20th Sunday of Pentecost October 18, 2020
First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
Prayer of the Day:
Sovereign God, raise your throne in our hearts. Created by you, let us live in your image; created for you, let us act for your glory; redeemed by you, let us give you what is yours, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen
Hymns of the Day
If you don’t have hymnals at home,
look up the hymns on YouTube or other websites.
God Is Here – ELW #526
You Servants of God – ELW #825
All People that on Earth Do Dwell – ELW #883
God of Grace and God of Glory – ELW #705
Reflection on Matthew 22:15-22
by Chris Landerud
Have you ever bumped into a long lost friend when you’re out and about? You might not even recognize them at first. After your smiles connect, you know you have hours of catching up to do, but unfortunately, the time or place only allows for a quick ‘hi’ and ‘bye’.
Do you remember the mix of emotions when you see a family member or friend for the first time after a loss or an illness? Your eyes connect, and your hearts ache together. Maybe you even what to give them a big hug, but the uneasiness gets in the way.
Do you call up close friends to share old stories just to feel some order of normalcy? It is like a home-cooked meal, but you long for the time your dinner table will be full again.
After a weekend family visit, do you say your ‘goodbyes’ and wonder . . . ‘when is the next time we will see each other again?’
We have all felt these emotions, but over the past months, they can almost be a daily occurrence. These emotions can be very heavy. In preparing for today, a part of me wanted to pretend like everything was normal and proceed accordingly, but that felt like a disingenuous approach.
Acknowledging these feelings, and owning these emotions – this is a healthy approach to living and growing in faith. Through the support of family and friends, God’s abundant creation, God’s word, and prayer, we can better navigate today’s challenges. I’ve witnessed this approach of grace and truth from our youth over the past months.
This morning we celebrate the milestone of Confirmation; the Affirmation of Baptism, for 13 of our freshmen students. I always look forward to celebrating this milestone with our students, families, and congregation; and this year is no different. I am very thankful we can host this worship service. Clearly, the celebration is subdued a bit, but where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, He is with us. (Matthew 18:20)
Along with everything else, Confirmation has looked very different over the past 7 months. We have connected through Zoom, social media, and text messaging. We continue to explore the Good News of scripture, share stories of our lives, laugh, enjoy a little music, and pray together.
Despite the heavy emotions that we carry around these days, these students are a great source of hope an inspiration! Over the past couple of weeks; I have met with each student over Zoom to share a final Faith Talk before they get confirmed. Each student also selected a Bible reading that will be shared during their individual confirmation later this morning.
These students have shared the silver linings surrounding these storm clouds. They value and love their supporting families even more than before, they spend more time in God’s creation noticing the little miracles each day and each season brings, and some of them even embrace a little slower pace of life. Circumstances are far from ideal, but I see their optimistic approach.
Many of the Bible readings that they selected reflect the present time we are in. Their Bible readings highlight the protective armor God provides during times of trouble. Their readings feature strength, endurance, and hope for the journey. Some readings are even a bit vulnerable, and they petition for courage and faith during a time of increased fears and anxiety.
These students aren’t faking it, or pretending things are normal. They have shifted gears, made sacrifices, suffered loss, but they have remained hopeful and positive during unprecedented times. In many ways, I witness our youth handling this situation with more grace and love than some of my adult peers.
It is very rewarding to watch students grow through these middle school years. The growth and changes from 6th grade to freshmen year can be dramatic! One significant change is the transition from concrete thinking to more abstract thinking. We ask a lot of questions in Confirmation, and the pursuit to find the perfect answer is hardly ever the objective. In most cases, there really isn’t a perfect answer to be found. In a culture where being right and having the best answer is the popular approach, pursuing abstract ideas with complex facets is often devalued in an age of short attention spans and simple one-liners.
Concrete thinking versus abstract thinking. This ties in very well with today’s gospel reading. Today’s gospel tackles politics, taxes, and religion head-on! Oh yes please . . . let us take our minds off the pandemic for a moment . . . let’s dive into a conversation about politics, taxes, and religion!
Just those two words “politics and taxes” . . . it will put one on edge. It can invoke arguments, anger, disagreement, and the judgment of moral principles. Politics and taxes can divide people – even families and friends.
To better understand what is going on with the Gospel story, let’s look at the characters in a bit more detail. We have three parties:
– We of course have Jesus.
– We have the Pharisees.
– And we have the Herodians.
