Politicos and their Coins
2008-10-14 by Tom Steagald

I have a new insight (which is to say, new for me) about the very familiar story concerning Jesus and the Herodians and Pharisees' attempt to "entrap" him, which is to say their desire to confine him, marginalize him, isolate him from at least half of those who are following him.

The story is simple. The Pharisees, who were religious, and the Herodians, who most probably were not, conspired together to ask Jesus a "hot-button" political question--whether or not to pay taxes to Caesar--and to our ears the question sounds more practical than political, a matter of degree rather than of conflicting allegiances. But for the Jews of Jesus' time, especially the religious and political, it was an incendiary as questions of homosexual unions or abortion. And whichever way Jesus answers, if he answers either "yes" or "no," he will offend one side or the other among the debaters. The Pharisees and Herodians know that--in fact, they are counting on it.

That Jesus answers differently and better is clear.

But here is the thing. It occurred to me today that whereas our attentions naturally go to the answers, and especially to the more comprehensive, spiritual answer Jesus gives--and most of our preaching deals with those things--it escapes our attention that adversaries and enemies do much the same thing in our own day. That is, they pose questions for us--should gays be ordained? are you in favor of abortion? can one be a Christian and a member of the armed services?--not because they are interested in answers themselves, but because they are trying to divide (in order to marginalize) believers. Either way we answer we offend someone; we are drawn into political squabbles; we find ourselves isolated.

Joseph Bottum has recently argued that the Mainline died when it was irretrievably politicized (not in the sense Buran's professor suggested, but in a partisan way). It is a cliff Jesus avoided in this text, a ledge to which our enemies try to lead us over and over again, in the name of the "common good" or lip-service to faith's role in the court of public opinion. But beneath the innocent query there can be a diabolical agenda, a divide and thereby isolate/conquer tactic that continues to be worth many coins both to Caesar and to religion's self-important detractors.

Our guest preaching blogger this week is
2008-10-13 by CJ Teets

Buran Phillips, the senior pastor of Westminster Presbyterian church in Knoxville, TN.  Married with three children, Buran is originally from Kentucky.  He has degrees from Berea College and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, as well as a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Vanderbilt University.  Outside of his family, he has a passion for running and classic rock music. Check out his first post on the texts below.

Go to HOMEPAGE and Share It! to read Ron Allen's thoughts on preaching during this election season.

Also, check out the new material for All Saints' Day, Veterans' Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Advent in UNLECTIONARY.


Reflections on the Lectionary Passages for Oct. 19
2008-10-13 by Buran Phillips

Reflections on the Lectionary Passages for Oct. 19. 

I want to comment on each of the four lectionary passages individually and then conclude with some reflections about all four together.  At the outset, I am struck by the theme of identity which manifests itself throughout these passages.  Who are the people of God?  What is the nature of this God who calls people into community?  Further, how does this community “see” or experience the presence of God, and what does that mean for its continued life?

  Exodus 33:12-23 – Rock of Ages Cleft for me 

Moses and the people are leaving Mt. Sinai and continuing their journey toward the Promised Land, a journey that has so far been filled with setbacks and lessons learned the hard way but also divine guidance and miraculous provisions.  Moses wants to be assured that for the continued journey the divine guidance can be relied upon.  So Moses asks for God’s presence, knowing that without God’s presence and guidance the journey stands no chance.  God assures Moses of God’s presence by reminding him of the unique relationship between God and Moses and the people, for “I know you by name” says the Lord.  Moses wants more, however.  Moses wants to see God face to face.  “Show me your glory.”  God informs Moses that he will make his “goodness” pass before him but that Moses cannot see the face of God and live.  So he is asked to stand in a crevice of a rock as the glory of God passes by.  All Moses gets a glimpse of is the “back” of God.

Moses wants presence, but is given a lesson on God’s identity so to speak.  What is the nature of this God who is leading and guiding Moses and the people?  This is a God of goodness.  In fact, God’s “glory” is not something one sees so much as one experiences through the goodness of God.  Is that how one “sees” God?  This is also a God of mercy and graciousness, who will show mercy and grace to whom God desires to show mercy and grace. 

