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Render Unto Caesar

October 22, 2023
Rev. Dr. Russ Daye
21st after Pentecost
Matthew 22.15-22, 34-40

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.  So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.  Tell us, then, what you think. 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.’ And they brought him a denarius.  Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’  They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’  Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’  When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

(The reading was selected to go along with the Stewardship Campaign, however, given what’s happened overseas, a change of direction in this sermon was taken.)

I think everybody knows what’s been happening in Israel and the Gaza strip, and I want to start by telling a couple of little anecdotes.

The first is that yesterday I went to the service for City Shul – Bloor Street’s partner synagogue.  By the way, there was a bar mitzvah as part of the service and it lasted 2.5 hours, which is my way of saying please do not complain about the length of this sermon afterwards today.  There was this heartbreaking moment in the middle of the service when a young woman stood up to talk and she’s from Israel.  She volunteered to do something, which I hadn’t known about but apparently within Israel and within the synagogues there’s a program where, if you’re a young adult, you can sign up and volunteer to work for, do service with Jewish communities elsewhere in the world and she’s here for, I think, a year with City Shul.

She said on the 7th of October she woke up as her phone blew-up to hundreds of messages as the Hamas terrorists broke across the border murdering civilians indiscriminately, kidnapping civilians and carrying out other horrific acts.  In the subsequent days and hours, her phone kept producing messages naming people that she had known personally and her family knew personally who were killed or kidnapped.  She said I don’t know whether I want to be here or I want to be back there, because I think I’m needed back there but I also know that with the invasion of Gaza, the lives of Jews throughout the world are now at greater risk.  Indeed, as I went into City Shul yesterday there were two security guards.

We don’t know what that feels like to have to have security guards at our door in order to worship.  Some Christians do.  I’ve visited Christians in Lebanon who do.

The other thing that struck me in that service was, all the people who spoke, including Rabbi Elyse, condemned the violence of Hamas.  She spoke to the powerful irony of the Hebrew word that’s used in some of the Hebrew scriptures that we translate as violence.

Do you know what the word is?  Hamas, which is not where that organization gets its name but what a tragic irony.

They condemned Hamas, they condemned the action but when they prayed, they prayed for the end of hate, and they were very clear, they said, God, we do not want you to destroy the haters – we want You to remove the hate.  What a beautiful drawing of a line between those things.  Even in this moment of anguish, and, of course, rage, in a place of worship they held true to a vision of peace for everyone, and they said over, and over again, we’re praying for all innocent victims and all in danger.

Then later yesterday I was walking near the site of the rally in support of Palestinians and support of Gaza that took place – it was a march that started at the US Embassy and moved on – and I came across two young men carrying a Palestinian flag who appeared to be walking back to the part of the city where my wife and I live, so I just asked them if I could walk with them and talk to them, and again, terrible stories.

One of the young men said I have family in Gaza.  The mother works in Israel, and she was on that side of the border when the attack happened  and the border was sealed.  Her children are in Gaza, and they’ve had to flee their homes, and nobody knows where they are.  Can you imagine that mother being caught inside the nation whose army is attacking the place where you live, and your children are on the other side of the line, and you have no knowledge of where they are?

They pointed out to me that what I learned from an Imam friend of mine who’s the senior Imam at the big mosque in Halifax, what he had been posting, which is that the oldest Orthodox church in Gaza was bombed the day before yesterday and hundreds of people have died, and hundreds more are missing, and Christians amongst those in Gaza had hidden in that church seeking refuge.  These two young Palestinian men didn’t turn to hate in their conversation with me.  They spoke of their lament and pain, and at the end we shook hands, we greeted each other with an As-Salamu Alaikum, and the touching of our hearts and we went our different ways.

Now, the emotional quality of both of those encounters reminded me of my experience of the antithesis of this in Israel, the West Bank and in Lebanon when I was there a few years ago.  So, more anecdotes.

When I was a student minister, I was invited to join one of these church groups that went on Israeli government sponsored tours of the Holy Land.  When I was there, one of the days we went into the West Bank to Bethlehem, and among other places, we visited churches and holy sites, but we did stop in this one place which was a big store where you can buy souvenirs, specifically designed for Western Christians who are on these tours.  A lot of stuff made of olive wood – you can buy these little crosses that they would tell you was made from the cross on which Jesus was crucified – I’ve been told that enough of those have been sold to build the Brooklyn bridge out of wood.  You could buy these lovely olive wood nativity scenes.

