Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street? What Occupies Your Heart?

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Delray Beach, Florida
18 Pentecost – Proper 24 – Year A – October 15/16, 2011
1 Thessalonians 1:1- 10; Ps. 96:1-10; Matthew 22:15 – 22
Preacher:  The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's…"  Matthew 22:21

            The Occupy Wall Street movement began on September 17 when about 1,000 demonstrators marched on Wall Street and gathered at Zucotti Park, what had been Liberty Square Park.  Media coverage was spotty and the reviews were mostly negative.  A September 23 article titled “Gunning for Wall Street with Faulty Aim,” by N.Y. Times columnist Ginia Bellafante was a pretty typical take.[1]  She wrote: “a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater, had hoped to see many thousands join its protest and encampment, which began Sept. 17. According to the group, 2,000 marched on the first day; news outlets estimated that the number was closer to several hundred. By Wednesday morning,” she continued. “100 or so stalwarts were making the daily, peaceful trek through the financial district, where their movements were circumscribed by barricades and a heavy police presence. (By Saturday, scores of arrests were made.) By Thursday, the number still sleeping in Zuccotti Park, the central base of operations, appeared to be dwindling further.” 
            She concluded, "The group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face – finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out."[2]  
            But Bellafante’s critique was, perhaps, a little hasty.  Today, the movement has grown to demonstrations in more than 95 cities around the world involving tens of thousands of people.  There are those who are equating it with the Arab Spring up-rising.  We shall see.  Like that uprising, there is no clear leader.  It is a genuinely populist movement being driven, in this social media age, by ordinary people using Twitter, Facebook and Text messaging. 
            Sounding somewhat like Ginia Bellafante, Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal recently wrote, “Occupy Wall Street is not in itself important—it is obvious at this point that it's less a political movement than a be-in. It's unfocused, unserious in its aims.”[3] 
            But Noonan did not completely dismiss the movement, writing, “…it is an early expression, an early iteration, of something that is coming, and that is a rising up against current circumstances and arrangements. OWS is an expression of American discontent, and others will follow. The protests will grow as the economy gets worse.”[4]
            Insightfully she wrote, “A movement that will go nowhere but could do real damage would be ‘We hate the rich, let's stick it to them.’ Movements built on hatred are corrosive, and in the end corrode themselves. Ask Robespierre...”[5] 
            She continued, “A movement that would be helpful and could actually help bring change would be one that said, ‘Enough. Wall Street is selfish and dishonest, and Washington is selfish and dishonest. Together their selfishness and dishonesty, their operating as if they are not part of a whole, not part of a nation of relationships and responsibilities, tanked a great nation's economy. We will reform.’"[6]
            It will be interesting to see how the Occupy Wall Street movement develops.  My guess is that it is not going to dwindle away.  There is too much pain and distress in this country which is being ignored by those in power.  Consequently, those with little power are finding no other outlet.  What began as an easily dismissed movement in this country has become a confrontation that is forcing a clarification of values, challenging us all, and especially our nation’s leadership, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal,  to consider what’s most important...
            Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.  So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22:15-17). 
            We are in chapter 22 of Matthew’s Gospel, late in the Gospel…We are in Jerusalem….It is after Palm Sunday, after Jesus’ triumphal entry.  His passion and the cross lie ahead in the shadows…What began as an easily dismissed movement, the Jesus movement, has been growing in popularity and numbers.  It has increasingly captured the attention of the people and resonated with them; resonated with their aches and pains.  It has also captured the attention of the Jerusalem religious leadership.  The leadership finds Jesus and his movement threatening.  His teaching is unorthodox.  It is destabilizing. They don’t like him. They are heavily invested in the status quo.  And in this moment; this moment described in chapter 22, their dislike has forced a confrontation; a confrontation that turns out to be about clarifying values…
            Our reading begins by telling us, “…the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.  So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians”(Matthew22:15).  There is no secret about it; the Pharisees are out to get Jesus.  They send people to entrap him.  Among them are the Herodians….Who are the Herodians? 
            We don’t much about them; there is not a lot of information written but, from their name, we can infer that they are supporters of the Herod, the Jewish King who is a puppet of the Roman Empire…Why do they send these Herodians to entrap Jesus?  Well the question they ask of him makes it very clear:  "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality….” (Matthew 22:16).  We should not take their compliments at face value.  They are not being sincere….They are smarmy….It’s a set-up.  Er, uh Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?  Bang, the trap is sprung!  It’s brilliant.  It’s a darned if you do, darned if you don’t question.
            If Jesus says yes, it’s lawful to pay the taxes, the tribute to the emperor, meaning lawful under Jewish law, under the Torah, Jesus will lose credibility and popular standing with the people who are visceral in their opposition to Rome and its occupation of their country, who find the poll tax an oppressive burden to support the occupying power and also find it blasphemous and wrong under the law as the land belongs to God and not Caesar.  If Jesus supports paying the tax, he risks losing popular support.
            If, on the other hand, Jesus says it is unlawful to pay the taxes, then he risks being charged with sedition and Rome was very hard on seditionists, as Jesus’ later crucifixion clearly illustrates.  The question posed by the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians appears to offer him no good choice….He appears to face a dilemma…
