Monday, 30 March 2020

Scattered yet Gathered

A liturgy in two voices for sharing communion whilst scattered.

The Baptist Times have published a theological reflection on this liturgy, which you can read here:

You can download a PowerPoint of this Liturgy here (DropBox Link).

Jesus said:
‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.
I am the bread of life.
Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.
This is the bread that comes down from heaven, 
so that one may eat of it and not die.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven.
Whoever eats of this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
(John 6.47-51)

We are the people of God,
we are the body of Christ.
We are scattered, and the body of Christ is broken,
but as we gather, the body of Christ is re-membered.

So together we gather in obedience to Jesus’ command,
to remember, and to share together in breaking bread and drinking wine,
in remembrance of the death of Christ.

Each piece of bread that we eat was once scattered across the fields,
              and the grain that God gave to grow
              has become for us the bread of life.
Each sip of wine that we drink was once many vines,
              and the grapes that God gave to grow
              have become for us the new wine of God’s kingdom.

In our communion with one another,
              we are fed with the bread of heaven that sustains us,
              and we drink the wine of gladness that brings us joy.

The people of Israel were sustained by God 
through their years of wilderness wandering:

‘The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a habitable land;
they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.’ 
(Exodus 16.35)

‘[God] rained down on them manna to eat, 
and gave them the grain of heaven.’ 
(Psalm 78.24)

And we too are God’s people, sustained by God through the wilderness of this world.

Jesus said to his disciples:
‘Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness;
as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'
Then Jesus said to them,
"Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven,
but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven 
and gives life to the world."
They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life.
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,
and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. "’
(John 6.31-35)

On the night on which Jesus was betrayed, he sat at supper with his disciples.
While they were eating, he took a piece of bread,
said a blessing broke it, and gave it to them with the words,
‘This is my body. It is for you. Do this to remember me.’
Later, he took a cup of wine, saying,
‘This cup is God’s new covenant, sealed with my blood.
Drink from it, all of you, to remember me’.
So now, following Jesus’ example and command, we take this bread and this wine,
the ordinary things of the world which Christ will make special.
And as he said a prayer before sharing, let us do so too

God of all those who are scattered and broken,
you call us to wholeness.
We thank you for the love demonstrated in giving your son,
that we might be united with you.
We thank you that in Christ you enter into the pain, uncertainty, and fear of our world;
and that your arms are open in loving embrace,
gathering us to you as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wing,
as a shepherd gathers his flock.
We thank you for bread and wine,
symbols and signs for us today, 
of your faithfulness to your people through all generations.

‘Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; 
say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him, 
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock."’ 
(Jeremiah 31.10)

Let us share in bread together.

‘Then all the Judeans returned from all the places to which they had been scattered 
and came to the land of Judah, to Gedaliah at Mizpah; 
and they gathered wine and summer fruits in great abundance. 
(Jeremiah 40.12).

Let us share in wine together.

Jesus said
‘The hour is coming, indeed it has come, 
when you will be scattered, each one to his home,
and you will leave me alone. 
Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.
I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace.
In the world you face persecution.
But take courage; I have conquered the world!"’ 
(John 16.32-33)

Sunday, 29 March 2020

The End Times?

A sermon for 'Provoking Faith in a time of isolation', 
the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
29th March 2020

Mark 13.1-8, 24-37
Don’t misunderstand me when I say this,
            but I genuinely believe that we are living in ‘the last days’.

Let me be clear.

I emphatically do not mean,
            that the current Coronavirus pandemic
            is a sign from God that the world is coming to an end.

Humans have faced times of plague and disease many times in our history,
            just as we have faced war and natural disaster.
And simply because this is the first time in living memory
            that such a calamity has fallen on our society,
            doesn’t make us in some way special.

It makes us unlucky,
            although not as unlucky as those who will be facing this virus
                        without a functional health service
                        or an economy strong enough to support emergency financial measures.

The question of where God is to be found in the midst of suffering and death
            is not a new question,
but it is our question, at such a time as this.

One way or another, the world will keep turning,
            and those who survive the Coronavirus, which will be most of us,
            will live to remake the world again in the coming years.

This is not to minimise the seriousness of the situation,
            but it is to offer a sense of historical perspective.
We’ve been here, or somewhere like here, before,
            and it’s awful, and it’s horrible, and heart-rending, and tragic,
            but it’s not the end of the world.

So what do I mean when I say
            that I still believe we are living in ‘the last days’?

