Lectionary 29A Pr 24
October 22, 2023
Grace Lutheran Church
I Thessalonians 1:1-10
Grace to you and peace from God and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Well, another week. And another Sunday to say, “What a week it’s been.” As tempting as it is to look away, as tempting as it is to go on as always, turning off the news doesn’t make the events any less real. Turning off the news doesn’t afford me a cocoon of comfort in the midst of others’ pain and suffering. Instead I watch so that I can know. I watch so that I can learn. I watch so that I can pray. I watch because our brothers and sisters in the faith are suffering greatly as they are under siege in their homes. I watch because our Israeli friends are fearful and shocked at the events of earlier this month.
In seminary, I met with a group of women every Friday over lunch. Six of us gathered in Jackie’s dorm room and meditated on Scripture together. One day – I don’t recall what the Scripture was – Jackie said, “This reminds of something that we say in my tradition.” (Jackie is an African-American woman who at that time was preparing for ordained ministry in the Church of God in Christ; she has since been ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA.) She said, “When there is a difficult time that we are experiencing, we say ‘Lookin’ at the other side of through!’” You see, the difficult times, struggling times, and downright painful times, that’s the “Through.” And today the “Through” is incredibly daunting and tragedy-laden. It is the hope that I have born of my faith by which I can follow Jackie’s exhortation to keep my eye on the Other Side of Through.
Today’s epistle reading was written by St. Paul to the Christians in Thessalonica. Written around 50 AD, it is probably the first of what we now have as the New Testament writings, the New Testament canon. Thessalonica was a very Roman city, it had statues honoring Roman emperors, its roads were part of the empire-wide “interstate system,” its beaches were vacation spots for Roman military and civic leaders.
Now, being a Christian in the first century was a difficult thing. There weren’t any church buildings – not like we have here – people gathered together in houses for worship. There weren’t any Bibles – the Gospel was shared by word of mouth. There weren’t any tax deductions for charitable contributions to support the work of missionaries like Paul. And there certainly weren’t any squabbles over saying “Happy Holidays.”
Being a Christian meant going against the ways of the Roman government where it was the Emperor who was a divine lord, where the “good news” – the gospel – was pronounced exclusively by the Emperor’s press secretary in Rome. Being Christian meant one’s personal faith was viewed as immaterial and irrelevant by others because it didn’t really matter what you believed as long as you have a little devotion, a little piety, a few Sunday morning traditions left over for the Divine Emperor for all to see. Being Christian in Thessalonica meant living in a great deal of uncertainty trying to ride the waves of the roller coaster of the Roman Empire. Wondering and waiting for the return of Jesus. It is any day now, isn’t it?
What does Paul say to this church that is only a few years old? He says this: We see y’all’s work of faith, y’all’s labor of love, and y’all’s steadfastness of hope. (because all of those “you’s” are plural, not singular.) We know that you have turned from pagan and political idols to the true God, that you serve the living and true God, and that you wait eagerly for Jesus to return. In the midst of worry and uncertainty, Paul commends the Thessalonians for their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope.
In essence, Paul is telling them to remember who and whose they are – they are the church in Thessalonica. They are the beloved of God, chosen by God. They are imitators of the Lord. They received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. They are an example to all in their community. Their faith was well-known throughout the region.
And so, as we too go through this time of uncertainty, of war and violence, a time about which many of us have worries – a time when we look forward to the “other side of through”, a time when we wonder how long it is until we’re on the other side of through, we are called to ask, “How will we be seen? Who and whose we are anyhow? What is it that shapes our identity as Christians?”
My friends, we are marked with the cross of Christ forever. This happens in our baptisms when we are brought into the family of faith. At that time we are imprinted with the image of Jesus Christ and, like a beautiful birthmark, it is with us forever. God’s persistent and insistent and consistent love never leaving us.
