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Leviticus is one of my favorite books of the Bible. That may seem a little odd to some of you, what with all of the proof texting, and “problem” texts that lie within this book, the middle part of the Torah. The reason that I like Leviticus is simple—it is a book about how to live in community, to live in relationship with God and with one another. The book is divided into 2 parts—the first are guidelines for the priests, the religious leaders of the community. The second part is the Holiness Code—that which guides the life of all of the Israelites, not just the leaders. Our reading today falls into this second section. God tells Moses to tell the people of the congregation, the gathered community, that they are to be holy. Why? Because God is holy. After a section that talks about some of the guidelines that are also found in the Ten Commandments, our reading jumps down to how the people are to live in relationship with their neighbors. God tells them that they are not to defraud their neighbors, they are to treat their neighbors equally, with compassion for those who are different or who have disabilities, to not be partial to those with money or without, they should not hate their neighbors, their brothers and sisters. Instead they are to respond in love to those in their community, love each other as much as they love themselves. And the overarching reason behind this? Because God is holy, and has made God’s people holy. Loving each other means extending the love that God has given to the people, a love that brought them out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, out of the clutches of an oppressive government.
It is this section of Leviticus that Jesus quotes in his answer to the lawyer, the scholar in religious law, in our reading today from Matthew. This section is the culmination of an intense question and answer period that Jesus and the religious leaders of the temple have engaged in. We’ve seen some of this over the past few weeks in our gospel readings—Jesus has been in the temple, teaching, upsetting the “official” leaders, who then try to make Jesus look bad, hoping to find a way to make him stumble, make a mistake, to defraud him—after all, who is this guy anyway, where did he come from? Today, the Pharisees send in their lawyer who asks Jesus a question, hoping to test him. “Teacher,” he asks, maybe somewhat sarcastically, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus, also knowing the law quite well, quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus in his answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The “greatest commandment”, to love God, can only be completed by therefore responding to God by loving one’s neighbor. And, as Jesus tells the religious leaders, it is on these two commandments that hang all the law and prophets—that is, everything else that they do, say, and teach, must be in the context of the command to love God and love God’s people.
Jesus gets this—he knows what it is to love God and love God’s people, and has consistently shown the religious leaders this in his teaching and examples during this extended teaching session in the temple. A few weeks ago our reading was the parable of the landowner and the vineyard, and the wicked tenants. The landowner sends his slaves to collect the harvest, but each time the tenants seize them and kill them, including killing the landowner’s own son. The tenants are thrown out—because of their disregard for neighbor and God.
Two weeks ago we heard the story of the king who was throwing a banquet, but the invited guests were too busy to show up. The end result was that those who normally wouldn’t have been invited were welcomed into the feast. It was a reminder that all are welcomed into the life of God’s community. However, the reading we heard two weeks ago was the version of the story from Luke. The parable that makes up the section of Matthew immediately after the vineyard story is a bit more chilling. In this version, the king throws a wedding banquet, and, after the invitation is sent, the invited guests not only scorn the invitation, but some killed the messengers. The king’s response was complete destruction—killing of the invited guests and leveling their city. The king then sends what’s left of his slaves out into the city to round up and gather anyone they could find—good and bad, young and old, those mourning the loss of their homes and ways of life in the wake of the king’s destructive tear—and bring them in to enjoy a banquet feast. But the king is not done destroying yet. He finds a man who was not wearing a wedding robe, not obeying the “rules” of the party, and orders him bound and thrown into prison. In this version, the defiant man is showing his love for God, his compassion for his neighbors forced into celebrating the family that destroyed their town, by standing up for justice and refusing to honor the tyrant king in maybe the only way he knew how—ignoring the wedding dress code.
Last week we continued on in the narrative. Now, Jesus has raised the stakes even further, reminding the Pharisees that loving God and neighbor, standing up for injustice in the face of tyranny and destruction, involves giving of all of oneself to God—that in giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and giving the things that are God’s back to God really means giving all of ourselves back to the one who created us. And as Amy reminded us last week, that is no small task.
Jesus telling the religious leaders that the greatest commandment is to love God with all one’s heart soul, and mind, and out of that love comes love for each other was a reminder that harkens back to Leviticus. Yes, the leaders, the priests, had a code to live by in the instructions found in that book. But they were also part of the larger Israelite community, and they had the responsibility to not only lead the gathered community, but to live in the way that God commanded all of God’s people to live, that their very call came out of this. And this is a reminder to all of us as well—even though we are all not called as paid pastors in churches, we are all part of the “priesthood of all believers”, and are all called to share in the life of the community, teaching, preaching, sharing the gospel with others, living in relationship with each other and God. That includes our witness in organizations outside our church: Sharing ourselves with our guests at Interfaith Hospitality, standing against leaders who have used their power in destructive ways through the Occupy movement or fighting against destructive environmental practices, giving of food offerings and monetary offerings to community organizations. It also includes the ways in which we act and respond to each other within our own church community: sharing meals with homebound members, giving not only our monetary gifts but our gifts of time and experience to the life of the church, it means holding each other in times of joy and in times of grief, it is in the giving of everything we are back to God our creator, and loving God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds in our loving of our neighbor—the person sitting next to us in these seats—as ourselves.
