loving God.

The rest of the law lies subservient to these two, which are, in truth, one. Love God, as God, the eternal creator – but also love God, whose image is to be found in friend and enemy alike. If any question arises, any conflict between goods, any need to decide what law is most important, Jesus’ instruction is clear: love God, and those made in God’s image. Of course it might not always be easy to work out what that means, and it will often be hard to do.

But at least we know the right question to ask.

What would love do?
Amen

Congratulations to Cartophiles on The Bloody Long Walk

Nick (L) and Adam (R) at the start of The Bloody Long Walk

Nick (L) and Adam (R) at the start of The Bloody Long Walk

On Sunday 19th October two Cartophiles, Nick and Adam, took part in The Bloody Long Walk.  They completed the 35km course from the lighthouse at Palm Beach to Manly’s North Head Sanctuary in just under seven hours.  What a fabulous effort to maintain an average walking pace of 5 kph for that long.

The Bloody Long Walk is a fund raising event to help to find a cure for mitochondrial disease.  See it’s web site http://www.bloodylongwalk.com.au/sydney/

Overnight Walk Newnes to Rocky Creek, Wollemi National Park, Deferred to 2015

The overnight walk in the Wolgan Valley, originally scheduled for the weekend 27th/28th September, 2014, has been deferred to next year; there was just too much on this spring!

We’ll schedule it for early in 2015.  This is an overnight camp walk through one of the most impressive gorges in NSW.  The campsite is at the junction of the Wolgan River and Rocky Creek where there are campsites on sandy flats under shady trees right next to the river, and its cool deep pools, if the weather is hot.

This is worth putting in your diaries.  See 2014 Overnight Walk 3 (Newnes to Rocky Creek) flyer for details.

For more information contact Kit Craig on 0411 507 422 or email cartophiles@stjohnswahroonga.org

Nadgee Wilderness Walk, 4th-7th October, 2014

On the Friday before the Labour Day day long weekend Sue and I drove to the Daly’s in the Bega Valley in readiness to walk this year’s Cartophiles’ major trek; a four day, 50 kilometre hike along pristine NSW coastline from Merrica River to Mallacoota on the Nadgee Wilderness Walk.

The Nadgee Howe wilderness area was first set aside as an 11,430 hectare fauna reserve in 1957, and subsequently expanded to 18,880 hectares with the addition of Newton’s Beach and the Merrica River catchment area.  It adjoins the northern part of the Croajingalong National Park in Victoria.  It is a genuine wilderness area with no mobile reception, where walkers have to be self-reliant for food, water and shelter.  We were worried about water, so we carried about 14 litres of water between us, which made our packs quite heavy.

On Saturday morning, Ray & Patricia drove us to our start point, and we were on our way.  Well, after a cup of tea.
(click on the photos for higher resolution versions)

Kit packs up after our first cup of tea

Packing up after our first cup of tea

Sue at the start of the walk

Brown Snake

Brown Snake

 

The first part of the walk was quite easy, although Sue nearly stepped on a brown snake.  We reached Newton’s camp site for lunch … and didn’t go any further.  While Sue slept I explored the deserted beach and watched the pied oyster catchers.

Newton's Beach - the only footprints are mine

Newton’s Beach – the only footprints are mine

Making tea at Newton's camp site

Making tea at Newton’s camp site

Newton's camp site

Newton’s camp site

 

Day two took us to Little Creek, where we had a cup of tea before wading to the sand bar to keep going.  Another few kilometres brought us to Nadgee Lake where we had lunch.

Sue wades to the sand bar

Sue wades to the sand bar

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Hiking bare foot along the beach

Tea break at Little Creek

Tea break at Little Creek

 

The next 15 kilometres were through low heath and moorland that was alive with wildflowers.  Although the walking was hard the sights were spectacular.

Sue breaks through a patch of wildflowers

Sue breaks through a patch of wildflowers

Nadgee Lake behind me on the left, the ocean on the right

Nadgee Lake behind me on the left, the ocean on the right

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We camped at a fresh water soak called Bunyip Hole, just a few kilometres from the Victorian border.  That night we had our first rain.

Bunyip Hole

Bunyip Hole

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Day three was very windy.  We lost the track in the sand dunes on the border and walked an extra 4 km trying to find it again.  The wind was whipping up minor sand storms along the beach.  We stopped for a rest near the wreck of the SS Riverina, which ran aground in 1927.

Looking for the track in the sand dunes

Looking for the track in the sand dunes

The dunes come right down to the sea

The dunes come right down to the sea

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That night we’d planned to stop at Lake Barracoota, Australia’s largest coastal freshwater lake.  We had great trouble finding the path to it, so we ended up setting up a rough camp in a small patch of she oaks behind the dunes.  This was the real wilderness experience.  The next morning we set off along the beach again and after about 300 m passed the sign to the lake!

