Here for you

Sermon Preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Proper 25A

note: my apologies for the informal text. I preached with some notes and simply tried to flesh them out a bit here for the handful of folks who requested a copy of today's sermon.

For the past 30 years, a group of clergy called “Positive Presence” have been involved in the lives of teenagers at ETHS.  Either before or after school or during lunch hours, one or more clergy person arrives at the high school to stand outside on the sidewalk or to walk through the cafeterias.  Sometimes there is an opportunity to have a conversation with a teen – if the teen initiates it - but more times than not the purpose of this presence is quite simply, as the name of the program implies, to be present.
Fr. Bob Oldershaw – now an emeritus priest at St. Nicholas - has been involved in this ministry of presence since the very beginning and earlier this week he shared this experience. 
One morning, standing on sidewalk outside of the high school before school began, a student came up to him and asked, “Haven’t you heard of the separation of church and state? What are you doing here?”  The question was, of course, intended to trap Fr. Oldershaw; perhaps to engage him in some sort of debate or controversy.  But, Fr. Oldershaw didn’t take the bait.  Instead, he responded simply: “I’m here for you.”  With that the teen walked away, somewhat perplexed. 
Positive Presence.  That’s all it is. It’s not about preaching the gospel (at least not with words). It’s not about teaching church doctrine.  It’s not about inviting a young person to get involved in one’s church.  It’s not about doing.  It’s about being. 
Last week and this, our Gospel readings have been stories of the religious authorities trying to trap Jesus; trying to get him in one way or another to break the law – either the religious law or the law of Rome.  These two stories are not unique in Matthew’s gospel. In fact, there are several such stories.  In chapter 12 of Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisees and Jesus are in the synagogue on the Sabbath:
 “a man was there with a withered hand, and [the Pharisees] asked [Jesus], “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” . . . . [Jesus] said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. (Matthew 12:10-13)
A few chapters later, Mathew’s gospel records an incident in which the Pharisees ask Jesus why it is that his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat.  Jesus responds by asking the Pharisees why it is that they break God’s commandments in the things that they do. (Matthew 15:1-9).
This pattern of questioning punctuates Matthew’s gospel:
-       Chapter 19:  The chief priests and Pharisees question Jesus about the divorce laws.
-       Chapter 21:  the Pharisees ask Jesus by whose authority he is acting
-       Chapter 22 brought us last week’s question of the lawfulness of paying the tribute tax to the Roman Emperor
-       And then today’s reading with its question, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
As I reflected on this series of tests and challenges to Jesus authority and as I reflected on the Confirm not Conform commitment that our young people would be making this morning I began to think differently about the Pharisees and Sadducees, the chief priests and the scribes, and about all those around us who would question the authority of Jesus.  Because, at the end of the day, accepting the authority of Jesus is the central aspect of our faith and, quite frankly, that can be a tremendous stumbling block for some people – and, if we are honest with ourselves, I think that at least some of the time, it can be a tremendous stumbling block for even the most devout among us. 
The questions take a variety of forms:
-       Fr. Oldershaw’s encounter with the high school student – “Why are you here?”
-       The mother or father who has lost a child – “Why would God do this?”
-       The gay man or woman who has been hurt by the church – “How can you belong to a church?”
-       The person in the seat next to us on the train or airplane who sees us reading a Bible or a book about theology – “Do you believe that stuff?”
-       The young person about to embark on a two year commitment to the Conform not Conform program – “What does this have to do with my life?”
When I hear questions like these, my gut reaction is sometimes to get out of the situation as fast as I can.  I don’t like debate. I don’t like controversy . . . and, if I want to get real honest, I don’t have all the answers and so my desire to flee is really a desire to save face.  By what authority?
And, if I look to Jesus for the answer – in that “What Would Jesus Do” kind of way that so many like to talk about – what I get doesn’t feel all that helpful.  Because when Jesus is confronted with challenges to authority he is quick on his feet.  He can tell a story that cuts to the heart of the matter.  He knows Scripture inside and out and can quote it right back to those who would challenge him.  He’s witty and insightful and he’s confident.  And me? . . . on a good day, as I’m drifting off to sleep, I might think of what I wish I had said to the person who needed an answer; but, in the moment of confrontation, I often fall short. 
But perhaps the invitation we receive as faithful persons is not to be ready with the witty answer, the relevant story or the right response.  Perhaps the invitation we receive is simply to be present.  To answer, like Fr. Oldershaw, “I’m here for you.” 
This morning, [Names of Teens] have signed a commitment to fully participate in the Confirm not  Conform program at St. Mark’s.  They have said, “I will show up.”  “I will be present.”  “I will come with an open mind and an open heart.”  And we, in turn, have said to them, we will listen to your questions and concerns with open minds and hearts, we will take your contributions seriously and treat them with respect, we will expose you to the fundamental questions of faith and explore them with you, we will provide a mentor who will share their faith experiences and questions with you, and who will respond to yours, we will offer help when you need it, and we will keep you in our prayers. 