We are all familiar with Jesus. We are also probably familiar with the Pharisees – they were the Jewish religious leaders of the time. And we have the Herodians – they are a political party in support of Herod and the politics instituted by Rome.
At this point in the Gospel, Jesus is a big threat to both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman government. In just a few chapters, the religious leaders plot to kill Jesus, and then of course Jesus stands trial before Pilate . . . and so on.
We know the Pharisees are more than a little perturbed with Jesus; after all, he is breaking many traditions and rules and challenging them on their religious convictions and identity. Jesus challenges everyone’s concrete thinking with a more abstract approach. Jesus’ approach, filled with grace and forgiveness, is not the neat and tidy answer we often seek.
The Herodians are also not fans of Jesus; after all, Jesus’ popularity is growing and posing a possible threat to the Roman government.
What is not communicated in the Gospel story; however, is that the Pharisees and Herodians are also bitter enemies. They have very different agendas that are in direct conflict with one another. But in this case, these enemies unite in an attempt to trap Jesus with their conniving questioning.
Can you imagine that?! Close your eyes and think deeply about a time and place 2000 years ago, where there were two opposing groups scheming together, not to find the truth; but rather to trap someone with an “I gotcha” statement. This gospel text might be truer today than when it was first written.
Back to the story . . . Jesus is faced with the question about the lawfulness of paying taxes to the emperor. If Jesus says it is unlawful to pay taxes, it would be grounds to be arrested by the Herodians. Jesus could be handed over to Herod on the charge of rebellion.
On the other hand . . . If he says it is lawful to pay taxes, the Pharisees would claim his alliance and support for the King. Support for the King would be in opposition to his support for God, and this would contradict both the Jewish faith and Jesus’ own teachings.
As Jesus always seems to do, he answered the challenge with an unpredictable and rather abstract response. Jesus doesn’t answer with one of the two obvious choices presented to him. He first calls out the Pharisees and Herodians for their devious and unloving ways.
Then he responds to their question with a question, basically forcing them to answer for themselves. Jesus says, show me a coin. Who is on the coin?
Jesus’ two-part and very open-ended response states:
– Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman government, AND
– It is also our responsibility to give back to God what is God’s.
In one profound sentence, Jesus says,
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus didn’t deflect their “I gotcha” questing, but rather he answered it head-on with a watertight approach of truth and responsibility.
On the surface, this story might not seem so radical. We might all grumble about taxes today . . . like our taxes are too high or they are unfair, BUT at least we have a government that we elect that aims to serve the people. I know our government is flawed, BUT the Roman government was an empire ruling over Israel suppressing many freedoms we take for granted. Their taxes weren’t paying for new roads and schools and police and fire protection (all things that we benefit from today), their taxes were fueling Caesar’s treasury – some of which paid for pagan temples and the decadent lifestyle of the Roman upper class.
Jesus’ response shows us that we all have dual citizenship. Our citizenship to our nation demands a set of responsibilities to our community and country. Our citizenship to God demands faith and commitment to a more heavenly calling that is built on a foundation of love, grace, and forgiveness.
The key, pivotal line to me is when Jesus says, “Whose head and whose title is on this coin?” Jesus’ question, in response to their questioning, nearly immediately communicates our dual citizenship.
If we look at another Bible translation, the Kings James Version, Jesus askes, “Whose is this image?” (on the coin). It is a very profound use of the word ‘image’. We can grab a handful of U.S. coins today and look at the images on the coins. There are many different images, but they essentially represent one nation.
If we rewind 40 books in the Bible way back in the beginning to Genesis, do you know when God first used the word ‘image’?
In Genesis chapter 1, verse 26, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
God created us in our image to care for our world and creation with grace and compassion. Our dual citizenship includes our nation and God’s kingdom, but clearly, when seeking the truth and the good news, God has a higher calling for us.
Today we turn our attention to our 13 confirmands. We celebrate this milestone of Confirmation when they publically affirm their baptisms. For the past three years, these students have committed themselves and have been part of our Confirmation community here at MLC.
In Confirmation, I emphasize the idea that we are not confirmed once. We should aim to affirm our baptisms every day! Every day we are to live in response to God’s saving grace and abundant love. We fall short of these responsibilities, but we should be disciplined, disciple-like, in affirming our baptisms every day, no matter what our age!
For the past three years, and even before, these students have been affirming their baptisms. These students are leaders within our church and within our community. They may officially be getting “Confirmed” today, but these students will seek to affirm their baptisms every day, in the image of God! Amen.