Jesus and Taxes Matthew 22:15-22

Does anybody really enjoy paying taxes? As mid-April approaches, do any of us celebrate writing out a check to send off to the treasury? Are any of us filled with joy as another tax form needs to be filled out? Taxes are a part of life. So when Jesus is asked about paying taxes in the reading, the answer he gives is unexpected because he flips the narrative. Pharisees and Herodians were trying to trap Jesus in a political trap. In the end, Jesus exposes them for their own hypocrisy.

Pharisees and Herodians were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Pharisees were against the Roman occupation and paying taxes was the equivalent of being considered a traitor. Herodians, as the name suggests, supported Herod who served at the leisure of Rome. So lets say a liberal Democrat and conservative Republican join forces to take someone down politically. Yeah, you get the picture. Something is about to happen and it doesn’t pass the smell test. A trap was being set.

Jesus was asked about the legality of paying taxes to Rome. If he said, “yes,” Jesus would be charged with betraying Israel and God. If he said, “no,” Jesus would be charged with sedition against Rome. How was Jesus going to respond? He trapped them in their hypocrisy.

Jesus asked for a coin. They had one readily available engraved with the image of the emperor. Owning the coin proved that they were fully involved with the economic realities of living in the Roman empire. Therefore, paying taxes was acceptable. However, God’s authority has a moral claim over our lives that cannot be negated by Rome. The answer Jesus gave was not the simple “yes” or “no” that they were hoping to hear and serve their political agenda. Life as a person of faith in this world is far more complicated than we imagine.

We live in a time where there is confusion over God and country. Do we merge the two together or keep them strictly separate? If we aren’t careful, then we are living out what the Pharisees and Herodians were trying to do with Jesus when he flipped the trap on them saying,

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Matthew 22:21

There is a political claim that is made upon us because we live in this world. Yet, there is a claim that God has placed upon us as well. If we try to merge the two, we end up making the country into an idol. If we try to separate them, then one is chosen at the expense of the other. The answer Jesus gave about taxes seems to leave us in tension between the two.

The life of faith is not an easy one – nothing shocking here. So we are left with the great challenge of discernment. Where does the claim of politics begin and end? Where does God’s claim (as the One who gave us life) fit in? How we draw the lines is the way faith is lived.

Peace.

Actions Not Words Matthew 21:23-32

I think that we have all heard the phrase, “actions speak louder than words.” Most likely we have more than heard the phrase, the words have impacted us directly. Who hasn’t been disappointed when promises have gone unfulfilled? We have all been burned at one time or another when trusting in words that have left us betrayed. Every election cycle words are spoken of peace, security, justice, unity. Yet, the disunity, fear, anger and corruption continue. The challenge from the reading for those of us who call upon Jesus is to do more than say words but to repent and do the actions that Jesus did and lived.

Chief priest and elders of the people were demanding to know by whose or what authority Jesus overturned the money changing tables and called the Temple a “den of robbers.” Jesus would only respond to them if they decided on John the Baptist’s authority for calling the people to repent and prepare for the coming reign of God. Was it of human or Divine authority? After a brief discussion, they chose the politically astute answer – they punted. The chief priests and elders may have had leadership roles but they were not “of” the people. They served by Roman permission and lived lives of privilege that the people couldn’t relate. Sure they spoke the words from God but their actions were empty.

Jesus then challenged them with a parable of a father who sent his two sons out to work in the fields. One said, “no” but later went. The other said, “yes” but never showed up. Which did the will of the father? The answer was obvious. Jesus then gave the stinging rebuttal that prostitutes and tax collectors would proceed them into the kingdom of heaven. Tax collectors took in the revenue to help finance the Roman occupation and so they were considered traitors. Prostitutes and traitors would enter the kingdom of heaven first. Why? They heeded John the Baptist’s words and changed their lives to welcome the reign of God. Actions the chief priests and elders of the people wouldn’t take.

So will we be people of words only? Or, will we take the risk to change the lives we live to make those words come alive? This is the challenge for those of us who call upon Jesus. Will we simply say the words or will we personally change to follow what he did and lived?

Peace

Allegiance to Jesus Matthew 16:13-20

The politics of the election are starting to really heat up. What this means in practice, is that the name of Jesus is getting tossed about by those claiming to have the “correct” defining statement of his identity. Some claim to have the special insight as to which political party Jesus is present and where he is absent. Political mudslinging tries to label the opposition as against God or hurting God. Yes, politics is heating up and Jesus is being dragged into the middle of it to serve our purposes.

