A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
October 16, 2014
EXODUS 33:12-23 MATTHEW 22;15-22
One in five Americans has a tattoo. That’s 45 million people.
I make no judgments here, but it astounds me that a person has the confidence willingly to put an imprint on their body that is permanent. (I know they can be removed but that’s iffy). Often at a young age, a person concludes that they will always want to gaze at the daisy or the dragon or many daisies and many dragons marching up their forearm for the rest of their life.
Oh well, my generation thought Velveeta was actually cheese.
There are many examples of the human body being imprinted by less benign practices than tattoos. Prisoners at Auschwitz were reduced to numbers written on their wrists in indelible ink (or tattooed); American slaves were branded with hot irons by their owners; a scar from a burn or injury may leave a permanent mark on the skin.
Today’s readings from the Hebrew Scripture and the Gospel of Matthew are both about imprints, and in the pairing of these two lessons is a message about what is permanent and what is fleeting.
The lesson from Exodus is a negotiation between Moses and God. God is upset with his people because of an idolatrous incident with the golden calf, and decides that he is done with the Israelites.
Moses reminds God that God HAS adopted Israel as his people and pleads with God to give him some specifics: tell me what we should do; tell me who you are.
God counters by saying okay, but remember that no one can see my face and live, so I will pass before you while covering your eyes with my hand, and you will only see by back.
Moses is not the only figure in Scripture who has wanted more from God. Adam and Eve wanted to know the secret of the apple tree; we know how THAT turned out.
Job begged to know why God seemed to be putting him through so much pain. God seems unhappy with this request:
So you want to know, do you… well:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?
Who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”
Job withdraws the question.
The lesson from Matthew is as concrete and specific as Exodus is elusive.
Jesus enters Jerusalem early in the week of Passover on Palm Sunday. He moves quickly, clearing the moneychangers out of the Temple. The religious leaders who had been targeted in his three most recent parables get nervous and so they set a trap.
The Pharisees (Jewish leaders who had no time for Jesus) and the followers of Herod (the pro-Roman king of Judea) collaborate and slither up to Jesus, their voices purring, their lips dripping with compliments. They begin the exchange by applauding his sincerity and impartiality and then set the trap with the trick question: “Tell us, rabbi, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
If Jesus says yes, he will be discredited by those Jews who believed that paying such a tax was to dishonor God, the only king. If he says no, Jesus will be immediately reported to the Roman authorities and arrested for sedition.
Evidently, Jesus did not carry cash because he puts out his hand: “Show me the money.”
The Pharisees produce a denarius with the head of Caesar imprinted on the coin and Jesus, asks he asks them whose image is imprinted on it.
Jesus pivots, hands back the money, saying, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
We’re done here.
This is a startling contrast: in Exodus God leaves no imprint, nothing tangible that Moses can touch or see, only a passing vision; but in Matthew, the image of the divine Caesar is stamped on a coin you can hold in your hand trace and trace over the image with your finger.
Many things leave their imprint on us as we move through life. Culture is one. Those who lived through the Great Depression, the World Wars, Vietnam, 911 and social movements for equal rights for women, homosexuals and all races have been imprinted by these experiences. A survivor of the Depression, my mother always saved aluminum foil and once made my four-year-old self a little cashmere dress coat from an elegant topcoat discarded by my frivolous uncle. Those of us who lived through 911 forever changed the way we think about security within our national borders.
Our families of origin imprint us, not only with physical appearance and inherited behaviors, but also with scars from our upbringing or a deep sense of security that the truly fortunate receive.
The novelist Marilyn Robinson points out another powerful influence. She observes, “Fear has, in this moment a respectability I’ve never seen in my life. Fear has become an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something but of course I didn’t dare…. People can reference fear under the slightest provocation. ‘He looked at me funny’” And so I shot him?
If you are talking about imprints in Christian faith, you must talk about the Cross. That most basic of shapes – two opposing lines joined in the middle, at once a method of execution in the first century that was every bit as brutal as what ISIS dreams up today and also a symbol of victory over that brutality.
The Cross, reigns in splendor over the altar of the exquisite cathedral in Paris and the little chapel in Frontenac, Minnesota. The Cross is jewelry adorning the white vestments of the pope and the bare chest of a rock star spewing forth words celebrating rape and murder.
The sign of the cross is made as a prayer, a plea, a thanksgiving, or to solicit God’s favor in a victory over the other team. (Full disclosure here: I confess the residual Lutheran in me sometimes rebels at the making the sign of the cross. Of course, sometimes-votive lights scare me, too. Those old blemishes inflicted by conservative Sunday School keep popping up and I have to spread on the lotion of Episcopalianism.)
Jesus went to the cross because of radical teachings about justice and equality of all kinds, including money. This threatened the established powers, of course, who had so much to lose if change took place. They threaten us, too, we who have so much more than so many. It’s daunting to realize that one third of the parables are about money and economic justice.
Some churches display a crucifix – with the body of the suffering Jesus on the cross – and some like ours—display the empty cross. We believe that the resurrection – the empty cross – has the last word, and that not only Jesus hangs from a cross; there are times when we do, too.
Actually there were three crosses on Calvary that day. One belonged to the thief who ridiculed Jesus and told him he got what he deserved. On the other was the thief who believed in Jesus and asked him to bring him with him to heaven. Which of us has not found ourselves on these crosses of belief and doubt every day – maybe every hour? But in the middle of the scene is Jesus, arms outstretched, embracing all of the complexities of the human heart. The oft-quoted writer (at least by me) Barbara Brown Taylor observes that one cross makes a crucifix. Three crosses make a church.
I confess I try to avoid violent movies because I don’t what their images in my head and their imprints on my psyche. We need to choose well what imprints itself on our souls, as much as there is choice possible, and we need to choose well the memories, the handprints, we press upon the hearts of others.
Genesis tells us that the essence of the divine is experienced most directly in two places: first, in the natural world, in the mountains, babbling brooks, fields of grain, and the great whales, and secondly, in the face of the person sitting next to you or living on the other side of the world, all humankind. Scripture says is we ourselves who are created in the very image of God.
In closing, one of my favorite bits of history.
Matthew Brady was the most famous photographer of the Civil War, immortalized by Ken Burns in his epic documentary films on this conflict. Because he was broke by the end of the war, Brady had to sell all of his undeveloped “negatives,” that is the glass plates he used when taking thousands of pictures.
The glass was dispersed and for years and years sat in warehouses all over the East, and eventually was sold as clear glass panels to people constructing cold frames or greenhouses. A man in upstate New York purchased some of the glass for his new greenhouse. The structure was completed and one day, a certain slant of life streamed in to the space. The gardener who was potting tulip bulbs looked up, and saw the image of a soldier on a horse, of a musket leaning against a tree, of a row of tents under a tree. The right light made the images visible.
What would you see on your panes of glass, standing beneath the dome of your life? I think, imprinted there, would be the images of those you have loved as much as life itself and who loved you. And illuminating these precious images, shining brightly, is the Light.