            It is interesting that passages like this have often been used in my tradition to speak to the issue of election or predestination, but in a very exclusive way.   The “chosenness” of those who receive mercy and grace seems to spring from a kind of arbitrariness on God’s part.  I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.  However, in the present context, it would seem to speak more to a rather all-encompassing inclusive grace; “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy” because this is a God who cannot be grasped fully by human beings, a God that cannot be contained or captured or possessed by any one person or people or nation (or political ideology, thinking ahead to Matthew).    This is a sovereign and free God who gives enough of the divine presence to call forth trust, but not so much that we can think that we have the presence fully and completely in an absolute kind of way.

            What Moses sees is the “back” of God as God “passes” by.  Perhaps that is as it should be.  Are God’s people those the divine glory passes by and “through” as they live out and proclaim the goodness and graciousness of a merciful Lord?  Moses sees the back of God.  As Fretheim notes in his Interpretation commentary, the “back” is what one would see of a God leading people on their journeys.  God’s works through God’s people and is always leading God’s people.  And all we get is a glimpse.  As Luther has reminded us, even when God reveals himself, God remains hidden.

God’s word is hidden within human words.

God’s power is hidden in the weakness of a cross.

God’s very being is hidden in a little baby born in a manger.

A glimpse of God’s presence is all we get; just enough to leave room for faith.

 Psalm 99 

This is a wonderful Psalm which speaks very powerfully to the identity of the one Israel acknowledges as their King.   One could preach on this Psalm by itself, or allow it to more fully draw out the identity of God and what it means to live as God’s people in the world.  This is a great and holy and awesome God, says the Psalm, and deserving of our worship.  For this mysterious God, this cosmic Lord, enters into the concreteness of our lives.  This God is both a “forgiver” of wrongs and an “avenger” of wrongdoings.  This God is a lover of justice and righteousness, a God who is concerned with equity and fairness between peoples, but also that God’s own people, those who call upon the name of the Lord, are themselves doers of justice.  Is this a way that God is “seen” both by others and by those claiming to be God’s own?  Thus, not only do we grasp something important of God’s identity in this Psalm, but we also glean something important about the nature of Israel and her life before God and before the world.

 I Thessalonians 1:1-10 

If one were beginning a series of sermons on this particular letter it would be fascinating to draw attention to the three phrases here which describes the Thessalonian community of faith, and then allow the rest of the letter to build on that.  Their life together is described as a “work of faith” and a “labor of love” and a “steadfastness of hope,”  and one might here recall the words of the apostle Paul in Corinthians, “faith, hope, love abide, these three…etc.. 


It is interesting, however, how of theme of identity comes back into play here, particularly that of the community of faith.  After his initial greetings and words of thanksgiving, Paul reminds the community of their “chosenness.”  The message of the gospel has come to them and is at work among them.  This “chosenness” apparently is not some kind of static status, but is actively manifesting itself in their life together.  Guided by the Holy Spirit, they are living into their identity as the people of God.  Part of that living involves “imitation” of the apostles and the Lord (What would Jesus do?), a concept that could really be developed further.  What might it mean to “imitate” the Lord?  Part of that living also involves receiving the word with joy, a joy that persists in spite of persecution.  Thus, again, the Thessalonian church is living out its identity as God’s own in very concrete, practical ways.  And as their faith is becoming known throughout the regions, they are making God known.  Just as they once turned away from idols and toward the true God, so their life together now, even the very existence of this community itself, is a means of “witness” by which others might “see” the presence of God.  The imitators are now an “example” to others, as God’s glory/presence/spirit has passed by and through them.

 Matthew 22:15-22 

            It is difficult to read this classic text from Matthew and not be drawn to reflections about issues of church/state, faith/politics, God/country.  And it certainly raises questions in precisely those areas.  And, with an election season upon us, it would be naïve and perhaps irresponsible to think that such issues are not on the minds of our congregants in various kinds of ways.  Particularly in an election season it seems that the lines of church and state, faith and politics are either drawn so sharply so as to make constructive communication impossible, or they become blurred and confused in an unhealthy manner.  While I’m convinced that this passage may indeed address these kinds of issues, I’m not convinced that we get the definitive guidance that we might be looking for in these areas.  What we do get is a call for self-reflection upon our identity as the people of God and what it means to live as God’s people in the world.

