A Sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast
Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter
Pentecost XXI - Proper 24 A - October 18, 2020
It seems as if every essay I read about this passage from Matthew’s gospel works very hard to make the Religious Leaders look like the bad guys. It’s almost cartoonish and makes me giggle a little.
One commenter wrote: “This time it’s the Herodias and disciples of the Pharisees who conspire to trap him.” Well, for goodness sake! Jesus has only been goading them into an adversarial relationship. He turns over the tables of the money changes, brings out the whips and insults their integrity and then tells a couple of parables that cast them in a very bad light.
Not that they don’t deserve it, mind you. They have seriously compromised their integrity. But, you know, you don’t go poking the beehive with a stick unless you expect at least one bee to get annoyed and try to sting you.
They ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” Jesus (“aware of their malice,” Matthew adds) rejects that question and reframes it by answering, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The Herodias are agents of Rome – they’re the “G-men”, the “suits” – and favor a tax to the emperor. No one would be surprised to learn that they are lining their own pockets before the revenue gets shipped out of the province. The Pharisees, however, like other Jewish people of their day, resent the tax, not to mention the idolatrous image of Caesar on the face of the coins required to pay it.
Jesus stumped them cold in their tracks. It almost feels too easy, doesn’t it? The Herodias and Pharisees set out to “trick” Jesus but he spins the trick right back on them, without even seeming to break a sweat. Or, is it just that, by now, many of us are very familiar with the story?
Honestly? I don’t know who is tricking whom in this story. Matthew would like us to believe that the religious leaders are setting up Jesus into an adversarial, contentious relationship. I submit that it is Jesus who sets the trap for them, revealing to them and his disciples and anyone else who might be paying attention at the time - and for all time - the corruption and deceit and hypocrisy inherent in the institutional religion.
Which, I think, is the point, the reason for his ‘re-formation’ of religion – about being freed from the “letter” of the law to live more freely into the “spirit” of the law.
Jesus is building his case. He’s taking on the establishment, religious group by religious group, theo-political position by theo-political position. He’s got his face set toward Jerusalem and we know what will happen there. So does he. When you know how the story ends – when you know it’s not the end – you can take risks like this.
The beginning of his earthly ministry is to set up the ending of his earthly ministry so that the salvific ministry of eternal life can begin and we can return to The Garden.
Jesus is living out a natural force in nature. We see it all around us, especially this time of year. Those who are familiar with my sermons know of my deep affection for my grandmother. You know that some of my fondest childhood memories are being with her - especially in the kitchen, yes.
When we weren’t in her kitchen, I loved being on long walks with her, especially our daily walks to church for early morning mass. She also loved to take long rides on Sunday in the car. She would sit in the back seat and I would sprawl out on the “back ledge” behind her seat in my father’s Studebaker.
My grandmother especially loved the Autumn of the year. She loved all the wild, beautiful colors and the way the whole round earth seemed to be celebrating life in a vivid, flashy display of life at this point in the year.
It was she who first taught me of the great ironies in life, this one chief among them – that the outrageous burst of color and life were actually a sign of death.
It’s a chemical process, of course. The mixture of red, purple, orange and yellow is the result of the tree changing the composition of the food-making process it was sending to the leaves in preparation for the change from summer to winter, so that life would continue from one season to the next within the tree.
My grandmother said that life on this earth ends in a blaze of glory. She pointed out that Jesus was called to this earth by a great star of wonder and light in the sky and that he was called back home to heaven in that same great light of the resurrection. So, she said, we should not be surprised with the earth mimicked the divine which had created them and did the same.
You will recall Paul saying to the church in Thessalonia to be "imitators" of him so they can be an example to others. And, Moses says to God, "Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight."
It's about knowing and imitating God's ways - even as all of nature imitates God's ways and thus, finds favor in God's sight.
I remember one time on one of our walks to church, she stopped to watch a leaf fall from its branch. She then picked up the leaf from the ground and showed me the spot on the tree branch from which the leaf had fallen.