[Names of Teens] have said, “I will show up.”  “I’m here for you.”  And we, in turn, are invited to respond – not with the right answers, the right beliefs, the right way of being in the world – but with our real selves.  We are invited to respond, “I’m here for you.”  It’s a ministry of presence.  And we need one another – it’s not about doing.  It’s about being.  Being the Body of Christ with and for one another.  Being able to say to one another – through our words and our actions -  nothing more and nothing less than, “I’m here for you.” 


Marked as Christ's Own Forever

Sermon Preached October 19, 2014
Proper 24A - Matthew 22:15-22
St. Mark's Episcopal Church

Earlier this week, some news out of Texas caught my attention: “Subpoenas for Sermons in Houston Draw Outrage” reads the headline in The Texas Tribune.[1]  Immediately I imagined the tax-exempt status of congregations being called into question – as had been the case with All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California when their priest preached an anti-war sermon in 2004.
The story in Texas, it turns out, is a bit different. Last May, the Houston City Council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (known as “HERO”) into law.  According to the Houston Chronicle the ordinance “bans discrimination based not just on sexual orientation and gender identity but also, as federal laws do, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.”[2] Shortly after this law went into affect, opponents began circulating petitions to put a repeal measure on the ballot and when those efforts failed, they filed suit against the city in early August resulting in the postponement of the ordinance going in to effect.[3]  A month later, city attorneys subpoenaed sermons given by local pastors who oppose the law and are connected to those who have sued the city. The subpoenaes state that the recipient pastors are to produce
“all documents or communications . . . in your possession, relating or referring to any of the following in connection in any way with HERO.”  The list of documents includes “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, or approved by you or in your possession.”[4]
Questions around freedom of speech, freedom of religion and, yes, even the churches’ tax-exempt status have been raised.[5] 
The Pharisees and the Herodians went to Jesus and asked, “'Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?' But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’”[6]  Apparently these questions have a way of sticking with us for a very long time!  But Jesus’ answer is helpful, I think.  Because upon being shown the coin, he turns the question on its head, asking those who would question him, “Whose head is this [on the coin], and whose title?” They, of course, answer, “The emperor’s” - Tiberius Caesar, divine son of Augustus.  And this answer points to the very malice intended by the Pharisees and the Herodians.  For the Pharisees were opposed to the paying of taxes to Rome, considering doing so to be blasphemy because while Rome saw Tiberius Caesar as the divine son of Augustus, the Pharisees understand that the only divine being is God and the religious law is clear: “you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol . . .”[7] They hope that Jesus will say, “yes, of course, pay the tax” for then they can say to the Jews, “look, a Roman sympathizer.”  The coin itself, used to pay taxes, is idolatrous for its divine attribution to Caesar.  The Herodians, on the other hand, support the paying of the tax to Rome and secretly are hoping that Jesus will oppose tax paying so they can accuse him of sedition against Rome.[8]  So where will Jesus come down?  As the Pharisees and the Herodians lean in for his response, Jesus, like a savvy lawyer, avoids the trap and answers instead, “Give. . . to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”[9]  And, with this one phrase, the trap is turned back on those who would question Jesus’ allegiance. 
