1 Thess, Matthew, Sermons

Heads or Tails?

A sermon for Proper 24    October 26, 2008    1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

We’ve
had a lot of news on at our house lately. The financial crisis, the
Presidential campaign—both rivet my ears to listen, if not my eyes to
watch. Light Princess came into the kitchen, where we have a small TV
on the counter, and she heard a report about undecided voters. How, she
asked, can people be undecided? For her this seemed to be a mysterious
concept. If presented with a candidate or an issue, why don’t you just
use your tools—your thinking, your values, your feelings, your
intuition—to help you reach a determination?

Well, I told her,
some people don’t start with a strong party affiliation. Some people,
in fact, place a value on being independent and therefore don’t
associate themselves immediately with one side or the other.

Some people either don’t like to choose, or they enjoy the process of choosing enough to savor it.

I don’t imagine, I told her, that most people just get to the voting booth and flip a coin. Heads, Obama? Tails, McCain?

On
the other hand, maybe they do. I can think of times I got to that
crucial moment and had no idea who or what I wanted to support,
especially on those ballot issues I didn’t take the time to read about
carefully. Wednesday night, Snowman called home for help with his
absentee ballot, and I have to tell you, I didn’t know we had ballot
issues in City By the Sea, much less what they were about! Using my
ability to read complex English sentences, which those ballot measures
and bond issues always are, I did the best I could to figure out the
issues and my point of view and to help both of us draw a conclusion.

When
we read stories about the questions addressed to Jesus, we would do
well to remember how we feel standing in the voting booth reading about
Question Z or Bond Issue 732.

Then the Pharisees went and
plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to
him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are
sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show
deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell
us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or
not?"
(Matthew 22:15-17, NRSV)

I’m reminded of the
propositions worded to confuse us, to turn our brains around and make
us questions what we know to be true. Jesus, of course, understood, but
let’s place ourselves in the position of the disciples, not the
cleverest group of fellows ever, standing by and listening to Jesus get
this question from disciples of the Pharisees. The Pharisees feel
threatened by Jesus as a matter of faith; he calls their practice into
question and threatens the religious status quo. The party of King
Herod, that monarch propped up by the invading Romans, have another set
of interests. Their power lies in their support of Rome. If they heard
Jesus speak against paying taxes to the emperor, they would have to
prosecute him. So the Pharisees cleverly brought them along, certain
that one way or the other they could discredit Jesus. If he supports
taxes, he lets down his followers, who hail from an area known for its
revolutionary feelings toward Rome. If he doesn’t, he’ll wind up in
jail.

If I’m a disciple, standing by and listening, I am surely wondering how my teacher will get himself out of this one.

And then he asks to see a coin.

But
Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the
test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they
brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and
whose title?"
(Matthew 22:18-20, NRSV)

Ah, the disciples must have thought with relief. He can’t be tricked so easily!!

They
answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the
emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that
are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him
and went away.
(Matthew 22:21-22, NRSV)

Render unto Caesar
what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s. It’s funny how I remember
the King James Version of some of these passages! Render unto Caesar,
heard the disciples, and they thought, “Phew! He told them!!”

But he is telling us, too.

If
you’re like me, you’ve been thinking a lot about money the past few
weeks, wondering when or if the stock market would stop falling,
wondering whether the bailout was really a good idea or not, wondering
about your own retirement whether you’re in it or anticipating it or
hoping it won’t have to come too soon! You’re wondering about your
house, whether it’s worth anything anymore, or breathing a sigh of
relief that you weren’t thinking of moving yet.

Some of us, in
the midst of all this, sat down to talk about the Stewardship campaign,
to think about what we could say in a letter to the church in these
tough times, to contemplate what we can give ourselves, what we might
be able to do without, to wonder, “What are the limits of possibility?”

Jesus
gave an unexpected answer to the Pharisees. Pay the taxes, he said,
with the money designed by Caesar. Give God what is God’s.