So the reading from Matthew is fitting for these days. Jesus asked the disciples what others were saying about him. The response was John the Baptist or a prophet. Then Jesus personalized the question to what the disciples had to say. Peter announced, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus didn’t praise Peter for coming up with the answer but the Father for revealing this to Peter. The reading ends with Jesus giving strict orders for this revelation to be kept quiet which seems strange. Why? Peter had the correct title but there was much more for him and the other disciples to learn. You see, Jesus’ question wasn’t a test to get the answers right. This was about allegiance to Jesus.

Caesarea Philippi was a town that was near a cave which housed a spring feeding the Jordan River. The cave had also served as a place where the Greek god, Pan had been worshipped. Herod had built a temple to honor Caesar Augustus there. At the time Matthew was written, Roman soldiers had destroyed the great temple in Jerusalem. Caesarea Philippi was now the administrative center for Philip the tetrarch (Herod’s son). This was a reality not ignored by Matthew’s readers. So when Jesus asked about what was being said of him, he was really asking about allegiance…which God do you worship…what leaders do you revere…to what political power do you surrender your allegiance.

Peter had the right answer but not the understanding of what his response meant for life. If your allegiance is to Jesus, then you do the things he did. Jesus set people free as he announced the coming of the kingdom of heaven. He set people free from their illness. He celebrated with those despised “sinners.” He received the outcast and unwanted. He was and continues to be the way death’s power is destroyed.

Peter and the disciples had still much to learn about Jesus and following him. The church today still struggles in the same way. Jesus gave the amazing job description that is concerned with setting people free for the kingdom of heaven. What we do will either set people free or keep them in bondage. In following Jesus are we keeping people in bondage to ideology, race, division, fear, hatred, poverty, sickness? Or, are we working for people to be set free for the kingdom of heaven?

Another election is drawing near, meaning those seeking office are tripping over each other in the race to say who Jesus is to serve their purposes. Jesus is asking who we say he is to serve his purposes for the kingdom of heaven. Who do we worship…who will we give honor and praise…what power will we in the end serve? The difference is as big as freedom and bondage. How will we live out our answer to Jesus’ question?

Peace.

Being Welcomed Matthew 10:40-42

When was the last time you felt welcome from others? It may have been a while. These days of polarization have made the concept of welcoming seem rather rare. Yet, the invitation to join a group, an organization, a family, a club gives the feeling of acceptance and that is a blessing. So as we turn to the reading for this coming Sunday, blessing is the order for the day.

The reading is a continuation of the past couple weeks. Jesus had been prepping the disciples to go out and tell the world of God who loves it. The act of telling about a kingdom where the hungry were fed, the sick receive healing care and the outcast received was to be their new identity in life. What were they going to receive from announcing this wonderful message? They were going to be prosecuted, persecuted and divided against family. There are times when families don’t always get along with each other and those times aren’t good. What Jesus was describing was even worse. In those days a person’s identity wasn’t defined by individuality, it was defined by community, your family. Separated from the family meant you lost what defined you. Jesus was sending them out and they were at risk of losing everything this world offers. Jesus now turns to speak words of blessing and welcome.

Jesus said to them,

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Matthew 10:40

Remember the importance of community? The “you” is not singular, it is plural. Jesus was saying that those who receive one of the disciples wasn’t accepting only the person but the whole community of those following Christ. To put it another way, the disciples were already a part of a community and that was the followers of Christ and members of God’s kingdom. Even a cup of cool water offered on a hot day to a disciple was an act of welcoming Christ, the kingdom and finding a new identity in Christ.

These days of polarization may leave you (singular) on the outside and feeling very much alone. Daring to speak of welcome and grace in the name of Christ may even leave you feeling more so. This is where Jesus’ words are such a blessing. There is a community that finds its identity in Christ. You are a part of that community. Anyone who welcomes you (plural), welcomes that community to define them well. You may feel isolated but you are not, you are a part of the kingdom (family) of God. This is a blessing.

Peace.