Sue shows her true colours before we set off

Sue shows her true colours before we set off

Sue climbs a dune to the wrong path marker

Sue climbs a dune to the wrong path marker

The right path marker

The right path marker

 

 

 

 

We were walking straight into the maw of a strong south westerly now and the going was hard with sand blowing in our faces and soft sand beneath our feet.  We were pleased  to turn off the beach an into the moorland … until we found ourselves wading through flooded moorland.  Once past that we climbed a fire trail through beautiful coastal forest.  The only dark part was watching for snakes; four times we came upon black snakes sunning themselves on the path.

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The wind whips up clouds of sand around us along the beach
Be careful what you wish for - off the beach and onto the flooded track

Be careful what you wish for – off the beach and onto the flooded track

On the track through the forest

On the track through the forest

At last we reached the shores of Lake Mallacoota where we rested in a sunny meadow while we waited for the ferry we’d booked.  Ray and Patricia met us as the wharf on the other side and, after a pleasant lunch at the Mallacoota Hotel, we drove back to Wolumla.

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This is a beautiful and varied walk with lots of flowers, bird life and views.  NPWS refers to this as the ultimate coastal hike, and while I don’t really agree with the hyperbole I do think it’s a walk worth doing again.  The isolation and adventure were a great escape from the pressures of modern life.  It was also lovely that it was just Sue and I alone together.

That was the last overnight walk scheduled for 2014.

Kit, 19th October, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Wedding

On Saturday 11th October 2014 I was privileged to be invited to preach at a wedding at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore…

Genesis 2:18-24 | 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 | Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

When I received an email a few weeks ago telling me the Bible readings that Mark and Claire had selected to have read at their wedding I was delighted to see that they had chosen three very different passages of scripture. For our scriptures, our sacred story, has many things to say to us about the miracle and gift of marriage that Claire and Mark enter into today, and there is no single passage that could even come close to saying all that we would want to say.

But instead we have three readings, each capturing a different facet of marriage: that marriage is based in the nature of creation; shaped by the humility and self giving of love; and sustained by supporting and strengthening presence of God.

So where better to begin than at the beginning, in the story of creation as celebrated in Genesis chapter 2, and in the words of God that “it is not good for the man to be alone”?
And of course we know that. We know that it is not good to be alone. And perhaps that makes the words seem a little bland, a little obvious. But as a Christian preacher the thing that takes my breath away is that these words are spoken, in the story, to Adam – to the one created by God, unfallen, living in unblemished fellowship with God.

Here in the opening words of the story we hear an astonishing truth: God was not enough for Adam. Even for one who walks with God “it is not good, for he is alone”. God was not enough for Adam. God is not enough for us. We are not made to live as individuals, isolated, self sufficient: neither man nor woman is an island, entire of itself. We are not even created simply for communion with God. We are made to be together; we are created to live in community with one another.

We are not created to be alone.

It is, I’m sure, no coincidence that this creation story is echoed in the greatest commandments – love God, with all you heart and soul and mind and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.

The story of creation tells us that we are created to be with God and we are created to be with others.

And for many of us, the most intense and committed expression of the creation need to be with another, is found in marriage – in the commitment made by two that they will live as one. That they will become one flesh.

For many of us, I say, not all. There are others for whom the call to live in community will find another form – some will remain single, by choice or simply because that’s the way things work out – and that is a calling and a way of life that is much praised in the pages of the New Testament. Some will find another way to answer the question implicit in God’s words: “it is not good to be alone”.

But today, we are here to celebrate the answer that is marriage. The answer of those who are called to live in close community as two, becoming one. Claire and Mark, whose choice, and calling, is to marriage, give this response: “it is indeed not good for man or woman to be alone – so we two will commit ourselves to one another”. In doing so they enter into this covenant of marriage, a covenant based in the nature of creation.

So Eve is created as a suitable helper for Adam. Now that word ‘helper’ is a little unfortunate, for in English it often carries the sense of a subordinate role: Adam is the real thing, Eve is just his helper. But the Hebrew word – ezer – is used throughout the Old Testament, and on almost every occasion it refers, not to a subservient assistant, but to God. In the story of the Exodus, “My Father’s God was my helper (ezer)”; in the Psalms “God is our help and shield” – ezer, again. There is nothing here that even hints at a subordinate role.

