WORSHIP ON SUNDAY, MAY 26: we will celebrate Holy Trinity Sunday!  We give thanks for the many ways God is in relationship to us, even when the math doesn’t make sense. Join us at 10:00 in our physical sanctuary at 300 Shunpike Road or in our digital sanctuary for worship: https://www.youtube.com/live/0b-_6Ywt6n8?si=-wv7dfeyQ1kqSVIF

WORSHIP ON SUNDAY, JUNE 2: we will worship on the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (the time after Pentecost)! We will celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism for Evy Maren Green, daughter of Nate and Rosemary Green and sister to Frankie. We will also hear about the sabbath – and why Jesus kept getting in trouble for doing things on the sabbath. Join us at 10:00 in our physical sanctuary at 300 Shunpike Road or in our digital sanctuary for worship: https://www.youtube.com/live/32G0JU3X4a0?si=RG2cpGeV6QsuhWNe

Sermons

October 22, 2023

I rarely carry actual money anymore.  Almost everything is done digitally.  I Venmo my friend for my half of dinner.  I have my offering to the church set up online.  Apple Pay takes one glance at my face to make a virtual payment.  I love the convenience of all of those methods, but sometimes it strikes me as weird – how I’m losing a sense of money as a tangible thing that we can hold in our hands.  I wonder sometimes how this changes my relationship with money.

Jesus, of course, does not have Venmo– which would have it more difficult for the local leaders to try to trap him in the way they attempt in today’s gospel.  They lived in a world where money was often a tool of control by the Roman Empire.  Taxation was not just a way that the Empire raised funds for the people at the top of the food chain; it was also a way to oppress people who had the least power.

Remember that Jesus is still in the temple in Jerusalem.  His time is running out, and these various groups of leaders are looking for ways to gather incriminating evidence against him.  So, as we hear, they plot to entrap him.

It’s worth noting that the alliance between the Pharisees and the Herodians was a strange one.  The Pharisees generally opposed the Roman Empire, and the Herodians were more willing to work with the Romans.  But their mutual disdain for Jesus brought these two groups together.

They begin, as deceivers often do, with flattery: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth.”  And then they ask the trickiest of trick questions: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  If Jesus answers yes, that the Jews should pay taxes to the emperor, then it sounds like he is favoring Roman oppression and renouncing Jewish identity.  But to say no would be to encourage tax evasion and sedition, which would very quickly put him in danger with the Roman authorities.

Both the Pharisees and the Herodians know exactly what they were doing here.  The Pharisees might have been opposed to Roman rule, but they had been negotiating with the Empire for decades.  The Herodians didn’t always love Roman rule, but they were perfectly willing to cozy up to the Empire’s power if it served their political and economic interests.  Both groups knew the consequences of directly defying the Roman Empire.  So when Jesus calls them hypocrites, it’s an accurate condemnation.

Jesus asks them for the coin used to pay the tax, and they produce one. The coin they offer up most likely carried the image of the emperor Tiberius.  He ruled Rome at the time, from about 14 to 37 AD.  One side of the coin would have named Tiberius as “the son of the divine Augustus,” essentially granting him a god-like status.  The other side probably honored him as the “Pontifex Maximus,” the chief priest of the many Roman gods.  Both sides of that coin pointed to the emperor’s ultimate power, both political and divine.

By asking them to produce the coin, Jesus already shows that they are willing to carry around a graven image.  That coin, with Tiberius’ image carved onto its face, was a version of an idol, which these leaders shouldn’t have been carrying around in the first place – and certainly not in the temple.

And then Jesus lays it out: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

It’s not an easy calculus, even if Jesus tries to make it sound that way.  Because if we’re being honest, all things come from God and belong to God.  God is our creator and provider, so even when we are tangled up in necessary systems of government and laws and – yes, even taxes – we try to stay mindful that God is the source of our being.

Our political leaders are not gods.  I suspect that doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone here.  So our rendering unto Caesar is always less important than what we render to God.  To live as Christians in a politically complex world means we we live out what is compassionate and merciful and life-giving, even when it demands sacrifice, even when it is not politically expedient.