            But Jesus is not a simpleton or fool.  He knows what they are up to.  He is also not afraid of confrontation.  This is a battle of wits and they came unprepared.  Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?  Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius (Matthew 22:18 – 19).   The denarius was a silver Roman coin that represented a day’s wage.  Note well, Jesus does not pull the coin out of his own pocket, he asks them to produce it. 
            He said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"  They answered, "The emperor's."(Matthew 22:20)  The Oxford Bible Commentary observes, “…the coin being in the possession of Jesus’ opponents highlights their insincerity:  they have no qualms about using pagan money -- and even bring a coin with the emperor’s image and blasphemous inscription into the holy precincts of the temple.”[7] 
            Jesus said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). 
            It is a brilliant, the perfect response.  The Oxford Bible Commentary is helpful in making clear what has happened in this exchange.  It states, “Instead of trapping Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians are trapped by him.  Jesus’ words distance him from those who oppose supporting Rome.  At the same time, the inclusion of giving to God what is God’s relativizes the political obligation.  There is here, no firm principle of loyal submission to the state.  Implied, rather, is a reservation regarding the state and a lack of reservation regarding God.  While obedience to God can…coexist with doing what the state requires, obligation to the former overshadows obligation to the latter.  So there is no simple or straightforward rule, but the imperative to the weigh the demands of two (very unequal) authorities.  When those demands are not at odds, obligations to both can be met….In cases of conflict, however, it is manifest which authority requires allegiance”[8] which brings us back to the Occupy Wall Street movement and its concerns.  
            What are the demands God makes of us in our current political and economic climate?  Are there moral and religious values at stake?  To be sure, there are.  Just as there was no coin, no person, or anything else in Caesar’s reign that did not first belong to God, so in our realm all belongs to God as well, and all is of concern to God, including how each and every person is treated.  The common good is not merely a political value, it is a Christian imperative!  We cannot compartmentalize our religious convictions and beliefs from our political and economic life.  Our baptismal covenant calls upon us to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as our self; and to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305).
            Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine visited the Occupy Wall Street movement earlier this month…He asked one of the non-leaders participating about what had drawn him to the protest.  The person answered him, “"I want to have children someday, and this is becoming a world not good for children."[9]
            In a thoughtful and reflective “Open Letter” sent out on-line this past week, Jim Wallis wrote to those participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement about that response from the person concerning the world “not being good for children.”  Wallis wrote to the demonstrators, “My 13- and 8-year-old boys came to mind when I heard his answer, and I felt thankful. It is precisely those deepest, most authentic feelings and motivations that should preoccupy you, rather than how best to form and communicate superficial political rhetoric.  You are raising very basic questions about an economy that has become increasingly unfair, unstable, unsustainable, and unhappy for a growing number of people. Those same questions are being asked by many others at the bottom, the middle, and even some at the top of the economic pecking order. There are ethics to be named here, and the transition from the pseudo-ethic of endless growth to the moral ethics of sustainability is a conversation occurring even now in our nation’s business schools (if, perhaps, secreted inside the official curriculum).”[10]
            “Keep pressing those values questions,” Wallis urged the demonstrators, “because they will move people more than a set of demands or policy suggestions.” “Those can and must,” he observed, “come later.”[11]
            He continued, “And try not to demonize those you view as opponents, as good people can get trapped in bad systems and we've seen a lot of that. Still, you are right for saying that we all must be held accountable -- both systems and the individuals within them. It is imperative that we hear that message right now.  The new safe spaces you have created to ask fundamental questions, now in hundreds of locations around the country and the world, are helping to carve out fresh societal space to examine ourselves -- who we are, what we value most, and where we want to go from here.”[12] Who we are, what do we value most, and where we want to go from here.
            And they brought him a denarius.  Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"   They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:19 – 21). 
            Who are you? Jesus was asking those disciples of the Pharisees and Herodians.  Who are you? Jesus asks us through today’s Gospel reading….What do you value most?   Where do you want to go from here? 
            Jesus once said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).   As we continue to struggle with the questions that confront us in our society and around the world; questions about justice and fairness and especially about human dignity, it is important to ask, what belongs to Caesar and Caesar’s kingdom that does not first belong to God and God’s kingdom?  Which are we serving?  Which ought we to serve?  Who, what, occupies our hearts?

[1]   Bellafante, Ginia “Gunning for Wall Street, with Faulty Aim”  - New York Times On-Line – Published September 23, 2011 at
[2]   Bellafante
[3]   Noonan, Peggy “This is No Time for Moderation”  The Wall Street Journal On-Line, October 15, 2011 at
[4]  Noonan
[5]  Noonan
[6]  Noonan
[7]   The Oxford Bible Commentary edited by John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford:  Oxford University Press,          2001), 873.
[8]  The Oxford Bible Commentary
[9]  Wallis, Jim “An Open Letter to the Occupiers from a Veteran Troublemaker” October 13, 2011 found on God’s Politics blog at
[10]  Wallis
[11]  Wallis
[12]  Wallis

1 comment:

Joseph Andrew Hays said...

Right on, timely sermon, Chip.

How do I forward it to others?

Andy Hays