For what does belong to the emperor?  The coin perhaps – after all it does bear the mark of his likeness.  But the larger question, it seems, is one left unasked: What belongs to God?  What bears the image or likeness of God?  For the Jews, the answer perhaps might be found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, you I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.”[10]  For you and for me, the answer, I believe can be found in our baptism: marking the sign of the cross on the candidate’s forehead, the priest says “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”[11]  You and I bear the image of God and are marked as Christ’s own for ever.  Richard Spalding refers to baptism as “the watermark of our true currency.”[12]  And how different this currency is from the currency of Rome – or the currency of our modern day marketplace.  For it is a currency marked not by power over, oppression, threats, and individual pursuits but marked instead by the love of God, the pursuit of justice, power with, and the communal fellowship of the Body of Christ.
And, once we are marked as Christ’s own for ever, we are invited to engage in all of life’s pursuits from this perspective – from the likeness of God.  Necessarily we will get it wrong – because I think all of us are aware that there are good Christians throughout the world who, in living fully out of their baptismal promises end up on opposite sides of a host of issues: the Pharisees and the Herodians were both religious peoples but they understood the issue of taxation very differently; Republicans and Democrats take very different positions on all manner of socio-political issues in this country and yet, many from both parties, do so from deeply held religious convictions. 
Being marked as Christ’s own forever is about asking, “what does it mean to bear God’s likeness in the world?”  How does my being a Christian play out every day?  Earlier this week I was speaking with a colleague who is inviting the youth of his parish to create personal mission statements - mission statements that they can look to as they discern what is the right thing to do in a situation.  I suggested that perhaps we already have that mission statement in the promises of the Baptismal Covenant.  And that Covenant gives us a series of questions we can use as we make decisions in our daily life – in the workplace, at school, around the dinner table, and in communion with one another.  Will our choice or decision be one that leads us back to the teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers of the church?  Does our choice or decision more forward our promise to persevere in resisting evil and, when it does not, do we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  Is our choice or decision one that provides an example of the Good News of God in Christ?  Does our choice or decision serve Christ and does it demonstrate our love of our neighbor as ourselves?  What choice or decision will we make that moves us closer to the justice and peace among all people, the respect for the dignity of every human being that God demands of us?[13]  Using these questions as a guide in our lives may not always lead us to the same answer – life is too complicated and most issues are simply too nuanced for that.  But, asking them reminds us that we are, indeed, marked as Christ’s own in Baptism.
We are marked as Christ’s own in Baptism and that mark is indelible - we wear that mark on Monday mornings when we reach for our first cup of coffee, on Tuesday evenings when we practice basketball with our team, on Wednesday afternoons when we teach a classroom of students, on Thursdays when we meet with a patient at the hospital, on Fridays at the football game, on Saturdays in the park.  We are marked as Christ’s own in Baptism. We are marked forever and ever. Amen.

[1] Aman Batheja, “Subpoenas for Sermons in Houston Draw Outrage,” The Texas Tribune (October 16, 2014) accessed on October 18, 2014.
[2] Mike Morris, “Council PassesEqual Rights Ordinace,” Houston Chronicle (May 28, 2014) accessed on October 18, 2014.
[3] Mike Morris, “Equal RightsOrdinance On Hold Pending Hearing,” Houston Chronicle (August 7, 2014) accessed on October 18, 2014.
[4] Woodfill v. Parker Case No. 2014-44974, Subpoena of Pastor David Welch, 152nd Judicial District Court (September 7, 2014) accessed on October 18, 2014.
[5] Katherine Driessen, “AmidBlowback, City Walks Fine Line on Pastor Subpoenas: Cruz, Abbott Slam Subpoenasin Rights Lawsuit,” Houston Chronicle (October 16, 2014) accessed on October 18, 2014; Aman Batheja, “Subpoenas for Sermons.”
[6] Matthew 22:17-19.
[7] Exodus 20:3-4.
[8] Marvin A. McMickle,”Homiletical Perspective for Matthew 22:15-22,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4 Season after Pentecost 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[9] Matthew 22:21.
[10] Isaiah 49:15-16.
[11] Book of Common Prayer, 308.
[12] Richard E. Spalding, “Pastoral Perspective for Matthew 22:15-22,” in Feasting on the Word.
[13] Book of Common Prayer, 304-5.