Lectionary Reflection for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 19, 2014
Reframed by the Holy Other
…I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness. I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” Isaiah 45:6b-7
Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” Matthew 22:21b
It is a poor sermon that gives no offense; that neither makes the hearer displeased with himself nor with the preacher.” — George Whitehead (1714-1770)
Christians are an against-the-grain kind of people. We run counter to the prevailing societal winds while walking firmly within the culture in which we are planted. We are, in essence, constantly being reframed and redirected in alignment with the true north of God’s Wholly and Holy Otherness. While the mores of our consumer culture seek to place us at the center, with the world revolving around the individual and his or her needs, God continually moves us to the margins to dance around the divine center in community and relationship with our sisters and brothers.
The Revised Common Lectionary selections for this week offer an excellent opportunity to examine this reframing of the Christian existence and of how stewardship of all creation is woven deeply into the fabric of discipleship. God’s ways are not our ways, and as preachers and teachers of the word and way we dare not play it safe and easy, skirting the tough stuff for a socially acceptable, feel-good gospel. And yes, there are ways to speak truth in love, convicting, cajoling, and conspiring one with another to be imitators of Christ and full participants in a new world order.
Of course, it is much easier to delude and rationalize ourselves into a way of thinking that discounts the otherness of God and the discipleship journey. Just ask the religious leaders who pull coins-of-the-realm out of their pious pockets right there in the temple. Their intent is to trap Jesus, to make a fool of him and expose him as fraud and upstart, but God-in-flesh-and-bones instead exposes their own fraudulent and self-serving behaviors.
What belongs to God? Everything, of course! The entire creation and every beautiful, broken, fragile, fallen, puffed-up, or pusillanimous one of us–none of us pulls the strings in the end. None of us controls the living, dying, breathing mechanisms of the cosmos. And yet we are partners in this process of restoring the whole and standing in the breach as stewards of God’s abundance.
In the Old Testament reading from Isaiah the prophet interprets Cyrus the Persian as God’s instrument of restoration, reminding us today that God can and does work through strange and unsuspected channels–and invites us to partner in that reframing of expectations and traditions.
In the Psalm we have a call, pure and simple, to worship and praise the Lord of all and to honor God’s sovereignty over earth and righteous judgment. This is a timely reminder that our chief aim when we gather is not to assuage our own needs but to give our best praise and gift of self to God. Through this act of giving in worship, we receive from God that which we need to press on another day.
The epistle selection from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians brims with thanksgiving for a community that hears the word of God and responds by the power of the Holy Spirit, becoming imitators of Paul’s example and bearers of joy and examples of discipleship. We, too, are called to model the faith and to pass it on–always fresh, rooted in context, and grounded in the witness of scripture.
Finally, the gospel lesson of “giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” provides the kernel of truth that it all belongs to God. No matter how thoroughly we try to rationalize otherwise, and despite our often-desperate attempts to wrest control, ultimately it’s all about God. The good news is that we are God’s beloved people and invited to be full participants in the process of turning the world around and stewards of the abundance.
Today’s lessons provide an unpopular and difficult topic–that we aren’t in control–but there’s good news in the grace of that same lack of control. In fact, when we do give to God the things that are God’s (i.e. all of ourselves, our time, our treasure, our very best) we can be amazed at the results. Use these lessons as one more opportunity to lift up God’s abundance, our utter dependence, and the amazing possibilities of living fully into that reality–reframing and reforming always as God’s beloved.
Consider using the hymn “We Give Thee but Thine Own” to frame your sermon today. Either weave the singing of individual verses throughout, or bracket your preaching with two verses before and two verses afterward. Invite worshipers to consider those things we hold (but belong to God) that are hard to release fully to God. Provide an opportunity to write these difficult things on small sheets of colored paper and have worshipers bring them forward as part of the offering to provide a visual reminder that everything truly does belong to God.
In today’s gospel, Jesus and some temple leaders tangle about what belongs to whom. The question is about paying taxes, but the real conflict is about authority and who has it. Invite youth to consider whose “face” graces our current popular “currency of culture”–would it be sports heroes, brand names, musicians, actors, politicians? How do we assert Jesus sovereignty over all things? How can we sound an alternative note while still walking with our friends and coworkers in the world? What does it mean to be “odd” and “walk wet” in our baptism in a world that is parched for a word of real hope?
Today’s psalm reminds us that worship is about praising God. An important way we do this is through song. Have two adult leaders work with the children to get the congregation active in singing a familiar praise song geared to everyone, but particularly to young people: “Hallelu, Hallelu.” Divide the lyrics into two parts and have each side of the congregation sing one of the parts. Speed up the lyrics each time through, and sing at least three times. Click here for a Youtube version of the song and here for lyrics and simple sheet music.
Remind the children that joyfully praising God through song is liturgy–the work of the people AND a whole lot of fun. Finish with a simple prayer.
Photos: Al King, Les Chatfield, and Marcelino Repayla Jr., Creative Commons. Thanks!