Our Bible reading for this morning,
            from the so-called mini apocalypse from Mark’s gospel,
            wasn’t chosen by me for today.
Believe it or not, it is the allocated passage in the Narrative Lectionary,
            which we have been following at Bloomsbury this year,
            as we have made our pilgrimage from Jesus’ birth towards his death.

And to understand its end-times, last-days language,
            we need to understand something of the context of the first century.

It’s likely that Mark’s gospel was written right at the end of the 60s,
            which was a time of ever-increasing political tension in the land of Israel,
as Jewish revolutionaries gathered their forces,
            in expectation of a great battle with the forces of Rome.

Their mission was simple:
            liberate Jerusalem,
                        throw out the Romans,
            and re-establish the Jewish state
                        as a religiously and politically autonomous entity;
            or die trying.

And for the community Mark was writing for,
            the temptation to join the revolutionaries was great.

So in his gospel he tells events from the life of Jesus, some thirty years earlier,
            not as abstract stories for use in Sunday school lessons,
but to directly address the question,
            of whether it is appropriate for his congregation
            to join the Jewish rebels in the coming battle against Rome.

From Mark’s perspective,
            which he believes is a perspective grounded in the life and teaching of Jesus,
            the really important battle isn’t actually against Rome;
and for his people to take up swords and fight for their political freedom
            would be selling their souls to the self-same forces of violence
            that already lie at the heart of empire of Rome.

They might win the battle for their city,
            but if the cost was complicity in violence,
                        they would have lost their souls,
            and would in the end simply reinvent
                        the same oppressive powers under a different name.

For Mark, as for Jesus,
            the revolution is not about swords against an earthly enemy,
            but a new and nonviolent way of people drawing near to God,
                        and discovering what it means to live in peace with one another.

And this revolution will achieved not by swords but through suffering,
            as people do battle with the forces of violence not by overthrowing them,
but by unmasking their evil, by absorbing the violence,
            and leaving them nowhere to go but deeper into their own depravity.

This is the way of the cross,
            as Jesus and his disciples draw near to Jerusalem,
and Jesus takes his stand
            against the religious system of the Temple,
                        which he denounces for its oppression of those who are poor,
            and against the political ideology of nationalism,
                        which he denounces for its inherent violence.

The only way through this for Jesus
            will be the way of the cross, the way of suffering and death.

And Mark wants his readers to understand, in their context,
            that dying in the cause of the kingdom of God
                        is not defeat at the hands of the enemy,
            but actually the path through which
                        the new world of Jesus comes into being.

He wants them to know that the cross is not defeat,
            but is rather the moment of the unveiling of the glory of God.

From a historical perspective,
            the Jewish rebels continued their rebellion,
and the Romans fought back, with a massacre in Jerusalem,
            and the destruction of the temple in the year 70,
            just a year or two after Mark’s gospel was written.

And what Mark offers,
            in this strange ‘end-times’ chapter that we have before us this morning,
is a theological perspective on the events of history,
            it invites us to consider where God is
            when the evidence of history seems to be denying God’s presence.

And here I want to offer a very clear statement
            about how we might read Mark chapter 13,
            and other passages like it.

These are not prophecies or predictions
            about some future world-ending cataclysm,
and to read them as if they are,
            is to miss the deep wisdom that they offer.

Rather, these strange apocalyptic images,
            are a way of understanding
                        how God is at work in the very real events of human history,
            and specifically in the crucifixion of Jesus
                        as the inauguration of God’s new kingdom.

Once we grasp what God is doing
            in and through Jesus’ journey towards the cross,
we are better equipped to understand what God is doing
            in the difficult and traumatic experiences of our own lives.

This is what Mark wants for his readers,
            he wants them to understand the cross,
            so that they can understand their own context.

And the same is true for those of us who read this gospel in later centuries:
            if we can understand the cross as victory not defeat,
            if we can understand the death of Jesus as the revelation of God’s glory,
then we too will be able to understand
            how the kingdom of God is coming to us in our world.

So this is what I mean when I say
            that I believe we are living in the ‘last days’:
ever since the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion,
            the world dominated by powers of violence and oppression
            has been under judgement,
and whenever and wherever the people of Christ
            offer their faithful witness to the power of the cross,
the new world that is forever breaking into this old world
            is made more real as people are liberated from the powers of sin and death.

As we’ve seen with other passages from Mark’s gospel
            on our journey through it this year,
the shadow of the cross intentionally falls over the whole narrative.