As most of you know, we have been exploring communion this past month, both in adult Sunday School and during our services. The Sunday that I knew that Germantown Mennonite was my church home, that my understanding of faith fit best in an Anabaptist setting, was a communion Sunday, February 3, 2008. I grew up Lutheran, and in a Lutheran setting the ordained pastor must be the one who says the words of institution (you know, the In the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread…bit). If the pastor is not able to be there, then a supply pastor is found—or there is no communion. Well, on that Sunday in 2008, Germantown’s pastor was not able to be there. Yet, we as a community still celebrated communion together. It was in that moment that I saw the power of the gathered community—that in this shared meal the most important thing was us, together, the body of Christ, called by Jesus to love God and love each other; that the “rules” about who is supposed to say the right words or do the right actions fell by the wayside because we had been called together to share in the bread and wine of communion.
Jesus’ reminder to the Pharisees was that their actions must always be in the context of the “greatest commandment”. It is a reminder for us as well—that it is in loving God and therefore loving our neighbor we are called into relationship with each other and our communities. That it is a reminder to stand up to tyranny, oppression, and practices that are destructive. That it is a reminder to give of our whole being to God and to each other.
I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Occupy Movement over the last few weeks. For a group that the media tries to portray as disorganized, with divergent interests, Occupy Wall Street—and closer to home, Occupy Philadelphia—appears organized and united.
The facebook feed from Occupy Philadelphia is about requests for food, water, medical supplies, tents, blankets and clothing. It’s announcements about how we can be involved, when their general assemblies are taking place—those are where the group makes decisions about what will happen next with the movement in Philadelphia.
What is most impressive to me, is that Occupy Philadelphia is committed to feeding everyone that is occupying City Hall. Everyone. That includes the chronicly homeless, the folks that were already occupying city hall when the movement began. This movement is not just young, idealistic, middle class bored white kids—it is people of every race and culture, and class, each with their own individual concerns, but each with an overall concern for our society, our care for each other and our care for the environment.
The occupiers have become a community, looking out for each other. Those that have extra share with those that have nothing. They respect the space where they have gathered—they are keeping city hall’s plaza cleaner than it might have been if no one was occupying it—and they are showing respect for each person that comes to them.
It has been reminding me of what we saw happening in the early church. In the book of Acts, followers of Jesus would gather together to share a meal—they would bring what they had, and it would work. Just like we bring food to a potluck, except the stakes were higher. For people that had nothing, and for people who were under attack for believing in the resurrected Jesus, the food they shared when they gathered was vital. It was not just a substitute for going out to lunch after church, it was an act of social justice, an equalizer among people that had varying levels of ability to provide for themselves.
The early church shared each others burdens, making sure there was food and shelter for all. This was a spiritual community, a community built around their experience of the power of Jesus in their lives. But it was also a community of social justice. The early church, loosely organized, looking very different in each city, but shared in common its communal nature. People looked after each other.
For the Occupy Philadelphia movement, as I hear them chant, “This is what democracy looks like,” I’m always thinking, This is what I long for the church to look like.
In our text today, we hear some of the most confusing words of Jesus. In fact, over the last few weeks, as we have worked our way through the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has become more and more difficult to understand, and his words are more and more controversial. First, Jesus talked about the vineyard owner sending his servants to the tenants, who ignore him until the owner sent his son, who the tenants kill. When the Pharisees realized that Jesus is talking about them being the tenants who kill the landowner’s son (Landowner is God, Son is Jesus), this sets them off. It is this explicit parable that makes Jesus a marked man, doomed for death.
Then, Jesus goes on with another parable. This one is about the wedding feast—the text we heard preached by Randy Spaulding last Sunday. All are welcome to table. When the banquet owner could not get a positive RSVP from his friends, then he went to the street, and invited anyone in that needed to eat.
Finally, Jesus ended the trilogy of radical stories with this one that we read today. “Give to the emperor, the things that belong to the emperor, and give to God the things that are God’s.” In our Matthew story today, the Pharisees, along with the Herodians (who are in charge of keeping Jewish ruler, Herod, in power) come to Jesus and try to trap him. They say to Jesus in a typical Torah debate style, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” These Torah scholars were pretty pleased with themselves for coming up with this question. If Jesus said that it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he would alienate the people who hated the Roman occupation and Caesar. If he said it was unlawful to pay taxes, the people will be pleased, but Jesus will then be liable for arrest by the Romans.
