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Pentecost 18 Proper 24, October 16, 2011

Pentecost 18 Proper 24A RCL  October 16, 2011

Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10
Matthew 22: 15-22

As we rejoin Moses and the people, we recall that the people have committed the sin of idolatry. They have made a golden calf.  The relationship between God and the people has been restored, and now God is calling Moses to continue to lead the people on their journey. Moses realizes how difficult this task is going to be, and he also senses that he is not going to be able to do this without God’s help. Moses and God have a very intimate dialogue, and God promises Moses that God will go with Moses and the people. The living God is very different from an inanimate golden calf.

In today’s gospel, the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus. First, they flatter him. Then they ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. As we know, Palestine was under the control of an occupation government, the Roman Empire. People hated the Romans, and they hated the tax collectors who collected their money to support the mighty empire. Some people felt it was a terrible thing to even handle a Roman coin, let alone pay taxes to Rome. In the crowd here, there were people from all kinds of factions.  The Pharisees were anti-Roman and the Herodians were pro-Roman.  In today’s gospel, they are joining forces to trap Jesus. They are asking their questions during the Passover festival, when people have thronged to Jerusalem from all over. At this time, feelings always run high. These people are trying to get Jesus in trouble with both the Roman and Jewish authorities.

Jesus asks them for a coin. This implies that he does not carry such coins, which means that he is not going to offend any of the anti-Roman folks by whipping out a denarius. They give him the coin. He asks whose head is on it, and they answer, “The emperor’s.” Then he gives that paradoxical and puzzling response, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” This so completely defeats their purpose that they actually walk away.

He has avoided their trap. It is important for us to remember that Christians under the Roman Empire refused to worship the emperor and to fight in the Roman armies. For this, they were persecuted. Christians today face persecution all over the world because they do not bow to the wishes of tyrants.  

For us as Christians, God is at the center of everything. There isn’t a part of our lives that is devoted to government and politics and then another part of our lives that is devoted to God. When we consider important issues, we are called to consider them in the light of our faith. When we vote, we are called to vote for the people we think are going to work toward the goals of God’s kingdom. Our lives and decisions are not compartmentalized. Every realm belongs to God, and in every realm we are called to seek God’s will.

As we have said before, Paul was the Johnny Appleseed of church growth. He would plant a church, teach and preach and heal and build a community, and then leave the community under local leadership and move on to start yet another church.  We learn much about the Thessalonian church from the Book of Acts. The founding of the church was difficult. There was a great deal of opposition from the local Jewish community, so much opposition that Paul, Silas, and Timothy had to leave. Timothy has recently visited the church there, and has reported to Paul that things are going well. Timothy has let Paul know that the people are concerned because Paul has not returned to visit them. No doubt Paul has this in mind as he writes to them.

Paul tells them that he always gives thanks for them and prays for them, remembering their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He tells them that God has chosen them. He recalls that, even though they were persecuted, they received the word and their faith grew. He also says that his work of evangelism was not a one-way street. He shared the good news with them, but they also changed him. And the Holy Spirit worked mightily to make them a strong and vibrant community that is an example to Christians all around the area of Macedonia and Achaia.

Scholars tell us that this is Paul’s earliest letter. Thus, it is the earliest documentation of the Christian faith. That’s pretty exciting. We can imagine Paul going to this community, spending time with the people, probably talking to folks in his work as a tentmaker, stopping by workshops or speaking with people in small groups. The community of faith formed, and the people accepted the new faith not only in their minds but in their hearts and lives, It wasn’t just an intellectual thing. It was much deeper. Apparently they had also turned away from various idols into a deeper faith in the living God.

Because of their deep and living faith, they have become heroes of the faith to surrounding congregations. They have become famous, Paul doesn’t have to hold up their achievement, others already know about it.

What a wonderful letter, It sums up our other two lessons. These people have God at the center of their lives. They have given up their idols.  And they have become a holy example.  

So I would like to say to you this morning that I give thanks for you, and I keep you in my prayers. I thank God for your faith and devotion, for your resilience and humor in the face of challenges. I hope I have been able to bring the good news of God’s love and grace to you, and I can certainly say that you have deepened my faith and have shared God’s love and grace with me. We are in a lively dialogue of faith. This is definitely a mutual ministry. You are heroes of the faith to me.

So, thank you so much for the example of your faith, Thank you for all the wonderful ministry you do in your lives each day. Please keep me and each other in your prayers. Please keep up the good work, the humor, the faith, the steadiness, the steadfastness.

Reading this over, I realized that it may sound like a farewell sermon. So I just want to say that I have no plans to go anywhere. Every now and then it’s important to say certain things. Paul had especially deep love and admiration for the Philippians and the Thessalonians. I feel the same way about you.      Amen.

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