Tests of Faith: Loyalty 10-16-11

October 16, 2011

Tests of Faith: Loyalty

Over the next 3 weeks, this new sermon series I’m calling “Tests of Faith” will look at the test of faith that we are facing as a congregation. We will consider other tests of faith, of course, including the test of faith involved in losing a parent or a loved one, the test of faith we face when our prayer life suddenly seems to go dry or for some reason we feel discouraged or depressed. There are many ways our faith gets tested in our personal lives, and I hope you will find some guidance and comfort in these sermons, particularly if you are facing a personal crisis of faith.
In this series, however, I want to particularly address the test of faith that I feel we are facing as a congregation. We are a small congregation with a powerfully committed core of folks – dedicated and faithful in ministry. Ten years or so ago, this congregation felt a mini-resurgence of energy as a new group of people – some individuals and some young families joined the church. You could feel a modest lift and a new energy, as the Children’s Celebration, which was my fancy name for Sunday School had actual children attending, as confirmation classes came together with young teens joining the church, as LIFE groups met and people felt their lives changing through deepened relationships, and as we pulled off the Main Line Children’s Festival and a trip to New Orleans and other mission projects together.
Over the last few years we have lost some momentum as that new core of people has become the old core, a little tired and we haven’t seen the influx of new people and children that we kind of expected, because we knew a really good thing was happening here. This fall we have begun services with pews looking more like summer. Maybe fall has just taken longer to arrive this year. Our congregation is cer-tainly taking longer to arrive at church most Sundays.
So you get what I’m saying – we are going through a time of testing, a time where our faith is be-ing tried, and we do well to pay attention to the morale of our leaders and the spirit in our congregation. Today, I want to invite you and other leaders and members of St. Luke to a time of discernment, a time of prayer and reflection over the next 3 weeks or so about how our faith as a congregation is being tested and what we might need to do to renew our spirit and momentum. As we go into our annual church meeting at the beginning of November, and certainly by the time of our retreat in January, I expect us to have a re-newed sense of vision and commitment to our next phase of ministry together.
Jesus as always is our guide during this time of reflection and discernment. We are reading and studying over the next three weeks stories in Matthew’s gospel about Jesus’ tests of faith. Near the end of his ministry, as Matthew portrays it, Jesus’ opponents, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Herodians, came to him and tried to trip him up with these tests.
In the test we look at today, the Pharisees really thought they had Jesus. They ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not. They know that if he says yes, his own followers will be disappointed and if he says no, he’ll be in big trouble with the powers that be – the Roman government. Jesus avoids the trap, however, simply by asking the Pharisees if they have a coin.
Now, if Jesus asked us that – and after all we are the Pharisees, the good religious people of our time – we would produce a coin that says “In God We Trust” on it and we’d feel ok about ourselves. But the Pharisees of his time produced a coin that said “Tiberias Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest.” These were words that spoke of oppression at the least, and probably blasphemy. But the Pharisees produce the coin as easily as we would put a quarter in a parking meter.
Jesus had to ask for the coin, but they show they are compromised already by carrying it. When Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” we want that to let the Pharisees off the hook. In our time we take that to be a way of saying the tax is legitimate as long as we also give to God what is God’s. The words are taken out of context to support the opposite of what Jesus was saying. Jesus was turning the tables on the Pharisees and testing them.
Caesar can stamp his picture on the money and make audacious claims, and he will get rich, receiving most of those coins back into his pockets; but “the coin of the realm of our flesh and blood is the image of God. What is rendered to God is whatever bears the divine image. Every life is marked with that inscription, an icon of the One who is its source and destination.” [Richard Spaulding, p. 190 in Feasting on the Word, year A, volume 4].
We are made in the image of God. Isaiah says “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” Every part of our lives belongs to God. For all of us, Jesus’ words pose a dilemma – an exposure of the compromises of our daily lives. We try to live loyal to God and to each other, but many forces pull us to different and lesser loyalties. We know on some level God’s claim on our lives – through our bap-tism, through the very breath that we breathe, yet the coins we carry sometimes cause us to forget that primary claim. We so easily get discouraged. We so easily get lost in our own self-centered needs and petty claims on others. We forget God’s claim on our lives, and the ministry we are called to for God’s people.
We look at each other or we look in a mirror and we don’t easily see God’s image, God’s claim. We see the inscriptions that our business with the world has left on us. You are what you look like, what you have, what you wear, what you do, the company you keep. Nevertheless, underneath all those inscriptions is a much deeper mark: the kiss of light in the eyes, the watery sign of a cross made once upon a time on the forehead, [Richard Spaulding, p. 192] the deep sense of loyalty to God’s people and God’s purpose in our lives.
God claims us and when we look carefully, beyond the wear and tear, the marks of this world, the discouragement and sense of loss when other people leave or die or have other needs, we see God is doing something with us still. God wants us –each one and all of us together. God has a special and particular calling for each one here, and for this congregation in particular. We are inscribed on the palm of God’s hands, so we strive to render every part of our lives to God’s love and God’s purpose.

Responsive Hymn: 2172 We Are Called