Two Faces

20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 22, 2017

Listen here for today’s gospel reading and sermon:

12Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
17The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” – Exodus 33:12-23

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. 16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They 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.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. – Matthew 22:15-22

Today’s readings present us with two contrasting images: the face of Caesar and the face of God. Like the coins we carry in our own pockets today, the religious leaders behold in response to Jesus’ invitation the face of the deified political leader stamped onto a flat and lifeless coin. Reproduced over and over thousands of times, more or less the same on every piece. This flattened image on a coin has only the power we give it, which of course is often a great deal of power, even if it is misplaced.

Contrast that with the face of God. The one that Moses, who by all accounts has a unique and particularly close relationship with God, is not given permission to see. Moses begs to see, after so many years of following one command after another, the face of the one who has been leading him. But the face of God is more than human eyes can behold, and so Moses is given the opportunity only to see the hem of the robe, God’s backside, the trailing edge of the divine. Unlike Caesar’s flat, lifeless, endlessly reproduced face, God’s face is a great mystery to all of humankind.

Many of the problems we face are in the confusing of the two: we too often assume that the political faces, whoever that may be in a given era, are invested with ultimate power to which we have little or no access while at the same time we domesticate our images of God, reproducing them into lifeless coins and treating them as if we own them and create their power ourselves.

And as an extension of that we also sometimes treat our fellow human beings and even ourselves as if they are more like flat, lifeless, spendable coins than unique and not fully knowable images of God. I am aware of two significant ways that has happened this week:

Across social media this week the hashtag #metoo went viral. As part of an awareness campaign, women who had experienced sexual harassment and/or sexual violence were encouraged to post the with the hashtag. It comes from women who have shared their stories with other women, and because the experience is so common, the response is often “yeah, me too.” We live in a society that has shaped all of us to accept as commonplace the commoditization and objectification of other human beings. We have failed to see the living face of God in others, in this case in particular in the face of the women around us. We have confused what belongs to whom. We have learned that it is ok or at least tolerated to flatten others into something to which we get to assign value or lack thereof. This is not ok. We have to change it. We have to work together to make this different. To see again the mysterious and wonderful face of God in our neighbors.

Also in our community this week, Lucio Perez took sanctuary from Immigration and Customs Enforcement at First Church, UCC, here in Amherst. He has complied with ICE requirements for years and been permitted to stay in the country to raise his three US citizen children. Now without a hearing he has suddenly been ordered out of the country, separating him from his family and causing them to lose a father and a large portion of their income. Lucio is just one very local, very public face representing millions more living with similar fears. As a society we have taken whole people with complex stories and histories and flattened them into a single stereotype that gets treated without reason or compassion. Whatever our beliefs about immigration reform, we owe it to our neighbors to see the face of God in them and to work toward their wholeness, well-being, and at the very least, due process.

We ask, then, as the religious leaders asked of Jesus, how should we respond to the brokenness in which we live? How shall we navigate the difficult questions around where to put our time and energy, our financial resources, our trust and hope?

I think the real invitation in Jesus’ clever answer here is to be clear about what has life, power, and authority and what ultimately doesn’t. In answering the trick question, he neither dismisses outright nor gives ultimate authority to the corrupt governing powers of his day. He doesn’t spell it out for us, but in a way he suggests that we look closely at the things to which we ascribe ultimate power – political leaders, financial wealth, success, power over others – and question whether they really hold the kind of ultimate authority we so often ascribe to them. Are they real problems, real concerns, real injustices that affect real people? Yes. Is that what holds power at the end of the day? No.

Because Jesus invites us also to consider, then, the one who does have ultimate authority. Who it is that breathes life into us, who redeems us, who makes us whole. Who has the power to raise us from the depths of despair and from the grave itself. Ultimately not the one whose face is easy to make out, not the one whose face is stamped on coins for all to spend. Instead the one whose face is still a mystery to us. The one to whom we owe not just our money but our whole lives and all they contain. In the face of so much troubling news, so much brokenness in our world, so many who need help, the one who already holds all that we are and all that we have is the one who has ultimate authority.

Jesus offers no easy answers about paying taxes, about respecting governmental authority, about how exactly we render back to God all the things which are due. He offers no clear right and wrong about how to navigate our way out of the complicated and complex ways we have destroyed the world around us by our mixing up of what has ultimate value with that which does not. But he does offer us himself, the fullness of God’s love, to show us the great value God places on us and to invite us to see that despite our best attempts at destroying it, God does maintain ultimate authority over all things – over principalities and powers, over pain and brokenness, over sin and death. It is God’s authority which sustains us through the ups and downs of the world around us. It is God’s authority and power which hold us up through the worst we can imagine. It is God who holds all things now and forever.

-Pastor Steven Wilco