Sunday, October 18, 2020 The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost - October 18, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

From the Gospel according to Matthew, “Jesus said, ‘Give therefore to the emperor (to Caesar) the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     I find it providential that today’s scripture lessons are offered on what would have been the day after our annual Valle Country Fair. I say providential because even though the arrival of Covid-19 meant that the fair had to be virtual this year, nevertheless; these scriptures still speak very deeply about who we are as a parish and our life together as a community of faith.

Now, I know some of you are thinking: What does a Gospel reading steeped in politics, an Old Testament lesson about looking at God’s backside, and an Epistle reading that champions the call to unity have to do with the Fair and with The Church of the Holy Cross. Well, let’s take a closer look at today’s scripture readings.

     Our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew tells of a plot by a group of Pharisees and Herodians so desperate to end Jesus’ career and mission that they have joined forces in an effort to trick and discredit him. Now, the whole idea of Pharisees and Herodians working side by side towards a common goal was unimaginable in 1stCentury Palestine. In today’s terms, it would be like watching Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell – standing side by side and hand in hand – leading congress in a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya.” It is unthinkable. And I don’t think that’s going to happen in my lifetime. See, Herodians were Jewish supporters of the Roman regime in Israel. They supported everything Rome required of the Hebrew people including paying taxes to Herod and to Rome. Pharisees, on the other hand, resisted those taxes (at least in principle and they certainly resented them), but they paid their taxes just the same. A third group, the Zealots, were radical nationalists who refused to pay any taxes at all. Yet, difficult times and desperate needs can create strange bedfellows. Such was this union of Pharisee and Herodian.

     After baiting Jesus with hypocritical flattery, they asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” It is a simple yes or no question, but it is a trick question. If Jesus says, “No” then the Herodians will rat him out to the Romans who will arrest Jesus for sedition. If he answers, “Yes” he risks alienating the majority of the Hebrew people. It is a no-win situation and Jesus knows it.

Yet, with true rabbinic irony so typical of Jesus, he answers their question with a most unusual and clever question of his own. He holds up a coin and asks, “Who’s name and title is on this?” (It is Caesar’s/the Emperor’s.) Then give to Caesar what clearly belongs to Caesar.  And then he adds, “and to God, the things that belong to God.” Matthew tells us that these Pharisees and Herodians walked away speechless because Jesus had answered their question with a profound theological trap of his own that they could not escape.

You see, the Roman coin bore the image of the emperor on one side and on other side, this inscription: “Tiberius Caesar… revered son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” The Romans asserted that Caesar was divine: God incarnate; and that he must be not only obeyed, but worshipped as God. Jesus says because the coin bears Caesar’s image, the emperor’s, it belongs to him alone, and so, give it to him. But give to God that which bears God’s image because that which bears God’s image belongs to God alone. And what bears the image of God? Every human being; even the Caesars and emperors of this world. We are all created in the image of God and we belong to God alone; our loyalty then must be to God alone.

     One of the difficulties presented in the Gospel according to Matthew, as well as in Mark’s and Luke’s account of this same story, is discerning how we can be loyal to God in a world that clamors for our energy and attention; when so much competes for our talents, gifts, abilities and treasure. Look at how difficult it is to observe a Sabbath rest or attend corporate worship together even if it is online. We are bombarded with far too many demands and choices, and each pulls at our sense of loyalty especially those loyalties to our work, to our families, and to our God. That is the struggle each of us face. And yet, scripture tells us that giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and giving to God what is God’s defines not only who we are, but also, what we value as a people. It requires that we make choices and then honor our decisions.

    Pay taxes? Go ahead. Vote in elections? Absolutely – it is a part of being a loyal citizen and can help advance our society to mirror God’s ways, especially God’s values of equity, justice, and fairness. But, when we give to God what is God’s; when we understand and affirm that everything belongs to God, and when we worship God alone, we demonstrate that regardless of our nationality, we are first and foremost loyal citizens of God’s kingdom; a kingdom where all truly and with joy work together in unity and common purpose. And it is through working together that God’s name is glorified and our witness to the grace and mercy of God is revealed and celebrated through us changing us and our communities.

     St. Paul, in today’s reading from his first letter to the Thessalonians, speaks of how the Holy Spirit transforms God’s people with power and conviction, with joy and inspiration so that we live differently, so that our lives demonstrate our loyalty to God in all things and our genuine love for one another and our community. So powerful was the transformation of that little church at Thessalonica that St. Paul says, “in every place your faith in God has become known.” These saints had learned to recognize God’s pre-eminence in their lives, and it changed them. They could render to Caesar, the emperor, that which belonged to him, but their lives, their faith, the substance of their very being, their time, talents, gifts, and abilities belonged to God, and that understanding changed their world.

     Do you see why these scriptures remind me of this parish and community of faith? Year after year whether it is serving at hospitality house, the Valle Country Fair, concerts, prayer and fellowship gatherings, or endless outreach activities, we demonstrate our loyalty to God in Christ who has made us one, who has redeemed us and made us whole. Here we are: Pharisees and Herodians, even a Zealot or two; we are Tea Party members, Libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, Independents and everything else in the political spectrum. We are so different in our politics and I know the sincerity of those political beliefs and activities. And yet, rising far above these differences, we have a common purpose that seeks to model God’s kingdom and God’s purposes. As I shared with a visitor who inquired “What the heck is an Episcopalian?” –  We don’t just speak of our faith, we try to live it. We seek to serve Christ in every person we meet, and we strive to uphold their dignity because they are created in the image of God, just like that Caesar, that emperor, in 1st Century Palestine. And not only does such striving and seeking change us, it changes our world.

     In our reading from Exodus, Moses begs the question, “How can I find favor in your sight (God) if I don’t know who you are or what you look like?” Our text concludes with Moses having a most amazing encounter with God. Now, much has been written about the significance of Moses being able to glimpse God’s backside, but not God’s face and yet, I think there is far more to this story.  It is not so much about seeing God’s back as it is being aware that God was just here, that God had just passed by. Moses stood where God just was. Each night when I retire to bed and after offering my prayers, I have made it my practice, my spiritual practice, to go back over the day in my mind – everything that happened – the good and the not so good – and ask myself where I might have seen “God’s hand, God’s presence, or the place where God just was in my day. This practice has been a rewarding reflection upon my day and helps put things in perspective. Here’s the thing though, if I don’t take the time to look for that presence of God, I almost always miss it.

     As I reflect upon our continuing mission and ministry together – even virtually – I find the presence of God was and remains palpable not because of me or any individual, but rather, by all of us working and serving together. Because, through the giving of our time, talent, our gifts, abilities and yes, even our treasure, we have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate what we truly value: our commitment to render to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God. We have stood where God just was; and, beloved, we continue to stand where God still is.  And for that unity of mission, ministry and purpose, I say thanks be to God.

     To paraphrase the words of this morning’s collect, may this church – every member and friend of this parish – continue to persevere in steadfast faith in Christ our redeemer and savior not just with our lips, but especially, in our lives so that God’s Name will forever be praised by us and through us, within our hearts and within our lives. Amen.