Year A, Proper 24--Whose Head? Whose title?
A Sermon Preached the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Year A Proper 24: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
The Reverend Tyler Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Whose head? Whose title?
St. Athanasius is one of the giants of early Christian history. You might know him as the author of the Athanasian Creed in the back of the prayer book, but my favorite story about him is that he socked St. Nicholas of Myra in the nose at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. when they were debating the finer points of Christological doctrine. Now that’s a saint I can get behind! Someone not afraid to rough up jolly old Saint Nick and send Dasher and Donner packing! Seriously though, Athanasius wrote a beautiful little treatise titled On the Incarnation in which he ponders the question—why did God become incarnate in the person of Jesus? In the course of his reflections, he develops this wonderful little metaphor of how the image of God in us has become progressively obscured. Like an old portrait that has been covered by dirt and grime, God’s image and likeness in the human soul has been sullied and dulled. We suffer from divine amnesia; we have forgotten why we are here—who and whose we are.
Remember it was Athanasius who famously declared, “God became human that human beings might become God.” Over time, we lost this bold vision of the purpose of human life—to put on the mind of Christ and to be the shape God’s love takes in the world. In Athanasius’ telling, God goes to great lengths to try to remind us of this fact. God’s deepest desire is to restore God’s image in us and to accomplish this he calls Abraham, beckons Moses away from his father-in-law’s sheep at the Burning Bush, bestows upon Israel the gift of the law, and raises up prophets to call Israel back to the way of true happiness. But nothing really works. It takes for a while, but dust soon collects on the portrait and God’s children, God’s beloved, are left squinting at the picture, trying to figure out what’s depicted. Finally, God decides that there is only one thing to do. He sends his Son to become fully human that we might remember who we are and what it means to be created in God’s image and likeness. In the person of Jesus, the image is fully restored. We see, as if for the first time, what it means to be a child of God. Jesus, in this sense, is the only truly human being. Made for union and communion and with God, we see in Jesus what this actually looks like in flesh, bone, and blood.
Today’s gospel story has a lot to do with whose image is impressed upon our hearts. With the stories of Israel’s refashioning of their jewelry into a Golden Calf still fresh in our ears from last week, I got to thinking about the power of different forces in our lives to obscure the image of God in us. Unlike those pessimistic Calvinists, I don’t think the image of God can ever be completely erased (Calvinism might be totally depraved, but human beings aren’t!). But certainly, the image can be obscured. We forget so easily and so quickly. Consumer culture wants to imprint the accumulation of more and more stuff on our hearts as the secret to enduring happiness. Entertainment culture tells us that if we just look like George Clooney or Scarlett Johanssen and have their account balances uninterrupted bliss is around the corner. The 24-hour news cycle wants us to be afraid all the time and in a constant state of anxiety—flitting from channel to channel fearful we might miss something essential. And there are a whole host of other images also vying for our hearts—the pursuit of power and control, the inordinate, overweening desire for safety and security, the frenetic cultivation of affection and esteem. Whose head? Whose title?
This is the reality of our world, and it was a reality in Jesus’ time. We can’t just retreat in a spiritualized la-la land where all these competing forces vanish and simply bask in the warm, fuzzy glow of Jesus transfigured atop Mt. Tabor. Caesar is real. Consumer culture is real. The cult of cosmetic youthfulness is real. These images are indeed pressed into our hearts. The real question is whether or not we will let these images determine who we are. Will we let the constant mantra of our contemporary culture—You’re not smart enough, pretty enough, handsome enough, rich enough, fill in the blank enough—be the place we live from? If so, the results will be predictably disastrous—something along the lines of Matthew’s weeping and gnashing of teeth. Every morning when he hopped out of bed, Martin Luther used to look in the mirror and say, “Martin! Remember you are baptized!” Why would he do such a thing? Is that really something so easy to forget? My girls have little plaques on their bedroom walls with their names and the dates of their baptisms. Should someone have done something similar for poor, forgetful Martin?
