(1 Thess. 1:1-10, Matt 22:15-22)
I had a dream – this week. Not at all like Dr Martin Luther King’s, or anything like Joseph’s in the Book of Genesis. I had looked at the readings for today earlier in the week, and then another day during my morning meditation, I’m afraid I nodded off. Unfortunately, this happens fairly regularly at this time of the day, but the unusual thing was that I dreamed, and that I dreamed that I had come up with a great sermon based upon these readings. Sadly though I don’t remember my dreams – sometimes not at all, and sometimes just a few odd images and feelings. And that dream was no exception, I had the feeling that I’d come up with something, but couldn’t recall for the life of me what – except for the fact that it did feature the late Diana Spencer, former Princess of Wales, and something about the futility of the cult of celebrity peddled by the mass media in the Western world. Now of course just because you wake up from a dream with the feeling that it meant something, doesn’t mean that it does. For some reason I still remember a dream I had years ago about trying to break into a prison or concentration camp with Sting, the lead singer of the 80s pop group, the Police. I suppose I remember it because I have no idea what that could have been about – I’ve never been a fan of the Police, or Gordon Sumner, as Sting’s parents knew him. It illustrates the way our unconsciousness can take random things and just shove them together.
However, it did mean that going forward and trying to produce a sermon, I couldn’t get these ideas and images out of my head, because whether this was what the dream was saying or not, I kept coming back to one possible interpretation of it. And the realization that this interpretation does connect with the question of what it is to be a Christian in a society where we are surrounded by mass media, that bombards us with completely irrelevant information, and which is trying to guide our behaviour into certain directions. In what some Marxists rather portentously call ‘late capitalism’, much of our media still functions in a way the Roman authorities of the 1st century would have recognised. It is bread and circuses for the masses. In short, we are bombarded with stories about celebrities, idols if you will, who we are told have some significance for our lives, though with many of them it is unclear what they are famous for. But often the media also uses them to sell things to us, whether directly by celebrity endorsements, or more subtly by making people think that such ‘celebrity’ is something desirable, that it is a valid and worthwhile form of life.
In Andy Warhol’s now hackneyed phrase, many people still believe that they are entitled to their fifteen minutes of fame. Perhaps now in this age of TikTok and Instagram, even more than when Warhol said it in the 1960s. But what has this got to do with Diana Spencer? Well, leaving aside the rights and wrongs of her relationship with the present King, it did seem to some of us in the 1990s that global fame had gone to her head. That she had sadly bought into the idea that she was a celebrity, if not a global celebrity, whose words and actions took on some mystical significance simply because the media had made her face known throughout the world. Now of course she did try and use that fame to help others – her campaigning against the iniquity of land mines, for instance – but still you couldn’t help but think she had got herself enmeshed by something beyond her control. Hence also the irony of her second son, now inveighing against the media, while abandoning royal duties, and attempting to turn himself and his wife into a global brand – seemingly without much success.
But what has this to do with today’s Gospel? Why did the Pharisees and the Herodians go to our Lord, what were they trying to catch him out about? It was not a question about the rightness or otherwise of collaborating with the Roman authorities, as of course the Herodians were quite happy to do that. It was presumably to try and manoeuvre him into making a response that could be seen as subversive of the Romans, so they could report him. But there were other issues here, for instance, Roman coins had the head of the Emperor upon them, and of course the first emperor, Augustus, was deified after his death. It appears his strange and enigmatic successor, Tiberius, under whom our Lord lived, was not really enamoured of the imperial cult, but nonetheless the Caesar had become a central figure in Roman religion. So presumably using Roman coins raised the question of idolatry for devout Jews. By using them, were you going along with the divine claims that the Romans made for their rulers?
