Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart.

“Saint John on Patmos” by Hans Baldung Grien, 1511

October 18, 2020 is Pentecost 20A, Proper 24A/Ordinary 30A

Exodus 33:12-23 Moses asks to see God’s glory. God says, “You cannot see my face,” but allows Moses to see his backside.
Isaiah 45:1-7 – God promises Cyrus, his anointed (messiah) that he will use him to subdue the nations and strip kings of their robes, even though Cyrus does not know God.

Psalm 99 – The Lord is king. He sits enthroned upon the cherubim. Moses, Aaron and Samuel are his priests.

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) – Sing to the Lord a new song. The gods of the peoples are but idols.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 – The Thessalonians turned from their idols to worship the living God, and to wait for his Son, Jesus, whom God raised from the dead. 

Matthew 22:15-22 – The question about paying taxes.

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.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Shine like stars | in the world;
holding fast to the | word of life. Alleluia. (Phil. 2:15, 16)

Bread for the Wilderness

This is the final week of a 5-week series entitled, “Bread for the Wilderness.” This time of pandemic is like a wilderness experience. What have we learned from the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness?

ComplaintExodus 16:2-15September 20God provides manna/quail as people complain
ProvisionExodus 17:1-7 September 27Moses strikes the rock and water comes out
LawEx. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20October 4Moses receives the Ten Commandments
IdolatryExodus 32:1-14October 11Moses finds the Israelites worshipping a calf
GloryExodus 33:12-23October 18Moses sees God’s back, not face

Week 5: Glory
Exodus 33:12-23

12Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” 17The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

“Live long and prosper,” is the greeting actor Leonard Nimoy’s character Spock says in the Star Trek series. Nimoy came up with the Vulcan Hand Salute himself. In this You Tube video, the aging actor describes where he got the idea. Nimoy wrote that when he was a child, his father and grandfather took him to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, where he saw the blessing performed and was impressed by it. At the end of the service, the Kohanim went to the back for the priestly blessing. They were not supposed to look, just as Moses was not look at God, because he might be destroyed by God’s glory, but Nimoy stole a glance. The Kohanim raised both hands, thumb to thumb in this same position making the Hebrew letter Shin, which stands for El Shaddai (God), shalom (peace) and Shekinah (dwelling, or presence). Nimoy muses that when fans make the sign, they are usually unaware that they are blessing one another.

Nimoy looked back at the Kohanim making the sign of the Shin, and lived to tell about it. Moses was warned he wouldn’t’ be so lucky. Last week we heard about the Golden Calf in Exodus 32. In today’s passage from Exodus 33, the last in this wilderness series from Exodus, Moses see’s God’s backside.

Princeton Theological Seminary Professor of Old Testament Theology Dennis Olson points out that God is revealed in increasingly poignant ways in Exodus. The burning bush. “I AM.” “I am the God of your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” In Exodus 20, “I am the God who brought you up out of Egypt.”

God is fed up with “Moses’ people,” as God is now referring to them. Moses reminds God, these are God’s people. Moses begs for God’s presence. God offers to send an angel. Moses pushes back. Be with your people. God says,” I’ll go before you.” Not good enough. Moses is the mediator, advocate between God and the people of Israel. Moses is arguing on their behalf. Moses wants “God with us:” Emmanuel.

At the end of our reading, God promises to pass by Moses in a divine body. Moses cannot see God’s face, but is allow to glance at God’s backside.

Luther talked about the Deus absconditus, the “hidden God.” There is something unknowable about the divine. It is beyond us in the same way the stars are. Neil deGrasse Tyson, in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, says there are 200 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. 200 buh-buh-buh-billion. He goes on to say that there are at least 100 billion other galaxies, that we know of.  There are more stars in the sky than there are grains of sand on the earth. We have not been to Mars yet, much less the closest star, or the nearest galaxy. If God is the source of all being, all that is, it is beyond our comprehension. The psalmist, in awe, proclaims (Psalm 8):

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?

The beauty of “God with us” is not that God is our buddy, in our back pocket. It is the mystery of the magnificent, inscrutable divine, God, also immanent. This is the sacramental reality of faith. We glimpse, just barely, the divine. We see as through a mirror dimly. It is not a direct view, but mediated, a reflection.