            The Pharisees try to trick Jesus with a question about paying taxes.  But notice the question is framed in the context of lawfulness, that is, is it in accordance with the Law, with the Torah, for us to pay taxes?  Again, the identity questioned is raised.  Jesus, taking a coin, responds with a question of his own; whose image is on the coin?  Interesting isn’t it?  Only the emperor’s image is on the coin.  What does it say that on our coins we have both Caesar and the phrase In God We Trust?  When the Pharisees give the obvious answer that it is indeed the emperor whose image is on the coin, then Jesus of course retorts with the memorable line, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 

            How does one distinguish between the two?  Is it supposed to be self-evident for Matthew?  For us?  I wonder if Jesus really answered the question.  Should we pay taxes or not?  Well, whose image is on the coin?  The emperor; but again, should we pay taxes or not?  Uh….give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and give to God what belongs to God.  Okay, but should we pay taxes or not?  It would be easier to get a firm yes or a no to that one.  But we are left with the ambiguity of deeper reflection upon our lives in the world.  And I'm not sure, again, that this text give us the kind of definitive answers we might seek.

            I have a dear friend who opposes abortion.  He takes some very complicated steps to ensure that his denominational pension dues not be used for what he considers an unethical stance on this issue by his denomination.  Another friend rails against and has tried to do something about the use of her tax dollars to currently support a war which she feels is immoral and never came close to meeting the criteria for a just war.  I know both to be persons of deep faith and persons given to serious reflection.  They both struggle with what it means to claim their identity as the people of God. 

            Does it help to look at Jesus’ answer from the other side and ask, what does “not” belong to the emperor?  Are we talking matters of loyalty and allegiance here?  What are the things to do not belong to God?  I thought everything belonged to God.  But if it is about images, then perhaps we are called to ask, in whose image were we created?  Is that what this is about?

            I had a wonderful professor in college who asked a question that grew out of this passage.  “Name,” he said, “one thing the church does that is not political in nature.”  Some poor student near the back (not me) said, “Uh, communion.  That’s a spiritual thing.  It really has nothing to do with politics.”  I don’t have space here to give the full and unfiltered response, but it went something like this:  “Are you kidding me?  Communion?  You mean when the community of faith comes together and affirms that the present world order is already in the process of passing away?  You mean when the church comes together and affirms that God’s great cosmic vision of justice and righteousness inaugurated through the shed blood and broken body of the Christ, who has defeated even death, has already permeated our world and made relative all the kingdoms of this world? Son, nothing could be more politically subversive that for a group of people to come together and celebrate communion.”

            Perhaps the Jesus we encounter here in Matthew’s gospel wants to engage us in a process of self-reflection about what it means to be God’s people in the world, and we should engage our folks in that same self-reflective process.  It does mean living with tension and ambiguity in matters where we might want or need more clarity, particularly in the political realm.  On the other hand, seeing this passage in the context of our identity as God’s people might give us more guidance that we think.  Note that Matthew’s entire gospel has been leading us toward what it means to be disciples, what it means to follow Christ in the world.  Let us note also where Matthew is headed, toward the final judgment showdown between the sheep and the goats where we see the “things” with which God is ultimately concerned; food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, care for the least of these, these, by the way, who are created in God’s image and who belong to God.  There is no ambiguity here.  To borrow a phrase from the prophet Micah, we experience God and the presence of God through our actions when we do justice and love kindness.

 Sermon Directions 

            Obviously one could move in a number of directions for the sermon.  It might be fun to take Exodus as the primary text and play with the idea of “seeing” God and noting where and how we see God at work in our world and in our lives.  While Moses didn’t get to see God face to face, he did get to “see” that God was present with him and his people.  In the process we “see” something inherently wonderful about this one who both guides us and protects us by the divine presence.  We experience God’s presence in the present.

One could certainly play with the idea of being chosen and what that entails.  Matthew’s passage could lead one to reflect upon our loyalties and allegiances in so far as it relates to our identity as the people of God.  What are the “things” that are God’s?  Given the nature of what is revealed about our God, what are the “things” with which God’s people ought to be concerned?  It is difficult to preach on all the texts of course, but it is interesting how all of our passages supplement one another.  The gracious and merciful God of the Exodus, the God whom the Psalmist reminds us loves justice and righteousness, the God in whose image we are created, calls us to embody justice and compassion.  In fact, the fledgling church in Thessalonica is lauded for living their faith, for they have been “giving to God the things that are God’s” in their life together, as they continue to be guided by God’s presence through the Spirit and continue in their labor of love to witness to the Lord Jesus Christ who is the source of their hope; a joyful hope that will sustain them until he comes again.