Pay your taxes and your pledge. Amen.

That’s how many a Stewardship sermon might end! Keep being faithful to God, and do what you have to do in the rest of the world.

But
that’s too simple. Caesar, the emperor, occupied Jerusalem. The Romans
invaded and help a people under house arrest. You could live your life
as long as you capitulated to the authority of the Romans and their
puppets. And I found myself wondering this week, who is Caesar to us,
really?

Last week, on the humorous radio news quiz, “Wait, Wait…
Don’t Tell Me!” someone wondered, “What will we say to our children
when there are no Christmas presents?” My first thought: I’m glad my
kids are older! But there’s a truth in that question that connects
directly to the gospel. The Christmas they are talking about has
nothing to do with Jesus, nothing to do with the miracle of God’s
presence among us as a human being. No, that Christmas has everything
to do with shopping, with our consumer culture, with the notion that we
all need more things than anyone can use—and that is what enslaves us
as surely as Caesar’s army occupied Jerusalem.

Jesus asked them:
"Whose
head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he
said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the
emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."

And I
wonder, which are we? Are we the people of God, set free in Jesus
Christ, or are we the people of the coin, enslaved to the common
culture?

Some people enter the voting booth undecided. Some
people arrive at church with no clear idea of where their deepest
commitments lie. It’s easy for us to do that, because we don’t have a
lot at stake, in the world’s terms, when we come to church. But that
was not true in the first century, not true for the faithful people in
Thessalonika. Paul’s letter to them is the earliest piece of writing in
the New Testament, dated to year 51 of the Common Era. Listen to how
Paul encourages them by reminding them who they have chosen to be:

We
always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our
prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of
faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus
Christ.
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he
has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in
word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full
conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among
you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for
in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the
Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in
Macedonia and in Achaia.
(1 Thessalonians 1:2-7, NRSV)

Now,
we don’t have to fear that somewhere out in the parking lot a
government spy is writing down our license plate numbers to report us
for practicing our faith. We don’t have to worry about losing our jobs
or our place in the community because we are following a strange new
way, a new and revolutionary God. The Thessalonians risked just such
things because Christianity violated the civil religion of the Roman
Empire. You could not worship one God. You were expected to worship the
appropriate gods, instead. To choose otherwise could be seen as an act
of political rebellion.

You would not stand and flip a coin
with Caesar’s head to decide whether to be a Christian in first century
Thessalonika. You had to want it so much you couldn’t help yourself.
You had to give yourself to God, the self that was God’s in the first
place. You had to choose love over fear, an awareness of God's love for
you, and a love you express in return, to God and to your community in
Christ.

When I think of Jesus, standing there with the Pharisees
and the Herodians, I remember that he was one of us, a person, using
his tools to draw a conclusion. He recalled recent history and
considered current events and drew on his faith and answered the
question with a question before driving the point home. I remind myself
that his pocket did not hold even one coin.

You and I, each one
of us, has a choice about whose people to be. Even in a time of
hardship and worry, we can spend Sunday morning going out to brunch, or
we can choose to stay home and watch “Meet the Press,” or we can be
here looking at things from another point view. We can ignore what is
happening, or we can hear the bad news and give into it, or we can
remember that we are God’s people and seek the hope that is ours, in
every time and place.

Heads or tails, which will it be? May it be the Good News we choose, no coin-toss required. Amen.

Church Life, Matthew

Life is Not Fair

Whatever the injustice suffered at school or on the playground, when my children appealed to their stepfather, Pure Luck intoned, "Life is not fair."

He sometimes followed this with a Lurch rumble and headshake.

We hear a lot of rumbling in churches, no matter the circumstances. Someone always seems to feel others have an advantage. People want to turn the clock back to a simpler or more prosperous or less challenging or actually nonexistent past.

Yesterday in church we talked about, or I should say I talked about, the fact that we had no children in church. The subtext–this is the day Sunday School might well have started, but the Superintendent and her family have decided to look for another church, and this year the CE committee consisted of exactly one person, and he and his wife are doing the same.

