Year A: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 19, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 33:12-23
There is a good bit of discussion in our society about what it means to “know God.” Evangelical Christians assert that not only is it possible to know God, but that through a “personal relationship” with Jesus you can know God’s exact, perfect, individualized will for your life!

Other stripes of Christians amongst us most likely have varying understandings of what it means to know God. Our diversity of opinions and freedom to pick theological nits is sometimes a boon to us; at other times, it is most definitely a bane. 

[Writing on Alternet.org, atheist author Adam Lee commented, “I’d love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches’ wounds are largely self-inflicted.”]

Moses speaks for us concerning our passionate desire to both see and know God; “if your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.” Life is scary and the road — without faith — can be awfully rough and rocky.

And God, knowing that God’s own Divine Presence is likely to overwhelm us if we actually could get a good glimpse, responds with tenderness: “I’ll show myself to you, but not completely. I’ll cover you with my hand and you’ll get a sort of look in the rear-view mirror. But that will be enough — it will have to be enough.”

Mostly, I think this passage reminds me that God will be gracious when God desires to be gracious, and will show mercy on whom God desires to show mercy. I’m thinking that goes for the faithful among us — evangelical, mainline, orthodox, catholic — as well as for the “un”-faithful, as well. 

God believes in you, Mr. Lee.

Psalm 99
Need an encounter with the presence of God? Do what Moses did…head for a mountain somewhere! No wonder the ancients considered “the high places” to be the demesne of the gods. Has anybody ever counted how often the Bible references “mountains” or “hills” or “high places” with reference to the presence of God?

Isaiah 45:1-7
This passage is striking — at least to me — for the implication that God can “call” and “use” someone who absolutely does not know (or care?) who God is! 

I do not believe that we have anywhere in the Bible a profession of faith or moment of commitment from the life of Cyrus, the Persian king, with regard to the Holy One of Israel. And yet, Yahweh calls Cyrus his “anointed one” —meshiach in the Hebrew, christos in the Greek.

Well, wadda’ ya’ know? 

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
Some of my favorite “worship words” in this psalm:

  • Sing (lots of singing!)
  • Bless
  • Tell
  • Declare
  • Revere
  • Ascribe
  • Worship
  • Tremble
  • Rejoice
  • Roar
  • Exult
  • Oh, and sing again!

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Talk about a church with an actual GOOD reputation! How long has it been since you heard this kind of buzz concerning your congregation?

“…your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.”

Sounds like a good job description for the church, not to mention a great antidote to the kind of perfidy attested in Adam Lee’s quote [see above.]

Matthew 22:15-22
Tsk, tsk, tsk…when will the hapless Pharisees ever learn? You just don’t get the goods on Jesus with a trick question!
This jewel of a statement (“render unto Caesar, etc.”) makes allegiances to church and state pretty clear, n’est-ce pas?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I heard a story a few years ago about a man who grew up in a little country church in the Carolinas that was founded about the time of the American Revolution.
For most of its 200 plus years not much happened in either the church or the community; life went on pretty much the same year after year.
Then, in the 1980s, change happened and happened fast; Interstates and urban sprawl and Sun Belt migration. What had once been farmland was now covered with upscale subdivisions and shopping malls.
The church changed too, not without a struggle, but eventually the church moved into the 21st century.
One Monday morning the pastor was visited in his office by a man whose family had been charter members of the church way back when. He had grown up in the church then went away for an education and a career. A few years back he had sold off the family farm to a developer and no one had heard from him since.
He had returned to the community for his 40th high school reunion and had attended worship on Sunday. He was not happy.
He complained about all the changes that had taken place in the church since his youth, and he made it known that these changes were somehow an affront, an insult to him and all his ancestors and all the other people who had been a part of that church for all those years.
He ended his diatribe with these words, “Preacher, if God were alive today, he would be shocked, yes, shocked at the changes in this church.”
“If God were alive today.” “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.”
If God is dead, we don’t have to render much do we?
Therein lies the real question of this text. Though we often use it as a launching pad for discussions of politics, or taxes, or the separation of church and state; these are not the core concern of this Bible story.
This text is about not letting the cares and obligations of the world divert us from our calling to serve God; about not living our lives as though God were dead, while confessing our faith with our lips.
In this text we have a group of people who spent a great deal of time worrying about things like politics and taxes and the separation of temple and empire and who thought of such fretting and worrying and arguing as somehow fulfilling their religious duty to God.
The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth had threatened the delicate political and religious and social dance which kept those on top on top and those underneath, well, underneath.
Those on top were resolved to protect their position and the status quo by tricking Jesus into saying something that would offend either the Roman rulers or the piety of the people.
Listen again to verses 15-17. If he says “no,” he is fomenting rebellion; if he says “yes,” he offends the common people who hate paying taxes, especially to an Emperor who claims to be a god.
As usual, Jesus was too smart for them. He uses the coin and its images as an object lesson. “Render unto Caesar . . . “So far, so good. But then, Jesus comes across with the real, deeper point; “Render unto God that which is God’s.”
The call of this text to those of us gathered here today is to not forget God in the midst of our busy-ness.
It especially calls us away from a practical atheism in which we confess faith with our lips but fail to live it out in our lives.
The latest statistics show that the United States is still one of the most “faith in God” confessing countries in the world. To the question is “Do you believe in God?” over 90% of us say “Yes.”
But it is hard to square that confession with other statistics. Besides the plummeting church membership and worship attendance numbers of almost all Protestant denominations; think about the culture we live in: do you see a lot of evidence that this is, in any recognizable form or fashion, a nation of Christians?
Record poverty rates, sky-rocketing prison populations, the sexualization of everything, the harsh, judgmental and unforgiving political rhetoric that fills the talk shows on the left and the right, the cruel laws aimed at immigrants, etc. etc. the list goes go on and on.
And just like the Pharisees, many of our leaders from the left and the right speak of these things and of their proposed possible solutions as if their ideas were sanctioned by God him or her self!
And into this the voice of Jesus calls us back from the brink of a serious mistake.
In the midst of rendering unto Caesar, of doing your civic duty to the best of your ability; do not confuse your politics with your religion, nor neglect your God in the midst of your public service. Do not forget to “render unto God that which is God’s.”
I am not much of a linguist, but I remember a little of Latin that helps me keep things straight. Ultima means last, like the last syllable on a word, or the last letter in an alphabet. Penultima means next to last, the letter or syllable just before the last.
In common language, the ultima became the most important thing, the final thing. And the penultima was the almost final thing, the second most important.
Whatever else is important in our life; our job, our family, our children, our politics, ours sports team, God has to be our ultima, the most important, everything else is in second place.
Remember; “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’,” and more importantly, “Render unto God that which is God’s.”
Amen and amen.

One thought on “Year A: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 19, 2014)

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