That image of Tiberius on the Roman coin takes me back to the beginning of scripture, to the book of Genesis.  After God has created the wonders of the world – trees and plants, animals of sea and sky and land, stars in the heavens, the sun and the moon – God creates people.  We hear that “God created humankind in God’s image.”  From the beginning of your life God’s thumbprint has been on you.  You are uniquely you because God made you that way.  You are a walking-around coin of God’s kingdom.  And so is everyone else.

We have seen in the last two weeks some of the worst versions of the evil that human beings can inflict on each other.  The slaughter, torture, and kidnapping of Jewish civilians, many of them children and young people, by the terrorist group Hamas.  The death of innocent civilians in the subsequent bombings of Gaza.

We’ve seen that evil at work in our own country too.  A 6-year-old boy in Chicago killed by his landlord simply because the boy was Muslim, his mother critically wounded.

I checked in this week with a dear college friend, who is Jewish.  He said to me: “I assume 25% of the people in the world would prefer me dead and another large percent wouldn’t raise a finger to save me.”  His words broke my heart all over again.

So our Muslim neighbors and our Jewish neighbors, both here and around the world, are living in fear each and every day.  They ask: Will this be the day that I pay the ultimate price simply for living my faith, for being who I am?

I know most of us feel powerless to shape global events, and that kind of helplessness can quickly lead to despair. But I am convinced that it makes a difference for us to look at each person we encounter on a daily basis and say, “That person is created in the image of God…That person is created by God to be uniquely beautiful, uniquely who they are…That person is a walking coin of God’s realm.”  When we see each other in this way, it becomes harder to hold animosity and resentment in our hearts.  It becomes easier to care for each other with love and compassion.  It urges us to speak and act in solidarity with those who are being persecuted.

This is hard and holy work.  And I often have more questions than answers.  But we can bring those questions to God too – in our prayers, in our laments, in our crying out for hope.

Give to God what is God’s, Jesus tells us.  A reminder that all that we have comes from God.

But may we receive with reverence what is also God’s – the gift of each other’s lives, shaped by God’s holy hand.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

Sources:

https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3627
https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29/commentary-on-matthew-2215-22-6
https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29/commentary-on-matthew-2215-22
https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2787-what-belongs-to-god
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June 25, 2023

There’s nothing like coming back from vacation, feeling refreshed and ready to dive back into preaching, only to realize what the assigned readings for the day have served up.

In the Hebrew scriptures we hear the prophet Jeremiah bemoan his plight.  God has called him into the holy work of proclaiming God’s word to the people, and Jeremiah is not getting the response he had hoped for.  He says: “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me…All my close friends are watching for me to stumble.”

It’s hard enough to be the focus of everyone’s mockery, but when your closest friends are waiting for you to fail?  That hurts.

The psalmist seems to be in a similar predicament, writing: “I have become a stranger to my own kindred, an alien to my mother’s children…Those who sit at the gate murmur against me, and the drunkards make songs about me.”  Whoever wrote this psalm was feeling estranged from family and taunted by the town drunks.  That doesn’t feel good either.

And then there’s Jesus, who says that conflict will abound among family members: mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law.  Jesus says: “One’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

I’m officiating a wedding tomorrow down in Wildwood Crest, and oddly enough, the bride and groom did not choose this gospel to read during their marriage service.

It’s a grim theme that runs through these texts.  When we answer God’s call, when we are sent out into the world to do God’s work, we will not be met with unicorns and rainbows at every turn.  I don’t think Jesus is suggesting that we go looking for fights.  Simply that we shouldn’t be surprised when they happen.

Last week’s gospel focused on Jesus sending his disciples out to teach and to heal and to carry his message of love and hope to many of their own kindred. Pastor Gladys reminded us that this message of love and hope is equally urgent in our own time, and that when Jesus sends us out, he gives us what we need.