Do Not Be Afraid Matthew 10:24-39

Fear is a strong motivator. There is a lot of fear these days. We fear getting Covid. We fear change and what is different from what we think is normal. We fear the loss of job and paying the rent. We are told to fear the immigrant and those of a different race. We fear the loss of privilege. We fear exposure as we lose that carefully developed facade of who we think we are. Of course, there is the fear of death. At the core of fear is loss and losing what we own. No wonder that fear is used so effectively in politics. The reading from Matthew has Jesus telling the disciples to not be afraid. If there were a group of people having a right to be afraid, the disciples would be that group. What Jesus was asking of them would lead to loss, a lot of loss. What Jesus also announced to them and to all willing to listen, was their value to God who is concerned about the insignificant sparrow. Obviously we are of greater value than a sparrow. What Jesus was stressing wasn’t just the recognition of what may be lost but the importance of gaining life – life that is found within the kingdom of God.

Jesus was preparing the disciples for a big evangelism effort. He was also warning them of the consequences and what they might lose. He warned that his coming was not for peace but will bring the sword, division instead. They will lose relationships with brother, sister and in-law. They will even face death itself. Why? The message to be proclaimed will bring exposure…what is done in secret will be revealed…the coming of God’s kingdom promises to cause tremendous change with the powerful brought down and the low lifted up. There will be fear.

Jesus repeatedly told them not to be afraid and that is for us to hear as well. The God who raised Jesus from the dead and who will raise us as well, cares for us to know even the number of hairs on our heads. This same Father knows even when a little sparrow falls to the ground and we are of greater value than a sparrow.

The final verse talks about what is gained and what is lost. Those who find their life will lose their life. Those who find life on this world’s terms with tear-gas bombs, photo-ops, violence and fear will lose the life they have in the kingdom to come. Who loses their life for Christ will find it. Those willing to speak to what is done in secret for it to be exposed in the light of Christ are the ones who find life

These days of rallies and protests are filled with fear and anger. Racism and its various forms which have been kept in secret are becoming exposed. As Jesus said,

So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

Exposure is needed because that leads to confession. With confession, comes the opportunity for healing to begin and for us all to find our life in the kingdom of God.

Peace

Worship, Doubt and Jesus With Us Matthew 28: 16-20

This has been a rough week. Unemployment numbers are high. Covid-19 infection rates are still climbing in several states and throughout much of the world. The country is embroiled with protest. I find it frightening how the protesters are called to be dominated by military force and cities spoken of as battle spaces. Amazing how the call for racial justice leads to such hostility. Where will this end as we proceed into summer? Will the protests continue? To what extent will force be used in the effort to stop the protests? This has been a rough week and what will next week bring?

The final verse has Jesus telling the disciples:

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age

These words of Jesus are comforting because we don’t want to be alone in times like this. We want God to be with us. However, what does this really mean? Often we talk of Jesus as being a companion, a buddy, someone supportive of our efforts and goals. Yet, Jesus’ promise to always be with us goes much deeper than simply being a friend or rubber-stamping our political agendas. Jesus told the disciples to go and baptize…make disciples of all nations…teach others to obey the things he commanded. The great challenge in this is that Jesus didn’t teach that people were to be dominated by military force or that cities are battle-spaces. The Roman Empire did this, including crucifixions. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are proof that the ways of God’s kingdom are far different. If we are to teach the ways of the kingdom which contradict “might makes right,” then we really do need him…we need him.

Jesus was leaving the disciples and they did two things, worship and doubt. A great summation of the life of faith. The life of faith includes worship which is the easy part. The life of faith that teaches a contradiction to the powers of the world, is one of worry and fear and doubt. We need Jesus with us.

As you go into another new week which looks like a continuation of the last, remember Jesus’ promise to you…he is with you always.

Peace.

Our Vulnerability and God John 14:1-14

One of the things exposed about us in the past few weeks is our vulnerability.  We don’t like feeling that way.  The unemployment rate is rising causing the fear of losing health insurance and paying the rent to leave us feeling very vulnerable.  Wearing masks and continuing to social distance seems to be the best we can do for now to keep the pandemic at a further distance.  We still feel vulnerable because we can’t do more to gain control over our lives.  We don’t like feeling vulnerable.

One way we can use to chase away these unwanted fears is denial.  This is just a political hoax in an election year.  Somebody else will get sick, not me.  Somebody else will die, not me.  Denial in the face of a dangerous reality isn’t very helpful.  Another approach to gain control is violence.  We scream at those forcing us to shelter in place.  We walk around with our guns on display.  We refuse to wear masks.  These actions might help us feel more powerful and in control but reality hasn’t changed, we are still vulnerable.

