Listen to the sermon from Sunday, October 22, 2017 titled “Amazing Simplicity” by Paul W. Dodd, D.Min., LPC.
“Apples of gold in shining silver, that’s what our words should be;
May the glowing of your Spirit, reflect, O Lord, in me.
Now, help me to guard each word I speak, may only love proceed,
So that what others hear from me today, is what they really need.
(And), may our lives be seasoned, Lord, so richly by your grace,
That those we meet will surely know… the Lord is in this place.”
As a young kid and teenager growing up in Little Rock, Jo Petty’s 1951 book, “Apples of Gold,” had a prominent place on the coffee table in the Baptist parsonage of my preacher father. Maybe because the author was from Arkansas, or because it was just the kind of book my mother so dearly loved, but it was always there as a reminder to all the family of Proverbs 25:11. I don’t recall ever having picked it up to read through the hundreds of quotations collected in those pages, but I’ve always remembered the scripture: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”
And, in a world of conflicting, angry, digitally disconnected and discordant voices, a virtual cacophony of sound bites and sirens, longwinded verbosity, a menagerie of social networking, never ending midnight tweets and threating proclamations – in 140 characters or less, and when world news is streamed 24/7 through a virtual firehose of breaking news, bad news, Fox news and fake new, I long for silence.
Words, words, words! What to do with all the words! I can’t help but wonder … where is the word fitly spoken; the sound of silence, the still small voice, the simple song? I have a longing in my heart for … silence and simplicity; simply amazing simplicity.
One of my good friends wrote on his Facebook page this week: “How much we have given up in this digital age! How many moments of quiet reflection have we lost? How can we remind ourselves to take time, and give ourselves the waking rest that we really need?” We all long for a word “fitly spoken.”
I am amazed at the simplicity of today’s Gospel reading, and at the intersectionality of the lectionary texts. Most commentaries focus on paying taxes, God and country, religious liberty, allegiances to God and government, ecclesial and political boundaries. You know the verse:
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21 KJV)
Revised Standard Version: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
It’s such a simple statement! Two short phrases; 14 words, or 17 in the King James’ English. And, when the naysayers heard it, the Bible says, “…they were amazed, so they left him and went away.” And, thus ends the reading.
But, to fully understand how simply amazing that verse is, you’ve got to know something of the conflicted context; of the complexity of the situation in which Jesus found himself.
Here’s the plot. The Pharisees were a religious sect, with allegiance to extreme religious dogma, such as tithing every red cent, down to the last penny. The Herodians, on the other hand, were a political party, with an allegiance to the government of Julius Caesar, the Emperor of the Roman Empire. Not surprisingly, both groups were driven by greed and self-interest, and competed ruthlessly for the loyalty of the people and the money in their pockets. But, they had one thing in common – they despised Jesus, and were determined to snare him with lies and deception. Nothing can make strange bedfellows faster than vanity and greed, so these head strong, narcissistic co-conspirators concocted a wicked and fool proof scheme. They held their noses and colluded in their treacherous work. (SPOILER ALERT: IT’S A TRAP!) They would ask him, or have their lieutenants ask him, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.” That was the set up – circling and stalking Jesus for the kill. Then, the trick question: “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” Now, the trap was set. They thought they had him between a rock and a hard place. It was a lose-lose proposition, or so they thought. If he came out against the tax, the political operatives would accuse him of sedition. But, if he supported the oppressive taxation, the religious power brokers would cry blasphemy and accuse him of stealing tithes from the temple treasury. Either way, they had him cornered. And, like most conspiracies, this one was a can of worms. It was a case of damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
The Bible says Jesus looked into their hearts, sized up the situation, and said: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” That’s it. Pure and simple. Straight forward and to the point. Jesus gave a simple description, not a lengthy explanation. And, the scripture says his conspirators went away amazed.
It is amazing – the simplicity of the gospel.
I love the much-revered story of the great Swedish theologian, Karl Barth. As the story goes, Barth once gave a lecture in the chapel at the University of Chicago. After his talk, during the Q and A, a student asked the great Bible scholar if he could sum up his whole life’s work in theology in one sentence. And, Barth simply said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Can you imagine! The profound simplicity of that little children’s song that we sing in church right here, every Sunday.
And, I believe that’s how our lives should be lived, a simple statement of faith, told by the strength of our character and the selflessness of our actions. Because, after all, simplicity almost always trumps complexity.
I’m convinced that more people come to Christ by far when they sense the presence of Christ in our lives than in all of the systematic theology and philosophy of religion classes in the world. Don’t get me wrong. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to theologians such as Karl Barth, and to scholars like my dear friend and renown pastoral theologian, Dr. Larry Graham, who died this week in Denver. Baptists have produced some of the greatest theologians and philosophers of all times, and many of the finest seminaries and schools of theology in the world are our very own Baptist institutions. That’s highly commendable. I’ve studied in a few of them myself. But, I do believe, it’s the simple, steady, consistent story of your life as a child of God that makes all the difference in the world. Our lives should be an example of the gospel, not an explanation of the gospel.
Christ in you – that’s the hope of glory! And, that’s the last word in all of the lectionary texts we’ve heard read today. For Moses and the people of Israel, in spite of their suffering, in spite of their uncertainties, in spite of their grief, and in spite of their shortcomings, it was God’s distinctive presence among them that made all the difference in the world. For Paul and the people of Thessalonica, known far and wide for their work of faith, and their labor of love, and their steadfastness of hope, It was their Christian example that made all the difference in the world.
On a lighter note, American Baptist evangelist Tony Compolo recently wrote a book titled, “Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat, and 14 Other Polarizing Issues.”
But, he is right and he’s relevant! The world is traumatized, nations are weaponized, honest, well- meaning Christians are polarized, and even family and friends can be unfriendly and unfriended. The world is holding its breath for a word of hope, and we are the messengers. We’ve been branded with the presence of God — God’s presence in you, God’s presence in me, God’s presence is us. In Moses’ words, “in this way, above all else, we shall be distinct.” It’s not all about our politics, not our progressive theology, not primarily who and how we love, the size of our church, our buildings and our budgets, or the place of our birth, or the language we speak. We are distinctly different, because
“Surely, the presence of Lord is in this place!”
Don’t you see, in a polarized world, desperate for Good News, hungry for the simple gospel of Jesus Christ, we are the living epistles, the living letters, the living words of truth and justice, mercy and grace, hope and reconciliation. That’s the clarion call of the gospel; that’s the mission of this church; that’s the challenge before us in this journey we are on. And, what a simply amazing journey it is!