We see this today particularly in the last few verses of our reading for this morning:

Therefore, keep awake--
            for you do not know when the master of the house will come,
            in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. (13.35-36)

The instruction to ‘keep awake’
            is the same request that Jesus made to his disciples in Gethsemane,
and the reminder that God is the master of the house
            is an important reassurance that other earthly powers
            do not hold the ultimate power over people’s eternal souls.

Then we get the four time markers,
            of evening, midnight, cock crow, and dawn,
which point us straight to the last night of Jesus before his crucifixion.

The evening is a reference to the last supper,
            which Jesus celebrated with his disciples
            on the night before he was betrayed (14.17).
Midnight is a reference to the long dark night of Gethsemane,
            when the disciples slept as Jesus prayed in anguish (13.32).
The cockcrow is a reference to Peter’s denial of Jesus (14.30, 68, 72),
            and the dawn is when Jesus is handed over to Pilate to be crucified (15.1).

Just as the disciples slept through Gethsemane,
            even as Jesus told them to keep awake,
so Jesus leans out of the pages of Mark’s gospel
            to tell each of us who reads it
that we must keep awake and ever alert
            to the changing of the times
as the old world passes, and the new world comes.

The master of the house is coming,
            and his presence can be felt by those of us
            who are watching faithfully for the signs of his in-breaking kingdom.

For Mark’s readers,
            the centre of their religious world was about to shift:
                        away from the beautiful temple in Jerusalem,
                        to communities gathered in new and different ways.
            And I’m sure this is something which those of us gathered virtually today
                        will be able to relate to,
            as we too have had to shift the focus of our worship life,
                        at least for a time.

And we too are discovering what it is to live
            with the shadow of death and fear falling over our lives.
None of us knows what the future will hold,
            for us and for those whom we love.

In many ways, the world will never be the same again,
            and the shifts in our society caused by the current crisis
            will be as deep and long lasting as the wars of former generations.

But what will this new world look like, when it comes?
            Will the old powers of violence and oppression reassert themselves?
            They always crouch at the gate, waiting to pounce.

Or will the culture of mutual aid, mass volunteering,
            safety nets for the poor and the vulnerable,
and a commitment to house the homeless and feed the hungry,
            become the forces that shape our world in the coming decades.

As the people of God in this time
            we share with Mark’s readers the task of building a different, a better world;
and we do this not by embracing violent revolution,
            nor by playing the world at its own game, seeking power over others,
but by living out in our own lives
            what it means to offer sacrificial love for one another.

We too are gathered in Gethsemane,
            and we need to keep awake.

Like Mark’s first readers, and the disciples of Jesus before them,
            we too have to discover that the meeting place of God and humans,
                        the place of the ultimate revelation of God’s glory,
            is encountered in the cross of Christ.

Where people die, God is.
            Where people suffer, God is.
Where people live in fear, God is.
            Where people are victimised, God is.
Where people are faithless, God is.
            Where people doubt, God is.
Where people betray, God is.
            Where people repent, God is.
Where people love one another, God is.
            Where people make sacrifices for others, God is.
Where people risk their safety for the lives of others, God is.

Because God is love,
            and the love of God is made known in and through the death of Jesus,
            God’s son, our saviour.

And so we take another step towards the cross,
            as we journey together towards Easter.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

A taxing question

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 15/3/20
Mark 12.1-17
I have long thought that numismatics, the study of coins,
            ought to be a lot more interesting that it actually is.

In theory, we can learn so much from these artefacts of money
            that previous civilisation have left behind,
            from their politics to their sociology to their religious beliefs.

But in reality, whenever I’ve got lost on the second floor of the British Museum
            and accidentally wandered into their (otherwise perpetually deserted) coins gallery,
                        all I can see are row after row of small and virtually indistinguishable coins.

Perhaps it’s a bit like stamp collecting, you either ‘get it’ or you don’t!

Anyway, work with me,
            because this morning I’m going to try and make one ancient coin, at least,
            a bit more interesting.[1]

This is a tribute penny from the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
            who was emperor of Rome from 14-37AD,
            which covers the whole of Jesus’ adult life.

The story we just heard read from Mark’s gospel
            is on the surface a controversy about taxation policy,
            but there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

There were a variety of taxes that the Jews of the first century had to pay:
            There was the temple tax, a tithe, or tenth, of a person’s income,
                        that went to support the temple, the priests, and the sacrificial system;
            There was the tax payable to Herod,
                        which was a kind of local tax to the local ruler;
            And then there was the Roman Tax,
                        which was basically a poll tax
                                    payable by everyone who was subject to Roman rule,
                        and those of us who are old enough to remember the 1980s
                                    will know how popular poll taxes are with the general public.