It's normal for these things to happen during a transition, to some extent, but in a smaller church, every absence is noticeable. And one departure can lead easily to another, as there are no plans for Sunday School, and frankly few if any children to serve.

I gave my Word for the Young to the congregation, and after that, the lay reader spoke to us before reading the Genesis lesson. We've had our ups and downs before, she said, encouraging others to think the church will get through this and thrive once more.

Will it? It may be time for some later arrivals to thrive.

And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:11-16, NRSV)

This is the problem in many churches. On the one hand, when a new pastor is called, she is almost always encouraged to bring in new members, especially that desirable demographic, families with children. I remember being a new pastor and thinking, clearly, these church members miss their own families, who in this transient society must have moved away. But no!! Their families, almost without exception, lived in the area and did not attend any church at all.

What makes us think we can attract new young families or other people's grandchildren when church is not appealing to our own?


I remember bringing in 11 new members one year, a lot in an 84 member church, and being challenged to show them to one longtime member! Where are they? He actually asked where they were, because they were not visible to him. He wanted his own family in church, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren. He didn't care about these other young people. They didn't "count."

Sometimes the problem is class, and sometimes it's politics, and sometimes it's just that we ask the pastor to restore what we can only bring back ourselves, if anyone can.

In church's with more money, you can go along like this for a long time before reaching a crisis. If you don't like the looks of the new folks, get rid of the pastor, and they will probably leave, too. Because believe me, they have received the message loud and clear if they don't matter to us. If we resent the attention they get from the pastor or the opportunities they have to do the leadership tasks that we perhaps don't want anymore anyway, if we complain that they don't fill the old groups and want to try new things, if we grouse and grumble the way the vineyard workers did instead of rejoicing that they wanted to be part of our community, they will leave. Then disaffected people, the ones who sit out a whole pastorate, can return and volunteer for a search committee and start the whole cycle over again.

Life is not fair, Lord knows. And until we get that message, until we clue in to the fact that God works in ways that we didn't learn at football practice or 4-H or Scouts, we will keep repeating the cycles that allow a church to spiral down toward death.

And we'll do it grumbling all the way.

Church Life, Matthew

It Seems Pretty Wimpy

It seems pretty wimpy to complain about going back to work after a disappointing vacation when you start your first day back with the next Sunday's gospel, and this is what you read:

16:21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he
must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief
priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

16:22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it,
Lord! This must never happen to you."

16:23 But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling
block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them
deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

16:25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life
for my sake will find it.

16:26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?
Or what will they give in return for their life?

16:27 "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father,
and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.

16:28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before
they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

That's from Matthew, and it comes right after the strong testimony of Peter, a passage that taken out of context might leave you thinking the story could come out all right, that the disciples have gotten the message, and together they can all change the world!!! But it's not so simple, is it? They don't ride off into the sunset together, or set up the Best.Church.Ever, one formed with such clear understanding of mission and purpose, with such clarity of community standards that no fights could ever possibly occur. 

In fact, all that taking up of crosses has nothing to do with church, and I would say that's pretty clear in the way most of our churches operate. We are so focused on the institution that we have forgotten the sacrificial, unless we're asking people to give sacrificially to maintain the institution.

I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind.

This is hard talk for church people to hear, especially those with a Congregational bent. We understand ourselves collectively rather than individually and while there's something to be said for spreading out beyond a "me and Jesus" frame of reference, there is a risk, always, of avoiding the deep personal commitment Jesus demands in this passage and others like it.

I wonder, often, how much to give up? I wonder, often, what is enough? These words, spoken, or at least recorded, in an apocalyptic context, assume it's all going to be over soon. Can we maintain that tension? Ought we?

Monday morning thoughts after a foreshortened vacation, from an unrested pastor who didn't get her coffee until 10 a.m.

How are you this morning?