Now, being young, and being mischievous and being me, I walked through this store and without invitation, I opened the doors at the back to the workshop and I walked in to talk to the workers who were making this stuff.  They were Palestinian Muslims and there was one who knew enough English to translate, and so I sat down with the workers, and I started to talk about Israel/Palestine; this was 1988 – does anybody remember the first Intifada?  This was during that Intifada – it was a terrible time.

They were reluctant to talk, and one old man started to speak in Arabic forcefully and then I looked at the translator and he was reluctant to translate, and finally he said the old man says the only leader he has any  respect for is Ayatollah Khomeini because he still wants to drive all the Jews into the sea.  Hate.  At that moment, my head blew up because that was the moment when I realized this is so complex, I may never fully understand.

You had Israeli government tour buses bringing Christians to a shop in which wares made by Muslim Palestinians; some of whom hated the Israeli government but needed the money, were crafting their wares.  At that point there was a conflation of religion and politics that was revealed to me in a way that I have never been able to accept simplistic truths about the Middle East ever since.

Then, we left that shop, we were driving out of Bethlehem, and I was  sitting on the bus when the window beside my head blew out, and I was just covered with that glass – you know bus window glass that doesn’t make shards, it breaks into little pieces that don’t cut you, and everything changed fast!  The bus halted.  The tour guide stood up and shouted, Where did they go?  Where did they go?  Two teenagers who were sons of the other minister who was on this trip, stood up and started to point to a house where two young men who were throwing rocks had fled.  Others, who knew more than me on the bus, were standing up and saying, Shut up!  Don’t tell them!  Don’t tell them!  And then quickly, our bus took off to a military outpost, was followed by Jeeps full of soldiers who rushed into the house in which the 11-12 year old boys had fled.

I asked, later that evening in Jerusalem, as I sat in a bar talking to someone who’d served the IDF, what would happen to those boys.  He wouldn’t give me a straight answer, he just said it wasn’t good, dependent on how old they are.

Looking back, all these years later, what juxtapositions itself for me is the emotional currency of hate in that workshop and in that episode with the IDF soldiers and the boys, and the emotional currency of lament and hope and open-hearted grace that I experienced amongst both Jews and Palestinians yesterday.  And therein lies the fault-line of faith, I believe.

What happens with our lament because the temptation to move to hate is so great.  Anybody who was a Commissioner to General Council the last time and who witnessed the ugly episodes that happened on mics and cameras – because it was a Zoom General Council – when Jewish leaders were speaking to the United Churches’ discussions around Israel/Palestine,  knows that the lament within United Church people, especially those who support Palestine, does alchemize into hate on occasion, and that is the great temptation for us.

When I am in the Middle East I always feel as though I’m walking through a three-dimensional game of chess.

Anybody old enough to remember the original Star Trek?  Come on!  What did Spock play?  Three-dimensional chess.  You have to play it like a hologram and it’s really hard to understand and to know what your next move is.  I had this sense over and over again in Lebanon.

There’s this game being played out between Israel and Palestine, or between Israel and Hezbollah, but behind Hezbollah is the nation of Iran, and behind Israel is the United States, and then behind Suni-Palestinians is Saudi Arabia.  And if you extend the line from Iran to its imperial sponsors, you go directly to Russia.  And so, what we are in is a game that can very easily look two-dimensional.  It did on October 7th, (and) it does now as the towers fall in Palestine, but you have to move to the third dimension. And, for those of you who study physics, once you introduce the dimension of time into the three dimensions of space, now we’re in four-dimensional chess and you trace the historical lines all the way back to the Holocaust.  And the ghosts of the Holocaust and our abandoning of Jews are part of the four-dimensional game of chess.  And you trace them back to the Nakba, the disaster, the removal of Palestinians from the land in 1948.  And now we’re in a four-dimensional game of chess.

So, how the hell do we know what to do?  Well, when you ask that question, Jesus isn’t always a good place to turn.

We have this story of Jesus being confronted by the Pharisees and they ask him, should we pay tax to the emperor?  First of all, let’s trace the fourth dimension of time back to this story, because in the New Testament you find this kind of sort of vilification of Pharisees.  They weren’t the bad guys.  The Pharisees were doing the same thing that Jesus was trying to do, which is to figure out how to live with faith and honour under the thumb of an empire, but in subsequent decades – the decades in which these stories were written – Pharisaic Judaism and early Christianity were in a debate with each other, a mutual vilification was happening, and so these stories get written with the Pharisees being depicted as bad guys.  Let’s remember that.  Well, actually, one more thing:  you can already see there the emotional currency of hate being injected into the religions of the Middle East, right in our scriptures it’s already happening.

