October 18, 2020
20th Sunday after Pentecost
“Getting Worked Up”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Because of this morning’s scripture passage, I went to look for jokes about masks. The first link was titled, the harm in mask jokes. I wasn't thinking about masking for Covid, I was thinking more in terms of Halloween masks and masks from ancient Greek classical plays. Instead, the first result of my search was about the contentious nature of wearing a medical mask and it's symbolism of masculinity - for good and ill. That’s what came up first. Totally didn’t want to step into that hornet’s nest. Even so, the initial search was a good reminder that it is always good to be careful about jokes and how they are not always funny to everyone.
The second link was about funny tweets about wearing Covid masks. I wasn't as eager to click on this link, as I figured that there would be some old stuff from way back in March. To my surprise, many of the top tweets were about unwelcome comments when women are told to smile. Time was running out, so I picked out some of those with which I have personally struggled.
Person named Jill said, “my ears are currently carrying sunglasses, headphones, and a face mask. My ears are a purse.” Nicole wrote about the lack of forethought in applying lipstick before donning a mask, and how unattractive the result can be, if you’re not using long-lasting lipstick. And then there’s Diep, who dared to state the most obvious - at least to me. “The upside about a face mask is that it catches your snot when you’re outside and your nose is running because you forgot to take your antihistamine. I need to give Abbi props, though, because she asked, “I just removed my mask to sneeze into my sleeve. Am I doing this right?”
In my study for this message, I came across a word that was completely new: the word “obverse.” I wondered if it was a typo - for adverse, which it isn’t - or the wrong word for converse, which it isn’t either. It’s actually the opposite of reverse, and refers to the two flat sides of coins or other two-sided objects, including paper money, flags, seals, metals, and more pertinent to our scripture, coins, according to Wikipedia. Obverse means the front face of the object and reverse means the back face. In other words, heads and tails.
When the passage is read, earlyish on, it will say, “because you pay no attention to who they are.” That line could be translated as “because you do not look on the face of people.” This little twist could possibly be part of a pun, because a just couple sentences later, Jesus uses the word hypocrites.
In the Greek and Roman world of art at that time, a hypocrite was literally an actor, and actors often wore masks over their faces when on stage. It was our good buddy over there at Calvin Theological Seminary, Scott Hoezee, who wrote that, "a hypocrite is someone who hides his true face behind a mask, a false front - a hypocrite grins at you and butters you up with unctuous words of flattery but he's secretly sneering at you. So Jesus’ opponents say that they know Jesus does not look up on the “face of people,” and if by that they meant the public face people show, they were right. Jesus does look upon the true face of people, the one behind the masks we present to those around us.
Scripture Matthew 22:15-22
Paying the Imperial Tax to Caesar
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.
16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.
17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?
19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius,
20 and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?"
21 "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
Thank you, Marti. I had mentioned to Marti that when I read this passage, one of the ways I could hear it was with her voice, because I know that the teacher in her is still there, and good teachers can lay it on when necessary.
But it was also not the only way that this passage could be heard. With our propensity to lump all Pharisees into the “bad Pharisee camp,” we can miss the possibility that the Pharisees actually questioned Jesus in sincerity and without animosity. And that possibility is even plausible, until Jesus refers to their hypocrisy. And that’s when - I think - even the most docile among us get drawn into the “discussion.”
It’s so easy to get all worked up, especially when it comes to money. As a complete aside, I thought it interesting when Scott Hoezee also pointed out that some scholars believe that the coin in question likely bore the image of Tiberius with the inscription "Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus" and an image of the "high priest" Livia on the coins obverse. “In God WeTrust” it wasn’t.
It’s hard to tell, because one can’t imagine that Jesus’ use of the word “hypocrites” - and the question about them trying to trap him - wasn’t wrapped in some sort of high energy. And it’s just as unlikely that Jesus went from the high energy with his hypocrite question to a mild-mannered teacher stating the obvious about giving credit to whom credit is due.
In all the influences of our time, all the news reports, all the tweets and political signs in yards and boulevards, all the ups and downs of the markets, it’s easy to get pulled in and get worked up about things. And part of getting worked up is a very important, normal, human part of being alive. The struggle is in getting worked up about the most important things, as followers of Christ and children of God.
