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The Eighteenth Sunday After Trinity

Salisbury Cathedral Interior View Facing West
Posted By : Ian Woodward Sunday 19th October 2014

A sermon by the Revd Ian Woodward on the occasion of his Licensing as Vicar of the Close

Matthew 22:15-22

It is indeed a real joy and pleasure to be here as your new Vicar of the Close.                                             

This amazing place has been an inspiration to me for longer than I can remember. It is place that inspires and at the same time humbles us – a place to enjoy in fruitful fellowship and a place to discover, perhaps re-discover the silent but very presence of God. It is a place I know well – I studied my theology here, was ordained here, worked here in the Diocesan Office, with our Dean on the workings of the Church in Society, and with Bishop David and now Bishop Nicholas, on our Sudan Partnership, which is wonderfully supported by our Cathedral here. So in a sense it is a home coming and I’m very grateful for all the good and kind messages of welcome I have already received. This place provides us with not only the immense breadth and depth of a place where God is worshipped through prayer and scripture and music but also in a deeply personal and private way in those moments of silence and quietness.

One of the most well-known musicians in our diocese (along with the late John Taverner) was the pianist Alfred Brendel who, until he retired had a home in Plush, in Dorset. He was the supreme interpreter in particular of Beethoven’s and Schubert’s piano works. He said this about quietness: “I like the fact that ‘listen’ is an anagram of ‘silent’. Silence is not something that is there before the music begins and after it stops. It is the essence of music itself, the vital ingredient that makes it possible for the music to exist at all.”

I think this stunning place is music in ancient stone and wood and glass with wonderful sounds and equally, deeply moving silence – silence that helps us to better know God through our personal, intimate and needy relationships with him. In this place we are unfailingly reminded of our journey with the risen and living Christ. Our faith’s journey that starts at the font with its living, nourishing water, and directs us to the altar where we die but because of our faith we, like Christ, rise again.

The space between the font and the altar is our life – our life’s journey with all it’s ups and downs, mixing as we do the challenge of ‘Our duty to believe with the liberty to think’ and it is with this challenge in mind that we may be pondering what we make of our Gospel reading for today?

Is Jesus being ingenious or just too clever? Was he dodging the trap set for him by the Pharisees and the Herodians; and can we, or perhaps more challengingly should we really seek to compartmentalize our lives in this way?

As a point to ponder - Do you think Jesus paid the Roman tax? It’s a funny thought that, – I somehow never visualize Jesus as having any pockets – if he did what would he have kept in them - hardly his smart ‘phone’; did he have a denarius for the Roman tax? I guess he didn’t because asked to see one.

Baroness Shirley Williams in her book ‘God and Caesar’, writes about the challenge of faith in a secular world. She tells of her mother Vera Brittain of ‘Testament to Youth’ fame (and which was re-read by many of us this year trying to better understand the loss and suffering of the First World War) – her mother wrote to the Inland Revenue after WW2 to say she didn’t think she was paying enough tax – and that was at a time when the taxation ‘take’ as it were, was, for her, 80% of her income. Paying one’s taxes is a moral responsibility and in a democracy today this can be just as difficult as it was in that part of the totalitarian Roman Empire 2000 years ago. It was especially galling to the Jewish leadership who were oppressed and enslaved by Rome. Today, for us paying taxes is a matter of conscience. In a democracy, if we don’t like what our taxes are being spent on we can change the government of the day through the ballot box.

One area that troubles me is that we are encouraged as a nation to be proud that we give 0.7% (that’s less than one percent) of our GDP to our overseas aid budget and proud because this is more than most nations contribute. I suspect that most of us would pay more in tax if we could better improve the NHS and Education and transport etc. Others will say we should not spend so much on defence whilst at the same time saying what can we do about the increasing threat from radicalised young men in Syria and Iraq and what should we do to prevent Ebola coming to our land?

All of us have fine lines to walk in negotiating the various kinds of commercial and ethical interests that fill our days. As the American theologian Richard Spalding writes – ‘most of us are collaborators some of the time, and subversives some of the time’. So Jesus avoids the trap – where there might have been comfort in answering the question – if he’d said ‘don’t pay your taxes’ he would have won support from the zealots – and been arrested by the Romans. The answers to the Pharisees’s questions are simple only for those who regard Caesar as God, or, as the devil. The answer to the question ‘is it lawful’ etc can be answered, as Susan Eastman writes, ‘only by looking forward to Jesus’ teaching on the greatest of the commandments, which ground his debates with the religious leaders: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”, and, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. This, including the question of whether to pay taxes or not, is expressed in how we love our neighbour. We then have the follow-on question: ‘But who is my neighbour? Is it to support food banks here in Salisbury or the starving displaced people in our linked provinces in the Sudans. Tough choices.

Meanwhile thinking of that denarius that Jesus asked the question about; we all bear God’s image – as Isaiah reminds us – ‘See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hand’ and again from Isaiah as our font inscription reminds us, ‘I have called you by name and you are mine’

And so we belong – to God and to one another. But we need, I think to be doing and not simply belonging; to be putting the two great commandments into action and going beyond being nice and friendly and polite.

Some of you will, I’m sure, remember our Lenten journey in 2009, with Father Timothy Radcliffe, former Head of the Dominican Order and a Sarum Canon. His overall Lenten theme was being ‘Fully Alive’ to Christ and to one another, and he called his closing session ‘Being touched into life’. Now I’m not suggesting we invade each other’s space unlawfully or insensitively but Fr Timothy reminded us:

We can see without being seen

We can hear without being heard

But you cannot touch without being touched, and,

If we dare to be touched then we shall live.

I very much look forward getting to know you better in this ministry that we all share, in love and faith, as together, we seek to make God’s love known in this wonderful place and beyond it too.