Sermon for 20th Sunday after Pentecost - Oct 22 2017

Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
October 22, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

The last time this gospel passage floated by – three years ago – I think I told you that the key to opening the door to understanding Jesus’ use of the coin was the question of whose image was on it.  His hearers would perhaps recall that human beings are made in the image of God – certainly the veneration of images of things not God – such as golden calves, for instance – was understood to be a violation of the Covenant expressed in the Law as handed down by Moses and the Prophets.

They thought they could trap him with Caesar’s image. Either Jesus would say “pay the tax” – in which case they could say he put Caesar before God – or he would say “don’t pay the tax” – in which case they could accuse him of being a revolutionary against the State.

And of course, Jesus was having none of it.  Theologian Richard Spalding says that he saw through their machinations and sliced through their assumptions by reminding them that they were made in the image of God – and that the money didn’t matter; all that mattered was rendering to God all that they were,[1] as human beings, as children of God, as being in covenant with God – who had promised to always be there for them in times of need and times of plenty.

This is the God of whom the psalmist sang:

"O mighty King, lover of justice,

you have established equity; *

you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."

Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God

and fall down before his footstool; *

he is the Holy One.

Dr. Spalding opens his commentary on this gospel passage thus: “The Pharisees and the Herodians, with the kind of forced geniality bred by collusion, are trying to entrap Jesus….”[2]

Isn’t that an elegant phrase: “a forced geniality bred by collusion”?  They had a common goal – the elimination of any threat posed by Jesus to their respective worlds – but they had very different world views and very different reasons for fearing him.

Still, unlike many people in opposing political parties today, they were willing to work together to get something they both wanted, even if it meant working with people whom they pretty much despised from the bottom to the top.

The Herodians were King Herod’s supporters, hangers on, donors, and convenient friends.  They didn’t work for him, but they kind of thought he should look out for their interests.  Meanwhile, the Pharisees, as we know, were religious purists, happily dictating doctrine and behavior, condemning those who fell short of standards they themselves rarely managed to meet.  It was all about the right thinking, with them – what theologians call “orthodoxy” or “right belief.”

Does any of that sound familiar?

So we can see that we are still facing issues similar to those that Jesus and his followers faced – and we are still struggling to find some kind of balance, or guidance, or rule, or model, that we can follow.  Instead, we find that we must still wrestle, and the answers will change from occasion to occasion.

Most of us are not likely to foster systemic political oppression with an aim to maintain power and authority over others.  Neither are most of us likely to turn our backs on the system and go “off the grid” and become hermits or monks and turn our backs on the world.  Most of us, instead, are just trying to thread the needle of daily life without doing too much harm and helping out where and when we feel we can.

We are caught betwixt and between, and there are days and times when the right choices are hard to discern, or, even really hard: because the choices we know are right are things we cannot do without cost, and sometimes a very high cost.

Do we run into the street to grab the child who wandered away from her parents with a big truck heading right for her?  Do we take out our smart phones and record a video of the truck and the little girl? 
When someone we know is sick, do we pray and stop there, or do we cook meals, take the children for an outing.  Do we stand by and watch or decry, or do we engage?

When our friends are telling jokes about what women dress like, do we laugh, or are we silent, or do we say, “Please don’t – I don’t want to hear that,” or even “Please don’t – it’s demeaning and it’s not funny.”?

When the hurricane comes to Puerto Rico do we fall into the political line that because their government was not the world’s most effective they just don’t deserve our help?  Or do we call our Congressional representatives and pony up some cash to help out?

When refugees are running from the genocide in Myanmar, do we say “Oh what a shame” or ask “What can I do to help?”  Frankly I don’t know what would help, but it wouldn’t hurt if our own government got together with some other countries and actually condemned this action, and brought pressure against the Burmese regime – and the much-admired Aung San Suu Kyi – to end this atrocity.

When black men and women tell us that they are being subjected to unjust and unfair treatment in employment, in walking down the street, in driving their cars – do we say “it’s all in your imagination; just do what the cops tell you and it will be fine” – which seems to work for us – or do we listen and hear the years of pain and frustration and fear and consider the idea that our facts are not their facts?

When a Christian friend says that GLBT people are not worthy of God’s love, what do we say?

I know as well as you that the “just right” response and the “pithy” rejoinder to something we hear said by another seem to always show up well after the moment has past.  I know it can be difficult to stand against our friends and relatives, because we don’t want a confrontation; we want to keep the peace; we want to survive the encounter; we want to stay in relationship.

But I have to ask – what would Jesus do?

Really, after hearing these parables and conversations, what do you think Jesus would say or do in these situations?

We need to get deeper in our relationship with our Trinitarian God, who lives always in relationship with us.  We need to listen for the voice of the Spirit.  We need to ask ourselves about our own reactions and what they say about us.  We need to examine our assumptions about the things that bring out feelings of defensiveness.

We must not limit our religious sensibilities to comforting ourselves in our life choices; that’s not what it’s for.  If our faith can’t accept the questions, what kind of faith is it?  The Father knows us better than we know ourselves, Jesus is familiar with all our doubts and fears, the Spirit stands ready to strengthen and encourage us – yet we are afraid to trust.

I think that’s the root of the matter – we are afraid to trust that God has our back, and no matter what comes of challenging those who oppose God’s grace and mercy and loving abundance and generosity and care for all God’s creatures, of whatever race or creed or nation or people, that God will always have our backs.

Do not be afraid.  I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people – there is a God, there is a savior, there is reason for hope, and all shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Trust me on this!  More importantly, trust God on this.  You can do the hard thing.

 

[1] Richard E. Spalding, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4 Kindle location 6842.

[2] Richard E. Spalding, Op cit. Kindle loc. 6864.

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