The Roman version was a powerful reminder
            that those living in Roman-occupied lands were not free,
            which from a Jewish perspective was a very sore point.
From the time of the Babylonian invasion nearly 600 years earlier
            the Jews had been ruled over by a succession of foreign powers,
                        all of them reminding the people of Israel at every turn
                        that their promised land was not truly theirs.

And, of course, where Rome ruled, Rome taxed.

Since the time of Herod the Great,
            Rome has been taxing the population of Palestine,
and in addition to this,
            the Herods, the Jewish puppet-kings, had added their own levies
            which they used to maintain their court, their military troops,
                        and of course their luxurious building programs.

Taxation had been a central issue in the brief Jewish rebellion
            which had happened at the time Judea
            first came under direct Roman administration,
                        when Jesus was about ten years old.

Throughout the decades, the burden of the tribute tax, as it was known,
            had been borne disproportionately by the peasants,
                        who of course could least afford it,
            and it was a major course of the rise in bandits in the countryside,
                        as those who didn’t, or couldn’t, pay
                        were forced from their land or smallholding,
                        making them homeless and penniless.

But it wasn’t just the financial burden and the symbolism of foreign oppression,
            that caused the Jews to have such a problem with these coins,
            that were used to pay the Tribute tax.

The ‘obverse’ or ‘heads’ side of the coin
            has on it the profile of Tiberius Caesar, the emperor,
and the inscription round it, in slightly abbreviated Latin,
            says, ‘Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.’

Then on the other side, the ‘reverse’ as I think it’s technically known,
            you can see Pax, the embodiment of the empire,
            and the inscription there calls him the ‘High Priest’.

As Tom Wright puts it,
            ‘If the Romans had gone out of their way to be offensive to first century Jews,
            they could hardly have done it better.’

Interestingly, the only other place in the gospel
            where the word ‘inscription’ appears, is at the crucifixion,
where the notice of Jesus’ conviction is posted over his head,
            declaring him to be ‘The king of the Jews’ (15.26)

As with the reference we saw last week
            to those getting the places of honour at Jesus’ left and right hands,
this is another example of Mark asking his alert readers
            to see the shadow of the cross
            in the stories he tells of the way to the cross.

So here we have Jesus, who Mark’s gospel is trying to convince us is the son of God,
            standing in the temple ruled by the high priest,
            asking for a coin with the son of a god and the high priest on it.

The message is clear:
            this is a religious question, not merely a social or political one.

Many first century Jews would try to avoid
            using, owning, or even touching these Roman tribute coins.

It’s interesting the Jesus doesn’t seem to be carrying one,
            and he has to ask his opponents to produce one for him to look at.

You can just imagine the person who had to reach into their pocket,
            and admit to carrying one of these blasphemous, traitorous coins.

Jesus’ demand to see one was carefully targeted
            to cause maximum embarrassment to the person who produces it.

And of course, someone does have one,
            because Jesus’ opponents were trying to both have their cake and eat it.
They were chasing both religious purity and Roman money,
            and this coin in the hands of Pharisee or a Herodian
            represented collaborative politics at its most blatant.

This is what Jesus is highlighting
            as he sets about evading their trap.

They were hoping that he would either support paying taxes to Rome,
            and so lose the popular support of the crowd,
or denounce the tax and face a charge of treason from the Romans.

But Jesus is several steps ahead of them,
            and to understand what he does next, we need a bit of context.

About two hundred years earlier,
            there had been a Jewish revolt against the Syrians,
                        who were ruling them at that time.

It was known as the Maccabean revolt,
            and the slogan of the revolutionaries was:

            ‘Pay back the Gentiles what they deserve,
            and obey the commands of the law’ (1 Maccabees 2.68)

This slogan captured nicely the Jewish duty to both the Gentiles, and to God,
            and it suggested that as far as the Gentiles were concerned,
            the policy was to give back as good as you got.

In other words, vengeance,
            prepayment in kind for violence received.

So, fast forward to the time of Jesus,
            and we’ve got him skirting the edges of revolution and revolt.

As we’ve seen, the disciples keep waiting for him to call them to arms,
            to march on Jerusalem and re-take the city.
But Jesus keeps telling them that his revolution is non-violent,
            and that he is attacking a deeper evil than simply Pagan domination of Israel.