It’s only fair that Moses, as a leader, wants signs of God’s presence and power. Don’t we need this as well? Show us your glory. I am reminded of the disciples request to Jesus: “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus replies, “Have I been with you all this time and you don’t recognize me?” In John, Jesus is the reflection of the divine.

What bread for the wilderness is there for us here? Moses models prayer for us. Prayer is a pitched negotiation, like Jacob wrestling with the angel for a blessing. Wandering and uncertain in the wilderness, we need assurance. We need to connect with the bedrock of something that is deep, true, real, profound, and life-giving.

Prayer is absolutely essential in the wilderness. Ask for what you need. Keep asking. Demand even. It might be presumptuous, but wrestle with God. Lord, I will follow you. Show me the way. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.

This pandemic has offered us ample opportunities for prayer. Give us wisdom. Protect your people. Give me patience. Help me listen. Sustain my joy. Comfort us in our grief. Be with all who are oppressed. Use us to serve those whose homes were destroyed in the hurricane. Watch over our loved ones. Lead us in the ways of justice and peace.

Moses can be our example. The more challenging the terrain, the more time on the mountain in prayer. Trust in the one who will raise you up on eagles’ wings, make you to shine like the sun, ordering our days and our deeds in God’s peace.

Show me the Money

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” 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.”22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

RCL gospel texts overview

  • September 6: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
  • September 13: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
  • September 20: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
  • Septmeber27 : Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
  • October 4: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
  • October 11: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
  • October 18: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
  • October 25: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)

First, they smother him with flattery:

Teacher, we know that you are sincere…
You teach the way of God in accordance with truth…
You show deference to no one…
You do not regard people with partiality…

Every adept leader knows, when they start pouring on the charm, watch out. They are buttering you up like a turkey before Thanksgiving. A mentor warned me, beware of those who approach you first in a new call, buttering you up with flattery.

Here’s some ancient wisdom: Beware of flattery:

Whoever flatters a neighbor is spreading a net for the neighbor’s feet.
Proverbs 29:5

The manipulator showers you with praise upon praise. In leadership, you’re taking shots from every side, so you take affirmation anywhere you can get it. You grow to need it, depend on it. The first time you do something the manipulator doesn’t like, they yank the praise and replace it with scorn. If you’ve been feeding off the affirmation, it’s like a punch in the gut. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Most pastors experience it on internship or in their first call. After a while you learn to get your kudos elsewhere. Home? Friends? But even there it’s dangerous. Get in a fight with your spouse, and you’re back in the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Best to grow into the place where you depend on an inner source of strength that comes through prayer.

Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.
They shall mount up with wings like eagles.
Isaiah 40

Best to depend on a vibrant spiritual life. The joy of the Lord is your strength. If you depend on the praise of others for your sense of well-being, it will fail you.

Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are smooth lips with an evil heart. An enemy dissembles in speaking while harboring deceit within; when an enemy speaks graciously, do not believe it, for there are seven abominations concealed within; though hatred is covered with guile, the enemy’s wickedness will be exposed in the assembly. Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling. A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin. ~Proverbs 26:23-29

So, with that cheerful word of warning, we dive further into the text. The Pharisees are plotting against Jesus. They send their disciples, along with the Herodians. The Pharisees are the purity party. They want the Romans out of Judea. The Herodians, of course, have accepted the Roman occupation as a given and are even profiting from it. Both of these groups feel threatened by Jesus’ ministry.

They ask an impossible question, designed to get him into trouble, one way or the other. Eight simple words: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” With that, the trap is set.

  • If he says yes, he will alienate the Pharisees and all who want an overthrow of the Roman occupation.
  • If he says no, he will alienate the Herodians and can be arrested and convicted of treason. (And he will be.)

The casual listener today may hear the question as, “Is it lawful to pay taxes?” But this is not the question. There were many taxes in Jesus’ day, including a temple tax. The question is, essentially: Is it appropriate, according to Jewish religious law, to pay taxes to Caesar, a foreign, occupying emperor who claims to be the Son to God? Should we pay taxes to Rome? To Caesar?

Inscribed on the denarius coin were the abbreviated words, “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus” on one side and “Pontifex Maximus” (high priest) on the other. It had a graven image on it, making it idolatry. It said Caesar was the son of God. It was considered idolatry to use or even touch these coins.

Idolatry or treason? There is no way to win this one.

