I want to start with that image
in Mary Oliver’s poem
that I find so compelling — such
wonderful spiritual wisdom.
Then we’ll get to the Gospel and maybe
find some other wisdom.
So what I take away
from “One or Two Things” is how
the god of dirt
mentions many things
but never immortality.
But for Mary Oliver,
and many if not all of us,
the fact that we
and everything else is NOT forever,
is a hoof at the center of the forehead.
What an arresting image:
I see, and I feel, a horse’s hoof
smack on my forehead.
“But to lift the hoof,” she writes,
”For that you need
Of course “the butterfly, weightless, in the wind”
or the seagull hovering over the lake
struggling to fly foward
but pushed by the wind backward,
they don’t need an idea.
They don’t have that hoof
on the forehead.
But we do.
And the idea Mary Oliver offers,
is to not love our lives
Which sounds a lot like Jesus,
who warned us not to lose our lives
by holding onto them too tight.
It is a confounding wisdom
that hoovers like the gull
at the center of our spiritual tradition.
It is the idea
to lift the hoof
that sometimes rests so heavily
on our foreheads.
Now let me wander away
from that hoof on our foreheads
for a moment, and see if
Jesus has something just as juicy for us.
It is easy to listen to the Gospel argument
about paying taxes
and focus on the wrong thing.
And in fairness,
taxes seem like the issue —
especially after just paying our school taxes!
It was an issue alright, in Jesus’ day,
but it is not the punchline
of his wisdom teaching.
Jesus, who we claim
was uniquely marked by God,
is thrown into a first century
hornet’s nest about taxes.
To understand the bind he was in
we have to know the characters in question.
In the gospel story,
”Herodians” represent religious figures
who served at the whim of civil authority
and who financially and socially benefited
from the Roman occupation.
The Pharisees represented
a popular movement within the religion
which was at tension with civil authority.
That was because the Pharisees believed
that the Roman requirement to pay taxes
amounted to coerced blasphemy.
Since Rome claimed Caesar was God
paying taxes amounted to idolatry.
Unmentioned in this story,
but fully present between the lines,
are the Zealots,
some of whom were insurrectionists.
They believed that payment of taxes
amounted to willful participation in evil.
So when Jesus is asked the question
of whether it is right to pay taxes or not,
it is a cruel trick – a malicious strategy
aimed at actually endangering
and discrediting him.
Here is what I mean.
For him to say, “yes, it is okay to pay taxes,”
would discredit him
with a majority of his peers –
all of whom were over-burdened by taxes.
A “yes” answer would also be met with
criticism of his preaching by the pharisees
and with the wrath of the Zealots
who would then see him as an enemy.
On the other hand,
to say “no, don’t pay taxes to Rome,”
was to be arrested
for fostering treason
and promoting insurrection.
Standing between yes and no
was to be squeezed between
a rock and hard place.
There seemed no good answer –
no room to move.
But Jesus very cleverly
gives a response
rather than an answer.
(So many times I look back
and wish that I had given a response
rather than an answer!)
You see, Jesus’ response
could be heard differently
by different people.
It all depended upon
which perspective they were listening from.
(We should try to remember this today).
”Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s
and give to God what is God’s”
could be heard by both Romans and Zealots
as the right answer.
To the Roman’s
Caesar was God,
and to the Zealots
everything belonged to their God.
But Jesus penetrates the whole issue with one little word.
Jesus wants to know:
whose icon (eikon)
is on that coin?
Undoubtedly Jesus intentionally uses
the same word, “icon,”
as is in the Creation Story
from the Book of Genesis.
It is the story where it says
we are created in the icon of God,
or the image of God,
as it is usually translated.
At root what Jesus is saying,
is that whatever image
may appear on the coin
you and I
are made with the icon
That may not seem
like a radical thing to say today,
but imagine that idea
in a world where slavery – the ownership of people,
and military occupation
along with the ownership of lands
and nations of people – was assumed.
In that world, to say instead
that we belong to God
would be downright subversive.
that is printed by the U.S. Mint
belongs to the United States of America.
We do not own the money in our pockets
we can only use it.
But you and I belong to God.
You and I have been imprinted
with the image of God
To reflect the image of God
as best we know how,
is basically what this is all about —
this religion thing
and this spiritual community thing
We reflect God
the best we can
until we die,
and then become God
in some way
we cannot now imagine.
We are made in the image of God
and we belong to God.
We don’t belong to our family.
We don’t belong to our Church.
We don’t belong to our ethnicity or race.
We don’t belong to our uniform or profession.
We don’t belong to our nation or state or party.
We belong to God.
As soon as we lose that connection
or it seeps into forgetfulness,
or we pretend it does not exist,
is the moment we no longer know
whose we are
and who we are.
Nothing but God is forever — nothing.
The weight and shape of that hoof
on our forehead
will only be lifted
by the knowledge of
whose we are
and who we are…in the image
of the forever one
who created us.
Our spiritual practice
is all about knowing
who we are
in the image
of whose we are.
We don’t talk about it too much,
our being an icon of God,
but it is right there, smack dab
at the center of this thing we do
called Church — or community.
It is at the center of our identity,
this elemental, basic knowing
who we are
and in whose image we are created
and have our being.
How do you like that marriage
of Mary Oliver and Jesus
talking to us
all these years later?
The hoof on our foreheads
is lifted by the idea
of our being an icon
of the one who created us
and who will receive us
when we are no longer
in the world of butterflies and gulls.
whose we are
and reflecting it by who we are
is right there in the heart of Christian spirituality 101.