So he’s not going to fall for the trap about the coin and the taxes,
            and he refuses to engage in the should-we / shouldn’t-we argument
            that they are trying to lure him into.

There is wisdom here that many people in our world could learn,
            about not getting sucked into superficial and binary arguments,
            especially on social media!

It’s also worth noting that Jesus doesn’t lay down some timeless ethical ruling,
            on the relationship between the church and the state;
although many have mistakenly tried to build such a theory
            on the basis of this passage.

Rather, Jesus hits the ball back over the net
            at twice the speed it arrived.

Firstly, he says, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's’
            which a superficial reading could simply interpret as, ‘yes, pay the tax’.

But to take it in this way is to take it in isolation from what follows,
            where Jesus says, ‘and give to God the things that are God's.’

This is not a simple analogy,
            between paying Caesar and paying God.

Rather, Jesus is setting the competing demands of Caesar and God against each other,
            rather than harmonising them.

The fact that Jesus has just drawn everyone’s attention
            to the blasphemous image of the emperor on the coin
gives his response a sense of
            ‘send this filthy stuff back where it came from!’

He’s being contemptuous of the Romans,
            but not directly enough to get him into trouble.

What Jesus says nicely echoes the Maccabean slogan,
            of ‘Give the pagans what they deserve’,
            or ‘pay the Gentiles back in their own coin’
And it could easily be heard as a coded revolutionary slogan.

The kingdom Jesus was proclaiming
            was one where the one true God becomes king of the world,
            and where all other pretenders to power,
                        whether they be petty Herods, High priests, or even emperors,
            are demoted to being the last and the least.

Jesus’ opponents had framed their trap
            as a conflict between the competing demands of ‘God’ and ‘Caesar’ (v.14)
and Jesus escapes it by considering these to claims:
            Give to Casesar what is Caesar’s,
            and to God what is God’s

But what if Jesus is here presenting not two compatible statements,
            - give to Caesar and give to God -
but two incompatible demands,
            inviting the Pharisees and the Herodians
            to act according to their allegiances.

The Pharisees would have known that, according to their scriptures,
            all humans bear the image of God,
and so God’s claim over a person was total,
            inseparable from the money they held in their wallets.

The conclusion they should have drawn from his reply
            was that the debt they owed to God was their whole selves,
            to be handed over to God, just as one might give a coin to the emperor.

And the setting of the conflict, the temple courtyard,
            sets it firmly in the context of the Jewish sacrificial system,
            which was the mechanism for making offerings to God.

Jesus’ inference that God’s demand is total over humans,
            might have been heard as a critique of the sacrificial system,
            inferring that it should be superseded by a more complete offering of worship.

This is Jesus turning the challenge back on his opponents in no uncertain terms,
            calling their hypocrisy into account,
                        challenging their status quo of religious and political compromise,
            and asking them what position they are going to take on this issue,
                        not in some theoretical question,
                        but in the very real reality of their wallets:
            what will they choose?

And of course this is why we get such a strong reaction from them.

They thought they were putting Jesus on the spot in a no-win scenario,
            but they discover that this is rather exactly what he has done to them;
and, their answer is already clear:
            they had the tribute coin already in their pockets, ready to pay the tax.

In this seemingly innocuous response,
            Jesus is radically opposing the divine reign of God,
            to the human reign of the emperor.
He’s not harmonising them,
            this is no neat doctrine of obedient citizenship,
            it is an invitation to choose where your ultimate allegiance lies:
                        with God or with the emperor,
            with the nonviolent demands of the peaceful kingdom of God,
                        or with the empire sustained by the imperial armies,
                        paid for by the tribute tax.

The vineyard parable that preceded this conflict with the Pharisees and the Herodians
            makes it clear where Mark wants his readers’ loyalties to fall.

His answer to the question of ‘What belongs to God?’ is found in this story,
            where it becomes clear that all leaders are only tenants,
                        and that God owns the land of Israel, not Caesar.

The parable makes it clear that the gospel rejects the option
            of political co-operation with Rome,
and that the authority of Caesar and his tribute penny is invalid
            in the light of God’s universal kingdom.

So, what can we take from this story,
            which is so often used to justify Christian complicity with corrupt powers,
and a separation of the life of faith into two halves,
            where one half pays its taxes
            and the other half says its prayers.

