I explained this in the sermon, but the timing of where we are in the Year of Mark is not totally lined up with the timing of where we are in the church year. Technically we are already in Jerusalem – we skipped over the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, because we are going to read that in a few weeks on Palm Sunday. So give yourself a minute, get yourself to Jerusalem and here’s my sermon from this past week!
Rehoboth Congregational Church
March 17, 2019
Redefining A Polarizing Narrative
Shortly after I started in Rehoboth eight years ago, I was unpacking books in my office when I came across a stack of books on conflict management. Someone saw that stack and said, “We don’t have any conflict here, you can get rid of those.”
Because a church that is comprised of and governed by 200+ individuals who all have their own thoughts, ideas and opinions never has any conflict.
I did not get rid of those books.
But here’s the thing – sometimes we talk about conflict as if it is a bad thing and yet, it seems to me that conflict is just a very human thing. As imperfect human beings living in a very broken world, we are bound to come across individuals and groups of people who do not necessarily agree with us, right? It it normal; it is deeply embedded into our history as human beings; in fact, it is found in this morning’s scripture. In both of these stories Jesus finds himself in the middle of political and religious conflicts.
For those of you who love when I preach in a very casual and not-super-academic way, I apologize in advance, because in order to more fully understand this morning’s scripture reading, you kind of have to have a good grasp of the context of what is going on; so let’s start with a history lesson, shall we?
First of all, it is important to note that Jesus is in Jerusalem. Over the past couple of weeks in our scriptures for the Year of Mark, he has been traveling and pointed towards Jerusalem, but in this morning’s scripture he has arrived.
Now – you might be wondering, when did he arrive? Did I miss it? Well, yes, in fact, you did miss it; we all missed it because we actually skipped over it and will come back to it in a few weeks on Palm Sunday.
This is an example of where the Year of Mark and the church year don’t exactlyline up. So chronologically in the Gospel of Mark, the whole narrative of Jesus triumphantly arriving into Jerusalem on a donkey while everyone waves palm branches has already happened. We just have not read it yet, because it is our tradition to read it the week before Easter on Palm Sunday.
That is the first thing; so I will give you all a second to get yourselves to Jerusalem.
The second thing is that this scripture talks about three groups of people – the Pharisees, the Herodians and the Sadducees. These are different groups of people.
The Pharisees are a group of particularly observant and fairly influential Jews from around the 2nd century BC to the 1stcentury AD. In the New Testament they are often painted in a negative light because they most commonly play the role of Jesus’ opponents.
The Herodians are not well known; in fact, they are only mentioned two or three times (depending on the translation) in the Gospel of Mark, once in the Gospel of Matthew and never in the Gospels of Luke or John. They are likely followers of Herod Antipas, who was the tetrarch (or governor) of Galilee and Perea from 4BC to 39AD. They are never talked about autonomously; they are always mentioned with the Pharisees and, together with the Pharisees, they oppose Jesus.
The Sadducees are a group of devout jews that we do not know much about; they are mentioned occasionally in the New Testament (not just in the Gospels, but in the book of Acts, as well) and they are often mentioned in conjunction with the Pharisees because they were lumped into this group of opponents of Jesus. However, the Sadducees are markedly different from the Pharisees because their worldview is solely shaped by the Pentateuch (the first five books of the bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) and they do not believe in life after death.
The third piece of this scripture’s history that is important to understand is about the coin – the denarius – Jesus asks for in his exchange between the Pharisees and the Herodians. A denarius it is a Roman form of currency, a reminder of the Roman domination that was happening during Jesus’ life. This exchange between Jesus and these groups of devout Jews sheds light on the growing tension between the Roman and the Jewish authorities.
And here is where the conflicts arise.
In their own way, both of the exchanges in this morning’s scripture reading – first the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees and the Herodians about paying taxes to the Roman Emperor and then the exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees about resurrection – are meant to trap Jesus.
If Jesus says to the Pharisees and the Herodians, no, you do not need to pay taxes to the emperor, then he will get in trouble with the Roman authorities; but if he says, yes, you do need to pay taxes to the emperor, then he will get in trouble with the Jewish leaders.
And similarly, when the Sadducees offer up a scenario in which a woman whose husband(s) dies then marries each of the subsequent brothers in the family tree (which is in accordance to Pentateuchal law, which, as I mentioned, their worldview is shaped by) and then ask Jesus, in resurrection, whose wife the woman will be, there is no right way for Jesus to answer this question because the Sadducees do not believe in resurrection in the first place.