Jesus of course completely circumvents this – ‘Give therefore to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’. The way that Paul, decades later, is still referring to similar concerns suggests that even among the early Christians, Jesus’ words did not quite settle the matter. After all, in his letter to the Romans, Paul has to reassure them that everyone should be subject to the governing authorities, and that authority is established by God. Even seemingly the authorities that had crucified Jesus, because despite this the Romans brought order, they brought roads along which people could trade and prosper, and along which the Gospel could be spread. We may have our doubts about this even now, especially when we see our taxes being used to furnish weapons to others, which leaving aside the justness or otherwise of the cause they may be used for, these weapons will still end up killing innocent people. Taxes to the authorities can still risk perpetuating a cycle of violence and hatred that we need to find a way to end.
Perhaps the answer to this is in the second part of Jesus’ words, that what is really important is to give God the things that are his; that we give God the glory for the truly important things he has given us in our lives. Things that Jesus had already spoken about much earlier in Matthew’s Gospel – ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.’ Instead, we need to store up treasures in heaven, which cannot be affected by rust or moths or thieves, because ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ This treasure is where we as Christians should find our sense of ourselves, our calling and our direction in this world. We can give to the world what it believes to be important – fame, wealth, power, celebrity – because Christianity is built upon something else. Something else symbolised in the fact that for us, God has revealed himself in a man who died upon a cross, a man who died out of love for his friends and for us, and that we should follow him in this love. A love that the world can seem to despise and reject and ignore, but which is its only fulfilment, and its only hope.
This is why we cannot allow ourselves to despair about the culture in which we find ourselves. A culture seemingly built on consumerism and narcissism, which exalts a distorted image of the self as nothing more than an unstable mishmash of consumer wants and transitory gratifications. Sometimes one can feel like the Abbot Arnauld Amalric, who led the Catholic crusaders against the Cathars in southern France. He led the crusaders in the attack on the town of Breziers in 1209. Breziers was apparently mainly Catholic, but its people had good relations with their Cathar neighbours, and didn’t wish to hand them to the Church authorities. So when the town fell and the crusaders were unable to distinguish Catholics from Cathars, Arnuald allegedly used the infamous phrase, ‘Kill them all, God will know his own.’ Eight centuries later, we know that we cannot behave like this, because similar ideas still seem to be fuelling the imaginations of many, certainly both Hamas and the Israeli government at this time, as well as those supposed Christians in the Kremlin. Instead as Christians we need to remember that there are many, of other faiths and none, who actually embody love and service for others far better than we do. Many who while they may not know God as we would like, have based their personal worth on ‘Something Else’, even if they are not quite sure what that is. A ‘Something Else’ that will not rust or fall prey to moths, or be stolen.
They may not know who God is as we think they should do, but nonetheless they are able to give to Caesar, and the world, what is only its rightful due, and so may be building up more treasure in heaven than we are. Therefore, we should with humility remember Paul’s words in the letter to the Thessalonians we heard today. We need to remember that we have been chosen by Jesus Christ, to labour in love and steadfastness of hope for him. That we are called to imitate him, and become an example not just to other believers, but to the world. While being aware, more than Paul could be, that we can also learn from all those others in our world who also do not set their store in what rusts and can be eaten by moths. We, as Christians, in our world as it is, should be the ones who can help turn others from the false idols of our age. We should be the ones who can point at the idols of our time, and laugh at their absurdity. We should be the ones who know the absurdity of money, celebrity, power as a means to be human. We should be the ones who witness to the glory and beauty of humanity made in the image of God, and show to the world that humanity held and sustained in the love revealed in Christ. In Paul’s words, we are the ones who serve a living and true God, and wait for his Son from heaven, whom he has raised from the dead.
Perhaps by showing this forth in our lives to all we meet, we will be able to reveal to others what human life should really be founded upon, and put the things of this world in their proper place. We are called to enable others to find that their true sense of self is in relation to the God who identified himself with the suffering of our world, through the sacrifice of love made by his Son, Jesus Christ. If we can do this, each in our own small way, then while we may not have the world going away amazed at our words, as the Pharisees and Herodians were amazed at our Lord’s, we might be able to play our part in making this world into a place that does not immediately use cruelty and violence to achieve its aims. We might be able to play our part in making this world less like the nightmare it can seem to be, and more like Isaiah’s prophetic dream, where people beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war any more.