In giving to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s, Jesus is reminding us of the deeper and more profound reality that the whole world belongs to God. And when we know that, above all, the human heart is what belongs to the Creator God who fashioned us in God’s own image, then even the big, bright, loud and resplendent realities of this world become mere sideshows and distractions. But they do not ultimately touch or threaten God. Perhaps, in this era of loud and constant and unrelenting, we might have it easier in refocusing our senses, so that we get worked up and not waste our energies.
In holding up that coin that day, Jesus reminds all of us - the Pharisees that day and all of us followers since that day, that the coin isn’t the thing that will love us and care about us and for us. Money can do a whole lot, and from all the work that we’ve seen on the roads around here lately, maybe we won’t complain as loudly next April 15th.
We can get all worked up about money, but it has no lasting value. Having the new church boiler almost ready to be put into play, I will be the last person to say that money isn’t important, especially in how we give it to help others. Sometimes, however, we can get all worked up about who we think deserves money, who deserves what kind of money, and when that money should be available.
Yesterday I was able to attend the 179th Annual Meeting of the Michigan Congregational Christian Churches Conference - for my first time. I wondered, if 179 years ago, if people got worked up about the idea of putting some money toward an endeavor to support the Congregational Way of being Christ’s Church, regardless of how long that endeavor might last.
Before the wedding that began just minutes after that Zoom meeting, I once again was able to recall he history of this church sanctuary, being built on the ground in 1871, raised up on 1907, and added onto in 1957. I wonder if the folks from 1867, in those initial gatherings in homes, if they got all worked up about an endeavor that looked into the future - a future that included meeting with fellow Congregationalists covering hundreds and hundreds of miles, all in peoples’ own living rooms and offices.
I don’t know when electricity came into this sanctuary, or even this little city, but when it did, I wouldn’t doubt that some folks got worked up about it - from costs to changing the way of life that they enjoyed - perhaps not completely understanding the immense possibilities that electricity could bring. And today, we are just beginning to understand how it is not only electricity, but wifi and towers and computers and not all that many other pieces that allow for today’s worship family to be limited to just the 20 some folks here in person, but the 100 folks we average in reaching out on Facebook Live each week - which doesn’t include the people who “join” us from our website. It is a far different thing, getting worked up about how we see a new life - on a new frontier - with encounters that ripple on out into time in ways that we are only beginning to see.
When we get all worked up about the right things, we begin to see - even more broadly and deeper and longer - how all that we have is God’s - and how we are the ones blessed to be a part of such a vista. Yes, we still have Covid and the flu and strep throats - and will for a fair bit. Yes - some people may never go out into public without a mask again, and hopefully that’s not such a big deal any more. As I like to share with people, I’ve become accustomed to wearing a seatbelt in the car and a shirt in the store, so now if I can just remember that dang mask…..
I’ll admit, when this whole pandemic started, and there was such a stir about masks and no masks, there was sometimes judgment on my part, when I saw someone without one. I’d get all instantly huffy, and then, however it was that God was getting through to me, I would be reminded that some people just can’t wear them, or forget them - innocently and don’t even realize until they are all the way into the store.
Whether it’s about a mask, or hiding behind a perception or innocently being preoccupied with something else that has us worked up to one degree or another, the coins that we handle, the masks that we see all remind us that we can grant some grace to those around us, who are really truly trying to do their best while wrestling with the things that can get us worked up and forgetting that God has it all in hand. We just need to do our part, and God will do God’s part. So shall we pray?
Holy and Gracious God, thank you for having “it” all in hand. Thank you for being the steady, reliable, unmovable Love that will not let us go, no matter what else grabs at our hearts these days. So many people and things and situations vie for being the way and the truth and the life. But you are those things, so help us with that priority. Remind us, when we feel the negativities that you are the possibilities, of belonging to your family of faith, a kin to our brother of salvation and eternal life. We pray, too, for those who are in the midst of being worked up about things that don’t deserve such energy, and for those who are trying to direct us in the best uses of energies. For all that you give us, and the freedom to invest that energy in ways we pray are good and true, all your people say, Amen.