We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’. What are they? We are not told. There is no live interview from the heavenly conference room. There is no point-by-point bulletin, with details promised at 11pm. There is no footnote, or explanatory second conversation. We are left on our own by our Lord to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’. We are given a fair and good amount of freedom in doing so.
In conscience, do you wonder about ‘the things that are God’s’?
Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Give to God the things that are God’s. (In the Gospel of Thomas, (110ad?) a bit yet later than Matthew (85ad?) who is a bit yet later than Mark (70ad?) who is a good bit later than whatever Jesus might actually have said (30ad?), the Lord adds, ‘and give to me the things that are mine’!)
Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God, and give to me what is mine (GT, logion 100).
Matthew, true to form, intensifies the bitterness of Jesus toward Pharisees, of church toward synagogue, of Christian to Jew. He hikes up entrap (Mark) to entangle. He is ‘aware of their malice’. To the question, ‘why put me to the test’ he adds, for good measure, ‘you hypocrites’. His Jesus demands not just a coin, but ‘(all) the money for the tax’.
Through the year, from this pulpit, we have tried continuously to trace the moves Matthew makes in 85ad away from what Mark, his source, had written in 70ad. Mostly, we want to be crystal clear about the way the gospel changes, with the setting, changes with the occasion, changes, with the time and season and year. New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth. One must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
A standard reading of the passage is that the Herodians (supporters of Herod who is the Simon Legree of Rome in the cotton fields of Palestine) would want the tax paid to Caesar whereas the Pharisees (the French Resistance of Palestine against the Third Reich of Rome) would want resistance to payment of the tax. Jesus is caught. If he agrees with the Herodians, the people will kill him. If he agrees with the Pharisees, the Romans will kill him.
“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe…the starry heavens above and the moral law within,” wrote the German philosopher Immanuel Kant at the end of his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and these words were inscribed on his tombstone.
We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’. What are they? Are they wonder and conscience—the starry heavens above and the moral law within? Wonder and conscience? Wonder and conscience, spirit and soul?
The Starry Heavens Above: Spirit
Wonder. Without wonder your God is too large. Wonder at the small things, for they are the things of God.
1. Wonder marvels that small things make a big difference.
The boat motor idled well and even carried the pontoon boat forward, but at a snail’s pace. All boats disappoint just like all dogs bite. The summer on our lake is a series of boat breakdowns. I wondered. Old age finally taking the motor? Carburator? Choke? Throttle wires? I am no mechanic. This usually means taking the boat out of the water and towing it 30 miles for repairs. The motor casing came off easily. In a few minutes, it was apparent even to a non-mechanic that a single connection, throttle to gas line, had slipped undone. Just as easily, without tools, it was reconnected. The motor purred. Small things, little things, can make a big difference.
Our out cottage, a broken down old fishing camp, built probably on weekends by one guy with tools, a six pack and a rod and reel, has a pump. On that well and pump depend cooking, eating, cleaning washing, showers and other forms of relief. It is outside, so subject to weather and other beings. The pump stopped one afternoon. I am no plumber, but I know a good one. We called him. You worry when your family needs water and you have no way to provide it. A new pump? Line problems? Dry well? What is wrong? But it was something very little. Ants had found their way into the electric box and broken the connection. Two minutes of expert attention, ants erased, problem solved. Small little things can make a big difference.
The dock itself is new, partly brand new. The dock is our island into the lake, our portal into boating, our entrance into swimming, our bridge into fishing, our outpost of land in water. It is just a wonderful territory in itself. But in order to get from the hillside down onto the dock, a makeshift staircase is required. It is fraction of the size of the dock, a farthing compared to a pound. It is a humble set of six stairs in wood reaching out onto the majesterial dock. Without the stairs, though, the dock is useless. All the weight, all the space, all the expanse, all the expense of the four piece dock lies permanently adrift from the mainland without the simple steps. Small things, little things, make a difference, and open up the possibility of much, much greater things.
2. Wonder remembers the little things with lasting consequences. Children begin to get hearts of wisdom in learning this.