As it turned out, Jesus didn’t go in either of those directions. He was too clever for all that. He took this issue in a whole new direction. Jesus said to the Pharisees and Herodians, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” And the Pharisees and Herodians—while standing in the temple with Jesus—pulled out a denarius, a Roman coin with the image of the emperor on it. You should know that having this Roman coin in the temple was akin to idolatry. Here in the temple they expose their idol in the form of a Roman coin. Jesus here exposed their idolatry in the temple, in front of God and everyone. Embarassing.
But, Jesus continued. “Give to the emporer what belongs to the emporer, but give to God what belongs to God.”
Give to the emperor—or in our case, give to the empire—what belongs to the empire. And give to God what belongs to God.
What is Jesus talking about here?
What exactly belongs to the empire, and what belongs to God?
The answer is disappointing to some, and terrifying to others. We want Jesus to set some bounderies on what belongs to whom, how much of a percent we give, how much we should give to the empire, and how much we get to keep for ourselves. The answer Jesus gave us is not about how much to give, or whether it is lawful to give. The answer Jesus gives us is a reminder that everything we have belongs to God. The empire can have our coin, because what is truly important is that what is Gods is given to God to be used for the building of the kingdom.
And that, my brothers and sisters, is much more frightening than giving just ten percent. That is much more frightening than limiting the work of God to what we take off the top of our family budgets. All that we have belongs to God. This building, our material possessions, our families, our hearts—they all belong to God.
None of this is ours.
The question left implied in this text is this: will we give to God what already belongs to God? Or will we hold on to these things for our personal, financial, and spiritual security?
Because as co-creators in the work of God—or maybe better said—as co-conspirators in the work of God, the work doesn’t get done when we act like the good news is just for us. The work doesn’t get done, when we treat our possessions as if they actually belong to us, and hoard the resources. More specifically, more directly, God’s people don’t get fed when we don’t share our food with others. God’s people don’t get housed when we don’t share our homes with them. God’s people don’t have opportunities for justice, when we don’t share access to resources, power and networks.
Which brings me back to occupy Philadelphia. These folks—who come from all walks of life, are doing the work of God. They are feeding each other, making sure everyone is warm and clothed, and providing medical care for everyone. They are doing what the early church did.
Using social media, they are gathering the resources they need to care for each other, and showing the government—both local and national—that this is what it means to have “liberty and justice for all”. And, it’s been a kick in the pants for some of us in the church. This is what it means to “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” This is what the early church tried to do. They tried to live the good news with their lives and hearts, and all that they had belonged to God.
This Occupy Philadelphia movement is reminiscent of the Peasant revolts during the birth of the radical reformation. While the gospel was being un-domesticated by reformers who were putting the word into the hands of the people, instead of keeping it safely in the church, the everyday people in Europe were declaring their disgust with the government for overtaxing the poor, while allowing the rich to go untouched. This was an opportunity for the people’s concerns, and the people’s story to be joined with the gospel story, and the liberating message of Jesus. And it changed forever how we do church, and how we read the gospel.
The Peasant revolt wasn’t perfect. Early Anabaptists used violent means to try to built a just society. It was a disaster—many, many people died. But they learned from it. And they changed course.
They learned—as they sought justice—that spirituality must be part of this movement. They learned—as they prayed and studied the scriptures together—that Jesus’ call to all people was the way of peace, and required that they put it all on the line. Because everything they had belonged to God.
And while Occupy Philadelphia is not a religious or spiritual movement per se, there are people at these events that are making this connection. Some of you in this very congregation have seen the connection between the life and practices of Jesus, and the demands of the movement.
Today, there has also been a call among us to remember the need for food in our community. It is world food day, and many of you have brought extra food, remembering that so many in our neighborhood don’t have enough, and recalling that Jesus fed the 5,000 with very little.
There has also been a call to give what we have to the Occupy Philadelphia movement. Katie has called us to bring in blankets, water, food, and other things to support the calls for justice going on at City hall.
Today is also a celebration of communion, an ongoing theme for the month of October here at Germantown Mennonite. As we remember the last meal with Christ, we recall that this is more than a symbolic act, this is a spiritual act, and a justice act. We remember that even as Jesus knew his days were numbered, he made sure there was sustenance for his faithful followers. Those disciple—though they were quite dense at times—gave all that belonged to God, back to God, because they believed Jesus had the power to make a change. As followers in the way of Jesus—as co-conspiritors in the work of God, we too are called to give it all up. Not just 10 percent—we are called by God to give back to God what already belongs to God. And we are called to share all that we have with others—giving strength for the journey in the form of bread and wine (both the spiritual kind, and the physical kind). God calls us to the table to give it all up for the sake of the kingdom.
What can I do?