Jesus says, give me a coin.  So, they give him a coin and he says, Who’s on the coin and what’s the inscription?  He looks, and it’s the head of Caesar.  And the inscription says, Caesar, god – this may be one of the most misused passages in all of scripture.  It’s been used to justify the separation  of Church and State, which really isn’t such a bad thing anyway, and lots of other things.

What’s Jesus doing in this moment?

When he says, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s, he’s saying Caesar is not God.  You see, in the empire that was oppressing the Israelites, there was a conflation of the Emperor and God that was Divine sanctification of imperial rule and what’s the emotional currency of imperial rule?  Hate.  Anybody who would travel into Jerusalem for Passover would see hundreds of Jews crucified on the road into Jerusalem as a way of saying, don’t mess around when you come in here ’cause this is what’s going to happen to you.

When anybody who watched the wedge politics of ancient Rome, anybody who saw how the theology of ancient Rome belittled conquered peoples so they could be oppressed and killed, understands that the emotional currency of empire is hate.  And Jesus is breaking that connection – he’s rejecting a religion of hate, he’s rejecting a religion of conquest and the theological justification of conquest, and he is rejecting the economics that go with it, which is what I was getting at in the children’s time.  There’s always an economics that goes with it.

And that’s what we’re called to do, friends.

You know that after the attacks on Israel by the Hamas, the Israeli flag was projected on the Peace Tower in Ottawa, and there’s been a lot of criticism for that.  I don’t want to criticize it, I just want the Palestinian flag to be projected on the Peace Tower as well, and then I would love to see them projected side-by-side.  We have this feeling that if we show empathy for one people, we’re rejecting the other.  That’s Caesar’s religion.  There’s another way.

The other way was almost perfectly expressed by the Craddock lecturer from 2012.  For those of you at St. Matthew’s UC, you don’t know this, but Bloor Street UC has had this lecture series that’s gone on for decades and in 2012 the speaker was a Palestinian man named Izzeldin Abuelaish.  Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish – he wrote that book, I Shall Not Hate.  He’s the Palestinian man whose wife died of sickness and then some of his children were killed by a bomb from an Israeli tank, and he migrated to Toronto.  Let me finish with his words:

I’ve come to speak with open heart and mind, and eyes to share with you because in our life, in this world, these days more than any time before in our life, we face hardships, ups and downs, tragedies but most importantly we want to discover ways to be able to learn and find kindness inside ourselves for a bitter world.

This is a man whose children died at the hand of Israelis and what is he saying?  Find kindness.

We need to learn and to practice, to challenge ourselves – not to challenge others – to work for a just world.

Somebody at lectionary told me this week that he told this story or he wrote this story outside of the Craddock lecture, that when he moved to Toronto he stayed in a house that had a yard with a fence behind it and on the other side of the fence were Jews, and when they met each other the Jews put a gate in the fence so their children could play together.  Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – leave the hate to the imperialists.  But what does render unto God mean?  Build the gate.

What’s God’s emotional currency?

Love.  The emotional currency of our religion is this one (Russ points at the cross hanging on the wall behind the pulpit).  It’s cruciform.

The three to four-dimensional game of chess can become so complex that we don’t know what to do next, and so we’re frozen.  We don’t know our next move.  That’s our next move!  (Russ points at the cross).  Feel the hurt of everybody, lament, and then walk into the world building a gate.

The Toronto Board of Rabbis sent out a letter two weeks ago (asking) Where are you?  We’ve circled mosques in protective circles when Muslims have been attacked.  Where are you?  When I read that, I knew I had to go to a synagogue yesterday.

Feel the lament.  We will not figure out our next move here in a four-dimensional game of chess but in the heart and with our feet, the next move is always the same.  Feel the hurt and walk out into the world to find others who are hurting and with our bodies and our ears, just – to quote somebody who preached last Sunday – show up!  Just show up.

They don’t need us to get it right in our thinking.  They don’t need General Council to design the best remits with global pronouncements.  They need us to just show up heartbroken and cruciform.

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