The disciples were feeling vulnerable in the above reading.  Jesus had just told them that he would be leaving them.  He predicted their betrayal.  Jesus was speaking about his upcoming death.  Life for the disciples was going to change, drastically.

Jesus comforted them by saying that in the Father’s house there are many rooms.  Jesus also told them he was going to prepare a place for them so that they could be with him.  These words of comfort are why this reading is often used at funeral services.  However, Jesus wasn’t going away to hang drywall and do landscaping.  The Father’s house is more than a condo.  Father’s house implied household, being part of the family.  The ongoing and anxious moments taking place were how Jesus was preparing the way for us to have a secure place in the Father’s house, family.  In their vulnerability and in ours, is the security of knowing we are a part of the Father’s house.

One of the disciples, Philip, still needed more reassurance.  He wanted to see God.  Jesus’ reply was that because of their unity, to see Jesus is to see the Father as well.  What does Jesus show us about God to us who are so vulnerable?  We see compassion…empathy…willingness to share our vulnerability…willingness to face death.  What we see about God, the Father, is love in action.  What we see in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are the great lengths that the Father will go to bring us into his household and give us a resurrected life no longer vulnerable.

These days we feel vulnerable.  We don’t like it at all.  While we live in denial, yell at each other and put others at risk to claim some sense of control, nothing has changed.  We are still vulnerable.  This is why Jesus’ words are so important for us to hear.  Knowing that we have a secure place in the Father’s house, we can allow ourselves to feel vulnerable.  We can allow ourselves to see the vulnerability of others too.  We can emulate Jesus’ compassion and empathy.  We can point to Jesus so that others can also recognize God’s presence in their vulnerability.

Peace.

Jesus Is A Gate, Huh? John 10:1-10

There are many ways that Jesus has been described but here he is calling himself a ‘gate.’  Gates have two purposes.  They keep unwanted things out and they keep what is inside safe.  Comparing himself to a gate, Jesus is the means by which his sheep come and go to find pasture.   He is also giving a defining contrast to the ‘thieves and robbers’ who only seek to kill and destroy.  So who are the ‘thieves and robbers?’

A point to remember is that the Gospel of John was written several decades following Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It was also written following the Roman destruction of the Temple which left Jerusalem in rubble.  So the Gospel was written to those living in tumultuous times while also having heard the astounding news of Jesus risen.

In the Old Testament, shepherds were the kings and rulers of the people.  The judgment against them was how they were willing to sacrifice the people for their own personal gain.  Their pursuit of personal goals meant that people would end up killed and that hopes for justice and life were destroyed.  Attempts to claim a place in God’s kingdom exposed their true nature and Jesus’ sheep should listen and know the truth against their false claims.

Jesus called himself the gate by which people would come and go to find pasture (life that can only be described as abundant).  In contrast to the ‘thieves and robbers’ who cared only for their own benefit, Jesus in the following verses described himself as the ‘Good Shepherd’ because he was willing to lay down his life for the sheep.  The contrast couldn’t be greater.  Those who listen to the voice of Jesus…who follow his examples of bringing healing to the sick and invitation to the outsider…who announce the news of forgiveness where God welcomes us into relationship with him and each other are his sheep.  They are the ones for whom Jesus is the gate, the way, to life that is abundant.

The Gospel of John was written for people facing tumultuous times and we fit that category as well.  The message is still the same.  There are those looking for their own advantage and benefit.  There is Jesus who gave his life for us.  Only one is the gate, the way, through which life is going to be found for all.

Peace.

Resurrection, Doubt and Fear John 20:19-31

A week has now passed since we celebrated Easter behind the closed doors in fear of Covid-19.  Easter was different this year.  It was more introspective.  Without the usual activities surrounding the day and filled churches, we were left to wonder what does the resurrection say to us behind the closed doors?  If we are willing to allow the Spirit to speak in our wondering, we just might discover a greater depth to what we believe and a hope that goes far beyond hurrying to open up the economy and get life back to normal.

