The Rev. Faye Hogan
Vivian Malone Jones died in October three years ago. She was only 63 years old. Her name is probably not immediately familiar to most of us. But those of us who were around in 1963 remember the powerful pictures on the nightly TV news and in the morning newspaper of the then governor of Alabama, George Wallace, standing on the steps of the administration building of the University of Alabama. He stood, in defiance of a court order, and attempted to block the enrollment of two young black students named James Hood and Vivian Malone Jones.
They did enroll, of course, and while that enrollment day called for courage and determination that most of us can only imagine, I’m sure that it took just as much courage and determination to endure the hostile climate for the two years it took Vivian to complete her degree and become the first black student to graduate from the University of Alabama. She went on to have a career first with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. and later, for the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta, Georgia.
At her funeral, James Hood spoke of that day in 1963 when he and Vivian got out of the car and, surrounded by jeering crowds, began to approach the steps where George Wallace and armed National Guards stood. James quietly whispered to Vivian that he was scared. Vivian squeezed his hand and, at the same time, handed him a note that said, “Whatever adversities these days, our Father, help us face them with courage.” Another friend, Glenda Hatchett commented at Vivian’s funeral “George Wallace didn’t know what he was up against because Vivian and God were on the same side.”
In 1963, many of us questioned how a nation claiming to be a Christian nation could allow lynchings in the South to go unpunished… could allow American citizens to be treated differently because of the color of their skin or their outward and visible signs of material wealth, or how some children could be overindulged while others went to bed hungry at night. I wish I could say that these are questions of the past, but they aren’t. But questions are good things. They can be powerful agents of truth.
Jesus grew up in the Hebrew faith, a tradition that puts a strong value on truth. As a child Jesus saw Rabbis sitting knee to knee debating and questioning, parsing out words of the Torah, disagreeing and agreeing on what God must have meant… looking for truth. This is a tradition that continues today in many Jewish homes on Friday nights following the Seder meal. By candlelight, family members share issues and events and everyone asks questions and gives helpful advice, wanted or not. One family member’s concern is everybody’s concern, like it or not!
In today’s gospel, we heard that the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked a question. The principals of this parable, the Herodians, the Pharisees, and Jesus and his followers each found themselves attempting to live under a repressive Roman regime. The first two groups, the Herodians and the Pharisees, had, in various degrees, adapted as best they could to the situation. Jesus, however, appeared to be the “wild card.” What he was teaching attracted great numbers of followers. He appeared to be a threat to their comfortable way of life. So they came to him and asked him to state openly where his loyalty lay. The question was a “trick” question. Whichever answer he chose would backfire on him! Instead, Jesus’ answer was not an “either/or” answer but a “both/and” answer. Jesus appears to be saying that loyalty to a political entity, expressed in this case by paying taxes to the emperor, is useful for survival, but limited while loyalty to God is absolute. The emperor and money must not be an idol. Coming to full union with God and with all of God’s creation is our earthly mission.
Today we find ourselves in an economic crisis unlike anything most of us have experienced. So very many mistakes along the way that led to where we are. Much like the Romans in Jesus’ time, we in this country have lived seeing ourselves as a majority with a divine mandate to prevent the rest of the world from lapsing into chaos. The old question in the gospel this morning remains, “What is owed to God?” There are those in high places who believe that service to America is identical to service to God. The bubble has burst for those who relied on the money markets for their religion. Loyalty to our country is important and healthy for survival but is also, as in Jesus’ time, limited. Loyalty to God is still the absolute.
In the midst of this economic crisis is it possible that God is nudging us toward enlarging our view of prosperity to encompass a more global prospective? There are a few billion people on this planet trying their best to live on less than two dollars a day and close to one half of those trying to live on less than one dollar a day. Part of what is happening to us now is perhaps that many, if not the majority of us as a country, needs to gain some perspective on what it truly means to live in this ever smaller world. Though we may have fallen a great distance, we still have God’s promise that, in the end, everything will be okay… that we matter to God. Is it possible that in these tough times when the bursting of the bubble of security is frightening to many of us, God is presenting us with yet another opportunity to place our faith into action for the good of others?
Our Harvest Dinner was festive and joyful. It signaled the beginning of our annual Stewardship Reflection. But more than that, it felt to me like those present were affirming their faith that St. Benedict’s would continue to care for each other and for those out in the community who are lost and seeking the God who cares for their hurts, their doubts, their fears. When clergy preach stewardship sermons we often use today’s gospel as a way to ask people how much we should give to the church and still have enough to pay our personal bills. Perhaps the real issue of stewardship is not “How much should I pledge?” but “From all that God has given me, how much should I keep for myself?”
Perhaps the real issue of stewardship is how much can I place my faith in God’s guidance to help me do what I can do to become even more empowered on my personal journey of service to God. With God’s help, we will find our way to a better time. In these anxious times what better prayer to remember than the one given by Vivian Malone Jones to James Hood, “Whatever adversities these days, our Father, help us face them with courage.”
Our challenges of today, just as the past challenges faced by those in 1963 are just more pieces of the process toward the just and loving society our God envisions for us. So we will face them with courage and faith in God’s goodness. We close with a prayer from the Church of England:
Lord God, we live in disturbing days… Our fragile security is under threat. Meet us in our fear and hear our prayer, be a tower of strength amidst the shifting sands and a light in the darkness. Help us receive your gift of peace and fix our hearts where true joys are to be found, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.