October 22, 2017 sermon
St. Mary the Virgin Church
It is a good thing to be reminded from time to time that not everyone whose opinion differs from yours is an enemy. All things being equal, we have a lot of freedom to self-select the people we interact with most often, and it makes sense that we tend to gravitate toward people who agree with us, whose point of view is the same as ours, but you can start to get a sort of reinforcing harmonic situation going. When that happens, you can lose depth of field, to use a photography term. What’s distant from you becomes fuzzy and indistinct, and you can’t be sure what’s lurking there. All that’s in focus is the people you’ve gravitated toward, who are all saying the same things you’re saying, all looking at the world from the same perspective.
So it’s good to have people in your life you can’t get rid of, either because you’re related to them, or you work with them, or you just can’t help respecting them because they’re good folk, who are looking at the world from a different perspective. I disagree with you, but I still like you. Imagine that.
Perspective, or point of view, comes into play in all of our Scripture readings today. In Exodus, we heard Moses say to God, “If you don’t go with us to the Promised Land, then don’t send us at all. You said we were special to You, but no one will believe that if you send us on alone.” Earlier in this chapter, God had said to Moses, “Take the people and go up to the Promised Land. I’ll send an angel ahead of you to get rid of the people living there now. But I don’t think I’ll go with you Myself. You people are so stubborn, you make me crazy. If I go the rest of the way with you, I’ll probably wind up smiting you.” So Moses is saying, “But that doesn’t make any sense! Are we special to you or not?”
But let’s you and I take a step back, and check the perspective in this story. We began reading in verse 12 of Exodus chapter 33. But verse 11 says that Moses was having these conversations with God in the Tent of Meeting, and that they were talking face-to-face, like neighbours across the fence. Actually, in light of what God says later on when Moses asks to see his face, and God tells him that that would kill Moses, I can’t help but imagine something along the lines of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor and his neighbour Wilson, whom you only ever see from the eyes up.
The point is that God was very generous with his presence in his relationship with Moses. Moses was having conversations with God, like having coffee with a friend, on a regular basis. No one had done that since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden! But Moses is spending an inordinate amount of that time complaining about how stressful his job is, and saying, why can’t I see more of you? And God merely says, all right, I’ll give you all you can handle of me without dying on the spot. What we didn’t hear this morning is that this story continues on into the next chapter of Exodus. God tells Moses to carve two new tablets to replace the ones he smashed when Aaron made the golden calf for the Israelites, and to climb up the mountain. And God passes before Moses, as Moses asked Him to do, but not only does God show Himself, He announces His Name, and describes for Moses His character:
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
And having been given this new perspective on God, the most God-presence any human could get and live to tell about it, Moses does the only thing there was to do. He fell on his face and said, “I get it now. You are the whole point. If we don’t have You with us, nothing else matters.” When God reveals Himself to us, in those moments, we have the purest, most accurate perspective on, well, life, the universe, and everything.
Perspective is also the point of today’s story of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. This scene comes after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus has been spending his time teaching the people by telling stories about what God’s Kingdom is like, and sparring with the Pharisees. So in amongst the Kingdom stories, we have this little vignette about the Pharisees trying to entrap Jesus. It’s a neat little bit of wordplay, and would have been a sticky situation indeed for Jesus, except for the fact that Jesus’ perspective on the world was heading at right angles to the Pharisees’ perspective.
The Jewish people were very reluctant conquests of the Roman Empire. Within the living memory of the characters in this little story, there had been more than one rebellion over the question of paying taxes to Caesar. Talk about adding insult to injury! First the Romans come in and take over, and then they tax you to pay for your own subjugation. Even worse, the coin you had to use to pay those taxes was stamped with your oppressor’s face, a “graven image”, a practice specifically prohibited in Jewish law, and, and, the coins bore an inscription which said, Caesar, the son of God! Everything about this was anathema to the Jewish people, but refusing to pay your taxes had severe repercussions. When Jesus was a child in Galilee, a man named Judas led a rebellion against the Roman occupation. The Romans came down hard on the rebels, and you couldn’t travel any road in the area without having to walk past someone strung up on a cross.
This is the trap the Pharisees have set for Jesus. To say that the people should pay the hated Romans their hated tax with their hated coin would entirely undermine Jesus’ authority. The people who had shouted “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem would turn against him bitterly. On the other hand, to say publicly that the people should not pay the hated tax would be tantamount to an ignominious death on a cross. What the Pharisees couldn’t know, and wouldn’t have understood if they did know, was that Jesus already knew the death that was in store for him, exactly that ignominious death on a Roman cross.
Jesus’ perspective on the whole question, besides calling out the blatant hypocrisy of the questioners, was that submitting or not submitting to Rome was entirely beside the point. What is the point, the only thing that ought to matter, is that a person gives to God what already belongs to Him. The God who had said to Moses, “I am the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Jesus, the true Son of God, the way in which God was going to show His compassion and love and forgiveness, was saying that what matters in life is not how we orient ourselves politically or socially, but how we orient ourselves in light of who God is, and what He has done. Go ahead and give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, or not. That’s not what will make or break you. Give to God what is God’s. And what is that? Nothing more nor less than your whole self, of course.
And finally, perspective is important to understanding what we heard in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. We know from the book of Acts that Paul came to Thessalonica on his second missionary journey. Luke tells us in Acts that some of the Jews from the synagogue believed the Good News right away, and that a number of Greek citizens in the city did as well. But a number of the Jews who had rejected the message stirred up trouble in the city against these brand new Christians, and nearly started a riot, so that Paul and his companions had to leave under cover of darkness, and the baby Christians they had to leave behind faced a lot of strident and vocal opposition.
But what did we hear in Paul’s first letter back to them after having to leave them so abruptly? Paul giving thanks to God for the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, so that the good news of the Gospel came to them with power, producing a deep conviction which, time had proven, was not shaken by the harsh opposition they faced right from the start. Their joy in the face of suffering was so marked that the whole countryside was talking about them.
These new Christians had had their perspective radically changed when they heard the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit stirred up their hearts. They had been walking along with their neighbours and fellow citizens, the Jewish believers sticking together with other Diaspora Jews through the synagogue, the Greek believers following their people’s customs of praying to the appropriate god for whatever endeavour, worshipping Caesar, self-proclaimed “son of God,” as a matter of political expediency, because what did it matter?
But when the truth of God came sweeping into their lives, we must not underestimate the magnitude of the change. Suddenly they are swimming upstream against the flow, bucking the powerful social forces of their cultures, and then having to deal with being called apostate troublemakers, and all on their own, since Paul was forced to leave them.
In what way are our lives like those of the Thessalonian Christians, our ancestors in the faith? As with Moses, as with Jesus, and as with the Thessalonian Christians, our perspective on the world is filtered through our encounter with the truth of the living God.
Moses caught just a glimpse of God, and had to fall on his face. Jesus, the true Son of God, could see through the cunning of the Pharisees without any trouble, because first and foremost, he was giving to God His Father what was God’s. The Thessalonian believers encountered the truth of God through Paul’s words and the Holy Spirit’s power, and they turned to walk against the pressure of their culture, not timidly, but boldly, with faith and joy.
This is our legacy, and our challenge. The only thing that matters about our perspective of the world, is have we filtered it though God’s love? We are reminded every time we take communion that the first and great commandment is to love God with all we have, and bound up with that, to love each other. That’s the only perspective that matters. Amen.