Sermon for October 22, 2023 21 Pentecost
Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
By John McNamara
Today’s lessons all follow a plan by God with a reward for steadfast effort. In Bill’s sermon last week, the 20th week of Pentecost, he explained the parable in Gospel of Matthew that ended with a saying from Jesus, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Membership in the Church does not guarantee survival in the final reckoning with God. Today’s lessons provide clarifying examples of those who found favor with God. Moses receives all goodness and learns the name of The Lord for he found favor in God’s sight. Paul explains that the grace and peace resulting from “your works of faith and labor of love and hope in our Lord Jesus with full conviction will create a path to God’s full glory in Heaven.” Jesus saves himself from the pharisees by a wise answer to a trick question using a theologically-sound answer honoring God, yet not discrediting Ceasar.
In our first reading, we return to Exodus, where Moses seeks assurance that God will accompany the chosen people despite their folly and sin. Just before our reading today, Chapter 33 of Exodus begins with the Lord saying to Moses “leave this place, you and your people whom you have brought out of Egypt, and go to the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, to your descendants, I will give it. I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Israel is a unique people because it undertakes a special historical pilgrimage with the Lord leading them into the future. The accompanying angel is the Lord’s representative or alter ego. The Lord says to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight. I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, The Lord, and I will show mercy and I will be gracious to whom I will show grace and mercy to.” Unfortunately, when God decided to drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites from the land He promised Israel, those tribes never agreed to God’s plan and they have never relented in their efforts to get their land back.
Gaza, the great besieged Gaza City, is a coastal strip of land where Asia meets Africa. The city lays on ancient trade routes on the Mediterranean. Often featured in Biblical accounts, for thousand of years it has been fought over by many, including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Philistines, and the Greeks, killing all the men and enslaving women and children. The battle of King David and later, the Romans, Mongols, Crusaders and Napoleon brought Christianity to the land. 1400 years ago Islamic armies invaded Gaza and the territory remained part of the Ottoman Empire until the British took control. In the last century, Gaza passed from British to Egyptian and to Israeli rule. An ancient war has been passed down from generation to generation; a war against the Israel mission to have a Jewish state, to perform rites in their Temple and to have a home for the chosen people. That war continues today and has had profound global impacts. Although we are urging Israel’s leaders not to be blinded by rage, we have seen over 3,000 Palestinians killed in revenge for the 1,300 Israelites killed by Hamas. The United Nations is providing services for 1.6 million registered Palestinian refugees fleeing Gaza today.
In the Old Testament reading, divine freedom is emphasized. God is free to act according to God’s will, unbound by external hindrance or necessity. God’s action is not capricious, however, but is the expression of divine goodness. God remains hidden, even when most palpably present. “Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” It seems that we will not see God coming, but we will see the results of God’s presence.
Our second lesson comes from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, important for its location on both sea and land routes of travel. Paul founded the church in Thessalonica shortly after he left Philippi. Although the Book of Acts tells us his initial contact in Thessalonica was with the synagogue, 1 Thessalonians is address to gentile believers. Paul’s letter reflects the life of a congregation that was devoted to its faith and strongly aware of its separation from society. It was also a community that was threatened by social pressures and at time outright persecution to turn back to the life from which they had come. Paul wrote simply to encourage the church, stressing that the opposition is simply something to be expected, and expressing appreciation for the congregation’s steadfastness. However, he also wrote to defend himself against accusations about his character and motives. Christians faced controversy at every turn.
In this week’s reading, Paul continues the description of actions that produce grace and mercy, which Paul identifies as, “Your works of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul explains, “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the Gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” Paul believes our works of faith and labor of love produce grace and mercy.
Our Holiday Bazaar is a work of faith. Our actions produce grace and mercy and funds for our community. Stewardship is our opportunity to direct our tithing into works of faith and action that produce grace and mercy. From Paul’s perspective, St. Hugh is on the right path as we help the greater community, whether we see or know them, or not, we act according to God’s will.
Today’s Gospel offers us more trick or treats. To help us understand the Gospel of Matthew, Biblical scholar, John Yieh, explains that, besides the chief priest and elders, Jesus is also bombarded by many other religious leaders who want to test and discredit him. In today’s reading, the politically well-connected Herodians attempt to trick Jesus with a question about paying taxes to Ceasar. If Jesus says it is indeed lawful, then he will lose his credibility as a prophet and favor with his Jewish followers. If he says it is not lawful, he can be charged by the Roman authorities for treason.
Deconstructing their either-or choices, Jesus answers their question. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” If Jesus had approved paying taxes, he would have offended the nationalistic parties; if he had disapproved payment, he could be reported as disloyal to the empire. His answer is both politically savvy and theologically sound. No one can accuse Jesus of treason against Ceasar, yet he is saying one should honor God with the utmost loyalty because everything belongs to God. This wise answer saves him from political entrapment. Today’s Gospel reading ends with, “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” However, in the very next verse, Verse 23, it says, “The same day some Sadducces came to him.” In other words, they never end their attempts to test and discredit Jesus.
God’s plan continues to the end of time and God’s plan continues despite human’s best intentions. For humans, change is inevitable, growth is optional. Lord, have mercy.