This is the text of my sermon at St Aldhelm’s on Sunday, 22nd October, 2017. The readings were 1 Thessalonians, 1-10 – and Matthew 22, 15-22 (in which Jesus is asked, should the people pay the imperial tax, or precept, to the Emperor…)
Each one of our pounds, and each of our new-style banknotes – those plastic ones that flip out of your purse, your wallet, your hands, like slippery fishes searching for the cash register – each coin or note is imprinted with the portrait of our Queen.
Pointing out the similar image of the Emperor of his day, Jesus remarked to those attentive to his words and to those who were hoping to snag him in his words, ‘Render unto Caesar, therefore the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’
Which begs the question, what things belong to God and how shall we recognise them? In this world that may seem Godless or at any rate rather detached from God, where do we find the things that belong to him?
You may recall the lines, included as food for thought in last week’s newssheet, of Mother Julian, a widow who lived a life of prayer in 13th century Norwich and who is our earliest known female English author. In typically homely and touching manner she recounts: I saw that God was everything that is good and encouraging…God is our clothing that wraps, clasps and enfolds us so as never to leave us…God showed me in my palm a little thing round as a ball about the size of a hazel nut…I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and asked myself: ‘What is this thing?’ And I was answered, ‘It is everything that is created’… I wondered how it could survive since it seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothing… The answer came, ‘It endures and ever will endure, because God loves it…And so everything has being because of God’s love…’
Hold any thing up to the light and you will see molecules, and mystery, you will see wonder – and you will see the imprint of its maker. Like the water mark of our monarch’s face embedded in a £20 note, the face of God is indelible, even if often invisible, in all things that exist.
Render to Caesar that which is imprinted with the head of Caesar. Render unto God that which is imprinted with God’s image.
At the summit of all this creation, stand (or cower, or strut) we humans This is not to downgrade other animals. I’ve met some fabulous dogs on my visits locally, and I have told them about the animal service I led in my last church this summer past. They nod their head when I suggest something similar here. But they all acknowledge that being human is another unimaginable step for them. No animal shares to any degree the stature or foolishness, the cruelty or the kindness, the ingenuity or the stupidity, the dignity or the indignity that we humans demonstrate. And each one us bears the image of God. ‘All of us are in the gutter (so writes Oscar Wilde, and so sings Chrissie Hynde) but some of us are looking at the stars.’ There is no criminal, no addict, no depressive, no suicide toppling over the edge, but that the image of God shines (dimmed but inextinguishable) within each of them. ‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour…’ (Psalm 8)
How often, though, do we recognise the mystery, the uniqueness, the beauty, the awesome mystery that is a person? Perhaps when we hold a new born child. Perhaps when we anoint the body of one just departed this life. But too often our vision is dulled by proximity or familiarity, by our own agendas, our need to project our assumptions, good or bad, onto others. Each person is minted with the image of God but we do not notice. It is a negligence that includes how we regard ourselves. Once, when depressed, a doctor, who didn’t know me personally but knew what I would be surprised but needed to hear, said to me, ‘you also deserve to be happy.’ As a priest I think I should sometimes echo his words to others, all be it expressed in Biblical terms (‘you are God’s child, he understands and likes you, he wants you to be forgiven, fully human, fully alive, and fulfilled’) – but nor should I forget to direct such assurance to myself as well.
So we can begin to see what it might mean to ‘Give to God the things that belong to God.’ It’s a pretty big call and it demands that we look constantly afresh and anew at others and at ourselves. To not think too highly – nor too lowly – of ourselves, and never to write off anyone, but to see possibility, God’s possibilities, in every face and in every person.’ Not easy, and I reckon it requires a good deal of prayer to form such good habits in us. Prayer of quiet, and meditation upon the scriptures – and prayer for others, held up before God without imposing too much our own opinions.
I know to my shame how much I stand in need of such prayerful exercise, how easily I slip into blame and contempt towards others. But I thank God for the occasional glimpses of how it can and should be. A few of you have heard me relate one of my initial exploratory visits here, back in the early spring. Parking the car and walking around I felt I should try to meet one or two people. I went into the Railway Hotel. Late on Saturday afternoon, it was quiet. But a chap leaning at the bar with his pint had a friendly face and I made conversation. Was he, I asked, local? Yes, from a street or two away. Well, you may notice that I’m a vicar but there’s a chance I may end up being the vicar of the church down the road and I wonder, from the point of view of someone local, what kind of vicar would be welcome or useful to people here? He chuckled and reached for his wallet of credit and other cards and showed me his membership of the Humanist Association. I laughed then as now at the memory, but I also remember we both enjoyed the joke and he went on to say positive things about some of the church members he knew and of Fr Stephen whom he remembered. Afterwards, returning to the car, I stepped inside the garden of remembrance and met a chap in overcoat, with very long beard, his bicycle leaning against the church wall, who was settling down on the bench, can of lager and roll up in hand, to listen to the football scores. He wondered if I was the new priest with the foreign sounding name and I explained that Fr Wayne had unfortunately left but that I might become the new vicar. He wasn’t too sure what kind of vicar was needed either, but again he thought Fr Stephen had been a decent chap. I returned to my car laughing. I had arrived seeking a sign and the good Lord had sent my way a gentleman of the road and a card-carrying atheist – and, you know what, I thought that was a pretty encouraging sign. Lord, if I can in any way be a conduit between your church and some unexpected people, then please send me there…
Another example almost hit me the other day when I was jogging to Lidl to pick up breakfast things. A guy on a bike emerged quite fast from the path from Poole Road and we very almost collided, but, due to some instinctive agility on both our parts, didn’t, just. When I arrived at the shop entrance he was securing his bike and I went across to speak. Fortunately I had overcome my petulant reaction enough to say, I hoped without an edge, ‘I don’t blame you for riding on the pavement, mate, I do it myself at times, but do take care, you gave me a hell of a fright there.’ And fortunately he reacted without defensiveness, apologised, and we had a brief chat. Strangely, in the shop, our purchases meant that we several times coincided at the same shelf and then were adjacent in the checkout queue. I’m glad we hadn’t got furious with each other earlier else it would have been far more awkward. At any rate, what could easily have been unpleasant became rather a good natured and pleasant meeting.
I have not described miracles but I hope I have described scenes with which you can identify or think of with other examples of your own.
Shortly, at Holy Communion, you will receive a wafer as a token of Christ’s real presence with you. Each wafer is imprinted with the cross, the sign of God’s love poured out for his creation. As you eat this bread you may reflect that each of you was imprinted with the sign of the cross, at baptism.
Give to God that which belongs to God. That means, I think, recognising God in all things, in all people, in each one of you. When you look at the world, and at people and at yourself, you may ask, whose image is contained here? God’s image is contained here, and everywhere, and in you and in me and in every person.