Monday, October 20, 2014

Order By Attraction

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)–Mission Sunday
Good Shepherd Lay Associates Day of Recollection

Picture: cc Windell Oskay

Sisters and brothers, what do you think is the best way to clear up a mess? Imagine, for example, that you’ve gone abroad for a holiday. Leaving your house in the care of some friends. And, upon your return, you find that your friends have left your house in a state of chaos. How would you go about putting things back in order? The answer is quite simple, right? To tidy things up you need to sort them out. Carefully separate one thing from the other. And then put each thing back in its own proper place. Separation. That’s how we usually bring order out of chaos.

Now that may be true of tidying up your house. But can you think of some other situation where another method might work just as well? Or maybe even better? I’m reminded of a science experiment that our teacher once performed for us when we were still in school. Onto a stiff piece of cardboard, the teacher poured a container-full of rusty iron filings. Which spilled out all over the cardboard. Making quite a mess. Then, the teacher took a magnet and put it under the cardboard. And, to our amazement, the chaotic pile of iron filings arranged themselves into an orderly pattern. How did this happen? How did a messy heap get tidied up so neatly and so quickly? You know the answer. It was achieved by the power of attraction. Attraction of the iron filings to the force field exerted by the magnet.

Separation is not the only way to bring order out of chaos. Sometimes attraction works much better. I think this is also the lesson that our Mass readings are trying to teach us today. The gospel presents us with a mess. A state of chaos. The mess comes in the form of a question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? The question is asked with the intention of trapping Jesus. Of getting him into trouble. But even if it’s a dishonest question, a messy question, it’s still a valid one. An important one. Should a faithful Jew pay taxes to a foreign power that is occupying Jewish land by force? This is a difficult question. A messy question. A potentially dangerous question.

How does Jesus tidy up the mess? What answer does he offer? Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar–and to God what belongs to God. The answer is as elegant as it is simple. But what does Jesus mean? One possible interpretation is that Jesus is calling for a strict separation of religion and politics. Of church and state. According to this understanding, what Jesus is saying is that the question of whether or not one should pay taxes is a purely political or civil one. And so it should not be mixed up with the religious question of what God requires. To tidy up the mess, we must separate the questions into two boxes. Taxes in one. God in another. And neither should be allowed to affect the other.

But scripture scholars tell us that such a view is mistaken. Not least because, in the ancient world, religion and politics were not separate, but very much mixed. The first reading shows us just how mixed. Here, the Persian king, Cyrus, has conquered the Babylonians, and allowed the people of Israel to return from exile in Babylon to their own land. These actions of Cyrus are clearly political actions. And yet, in the reading, God tells Cyrus that, unknown to him, all his political achievements have actually been the result of God’s action. Though you do not know me, God says, I arm you that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that, apart from me, all is nothing. Clearly, in the eyes of God there is no separation between religion and politics. God sees and is concerned about everything and everyone. So that even if the coin used to pay taxes in Jesus’ day may belong to Caesar, Caesar himself belongs to God. Indeed, everything belongs to God. For apart from God, all is nothing.

So how then to tidy up the mess? How to bring order to the chaos? Surely we cannot continue to mix religion and politics in exactly the same way today? Surely we Christians cannot seek to impose all our religious beliefs on everyone else? Especially if we make up only a relatively small percentage of our country’s population? Surely we do not expect our Archbishop to tell the government exactly how to run the country? Or the government to tell us Christians how to worship? And what to believe? So how then are we Christians to conduct ourselves in civil society? When should we speak up? When should we remain silent? How shall we even go about making such decisions? To tidy up the apparent messiness of our political and religious lives? Our Mass readings don’t give us exact answers to all these questions. But they do point us in a helpful direction.

In the second reading, St. Paul praises the Thessalonian Christians for having shown their faith in action, worked for love and persevered through hope, in our Lord Jesus Christ. Even though they live in a largely pagan society, the Thessalonians have succeeded in properly ordering their lives in Christ. How did they manage to do this? For St. Paul, the power to do this comes to them from God. From the attractive force that God exerts upon them. We know that God loves you, Paul writes, and that you have been chosen, because when we brought the Good News to you, it came to you not only as words, but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction. If the Thessalonians have succeeded in bringing order out of their chaotic lives, it is because they have allowed themselves to be attracted, above all else, by the power of God’s love for them in Christ Jesus. And, like iron filings arranged by a magnet, they have allowed this powerful attraction to permeate all of their lives. To affect everything that they think and say and do. They have managed to order their lives not so much through separation. But through attraction.

And isn’t this a helpful insight for us to ponder? Especially today, when we celebrate Mission Sunday. And when you Lay Associates and Lay Partners of the Good Shepherd congregation gather to renew your commitment to the mission. For whether we care to admit it or not, it is into a messy world that we are all sent on mission. A chaotic world that cries out for order. And we Christians can only be of some help to the extent that we first allow God to put order into our own individual lives. Arranging them around our primary attraction to God. And then sharing this attraction with others. Even magnetising them. So that they too may be drawn into the force field that is God’s enduring love for the world.

Sisters and brothers, life can often seem quite messy. And yet, God continues to attract us to himself in Christ. What can we do to continue allowing the powerful magnet of God’s love to bring order out of chaos? In hearts, in our lives, and in our world, today?

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