Luther reminded himself of his baptism each morning because he knew how easy it is for us to forget who we are, why we are here, and in whom we find our deepest, most authentic identity. Luther reminded himself that he was created in the image and likeness of God, made to enjoy God and be a partaker of God’s very nature, because he knew the power of those other images to make us forget this astounding reality. We live in a world of images all begging for our attention and competing for ultimate allegiance. We might think that we can go off the grid completely and escape Caesar, but the lives of the desert fathers and mothers tell us differently. No sooner had they retreated from the excesses of Rome to the silence and solitude of desert than they started obsessing about food, day-dreaming about sex, and getting in fights over their plaited baskets and water jugs. Wherever you go, there you are. The question remains—whose head? Whose title?
Truth be told, we need Caesar. Roads, schools, hospitals, health care, protection under the law, a system of justice (however flawed)—all these are part of Caesar’s world. As God’s people, we are called not to easy either/or oppositions of religion and culture, but to be carefully discerning navigators of how to walk in love as Christ loved us. How are we to know Christ and make Christ known in the messy circumstances of our hectic daily lives? There are no easy, pat answers to the question of what we should render to Caesar and what to God. Indeed, the desire for such simplicity pretty much guarantees that we will stop looking, listening, seeking, asking, and knocking. It’s the process that keeps us faithful, not arriving at answers. St. Augustine asked in one of his sermons, “If Caesar can require his image in a coin, cannot God require his image in a human being?” And that’s really what Church is for—reminding us who we are as children of God and sending us out to faithfully improvise the unfinished drama of what love looks like in a broken world. That’s the adventure to which we are called. Through prayer, being fed at the Eucharist, dwelling upon God’s word, serving those in need, and in the voices of our loving community of fellow workers with Christ, we muddle through. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we get it wrong. But the question we hold before ourselves is always—ultimately, whose image is being impressed on our hearts? Who and whose am I? Whose head? Whose title?
And that’s why, I think, we have the beautiful story from Exodus paired with today’s Gospel reading. Moses—about to lead God’s professional grumblers through the wilderness wastes—wants some assurances. A guarantee. A plan. Who is going to be with me? Moses asks. If your presence isn’t going to be with us on our journey, then you can forget this whole deal and find another stutterer to lead these stiff-necked people. How does the Lord reply? He agrees to show Moses his Glory, but in a very specific way. God’s Glory is always something that passes by. God’s Glory is on the move. It cannot be pinned down, controlled, or contained. God’s Glory is not a simple answer to a “yes or no” question as the Pharisees seem to think by the sounds of their gotcha journalism question. The Living God won’t be caught on to the horns of a cleverly-worded rhetorical dilemma. As Paul reminds us, we see through a glass darkly—final certainty is just not possible, but is the very opposite of what it means to walk in faith. The same goes for Moses. The Lord reveals himself, yes, but where is Moses? Hiding in the cleft of a rock. And what does he see of God? His back parts. God’s behind. The Divine Derriere. God passes by and we get glimpses of God, but the Living God never sits still long enough for us to turn Him into a possession, a coin we can stamp with our image and tuck into our change purses.
In our class on the prophets, Walter Brueggeman pointed out that prophets are neither crystal ball prognosticators of the future as Conservatives like to think, nor simple advocates for social justice issues as the Liberals claim. Rather, the prophets are poets who open up the imaginative possibilities, a make a little poetic space for the unpredictable, the uncontrollable, the unschedulable to arise. Prophets don’t tell you what’s going to happen next Tuesday or how to vote, they blow the lid off the box we’ve constructed to keep God safe and sound. The trouble is, of course, that in the process we’ve created a God who’s a lot like us. In boxing God up, we’ve domesticated the Glory of the one who is always passing by and placed God under house arrest with an ankle monitor and required weekly visits to his parole officer. In trying to keep God safe, knowable, predictable, manageable, we’ve insulated ourselves against the very source of life, peace, hope, beauty, truth, and goodness for which we were created. In trying to possess the always-arriving always-departing God and put him on a timetable that would put the German train system to shame, we lose contact with the only thing that will satisfy our restless hearts.
God is on the move, so let him out of the box and follow him. It is in following after into what we do not know—walking by faith and not by sight—that we discover God’s image being written and renewed on our hearts. Remember who and whose you are and let that remembrance refresh you. Let Jesus remind you who you are and who you are called to be. Walk on. Drop the timetables, the schedules, the five-year plans and take a step into the unknowable. Set off on the adventure love where we discover what it means to be love in the world, and where God might discover Godself through our quirky, unrepeatable lives.