We certainly need that provision.  In the part of Matthew’s gospel between last week’s reading and this morning’s, the part of Chapter 10 that we skipped over, Jesus works hard to prepare the disciples for the rejection that they will inevitably face.  He says, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Matthew 10:14).  Jesus goes on to say that he is sending them out like sheep into the midst of wolves.  “Beware,” he adds, “for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me…you will be hated by all because of my name” (verses 17-18, 22).  It’s really a miracle that the disciples didn’t just pack their bags and head in the opposite direction.  Who in the world would want to sign on for that mission after hearing what the risks would be?

And then we hear a word in the middle of today’s gospel that stops us in our tracks: “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

How is it that Jesus, who elsewhere in scripture is known as the Prince of Peace, says that he doesn’t come to bring peace?  When the angels fill the sky on the night of his birth, they specifically say that Jesus brings peace.  So why all this talk of a sword now?

Scholars generally believe that this passage reflects the realities that were taking place within the community of Matthew’s gospel.  There were conflicts between those who followed Jesus and those who didn’t, and families were being torn apart by these differences in how people were choosing to live their faith.

But this reality is true in our own time as well.  We’ve talked about it before.  When we commit to living our faith – when we truly seek to include the marginalized and advocate for justice – there will be resistance.  Maybe from family, maybe from friends, maybe from neighbors or coworkers or complete strangers – but there will be times when other folks push back and want us to abandon those efforts.  When we challenge the powers of this world, those powers always fight back.

I suspect that when Jesus says he doesn’t come to bring peace, he means in part that he doesn’t come to bring a saccharine notion of peace.  We can toss around words like “peace” and “unity,” but what those words sometimes mean is that we want people who are oppressed simply to stay quiet so that no one else has to be bothered to do anything about it.  That version of unity comes at too great a cost when it means that some people are not treated as full members of the human family, with all the rights and dignity thereof.

Last week Pastor Gladys mentioned the observance of Juneteenth.  We celebrate Juneteenth as a reminder that just because a war is over, just because an Emancipation Proclamation has been issued, doesn’t mean that slaves are actually made free.  It took the Union Army showing up in Texas with a federal order to enforce that freedom. 

When we walk the paths of justice to which God has called us, we will face conflict and resistance and struggle.  Jesus’ version of peace requires disruption: new ways of understanding, new ways of living.  That kind of peace asks us to risk something.

That version of peace isn’t a limited resource.  We tend to think in terms of winners and losers, so that when some people get peace or healing or love, others miss out.  But in God’s family everybody can have peace and healing and love. 

That sword that Jesus talks about?  The sword of Jesus cuts through our divisions among each other and our judgments of each other.  The sword of Jesus demolishes all of our isms and our phobias – racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia.  The sword of Jesus carves out new paths of hope that we can walk together toward a better, more inclusive world.

I was recently introduced to the work of a young comedian named Elyse Myers.[i]  She does most of her comedy on Instagram in a series of short videos.  She is bracingly honest about her own struggles – with pregnancy, with postpartum depression, with all kinds of things.  She said something in an interview that I found beautiful.  When she is putting together her comedy, she uses three criteria as the filter for what to include or leave out.  She wants her comedy to do these three things: to make people feel known, to make people feel loved, and to make people feel like they belong.

It occurs to me that those are pretty good criteria for the church.  As we share the love of Jesus, as we work to make the world reflect the boundary-breaking love of God, this can be our commitment: to make people feel known, to make people feel loved, to make people feel like they belong.

So when people are feeling estranged from the family of God and attacked by those around them, we can be the answer to their prayer, a prayer that often sounds like the one from our psalm today: “In your great mercy, O God, answer me with your unfailing help. Save me from the mire; do not let me sink; let me be rescued from those who hate me and out of the deep waters.”  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] Listen to the episode of Mike Birbiglia’s “Working it Out” podcast in which he and Elyse talk about her work: https://www.birbigs.com/

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Join the fun this summer as we experience the ride of a lifetime with God!

Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.

Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm

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