At the point where the stem of the leaf is attached to the tree, a special layer of cells develops and gradually severs the tissues that support the leaf. If you put your finger on the end of it, you can feel its sticky sap. At the same time, the tree seals the cut, so that when the leaf is finally blown off by the wind or falls from its own weight, it leaves behind a leaf scar.
“And this,” she said rolling the sap between her fingers, “is why we cry when someone dies. It’s okay to be sad. Even trees are sad a bit and weep. But, their tears become a protective coating for the tree sealing it off from any damage.”
“The important thing is this,” she added, “Every leaf that falls leaves behind a ‘leaf scar’. The tree knows every leaf that has ever grown on its branches, and every branch that has ever grown from its body.”
“Like leaves on a tree, we change our home from inside the tree, to outside the tree. Then, we fall off the tree and rest at its base, providing food and nourishment for the roots of the tree. But, there is something stronger than the tree. It is Life. That life lasts forever and, even in death, we are all a part of that Life that goes on, even when we’re not here.”
“We may not return in the Spring – no one knows where we go after we die – but we know this to be true: Life will return.”
It seemed a great puzzle to me. I confess that, from time to time, it still does. Along with millions and billions of generations of other people who have wondered about The Meaning of Life, I wondered about the reason. I mean, why are we here if only to fall and die at the end?
I asked my grandmother, of course. She smiled kindly and said, “It’s always been about Grandmother Moon and Grandfather Sun. It’s been about the times in between, when the sun rises and sets and the moon rises high in the sky, only to fall again for the sun to rise. It’s about falling and rising. It’s about the times we’ve been happy and sad. It’s been about the sun and the shade, the rain and the wind, and the old people and the children. It’s been about the way life takes us on a ride through the seasons and changes of life. It’s about learning, finally, to just enjoy the ride, the way a leaf changes colors and then glides into the wind to finally settle on the ground.”
“Some of us, like the leaf, depart in a blaze of glory. Some of us are just blown off by the wind. But, after all is said and done,” she said, holding up the leaf and matching its end to the ‘scar’ that was already forming on the branch from which it had fallen, “no matter how we leave, we all leave our mark, child. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant, we leave our mark. We all leave our mark. And, that – and the ride – have to be enough.”
Jesus is getting ready to leave in a blaze of glory. Does he seem to be goading his adversaries into an argument? Well, that’s because he is. They don’t yet know it, but they are kindling for the great blaze of glory he is building.
He’s doing so to make a point about remembering the importance of the Tree of Life from which we are all leaves, and not the structures we have built around the Tree. Jesus is calling us to remember The Tree in the center of the Garden.
He is going to Jerusalem where he will be made to carry the remains of a tree on his back; the tree felled and fashioned for him; the tree to which his body will be nailed but the tree on which he will not – can not, shall not – stay.
The marks he will carry on his body will be marks that stay. Those marks will be outward and visible signs that Life has been here and, through those very marks, Life will return.
I think somewhere deep in the places of our knowing, we know the wisdom of my grandmother to be true. Some of us do, anyway. We know somewhere deep in our souls that all these things – the trials and the troubles, the arguments and conflicts, the chaos and confusion the anxiety and fear, are all part of this particular season in our lives. This too, shall pass. And, The Tree will remain.
Some of it is out of our control. Some of it is as directly caused as the “tricks” pulled on Jesus into which he tricked the leaders of his time into participating. Some of us will misplace our loyalties and disorder our priorities. Some of us will fall gently. Others will be violently blown off by a sudden, unexpected strong wind. It’s all part of the rhythm and the dance of life.
So when you see the leaves begin to change their color, and watch them fall to the ground to dry and turn brown and gather into brittle clusters tossed by the wind on the ground to nourish the earth with its remains, remember the branch and The Tree from which those leaves fell.
Remember, then, that just like Jesus, we, too, will leave our mark. So, give to God that which is of God, and that which is of the earth to the earth to be gathered up and used by God for God’s mysterious purposes. And, bidden or unbidden, God is there, in the midst of us, blessing it all, like the Tree in the middle of the Garden from which we come and to which we will return.