But not only that, we are shaped as Christians when we gather together week after week, gathering together in worship, over coffee, at the hospital, in our homes. There’s a blog that I read regularly that posed this question: Who in your circle - besides family members or roommates – who is it who knows what's really going on in your life? You see, we are made by a God who is in relationship – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and this Triune God made us to be people in relationship with him and with each other. We live this relationship in the Church, the very Body of Christ. In our society today, being honest about ourselves – our hurts and pains, our warts and shortcomings – is a challenge because too often the response from others is judgement and condemnation. Not so for us in the community of faith. “Look at these Christians, how they love one another.”
And not only that. We are shaped as Christians as we move from this sanctuary out into the places of our everyday lives – our neighborhoods, our jobs, the Rotary Club, the grocery store – because as we move into these places, we carry with us the birthmark of our baptisms and the world is different because of this. Make no mistake about that – the world is different because we here are marked with the cross of Christ – forever.
And so it is that Jesus, in the Gospel reading for today, has an encounter with the world outside of the close community of faith. He is approached by the Pharisees and the Herodians who are seeking to trap him – and they ask him a question for which there is no safe answer. They ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” If Jesus answers, “Yes,” those who oppose Rome’s occupation of Israel will raise up the crowds against him. If Jesus answers, “No,” the Roman presence in Jerusalem will arrest him for treason or insurgency.
Instead, Jesus does a remarkable thing. He asks one of them to show him the coin that would pay this tax. The Roman coin carried the image of Tiberius Caesar, and the words: Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus on one side and the image of Livia who was high priest of the pagan gods on the other side.
Jesus said – give to the Emperor that which bears the image of the Emperor. But give to God all that bears the image of God. What is it that bears the image of God?
- Creation bears the image of God. The rocks and the trees and the animals and the stars and the planets in their courses. These all bear the image of God.
- The seasons and the produce of the land, the heat of the summer and the cool of the winter. These all bear the image of God.
- Human beings – made in the image of God – indeed bear this image into this world. Those who are baptized bear the image of God in the cross of Christ – our birthmark!
- All that is, bears the image of God. A few pieces of metal, bear the image of a governmental ruler. Indeed God even made the metal from which this coin is fashioned.
The Thessalonians carried on with works of faith, labors of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, and the result of this is that their faith was known in their communities, their regions and even far beyond that to every place. And the same can be said of us.
My friends, as I wrote this my tear level was very high because I am not turning away from what is happening in the Holy Land. The Holy Land where the children of Abraham all have a spiritual home – Jews and Christians and Muslims alike.
We are right to be outraged at the inhuman violence of Hamas. But Hamas is no more representative of the Islam faith than Westboro Baptist is of the Christian faith. Westboro Baptist whose website address is “godhatesfags.com.” and whose church sign says, “Jews killed Jesus!”
We are right to understand the need of the Israeli people to respond to this, to understand their grief and anger. And at the same time, we are called to not turn away from what is happening in Gaza.
Gaza is surrounded, enclosed, by a 25 foot wall, the Separation Wall that threads its way through the Holy Land demarcating other lands of the Palestinians – not Hamas – from the lands of Israel. And in Gaza, there are two gates around that wall and they are 20 miles apart. Two gates through which all supplies come in. Two gates that open only one way.
Geographically, Gaza is about twice the size of the City of Lakeland. (140 sq miles vs 75 sq miles) And Gaza has 15 times-- fifteen times -- the population of Lakeland. (2 million people vs our 120,000) And nearly half of the population is under the age of 15. They are children.
Hear the words of this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. It is titled “Before I Was a Gazan”
I was a boy
And my homework was missing
Paper with numbers on it
Stacked and lined.
I was looking for my piece of paper
Proud of this plus that then multiplied
Not remembering if I had left it
On the table after showing to my uncle
Or the shelf after combing my hair
But it was still somewhere
And I was going to find it and turn it in,
Make my teacher happy,
Make her say my name to the whole class
But everything got subtracted
In a minute
Even my uncle
Even my teacher
Even the best math student and his baby sister
Who couldn’t talk yet
And I would do anything
For a problem I could solve.
My friends, we bear the image of Christ. So, we carry on with works of faith, labors of love, and steadfastness of hope with an eye toward the other side of through.
Thanks be to God.