The Intersection of Lectionary and Life
2008-10-10 by Frank Lewis

If your life is anything like mine, a lot has happened since I started looking at this Sunday’s lectionary texts. I watched a documentary on John Lennon last night and listened as the former Beatle said “Life is what happens while you are planning for your future.” Don’t know if that’s original with him or not, but life certainly happens to each one of us as we plan for Sunday.

            On Tuesday night, my city played host to the Presidential Town-Hall Debates at Belmont University. As I listened to two men who love our country, both of whom aspire to lead us toward a new day, I found myself thinking about Moses as a man and a leader. In a country filled with golden calves and stiff necked people, how can anyone be expected to move us forward? Why would anyone even want to try? I didn’t hear anything Tuesday night to convince me one way or another about either candidate, but I am committed to pray a bit harder for the eventual winner come Election Day. If anything, America needs some intercessors and I need to be better in this role as a spiritual leader.          

            On Thursday my annuity statement arrived showing that for the fourth quarter in row, my losses were greater than my contributions. I may never be able to retire. I’m not usually an anxious person, but my anxiety level is rising. The words from Philippians continue to scroll across my mind “Be anxious for nothing…” but it’s hard to be confident right now. If I feel this, I can’t imagine how others must feel. I’m young enough to recover from most of this, I think, but many are not. I imagine that as we preachers stand to offer words of hope this Sunday, we’ll be standing before people who have lost significant portions of their financial portfolios, their jobs, their dreams, and their confidence. I think Sunday matters more right now, than it ever did. So do our words as God uses them to bring comfort and assurance to worshippers.

             In just a few hours I’m leaving with my wife and son to attend “parent’s weekend” at my daughter’s college. She’s a freshman this year. Without her in our home, life has certainly changed. It’s a lot quieter. There’s less laundry and fewer things to pick up in the kitchen. But I miss her terribly. She has a laugh that sounds like music to my ears. I can’t wait to hear it again. I just hope that we can all get along. We’re all related to Euodia and Syntyche when it comes to our feelings, expectations, frustrations, and opinions. I hope that we can remember who we are (parents, children, siblings, etc.) and act like a family who’s aware of the treasure we have in one another. If I were preaching this Sunday, I think I’d want to remind my congregation that in difficult and uncertain times, it’s probably more important to be family to one another than ever before. We need each other, and we need to get along for the sake of the Gospel.

            Add to this the pastoral needs of a congregation. Like you, I’ve been made aware of too many hurts this week. Family members have passed away. A husband has left his wife and children. One family is four weeks into the grief of a suicide, another has just learned they are pregnant after trying for six years to conceive, and it’s risky. A faithful deacon who leads young adults in Bible study came to the end of his severance package this week and there is nothing in sight as he seeks to find employment. I’ve seen three ministry colleagues from our staff retire or leave for other ministry opportunities in the past twelve months, and their positions are still vacant. The church is anxious. They fear change. They look at me and wonder if I’ve got what it will take to navigate us forward. Some have already inked the drawings for a golden calf just in case.

            Yet above it all I still hear the music from the other side of the castle wall. The lyrics are true, and the music is noble, just, pure and lovely! It’s the music of a celebration. A king has extended an invitation to join in the wedding celebration for his son. I don’t know how I ended up on the guest list, but I did. I’m blessed. I’m favored. I’m graced. And so are you. If percentages were intended by this week’s parable, the odds are pretty good that most who hear God speak through us will gladly put on new robes and join in the festive dance. They’ve heard the dirge of despair and they have known the refrain of regret, and they are ready to embrace a better song. So let’s preach it boldly!


Praise the LORD!

Oh. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good!

For His mercy endures forever.


Grace and Peace!

Frank R. Lewis

Euodia and Syntyche Running for President
2008-10-09 by David von Schlichten

I've been thinking about the quarrel between Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4 and how that dynamic reminds me of the nastiness between Obama and McCain.

Also, Euodia means something like "good journey" and Syntyche something like "fortunate," so one could say that these people need to live up to their names. Likewise, God calls us to live up to the name conferred upon us. To put this point another way, we are wedding guests, so we need to act accordingly, not to earn salvation, but because we're at a party.

Thank you to all for the blogging entries this week, and a special thanks to our guest blogger.

Be sure to go to Share It! to read Ron Allen's thoughts about preaching on the election.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

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