Back from the fishing camp, and a warm water pumped shower there, now out on the dock beneath the stairs, ready to board the boat for a motor powered rid, our 7 year old granddaughter caught something in her younger brother’s rhetoric. Brother said, “Eric said to me yesterday that he would take me tubing behind his boat today’. Sister said, “I know that is what he said, but that is not what he meant.” There is short, short way from birdie to bogie, from right to almost right, from what is said to what is meant. To be able to hear that difference is a spiritual gift, a small, little, powerful, spiritual gift. “I know that is what he said, but that is not what he meant!” Small things, little things, make a difference, and open up the possibility of real understanding.
It is a Sabbath reminder for us. Little things can change the world. Remember when someone said something to you that intervened, helped, saved. Sometimes the best medicine is whatever gives you the courage to take one more step forward. You have the mind, heart, faith and voice to speak such an intervening word this week. Will it make any difference? Small, little things, make a difference.
Wonder keeps us from making God too large.
The Moral Law Within: Soul
Conscience. Without conscience your God is too small.
Without wonder your God is too large. Without God conscience your God is too small.
Conscience is the beating heart of truth and justice. Conscience is the soul of soul. Let your conscience be your guide, for conscience is soul, conscience is one of the things of God. Conscience reminds that the kingdom of heaven is not a present state of mind but a coming state of affairs.
1. Conscience recoils at the horror of injustice.
Peterboro is one of the poor, small towns with rich histories that dot the upstate landscape. Like Seneca Falls, known for the birth of the women’s movement. Like Palmyra, known for the birth of Mormonism. Like Oneida, known for the birth of a communitarian utopianism which itself gave birth to the children of stirpiculture there. Like New Lebanon, known for the birth of the Shaker community. Like Fort Stanwix and Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Poughkeepsie, where the American Revolution was saved in thwarting British advance. Like Fulton, which with Robert Fulton gave birth to the steamboat. Like the long winding stretch of water forming the remains of the Erie Canal, Albany to Buffalo, the opening the west to commerce. Like Lake Placid of Olympic fame, the retreat, home and burial place of the cloud-splitter himself, John Brown, who in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry, and from his gallows pulpit did ignite the civil war, to free the slaves. Like Orwell and Redfield, tiny northern towns, know home to Unity Acres, a ministry with the poor, and the places of origin for the Berrigan brothers, radical catholic peace activists over the last 50 years. Like Onondaga Lake, the center of the Iroquois confederacy—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and later Tuscarora, and the legend of Hiawatha. Like the gloriously beautiful Finger Lakes, known as the ‘burned over district’ of religious fervor following the second great awakening. Like Corning, Rome, Oneida, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Schenectady known for the birth of industrial development in glass, firearms, silver, film, salt, steel, and electricity. Like Rochester, known for Frederick Douglass and his abolitionist paper, the North Star. Like Syracuse, known for world wide leadership in the creation and development of air conditioning. The Southern states owe a great debt to Rochester and Syracuse, for the two things that make current southern growth possible at all, civil right and air conditioning. Peterboro is one of these now poor, small towns with rich histories.
Peterboro was founded by Gerrit Smith. Smith was an ardent abolitionist with a trust fund. He spent his father’s money to buy land southeast of Syracuse, along the high ridge at the northern end of the Allegheny plateau. He used the land to provide safe dwellings for free slaves, who came up from the south in dark, crossing various rivers, Susquehanna, Genesee, Delaware, with dogs barking and slavers chasing, and the occasional Harriet Tubman as guide, armed with prayer and a pistol. The tracts he gave to these people of misfortune and found fortune are still farmed today, and in some few cases by the familial descendants of Gerritt Smith’s abolitionist largesse. He also built an almshouse, a kind of hospital for the poor, in Eaton NY, nearby Peterboro, which as an 8 year old I remember entering as my father made a pastoral call on a dying man there. It has long since closed. The Methodist church in Peterboro, the remains thereof, includes people of color who are of the lineage of Gerritt Smith’s abolitionist generosity. It is rare more colorful hue in the pew than one finds in other upstate churches.
That is, there is much good, of good conscience, in the length and breadth, the history and legacy of Upstate New York. That is, there is much good in the very village, the little town of Peterboro, a poor hamlet with a rich history.
Yet on July 8 at 7pm a tornado took the lives of four people in and near Peterboro, NY. A four–month old little girl and her 35 year old mother died when their mobile home was crushed in the wind. The local paper carried photographs of them both, two beautiful pictures on the front page. Two others died, an elderly woman, and also the male partner of a female oncologist in the region.