A better word, perhaps, would be partner, or complement; the other part that enables the two to together form something new, something that is greater than the sum of their parts. The two sides of an arch, balanced against one another, the lever and the fulcrum, each given meaning only by the presence of the other. So, in partnership, we are created to be.

So our Genesis reading tells us that the partnership of marriage is based in the nature of creation – our reading from 1 Corinthians teaches us that marriage – and indeed, all our relationships – is shaped by the character of love.

Now there is always a bit of a danger in speaking from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s great hymn of love, at a wedding. For at a wedding we gather to celebrate the pinnacle, the climax of the romantic story. Whether your taste in romantic literature runs to Mills and Boon or to Pride and Prejudice, the wedding is the finale of romance. And Paul’s letter was not written to young lovers – it was written to a Church divided and squabbling. And so I have been told, by preachers far more experienced than me, that you should never speak from this passage at a wedding.

But with that wisdom I will respectfully disagree. For it is the very fact that this passage is not about romantic love that makes it so very, very suitable for a wedding: for a wedding is not just the finale of the story of romance, much more it is the beginning of the story of marriage.

And if anyone here would doubt that the opening words of our reading from 1 Corinthians: “love is patient” are worth hearing at the start of marriage – if any would doubt that, then I have to assume that they are not themselves married – and not very observant, either.

Marriage may be based in our creation calling to live in community; but it is only love that makes it possible for us to do so. For without love we are too selfish, too self absorbed, too ready to take and too unwilling to give, to ever live with another even for a day, let along a lifetime. We have, each of us too many sharp edges, too many rough corners.

Love makes it possible for us to live with one another. For love is patient, bearing with one another’s faults and failings; it does not insist on its own way, but allows space for the other.

And love rejoices in the truth. Here perhaps is the clearest sign that the apostle is writing not of the romance of star-crossed lovers; those Shakespeare described in The Merchant of Venice:

.. love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit…

This may be true of romantic love: but enduring love is not blind; it knows that the other is not perfect. It does not deny the shortcomings of the beloved. But nor does it allow those failings to define and destroy the relationship, for it believes and hopes and bears all things. Love knows the imperfections of the other, but reaches out to embrace them nonetheless.

For this is the character of our God, whose love for us is offered without precondition or reservation; the God who loves us before we return that love; who continues to love us even if we reject that love. It is the self-giving love of God that we seek to imitate in our relationships with one another, and perhaps most of all, in the covenant of marriage.
A covenant founded in creation, and shaped by the character of the love of God.

And sustained by the supporting and strengthening presence of God. Our third reading came from the wisdom literature, the book of Ecclesiastes. And it starts, as much wisdom literature does, with a series of parallel statements, each making much the same point: two is better than one.

If one falls, the other can lift them up again.

One alone is cold at night; two will keep each other warm.

One might be easily defeated by an adversary, two will withstand attack.

So far, so much simple worldly wisdom: wisdom that those entering into marriage would be wise to hear, but not surprised by.

But then the final words of the reading break the pattern, and give us an unexpected punchline: a threefold cord is not easily broken.

For what the writer of wisdom knows, and would have us hear, is that the strength of the two is only truly found in the strength of three. That when Mark and Claire commit to one another in marriage, the true strength of their pledge to each other lies not in the two of them, but in the three: Claire, and Mark, and God, wound together in partnership, as helpers to one another, as that threefold cord, the rope that is so much stronger than the cords that comprise it.

For I may have started today by emphasizing the surprising truth of Genesis chapter 2 – that God is not enough for us, that we are created to need one another; but I end with the other side of that coin; that other people are not enough for us either. That just as we are created to need deep and lasting and loving relationships with others, we also have a profound need to place those relationships into our relationship with the God who created us. For, as the apostle wrote, it is God who is love; we love only because God first loved us.

It is not good to be alone: we are created for loving partnerships with husband and wife, with children and siblings, parents and cousins, friends and family and colleagues and neighbours.

And we are called also into partnership with the God who created us, who in Jesus Christ re-creates us, and who calls us, as individuals, families, and communities into the service of the Kingdom of God; the kingdom in which all, married or single, male or female, friend or stranger or enemy, of all cultures and nations and languages, are welcomed and reconciled to one another, to creation, and to God.

For it is in the Kingdom of God that creation is fulfilled, that we finally find an answer to God’s “it is not good that the man should be alone”: for in the kingdom of God we have God and we have one another. And it is enough.

So our prayer on this wedding day is simply this: that in your married life, Claire and Mark, you will reflect a little of the character of that Kingdom; that in your closeness to one another and your closeness to God you will show a glimpse of that final redemption Christ has won for us, when we will all live in peace with ourselves, each other, creation, and God.

Amen