First Congregational Church
October 22, 2017
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 22:15-22 & 1 Thessalonians 1
“our better selves”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A teacher asked her students what religious objects they had in their homes. One boy answered, "We have a picture of a woman with a halo holding a baby and every day my mother kneels in front of it.” The next little boy said, "We have a brass statue of a man seated with crossed legs and a Chinese face, and every day my parents burn an incense stick before it.” Then a third boy piped up, "In the bathroom we have a little platform with numbers on it. Every day my mother stands on it first thing in the morning and screams, "OH MY GOD!!!” I’m trying to be more egalitarian these days, but having the father get on the scale just wouldn’t cut it for this joke.
Before we get to this morning’s scripture passages, I thought it would do to make a little distinction clearer. Like we have Lutherans and Baptists and Congregationalists in our modern day, back in Jesus’ time, there were/are differing groups of Jewish people. There still are different Jewish groups, but they’ve changed a fair bit from Jesus’ day.
The larger group, the Pharisees, were at various times a political party, a social movement, a school of thought and the top dogs - in their minds.
The Sadducees, fewer than the Pharisees, as a whole and as a sect, fulfilled various political, social, and religious roles, including maintaining the Temple. In my understanding, they were more specifically, the rule keepers or Temple police.
The Essenes, whom some think were the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were yet fewer in number, adhering to severe self-discipline, voluntary poverty and avoidance of all forms of indulgence. And then there were the Herodians.
Although their precise relationship to the other sects or schools among the Jewish people are often matters of conjecture, some people think Herodians were the courtiers or soldiers of Herod Antipas or at the least, a public political party. Herodians were linked to the Pharisees because both groups wanted independence for the Jewish people. But while the Pharisees longed for the old days and governance as under King David, the Herodians wanted government by someone from the Herodian dynasty.
As Donna makes her way forward, I’ll give you just a tiny intro to the second of the scripture passages. Back then it was and area called Thessalonia. Today it is a city called Thessaloniki, the second largest in Greece.
Matthew 22:15-22 (NIV) 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 that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax 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 image is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back 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.
1 Thessalonians 1 (NIV)
1 Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.
Thanksgiving for the Thessalonians’ Faith
2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Thank you, Donna. In regard to the Thessalonians passage, those words that were just read are some of the very oldest in the New Testament. Scholars differ on most all topics, but it fairly certain that 1 Thessalonians was the first of the great Paul’s letters to be written down, pre-dating the writing down of the Gospels. 1 Thessalonians was probably written down in 52 AD, while Mark was probably written down 18 years later, and Matthew and Luke some 10 to 20 years after that. If all the dating and discovery that has been done is correct, then the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians, as Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee contends, is not only very old but very, very remarkable.
As the apostle Paul reflected on the congregations he had established, visited, or was about to see for the first time, he never hesitated to declare his assessment of the state of each Christian community. (I wonder how he would assess this congregation!)
The congregation in Galatia, for instance, had compromised the gospel with a cramping legalism, confusing faith in Jesus Christ with moral achievement and ritual observance. Paul told them bluntly they had denatured the gospel, turning wine into water. At the other extreme, Christians in Corinth had come to think that faith in Christ entailed no moral commitment whatsoever. He told them that sadly, they were a disgrace.
The Christians in Thessalonica, however; Paul found to be exemplary, holding them up as a model for all of Asia Minor. And yet, while they were a model of Christian faith and practice, they weren’t perfect, needing further growth in light of what they’d already become. In reminding them that they were a church “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”, he was reminding them that they were no longer a group or community in the many idols that were worshiped before the gospel came to their fair city. Even people in outlying communities knew about their about face in faith, the results of their labor in love, their faith-produced work and hope-inspired endurance.
After all these centuries, one would think that human beings would understand how easily money can become an idol, despite the fact that it is good to be economically self-sufficient, allowing for money to enable good and great things to happen. Despite all our technology and advancements, even in the world of wealth, an all-engrossing concern for financial gain renders self-sufficiency idolatrous, and like all idolatry, totalitarian in its grip on us because no degree of amassing the goods for the preoccupied is ever sufficient, including the idolatry of things like education, popularity, and self-righteousness, to name a few.
Victor Shepherd, Presbyterian minister from New Brunswick and Ontario said, “It seems that we have a deep human tendency to want to make the divides between God and the world - wide and deep and perilous-looking.” He went on to say, “Education is good, even God-ordained, since God insists that we love God with our minds. But education rendered idolatrous announces itself as the only good, or at least as the singular saving good; and of course it,” he says, “renders its victims insufferable snobs and contemptuously cruel.” Those words got me to thinking, what are the idols we have that make us contemptuously cruel?
Scott Hoezee suggested that “in a political age when so many people are so sharply divided along so many various cultural and social and economic fault lines, Jesus’ confident posture and consistent, laser-like focus on God both challenge us and call us back to our better selves.” Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, remembering that all of us belong to God.
Understanding that not just the Thessalonians were chosen by God, but that all of us are chosen by God, how do yo, envision, through the eyes of Christ, the Good News of God’s love, grace, joy and justice in our modern world? How do you, see your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in Jesus, influencing and bettering the world? And no, no one is exempt from this task, so don’t even look for loopholes, because we are all called regardless of ability, time or any other excuse we might offer up.
Each one of us might have specific ideas on how to balance the national budget, how to be in the world but not of the world in terms of terrorism or hatred or poverty or the myriad of other issues that some see as dividing us. But what does the Good News of Jesus Christ - whom God raised from the dead to deliver us from sin and evil by the power of the Holy Spirit as we await Christ’s return - what does that look like in a world where it seems that everyone has their opinions on everything from soup to nuts?
Perhaps, as Erick J. Thompson of St. John Lutheran Church, over there in Fargo, North Dakota says, “Essential to this endeavor - of proclaiming God’s Good News and thinking about what that Good News looks like in the world, is: being open to listening to others and realizing that others may hear that Good News differently than we do. As the great preacher over there in First Congregational Church in Frankfort, MI says, “perhaps we need to remember that while what belongs to Caesar’s is Caesar’s and what is God’s belongs to God, we do best not to step in the way of someone else’s journey of faith, because regardless of age or experience, none of us are done with the work God has for us, which is to love as Christ loves, the famous and the less famous, the rich and the poor, young and old, the bold and the timid, the kind and the cruel, because the only thing on which we can stand is that we are a church family in God and Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. So shall we pray.
Merciful and Forgiving God, we thank you for those who have gone before us, who listened to your voice and wrote down that which is important for us to embrace. Sometimes, God, it is easier to feign our faith in self-righteousness than to walk in humility, so for those times, we ask for your forgiveness and motivation to become our better selves. Help us, when we are quick to judge, to be quicker to remember that none of us can truly understand where another individual comes from, and so we all require the healing mantle of love and grace and mercy. Lead us, Great God, from the easy and insidious idols that creep into our lives, to those paths where we can enable others and each other to become their better selves. We pray these things in your love, the grace of your son, Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.