Or is there?

“Let me see the coin,” Jesus says. “Show me the money!” (Cue Jerry McGuire.) This is brilliant. Jesus springs a trap back upon them. He doesn’t happen to have one of these coins. Ironically, though, they do. Without thinking, one of them tosses him a coin. Even if he doesn’t say another word, Jesus has just won the argument. He is under fire, but it is they who are carrying the idolatrous coins.

Jesus looks at the coin, a symbol of the crushing Roman power, as if he has never seen one before. “Hmm. Say, whose head is this?” As if he didn’t know. It was, of course, Caesar’s head. “Render, then, unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…” The Herodians smile. The Pharisees frown. Wait… What did he say? Did he just say to cave into the Romans and pay the tax?

“…and render unto God what is God’s.”

Did he also say to give to God what belongs to God? And what belongs to God? Doesn’t everything belong to God? (Psalm 24)

Somehow, he has managed to circumvent the trap and at the same time spring it on them. The text says they were all amazed. Astonished. He had cleverly outwitted them. Perhaps it’s not such an easy dichotomy. Maybe he’s suggesting they’re a bit too focused on money. Perhaps the us vs. them mentality isn’t as important to God as they think. Perhaps rejecting the coin is as idolatrous as the coin itself. Perhaps they should focus on what God wants from us.

How does this text speak to our people today? These notes are just that: notes. No one can tell you what to preach to your people. You know their context, needs, opportunities. Nevertheless, here are some thoughts.

Think about the protests going on during the national anthem. Some have viewed this action as unpatriotic. Is our allegiance to country higher than our allegiance to justice? Is taking a knee in any way disrespectful?

Think about the protests going on in the wake of the numerous white police shootings of unarmed black men. Some say the vandalism does not forward the cause. While Dr. King might agree, the truth is the real violence is the state-sponsored violence of the shooting. King was only worried that vandalism and retaliation would only obscure this. He was a disciple of Gandhi. Is holding the police to a high standard unpatriotic, or is it the highest form of patriotism? Allegiance to country does not mean accepting everything the government does. Protest is quintessentially American. It has been since the Boston Tea Party. We might also recall Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple and driving out the moneychangers with a whip. Sometimes protest is the highest moral good. “My father’s house will be called a house of prayer for all people. You have made it a den of robbers.”

We live in a society where patriotism is virtually a religion. If you were an alien visiting this world, and walked around your neighborhood looking for signs of allegiance what would you see? Do this exercise. Go for a walk. What symbols are in people’s yards? What does it say about what is more important to them? Is there a cross? A Star of David? A flag? An NFL pennant?

What allegiance do we owe our government? We need government. We need good government. We need roads. We need schools. This is what Paul was saying in Romans 13. Good government is a gift of God. Respect it. But it’s not infallible. Jesus was executed by the state. So was Paul most likely. What do we owe God? How do those allegiances stack up? What do we do when they come in conflict with each other? Where do you draw the line? Should people be compelled to kneel, salute, or bow down to the flag? Is the flag and object of worship? Should it be in our worship spaces. (Have fun with that.) Be careful not to offer simplistic answers. 

The preacher might take some time to allow people to dwell on the challenging question of what belongs to God.

Perhaps this is a stewardship sermon. What does belong to God after all? 10%? Or 100%? If we practice “whole life” stewardship, if we truly believe it all belongs to God, what implications does that have for how we live our lives? Perhaps we give 10% to the work of the kingdom in the world, but even the 90% we “keep” belongs to God. What does it mean to be faithful not only to the 10% but also to the 90%, using it in godly ways?

Or perhaps it’s an opportunity to talk about economic exploitation of which we are all a part. Do you know how every penny of your money in the bank is invested? How about the purchases made on your behalf by companies you hire for services? What about your spending choices? Could not your most recent purchase be supporting adverse working conditions in China? We are truly in bondage to sin and can’t free ourselves. How do we live faithfully in a sinful world with money that cannot be anything but tainted? How do we, through our giving and spending, witness to the resurrected Christ and the reign of God?

God invites us into a new economy. Not the zero-sum game the world has invented. In the economy of God, there is plenty. Sharing is the order of the day. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the master story. When God touches our hearts, God touches our wallets. Lives are turned inside out. Strangers are friends. The poor have good news preached to them.