18 October 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Which always begs the question: what belongs to the emperor, and what belongs to God?
I’ve been reading Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She’s a professor of ecology, and an enrolled member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her writings combine scientific study with Traditional Ecological Knowledge…ways of knowing that differ from scientific modes, but are nonetheless scientifically verifiable. It’s a remarkable book, and I highly recommend it. In addition to fascinating studies on how trees communicate with one another, and how certain plants and ecosystems thrive—and are healthier—with human participation…cultivation…as part of the equation… She also retells several origin stories from various indigenous peoples.
I’m always interested in origin stories. The similarities as well as the differences. For example: The Mayan story of creation…the Popol Vul…recounts how in the beginning there was emptiness. And the divine being(s) speaks the world into existence. And the world is filled with plants and animals all spoken into being. And the divine beings see that it is good. And they long for something with a voice to praise the divine. So they make humans out of mud. So far, it all sounds pretty familiar, right? It turns out these mud people aren’t all that great. They soak up all the water…they can’t really walk, and they basically just fall apart.
So the divine being(s) try again. They make people out of wood and reeds. These wood people are lithe and strong…And they were clever, Kimmerer writes, “they learned to use the other beings, plants and animals for their own purposes. They made […] farms, and pottery and houses […]” and they filled the world. But their hearts were empty of compassion and love. “They could sing and talk, but their words were without gratitude for the sacred gifts they had received […] and so they endangered the rest of creation.” So creation retaliated…and the wood people were swept away in a flood.
The third attempt was people of light, using the sacred energy of the sun. These beings were very powerful and believed they knew everything, so instead of being grateful for their gifts, they believed they were equal to the gods, and they too became a threat to creation had to be done away with.
Finally the divine beings made people who would “live right in the beautiful world [that god] had created, in respect and gratitude and humility.” These people were made of corn. The corn people could “dance and sing and had words to tell stories and offer up prayers. Their hearts were filled with compassion for the rest of creation. They were wise enough to be grateful.”
In so many origin stories humans are the last created…and in so many there is a tragedy…a fall…because of hubris…of striving to be god-like, of confusing what we can do with what we should do…rationalizing the use of power instead of opening ourselves in compassion; believing falsely that we already know all the answers and are dependent upon no one, and always forgetting to be grateful.
In some native traditions, being created last is interpreted to mean that humans are the younger siblings of creation and need to learn how to survive by listening to and learning from the plants and animals who have been here a lot longer than we have. In others, it takes several iterations before humans “get it,” and become “wise enough to be grateful.” In our tradition, we have tended to interpret humans being created last to mean that we are somehow closer to the divine… “just a little lower than angels” (Hebrews 2:7), and that we should therefore have “dominion” over the earth…but even a glance at the news and you can hear the taunt: “how’s that working out for you?” echoing in the thunder of multiple crises we now face. Maybe we need to rethink what “dominion” means.
The thing about origin stories is they not only describe where we have been…but also point to where we are going. They are always more metaphor, and poetry than they are history. And when we retell them we can always ask…are we the mud people, or are we the wood people, or are we the people of light? Have we been expelled from Eden, or have we been liberated from empire? Are we in exile because we have forgotten what it means to live with respect, and humility? When will we be wise enough to be grateful?
The cunning people of light and wood come to Jesus today with a trap in the form of a coin. The coin bears the image of Tiberius…the emperor…likely it says (as most imperial coins did), Tiberius Caesar divine son of divine Augustus on one side and Pontifex maximus (high priest) on the other. In other words, it is a golden calf in miniature. With the image of something claiming to be both son of god and high priest. It is transactional rather than relational. Reciprocity and gratitude is not really built into it. Once I pay someone using the emperor’s coin, I don’t really have much responsibility to them, or for them. But Jesus, who is the true Son of God and our real high priest, is always calling us back into relationship…into reciprocity…always inviting us to grow up and become corn people. Go ahead, he says, and give the emperor his coin, but remember who really provides for all of life and how… Remember that no imperial coin makes the rain fall, or the sun shine, or the grasses grow…No amount of gold can do what plants do all day, everyday… turn “air, light, and water […] into sweet morsels of sugar,” Kimmerer writes, “—the stuff of redwoods and daffodils and corn. Straw spun into gold, water turned to wine […] The breath of plants gives life to animals and the breath of animals gives life to plants. […] It’s the great poem of give and take, of reciprocity that animates the world.”
And Jesus is always calling us to remember that… It. Is. All…gift. Life, the universe, everything…Everything we touch, everything we see, everything we have…it’s all gift. It’s not a commodity. And it’s not a transaction…tit for tat…quid pro quo…one thing for another. But it’s also not free.
A gift creates a set of relationships…a set of responsibilities…we need plants and animals…to survive…and they need us. We have a responsibility to one another. No part of the Body of Christ can say, “I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21). No part of the human community, or the whole created order can say “we have no need of you.”
Gifts, says Kimmerer, “follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again [and again]. This time you give and the next time you receive. Both the honor of giving and the humility of receiving are necessary halves of the equation. […]
The cycle of gift giving and gift receiving creates a …“moral covenant of reciprocity [which] calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, [and] for all we have taken.” “Generosity,” she concludes, “is [therefore] simultaneously a moral and a material imperative.”
What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God is really a non-question. Because what belongs to God is everything. And every day, through rain and sun, wind and sleet, through everything that crawls on the earth, or flies in the air, or swims in the sea, God gives to all of creation the gift of creation, so that we can be in relation with one another.
The only question really is are we wise enough and humble enough to be grateful and responsible for those gifts?