Tornados are rare in New York, some ten or so per year, almost all minor and inconsequential. Tornados are unknown, or had been, in this part of the upstate region, as Governor Cuomo said in his remarks about the tragedy, and the new normal in radical weather events.
Why do such things happen? Why?
2. Conscience recoils at the violence and accident in nature and history.
During that tornado week, other cyclones hit. A fine young woman gave birth to a baby daughter with a whole in her heart. A salt of the earth carpenter, a laboring gentleman, had to clean of the car door against which his older brother had shot himself after years of financial difficulty and depression. A 60 year old saintly woman who has given her life to pre school children and the Methodist church, in equal measure, was told she would need chemotherapy for the rest of her life. A father of four, a recovering alcoholic, grandfather of nine, community leader and faithful soul discovered he has esophageal cancer. We do not mention global rates of infant mortality, especially in the first month of life, statistics that have not improved at all in our time. We do not mention 180,000 civilian dead in Syria, surpassing the number slain in Iraq. We do not mention the hundreds of Palestinians killed without a single Israeli death, in the mini war of the same fortnight. Just to say, that during that tornado week, scores of other cylones, microbursts, wind blasts of various types and size did touch ground, in the heart of human lives. From May 2012 to May 2013 we buried 13 BU students.
Why? Why do such things happen?
We do not know why these things happen. We know in our experience of random hurt the biblical truth in Jesus’ teaching that rain falls on just and the unjust alike. We know in our experience of horrible, unspeakable tragedy the biblical reference to the tower of Siloam that fell killing dozens who were no better nor worse than those spared. We know in our experience the falsehood of Job’s friends and counselors who in mistake and error tried to explain to Job his misery, which they had not themselves suffered. We know in our experience of sin, death, meaninglessness the gut cry of Jesus in debate, ‘none is good but God, and in the garden, ‘let this cup pass from me’, and on the cross, ‘why have you forsaken me?’.
And in our experience, we confess, we find if far easier to discount in size, scope, measure and meaning the pain of others than we do to discount our own. For instance. How often have I thought, and heard, in some arguments, ‘things in this world would be different if men bore children and knew the pain of childbirth’. 6 to 3 votes in the Supreme Court can on this score be quite revealing. We do not know why these things happen, and we are prone to discount others’ lacerations by comparison with our own. How many of us wish we had Syrian passports, Iraqi citizenship, or Ukrainian bank accounts this morning?
Conscience keeps us from making God too small.
My wife Jan drove home, that is, on July 8 at 7pm, heading to our summer house, coming with 7 miles of Peterboro at the tornado hour. She has never seen a darker sky, she says. And if she had not gotten home? That is, if our family were now living with the tornado tragedy and loss inflicted on others? I would be of great gratitude, at a minimum, to find myself surrounded, as this morning, by a company of women and men, honest about hurt, graceful in grief, dignified in the hour of death, and loving in the face of meaningless, inexplicable, unintelligible laceration. But I know I would harbor, for the long stretch of healing it would take, a white hot anger at the injustice of such a loss.
We are left to wonder in conscience about ‘the things that are God’s’. What are they? Are they wonder and conscience—the starry heavens above and the moral law within? Wonder and conscience? Wonder and conscience, spirit and soul, things of God.
I believe in God. I believe in the creative divine power that unleashed the universe. I believe that no one has ever seen God. I believe in the potential for a purposeful existence by faith, the faithfulness of God in Christ in my case. I believe that even the darkest moment and harshest experience is held, included, embraced and redeemed in the divine love, as a mystery and as a hope.
I believe in freedom. I do not believe that God has a plan for every single life, free of human freedom. I do not believe that God has a map quest route for your life, nor that God sends tornados to chew up poor towns with rich histories, nor that God brutally executes young mothers and little children living in mobile homes. I do not believe that everything has a purpose, that everything is beautiful in its own way, that we will understand it better by and by, or that all experience is directly, divinely, precisely ordered. Who would worship a God like that?
I believe in love. The gospel is the gospel of freedom, of grace, of love, of pardon, of forgiveness, of acceptance, of healing, and of hope. I believe all of us are better when we are loved by others and when we connect in faith with divine love. For me, the statement, God is Love, is about the second not the first person of the Trinity. For those looking today for a more formally exacting or exacting theological position, my heart felt regrets and condolences.
- The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of March Chapel