The Image of God, Blessings and Beams of Love

Matthew 22:15-22

Poet William Blake writes,
“We are put on earth a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

What happens when
we really allow the beams of love
to penetrate our heart,
to soften our being,
and to move our soul?

I was pondering that question this week
when I read the story of Chris Hoke,
a young Anglo man who grew up on the West Coast
and became a jail chaplain in the farmlands of Washington State.

Growing up, Chris longed
for real connection,
for real transformation.
Chris yearned to learn to bear the beams of love
but he didn’t quite know
how to make it happen.

All he knew was that,
at night, he would come alive.

After the sun set,
Chris would discover
this fire burning inside of him
and he would stay up late,
capturing songs and insights.

Then the morning would come.
He would groggily awake and find himself
unable to capture the same fire as the evening before.

Hungry for something more,
after high school,
Chris enrolled in a program
where young people live together like monks
in one of the four most violent neighborhoods in America.
The program sent Chris to East Bay, California,
right outside of Los Angeles.

During the day,
Chris served food
and helped people fill out paperwork
at the homeless shelter.

At night,
Chris stayed up late
at his neighbor Leno’s house.
Leno was a Salvadorian gang member
in-hiding with his girlfriend
from his San Francisco enemies.

Whereas others found Chris
an unnatural presence in the East Bay
with his bleached hair and surfer looks,
Leno invited Chris to his carne asada parties
and introduced him
like he was just another homie on the block.

One day, Leno invited Chris to a BBQ at a public lake.
When Chris stepped on a bee in bare feet
and dropped to the grass in pain,
Leno told his laughing friends to shut up
while he got on his knees
and pulled the stinger from Chris’ pale foot.

When the year ends,
Chris gives Leno his guitar.
As he stands in front of his Scarface movie poster,
Leno says that he wanted to sing late at night
after his homeboys have left his house.
“You know,” he starts cautiously,
looking over his shoulder and then saying more softly, “to praise the Lord.”
Leno adds, “I been wantin’ to sing my own kinda prayers, here, at night, you know?
That’s when I feel it.”

Something in Chris changes after his encounters in East Bay and with Leno.

“We are put on earth a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

What happens when
we allow the beams of God’s love
to penetrate our heart,
to soften our being,
and to move our soul?

This is an underlying question
for Jesus in the text today
as he encounters
the Pharisees,
who focus on rigid beliefs,
and the Herodians,
who support the current corrupt political establishment.

They want to trap him, to trick him,
and he wants to know:
Have you yet learned to bear the beams of Love?

The Pharisees and Herodians come to Jesus and say:
“Teacher, we know that you are genuine
and that you teach God’s way as it really is.
We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions,
because you don’t show favoritism.
So tell us what you think:
Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

This question is about
the current corrupt political establishment.
It is lose-lose,
because the Roman tax collectors
demanded, extorted as much money as they wanted
from the people, people already struggling to make ends meet.

If Jesus says yes, pay the tax, he is condoning this unjust act.

If Jesus says no, don’t pay the tax, he is going against the laws of the empire.

What do you do?

Jesus looks past their words to their heart.
Jesus wants to know:
Have you yet allowed the beams of Love
to penetrate your heart,
and to move your soul?

Jesus wants to know this because
just a few days ago,
he had enter this temple, this religious establishment
and had been met by unethical money changers.

The money changers are in the area right before the Temple,
because all people are required to change their Roman currency to the Temple one,
Roman coins are not allowed in the Temple
because they have Caesar’s head and the inscription, “Caesar is the son of god”,
and therefore they break the commandments not to serve other gods and not to have idols.

Yet these money changers,
like the tax collectors,
have decided to make money off the backs of the people.
They worship the gods of profit and consumerism
and they use and unfair exchange rate
for the widows, for the poor and for those struggling to get by.

There is a story in the Gospels
about a widow giving all she had to the Temple
and yet the little she has given has already been ripped off by the money changers.

Upon entering the Temple,
Jesus sees the widow, the poor, the ripped off,
and he is furious.
He tips over the tables; the coins come crashing to the floor
and Jesus says
“It’s written, My house will be called a house of prayer,
but you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.”

Jesus leaves and comes back to the temple another day,
the day of today’s text.
At the temple, the Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus,
concerned about rigidity and rule keeping.

They come asking: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?

Jesus replies, “Do you have the coin used to pay this Roman tax?”

“Yes,” they say.

“Whose image is on it?” Jesus asks.

The Greek word that Jesus uses here for image – eikon –
it is the same word that describes
how, in Genesis, God created humankind in God’s own image.

“Whose image is on it?” Jesus asks.

“Caesar’s.” They reply.

Jesus responds: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Give to God what is God’s.

What is God’s?

[Everything.]

Who or what bears the image of God?

[All of us]

The image of Caesar may be clearly outlined on this coin,
but do we see the image of God outlined:
in the poor? in the money changers?
in the widows and the lepers and the Pharisees?
Do we see the image of God outlined in ourselves?

“We are put on earth a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

That we may learn.

Maybe it is a hard thing to learn to bear the beams of God’s love.
Maybe it is a hard thing
to let go of our control and composure,
judgments and assumptions,
and the tight grip we keep on the entrance to our hearts.

And yet, even in us, especially in us, dwells the image of God,
the image of a God who loves us more than we can understand or imagine,
a God who open our hearts and who transforms our lives.

We are put on earth a little space that we may learn.

Chris Hoke, the young man, I mentioned earlier,
hungered to learn to bear the beams of God’s Holy Love.
He caught a glimpse of it in his work in East Bay
but then went to college and could not find a friend like Leno.
He pushed his way through classes
and wondered what to do with his life.

Then, he heard about a theologian
who lived in the rainy farmlands north of Seattle.
This man, Bob Ekblad, was a trained theologian,
who farmed the land by day and taught the Bible by night,
not at a seminary, but at a crowded country jail.

Drawn to Bob’s work,
Chris moved to Washington State
and assisted at the evening Bible studies.

One night, at a Bible Study, an inmate asked for a visit,
and Chris visited him and then others one, two, five evenings a week.
They told stories of rehab, juvenile halls and foster families.
They too write songs.
Together they sing and pray and long for something more.

Chris tells the story of how, one evening,
at the Bible Study in the jail,
Bob turns to a hard-faced man and says,
“I’m sure you have been cursed many times.
Have you ever been blessed?”

At this question, Chris notes that this man
changes before his very eyes.
Bob presses his hand on the man’s chest, near his heart,
and speaks simple words of blessing.
The Holy Spirit is invoked.
This man in red jail scrubs
begins to cry,
losing his control and composure.
At last, he smiles, wipes his face and looks shyly at his lap.
Chris says that, in that moment, he saw a dead man come back to life.

We are put on earth a little space that we may learn,
that God may teach us:
to open our hearts,
to sit still
and to let ourselves start to feel at home
in a love that we are not used to.

Amen.

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