Too many sermons on this text
            have concluded with a justification of a church/state partnership,
            and an exhortation on the responsibilities of the ‘Christian citizen’.

Is this really a call for Christians to do deals with power,
            to get Bishops or other representatives inside the corridors of power,
                        to influence Government from the inside?
Is this really a call for Christians to run charity programs and food banks
                        to compensate for the diminishing of the welfare state,?

Is this really a justification for Christians to ensure that we take advantage
            of our full range charity tax breaks from Chancellor?

I don’t think so.

In the preceding chapter in Mark’s gospel (11.27-33)
            Jesus has just been arguing with the religious leaders
                        about the authority behind John’s baptismal practice,
            which concluded with Jesus utterly rejecting
                        their right to judge his actions.

Similarly, in the parable about the vineyard which we heard earlier,
            we saw Jesus undermining any claim
            the Jewish leaders may make to authority.

So, by the time we get to the dispute over the coin,
            the Pharisees and the Herodians know full well
            that Jesus is entirely rejecting their legitimacy.

So the trap they set him is one laded with danger,
            and their rage when he escapes it is no less perilous.

What Jesus finds himself in the middle of here,
            is a crisis of allegiance provoked by the Jewish liberation struggle.

In many ways, the dilemma facing Jesus in this story
            is analogous to that which faced Mark’s community
            a few decades later.

The issue facing the original readers of the gospel
            was a rising tension between Israel and the Empire
            that would shortly lead to the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70AD.

Historical sources tell us that the issue of taxation
            was still a flashpoint at the time Mark’s gospel was written,
and his original readers would have had to negotiate their own path
            through the tensions around religious conviction,
            political rebellion, and economic choices.

Mark’s gospel, far from encouraging its readers
            to pay their taxes and be good Christian Citizens,
instead strongly asserts an ideology
            which rejects both the Roman colonial presence,
            and the Jewish violent revolt.

Just as Jesus resisted both these in his answer,
            so his followers are to do the same.

Bowing down to the emperor is not the way,
            but neither is taking up arms against him.

The third way of Jesus
            was to turn the political challenge back
            on those who are trying to force the issue.

It is the path of nonviolent resistance,
            of refusing to accept the legitimacy of the empire,
            but also of refusing to do violence to overthrow it.

In our context the issue is rarely the paying of taxes,
            although we are not immune to the imposition
            of unfair and unjust taxation.

But I find myself wondering whether the issue in our world
            is that many of us are simply not taxed enough.

In Sweden, often given as an example of one of the best places in Europe to live,
            taxation rates are higher than most other countries.

It seems to me that a progressive taxation system which benefits everyone
            is far more just than tax cuts for the wealthy
            and the scaling back of public services.

This week’s budget has been rather obscured by the coronavirus crisis,
            but in the midst of the politically loaded language about ‘levelling up’,
                        which rather sounds to me like it’ll be fault of the poorer regions
                        if they don’t rise to the challenge,
            there were significant tax breaks for wealthy business owners.[2]

So as we try to work out how to apply
            Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the Herodians
to a contemporary context which is in some ways very different,
            but in other ways very similar
            to that which Jesus would have known,

I wonder if our nonviolent resistance to dominating oppression
            might look something like generosity.

What if our response were to be the giving of time, energy, and resources,
            to projects that benefit the common good?

What if our way out of the trap that lies before us,
            is neither quiescent complicity to the state,
            nor extremist politics of social revolution,
but developing - actively working at - a culture of generous, loving care,
            for those who are disadvantaged in our world and society;
coupled with a commitment to speak out,
            to challenge those political and economic systems
            that impoverish the poor and enrich the rich.

Maybe the role of the church is to play its part
            in shaming the powers that be
by holding them to account for their empty promises,
            and hypocritical posturing.

What if, through our involvement in organisations like London Citizens,
            and through our partnerships with organisations like the Simon Community,
we can be part of shaping a new world,
            where the kingdom values of justice and compassion are foregrounded,
            and where futile arguments about legalistic religion are set aside.

What if we can learn to be those who see our money as a mechanism for liberation,
            rather than a trap that ensnares us.

What if we can learn the truth of our citizenship,
            which is that it is not with any earthly empire,
but with the kingdom of God,
            which comes to us on earth,
            as it is in heaven;

Can we answer in our lives the call of the kingdom of God,
            which draws us to acts of courageous resistance,
            and generous love?

[1] This sermon draws heavily from the commentaries on Mark’s Gospel by Tom Wright and Ched Myers.