On that first day of the resurrection, the Gospel of John tells of the disciples hiding in fear behind closed doors.  They had good reason with fear of Roman soldiers wandering in the streets making sure peace was being kept along with the fear of what will the future hold with Jesus’ crucifixion.  However, earlier in the day Mary Magdalene had told them that she had seen the Lord and passed on the risen Jesus’ words to them.  Perhaps their greatest fear was facing Jesus whom they had abandoned and denied.  Then he appeared, wounds and all.  Their fear was suddenly changed to celebration with Jesus’ words, “Peace be with you!”  The Lord who beat death and was ushering in the reign of God with the start of a new creation appeared to them, not for revenge or to judge but to forgive.  The disciples were sent out by Jesus with the Spirit and a message of forgiveness.

On that first day, Thomas was missing.  Even though he got the news, he wouldn’t believe until he had proof – he wanted to physically inspect the wounds for himself.  A week later he was present when Jesus appeared and this time Jesus gave Thomas the invitation to go ahead and even stick his fingers in the wounds.  Thomas replied, “My Lord and my God!”  I think that we would all like the opportunity for our doubts and fears to be replaced by physical proof and to have God stand before us and announce “Peace.”  What we do have in these days is the witness of others, the belief of parents and friends.  They tell us that God has not abandoned us and this world but has taken on its wounds and death giving forgiveness and life instead.  They show us that the statement “My Lord and my God” is more than a formula to be recited but an intense hope of healing as a new creation is brought into being.

Now we still huddle behind doors for fear of the pandemic.  Now our hopes may be on returning to normal and reopening the economy.  Now we worry about toilet paper shortages, masks and social distancing.  What Easter tells us is that God has shown up in this world and taken on our sickness to bring forgiveness and life instead.  What Easter instills in us is a hope of a new creation healed in Jesus Christ risen.

As Jesus said, “…blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Peace.

Confronted by the Resurrection Matthew 28:1-10

At a time when…

….researchers race to find a vaccine and treatments for Covid-19, we are confronted by the resurrection….

….we still are looking for the first signs that Covid-19 deaths are starting to decline, we are confronted by the resurrection….

….the hot debate is when to open up the economy while not risking a second wave, we are confronted by the resurrection….

….New York is digging a trench to bury the many bodies unclaimed, we are confronted by the resurrection….

….the many mourners are not given the normal opportunity to grieve at the funeral, we are confronted by the resurrection….

….churches are not gathering for worship in buildings filled with Easter lilies, we are confronted by the resurrection….

These past couple months have been anything but normal.  So much of life has changed that we are left with the question is what will the new normal be?  Yet, this Sunday is Easter and this is what the resurrection has done – it changes everything.  We may want to go back to what we consider to be normal but the resurrection confronts us with a new normal.  Our ongoing race for a cure, our mourning and our burying of the dead has come to an abrupt confrontation with the love of God in Jesus Christ.  He entered our death with his cross but his resurrection has opened up life for all creation that death no longer touches.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to Jesus’ tomb.  They were doing the normal act of grieving.  Don’t we also approach the grave of a loved one to remember and to grieve their important place in our lives that death has taken away?  Matthew tells us that guards were posted to protect against the “fake news” of Jesus being alive.  Do we really want to have our normal power structures upended by the news of love being stronger than death?  The two Mary’s were confronted by such love as an earthquake opened Jesus’ tomb and an angel told them that Jesus wasn’t there, he was raised from the dead.  They were to go to Galilee where they will see him and along the way the risen Jesus met them.  He told them to tell the disciples and go to Galilee.

A couple important items that Matthew highlights.  The two Mary’s came to the tomb on ‘the first day of the week.’  Creation began on the first day.   The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of a new creation.  The old ways of pain and grief and dying and Covid-19 will be no more.  They have been confronted by the love of God in Jesus Christ risen.

A second point is the importance of Galilee.  This is where it all started.  Jesus began his work in Galilee where he announced to turn life around because the kingdom of heaven was now at hand.  The same message is for us to hear as well – turn life around because the reign of God bringing life out of death has now begun in Jesus crucified and risen.  So whether we are ready for it or even if we prefer the old normal, the love of God is bringing life out of death.

So in our grieving…our struggle to find a new normal…the race for a cure…worshiping at home online, we are confronted by a love that entered into the old to bring a new creation that will be filled with life.  This good news of the resurrection is what greets us this Sunday.  Jesus Christ be praised!!

Peace.