God and Caesar

One year ago a handful of people stepped out in faith and formed the nucleus of Holy Redeemer Reformed Catholic Church.  We made a number of promises to God and to ourselves, some of which have been kept, some of which are in the process of being kept.  From the beginning we said, if there are people in the Fort Wayne area who are hurting because of the way the institutional church has treated them, we will be here for them.  If someone feels worthless and unlovable, we will be here to bring her the welcome news that she is loved unconditionally.  If someone is thirsting for spirituality that is both historically based and accepting of new understandings and modern biblical scholarship, we will be here to give him a drink of that life-giving water.  The call to serve, based in faith, has been the driving force behind everything that has been done and everything that is happening now.  It hardly seems possible that we have come already to the threshold of another year of ministry.

All of us who are involved in this project, I think, have given a good deal of prayer and thought to the issue of who it is we are called to serve.  When we speak about the role of the church in this city, we are speaking in terms of a relationship that we see as the dialogue between faith and the surrounding culture. Unlike our Roman brothers, we are not reluctant to embrace justice for all in the church, but we are in agreement with them when we acknowledge that there are sometimes stark differences between our faith and our culture.  In a sense, both are normative systems because both suggest what it is we ought to do.   “Everybody’s doing it,” teens say to their parents, and the “everybody” they refer to is their surrounding culture.   Like theirs, our culture tells us what is of value and how to achieve those values.  So, too, is our faith. If faith and culture clash or disagree, it is because faith is a gift from God and culture is a human construct. There is tension between the two.  There is tension inside ourselves because both the faith and the culture are within us. We see the failure of the culture when we look at the governmental policies of the past few decades and we see that our culture legitimates greed and selfishness at the expense of the poor.  We look to those who claim to speak for Jesus and we find that just as often they, too,  have uncritically accepted the truth claims of the free market culture around them, to the point that their only forays into politics are based on what Dan McGuire has termed, “the pelvic issues”.  What people do in the darkness of their bedrooms is somehow more worthy of attention than the reality of millions of people who live in chronic hunger everyday in broad daylight. 

 One religious response to the culture has been to institutionalize works of charity and justice in such a way that we contribute to the culture, but on the culture’s own terms. Our Catholic hospitals, caught up in the business of being a hospital, are even today turning away patients with HIV-AIDS and many others who have no insurance.  They show themselves to be American first, Christian second.  Private Christian schools have become excellent test prep centers, motivating students to succeed on the SAT or ACT exams and to be successful in college.  But the vast majority of young people between the ages of 19 and 29 are neither voting nor volunteering for anything.  The median age of the typical American volunteer is age 68.  The question is, why aren’t these schools turning out well-trained disciples as well as well-trained professionals? Have we perhaps surrendered our faith to the culture?

The defining slogan for Catholics over the past 40 years, “we are the church”, is a reminder that we are personally responsible for what the church of Jesus is becoming in our time. I would argue that we are in a crisis at this moment in our history.  The financial crisis of Wall Street is primarily a crisis of Caesar, if you will, but it wouldn’t have happened without a crisis of faith and ethics in the hearts of those responsible.  It wouldn’t have happened if people of faith had, through the electoral process, demanded justice for the poor when they cast their ballots. This is a crisis of discipleship within the church, and it is very real, particularly in a time when “feel good” Christianity is more popular than following a Jesus who invites us to take up our cross and follow him.

Vatican II’s purpose, as it was called by Pope John XXIII, was to strengthen the mission and credibility of the church so it could begin the work of transforming the world. John XXIII was looking at a world in ruins because of racism, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and two world wars–all of this in a scant 50 years. Looking at the economic and class warfare that was being institutionalized both by communism and capitalism, he said: “Who will tell the world that finally we are all brothers and sisters? Who except the universal church, the Catholic Church?”

The purpose of calling the council was to remind us that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ, that we have the power within us to bring people together, that we can heal the wounds of racism and sexism, that we can engage in interfaith dialogue that will build trust and respect between religions, that we can at last come together to address social justice issues that are tearing families and our world apart. This conciliar program, all of it rooted in the Gospel and Christ’s will for unity among his people, was brought forward precisely because the world was in need of change. The church was also in need of radical change, but as we know, that change has been systematically undermined over the past 40 years.  We have allowed a radical, world-tranforming council to become completely domesticated, completely irrelevant.

Today’s Gospel reminds us what we are up against: the power of Caesar when it is entwined with our notions of God.  Jesus isn’t the precursor of Thomas Jefferson; he’s not talking about the “separation of church and state”.  He is providing a caustic indictment of ALL systems that claim absolute control over people’s lives, and when that system is religious authority, then religion itself becomes nothing but another manifestation of Caesar.  The fact that we are daughters and sons of our loving God means that we are called to bring that love of God to all we encounter—to literally co-create the Reign of God in the here and now.  We are created in the imago dei, the image of God.  If the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar because it is part of Caesar, then certainly the image of God belongs to God because it is part of God.  You are part of God.  God needs you.  God has gifted you.  God is calling you to fulfill a unique destiny because there is no one else.  And so we are called to form a community that nurtures us as we embrace our life and our call.  We surrender our creativity, our industry, our energy to the building of the Reign of God. 

Our God is compassionate.  God has compassion for the people of Israel, for the people of the world, and for you.  God already knows your limitations and invites you forward anyway on the golden path where limitations and defects are healed and made whole.  By the same token, we are called to express the compassion we experience in our everyday life.  We are called to allow the compassion of our God to be seen by complete strangers. By people deemed sinners and outsiders.  By illegal guest workers.  By  people struggling with terminal illness  By older people who just need an attentive listener.  By a child who never hears anything but criticism and scorn.

After hearing Jesus’ response to their trick question, the Herodians and Pharisees leave in amazement.  Clearly they didn’t care about the answer he gave, they were only trying to trap him in order to establish themselves as superior.  But you and I are disciples, so we have to care about the answer, we can’t just walk away.

Christ is asking for a recommitment of our lives, a refocusing of our prayers and intentions and actions.  When we seek the Reign of God, when we offer our lives, God will far surpass our expectations, much as God has blessed this parish in such a short time.  There is abundance in God’s Reign, more than enough to meet our needs and the needs of all our sisters and brothers.  We only fully appreciate that when we accept the gift of our existence, when we risk helping someone else regardless of personal cost, when we finally surrender everything and render to God what already belongs to God.



About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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