Charles Dickens penned this opening line in his book A Tale of Two Cities almost 150 years ago. Could these be such times today? Our financial structures have been shaken to the core and whether you are a custodian cleaning bathrooms or an executive pondering spreadsheets, the trust in markets and commerce has all but completely eroded.
It is not just finances that have us so worried. Wars outside our borders and violence within have us anxious. It is difficult to read the papers these days because there is so little to give us courage, or hope, or purpose.
In spite of finally putting the election behind us, the letters to the editor, the comments, jokes and in some cases acts of racial violence remind us how divided we seem to be as a nation. To be a person of color is no longer about ethnicity, but about blue states and red states. It all seems so discouraging.
Yet I am encouraged. This is our time – we who call on Jesus as Savior and Lord. This is our time if we remember whose image we bear.
I was pondering this notion last night as I was teaching the weekly Wednesday night Bible study. I was addressing the familiar story of Jesus who was cornered by religious authorities and asked whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes. Most of us know the story well. Jesus asks for a denarius (the coin used to pay the poll tax in question), which he was promptly handed, and asked: whose image is on it? (Luke 20:20-26)
What is interesting about this exchange is that his opponents were able to quickly produce a coin which bears the image of Caesar and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” The Torah forbids graven images and the Jews of the day considered such graven images idolatrous and the inscription blasphemous. In deference to Jewish sensibilities, Rome allowed Jews to make their own copper coins without Caesar’s image. But carrying a silver denarius was more convenient than carrying lots of copper coins.
Right there on the Temple grounds the custodians of religion produce a coin bearing the image that declares Caesar, son of God. The very act postures, as Thomas Long writes, “them –– not him –– as deceptive and hypocritical compromisers. They are the ones carrying around Caesar’s money, not Jesus; they are the ones who have the emperor’s image in their pocketbooks; they are the ones who have already bought into the pagan system” (p. 251).
Jesus then goes on to speak of the impending fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the coming of the Son of Man. All of this must have sounded devastating and unbearable, and yet Jesus said: Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (NRSV Luke 21:28)
Yes, I am actually believing that our time has come to embrace the best of times – not because the end is near (indeed, it is always at hand) – but because we have this opportunity to remember whose image we bear.
This is our moment dear church, dear people of God, where we can rise and decide who we will follow and who we will serve and, when it is asked of us, whose image we will bear.
My own beloved community, First Baptist Church of Augusta, has taken on with renewed zeal to bear the image of Christ in its calling to be vessels of transformation and change. As a teaching congregation we have a role and a responsibility to teach those around us by challenging assumptions, deepening the faith journey through spiritual formation and transformation. We also have a role in teaching the next generation to lead the community of faith to meet the emerging needs and opportunities.
Of course it is not just about teaching and educating. We are to be about the work of justice by extending ourselves and resources towards the needs of our region seeking to make right what is wrong. As advocates of truth we address the concerns and the deficits through missional engagement. The church is not a destination but a movement. Each member, while part of a whole, is nonetheless commissioned to move forward into the world – the workplace, the homeplace and so on – effecting transformative change in the name of Christ. Every member a missionary.
I should add, however, that it would be misleading to assume it is all about “busyness.” Whether a member of the congregation I am honored to serve as pastor or not, it is a mistake to see our worth in our productivity. Our worth is in the being of Christ. Being the presence of Christ within our selves and being the presence of Christ to others.
Thomas Merton wrote in the closing pages of the beautiful book New Seeds of Contemplation the following words:
…if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning if it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. (p.302)
It is indeed the best of times and the worst of times. Now is our time to live in it, fully, thankfully, and mindfully.
Peace to you and yours,