So Jesus is kind of in a lose-lose situation here and any response he gives is likely to escalate the conflicts that already exist between these groups and Roman authorities; and yet, both of his responses are brilliant. He does not give a simple answer to either one of the questions. First Jesus asks the Pharisees and the Herodians whose face is on the denarius and then tells them to give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to give to God what belongs to God. And then he questions the Sadducees understanding both of scripture and of the power of God.
In both of his responses, Jesus redefines the terms of the conversation. He does not answer the questions directly, because they are not the questions that need to be asked. Jesus says that there is no simple answer to these questions about human law and that, in fact, they are missing the whole point; that what is really important is not about right and wrong according to the human laws that we have written over time, but about God’s power in this world to do unexplainable and transformational things.
And this, I believe is the heart of true conflict management.
Jesus lives in a very polarizing world; we see this in our scripture today where the tension between the Roman authorities and the Jewish authorities is brought to the surface. But when he is questioned about whose side he is on, Jesus essentially steps away from the polarization and says that what really matters is about something much bigger than any of us can fully grasp.
I would argue that today we live in an equally polarizing world; a world where the divides between our differences grow wider every day. Unfortunately, in our world today we are not encouraged to learn from one another’s differences, but rather to stand starkly in opposition of them.
Over the past couple of weeks in the Year of Mark, I have been saying that the stakes are really high; that they are pointed towards Jerusalem, that the cross is on the horizon and that this is a matter of life and death. And here’s the thing – sometimes I inadvertently say this as if the same is not true today.
But it is.
It is a matter of life and death. This week, 49 Muslims were killed and 20 were seriously injured because a man chose to stand starkly in opposition of their beliefs and attack them in their space of worship rather than to learn from their differences.
This is the kind of world we live in today and it is very much a matter of life and death. It is not that different from the world Jesus lived in. Conflicts still define much of who we are; they threaten to divide us even further.
And whether we are talking about devastating global terrorist attacks or petty arguments that we might have with our families or our friends or within our own communities or with random strangers on Facebook, I think it serves us all well to be reminded of what really matters.
That God is here with us. That what matters is not our law, but God’s law. That it is more important to be faithful than to be right.
Kim Peranzi spoke eloquently at her husband, Lou’s, memorial service last week. When talking about their strong marriage, she said something that stuck with all of us. She said, “We loved each other more than we wanted to win an argument.” And I loved that because it reminded all of us what really is important, not just in marriages, but in all relationships we have with other people.
And isn’t that what Jesus is saying here? That when we find ourselves in a conflict with another individual or group of people that we need to focus on what really matters; that instead of picking one side or the other, we need to step outside of the polarization and try to close the gap between the two sides.
That we need to put our faith and our trust and our hope in God and not our human rules and definitions of right and wrong.
That we should not try to untangle our human differences at the cost of people’s lives or even their happiness or their dignity.
That it is not about being right, but about being faithful.
That we may never have concrete or tangible answers to the questions we have about how to live our lives, because God’s presence and power surpasses our human understanding of how it all works.
That we can redefine the polarizing narrative of the world we are living in today.
The season of Lent is a penitential season that reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice; but even more than that, it is a journey that we are all invited to take, year after year. A journey where we look at who we are, who we want to be and (perhaps most importantly) who God wants us to be. A journey where we humbly confess the times when we have fallen short, ask for forgiveness and seek wisdom as we try to make amends and learn and grow from those mistakes.
And so this morning, I invite you to think about this Lenten journey as an opportunity to look at a conflict in your life – one part of your life where you currently stand starkly in opposition with someone or something (this can be something really big or really insignificant and petty).
And then think about what really matters.
And then try to step out of that conflict – even if it is just for a moment – and see what happens next.
I still have my stack of books on conflict management – although you might be encouraged to know that when I pulled them off the shelf for this morning’s sermon, there was a layer of dust on them.
But here’s the thing about these books – they are not meant to discourage or shame us in any way. They are meant to reassure us of our own humanity – our broken humanity that sometimes needs a little bit of help to be made whole again.
So if you are facing conflict in your life – in your relationships, in your work, in your community or you are simply grieving the conflicts and brokenness in our own country and in the world today – I invite you, like Jesus, to step out of the polarization and see where God is leading.
We can redefine the narratives of the conflicts that exist in this world – big and small. I firmly believe that. But we have to ask the right questions. We have to focus on what really matters.
May God be with us. May God change our lives – and our world – in a way that is unexplainable but transformational.
Thanks be to God!