Thompson’s Sermon from Oct 16, 2011

October 18, 2011

Occupy Heaven
Matthew 22:15-22

22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 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.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

It appears that the Arab Spring has arrived in the United States and we’ve got our own mass of people taking to the streets in protest of what feels like unfair economic policies. We don’t have an oppressive power-hungry dictator to resist, which makes for a less focused assembly, but it makes for a safer gathering. Bank executives aren’t known for their physical thuggery, so all in all the various gatherings around the country have been very civil, and these assemblies haven’t really targeted individuals. It seems to be the policies that are in place that people are upset about. There is this sense that our economic system works more to the advantage of those who are already advantaged. These policies are so complex it’s hard for the folks who have taken to the street to have a cohesive agenda, but there’s some passion out there. This Occupy Wall St. movement has struck a chord. The creature has come to life.

I’m glad it’s happening. We all know that money speaks, but people speak also. There’s another voice out there. I guess you might say there are many different voices out there saying different things, but that’s ok. I like democracy, and I hope we can keep it going a little longer. I hope the current protests will lead to policies that will work better for more people. This is sort of a naïve view of the situation, but that’s the view I choose to have right now. It’s all just sort of interesting to me right now. I’m not a part of the movement, but I’m cheering them from the sideline.

A good protest is hard to find, but it can feel good to be a part of a crowd that’s expressing some righteous indignation. I had the good fortune to experience a good protest back in ’82. I was in seminary at the time, and as I was walking across campus I noticed a gathering of students in front of the Duke University student union. They were listening to this older white woman talk about what was happening in Warren County which was a few counties to the north of Durham Co. which is where the campus was located. She wasn’t the kind of person you expected to be stirring up trouble so to speak, and I had to stop and listen to what she was saying.

It seems that many industries used to use a lot of a chemical called PCB in electrical transformers and other things until somebody figured out that it was very carcinogenic. It’s use became outlawed and at that point disposing of the chemical became a big business. So this one company had an interesting business plan. They would charge a company an exorbitant rate of money to dispose of the chemical, but instead of properly treating the chemical they would drive their tanker trucks down from the northeast to rural roads in North Carolina and simply open the valve of the tank containing the hazardous chemical and drive along until it was empty.

This situation was discovered after a number of people got sick after changing a tire or simply walking along one of those roads. So after figuring out what had gone on the governing officials generated a plan for how to dispose of the chemical, and the plan they came up with was to dig up a few inches of the soil from along those hundreds of miles of roads and put it in a landfill that happened to be in the poorest and least white county in the state. The decision to place the landfill in Warren County defied any kind of geological rationale, but it had the right demographic for the governor and the legislature.

The population of Warren County was about 70% non-white, and about 20% of the population lived under the poverty level. You might say it was the county with the least voice in the state, but they found their voice, and they let people know what was happening. Part of what this woman had to say was that this proposed landfill had become a uniting experience for all of the citizens of Warren County. She said their county had always been very racially segregated, but that this landfill threatened the water for all of them, and it had brought the community together in a miraculous way. She was inviting us to come to Warren County and join in on their daily march to the site of the landfill, and some of us went.

It was a beautiful experience for me. The daily marches began with people gathering in the sanctuary of this small church that few white people had ever attended until this movement began, but it was a very racially mixed group of people who were in attendance and the music was incredible. There was this spirit of unity and resistance to an evil agenda that was intoxicating. Several people spoke, and then we embarked on a march to the site and they had these wonderful chants that just made you feel like you were a part of something important.

The citizens of Warren County were unable to prevent this landfill from going in, but when I googled Warren County PCB landfill I read an article that attributed that protest movement as the event that gave birth to the environmental justice movement in our country. And the good news was that the state eventually made good on a commitment to find a proper way to decompose the dangerous chemicals, and they engineered a way to process that soil and incinerate the hazardous waste.

I don’t know how the citizens of Warren County are relating to each other these days, but the people I heard speak had experienced a profound sense of connection with other, and I have to believe that it transformed the community in some lasting ways. You might say they had occupied heaven in a profound way, and you don’t forget how that feels.

You may be wondering how this connects with this morning’s text, but what I see is that there has often been this tension between the interests of the people who are in relative control of society and the way that God would have things be in the world. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a state function in a truly godly manner, but we’ve seen some places governed in ways that truly defy the love of God, and it’s a challenge for all of us to navigate the territory between thes conflicting agendas. What we read this morning is the way in which Jesus had to figure out how to avoid being smashed by a political machine in order to serve a larger cause. The people who came to Jesus with their question about paying taxes to Ceasar thought they had found an unanswerable question for him.

They thought they had a question that would either get him arrested by the Romans for advocating the non-payment of taxes or cause him to loose the confidence of the people who hated paying taxes to the pagan government. Jesus understood the politics and he understood that he was out to do something larger than to throw a rock at the Romans, and he answered with this powerfully poignant statement that we should render to Ceasar that which is Ceasar’s and to God that which is God’s.

He answered the question in a way that continues to challenge all of us to understand how we live in our day and age and state in a manner that is also faithful to God. Which is hard!!

We all feel the tug of self-interest. We understand the consequences of standing in different places. We know what happens when you support one group as opposed to another group and if you attend one rally as opposed to another rally. There’s a treacherous political landscape that we all are challenged to navigate, and it’s rarely simple.

There are people who have chosen to occupy Wall St. or Boston or LA or Little Rock because they want a better world. There are others who have shown up at those events because they want to be seen on TV or to somehow impress someone. God knows that there aren’t any automatically good places to stand. There are no positions to take that instantly reveal actual purity in our hearts. But the desire to serve God does play out in real choices about what we do. The exercise of giving to God that which is God’s will move us to stand in one place or another.

I believe this woman who came from Warren County and appealed for help in their resistance to an injustice was motivated by her love of God and her neighbors. This injustice had helped her to see who her neighbors really were and it provided her with an opportunity to occupy heaven. It was a transforming experience for her. It was a transforming experience for me. It nourished my soul to be with that community, and that trip to Warren County made me feel like I had occupied heaven for a short period of time.

I heard a short eulogy on the radio the other day of a man named Frank Kameny. I had never heard of him, but he was a pioneer in the gay rights movement. He engaged in this struggle in 1957 when he was fired from a job with the US Army for being homosexual. He didn’t hide who he knew himself to be and he grappled with the US government for his entire life. He believed our government should provide equal protection for all people and he was a relentless advocate for this position.

There’s some poetic justice in the fact that he lived to see our government eliminate the don’t ask don’t tell policy. He was present when President Obama signed this into law, and he died soon afterward. In my opinion Frank Kameny was someone who made clear decisions about what he would render to Ceasar and what he would render to God. He didn’t have an easy life, but my impression is that he found a way to occupy heaven while he lived here on earth.

This is the challenge and the opportunity for us all – to find ways to abandon godless agendas and to occupy heaven. Sometimes these options present themselves in the subtle way in which we treat a neighbor. Sometimes this challenge requires us to stand up and be counted in very public and costly ways.

The fact that you have chosen to occupy our sanctuary this morning is a good indication that you want to be a part of something Godly, and I hope that it feels like you are in a holy place today. Occupying a pew isn’t an automatic way of occupying heaven, but we’re trying to be a Godly place, and I think there’s a lot of Godly business that goes on around here. It’s a high calling to occupy heaven, and it’s a relentless challenge to find our way into that sacred space, but it can happen for all of us. I’m happy that we’ve chosen to be on this path together, and by the grace of God I trust we’ll find our way.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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