What is Your Starting Place?
Why do we read the gospel from the center aisle?
When you throw a pebble in a pond what happens? Kerplunk – and then circles – reverberating out. Force of the drop determines how many, how wide, how long the duration. (Click the image to the right to listen to the sermon)
We believe we come to know the good news of God’s love for us through Christ – and we know Jesus through the story of his life. One way we represent that in worship is to have the proclamation of that revelation at the center of the gathered people – center of the body – and have everyone turn and face God’s liberating truth. The force of that kerplunk hopefully then – reverberating out from us as we leave here.
We read from the center – because the center is the point from which everything emanates. We want to try and live lives so that people know the central truth of ours.
Our starting place – every day – matters a great deal, doesn’t it? We say things like – well she clearly got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. I’m sure I’ve shared with you before an insight for a alcohol and drug treatment counselor I met at a hospital in NYC. He worked in the 28 day rehab unit – and he was retired, had been sober for over 25 years – and said there really was a secret. And it was simple. Every morning – say – Good morning God. Start your day acknowledging your higher power – your center – and that simple starting at the center will make a difference.
Paul’s center – his starting place – is always to start with God. He always opens – and usually ends – his letters giving thanks for gifts of God available to all – in this morning's letter its grace and peace. And he goes on to emphasize and encourage the members to remember their center – because good things are emanating from it! He says – because you turned to God – each of you – are turning others in that direction too. I hear all about you when I’m in Macedonia or Achaia – and all the ways in which your grace and peace – is shared with others. In other words – the grace and peace of this church in Thessalonica – is making a difference.
You know what else goes kerplunk when you throw it into a pond – or a fountain – coins. The coins referenced in this morning's gospel – like the ones we throw into fountains – aren’t worth a lot monetarily. But they are worth a lot of stress, anxiety, - even fear and probably guilt and grief.
Coins – (in other words money) – hopefully is not the center of our lives – but all of us I think would admit - our coins are central to our lives. That’s a true then as now (which is why money is what Jesus talks about more than anything else). These coins are not only used as payment for an unfair tax (we might equate to Boston Tea tax) – like that tax – the coins are painful reminders of the position of the Jewish people.
The coin reminded the Jewish people that they were ruled by an occupying force – the Roman Empire. The coin had an image of Tiberius most likely with an inscription – Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus. And using the coin forced a breaking of two commandments – thou shalt have no other gods (the coin says Tiberius and his dad were divine) – and thou shalt have no graven images.
So imagine you had to use coins to pay a tax that you considered was unfair – and on it was an image of a ruler from an occupying force – that claimed he or she – was god. Imagine coins with more recent political figures on them. This coin and tax was a hot political topic in Jesus’ time.
And that is the starting place of the Pharisees and Herodians. This hot political topic in which they are trying to entrap Jesus. The Herodians were the Jewish group that supported the Roman Empire. The Pharisees where more like us, actually, the church-going folk – they did not support the Roman Empire but they didn’t encourage protests or overthrow. Let’s pay our tax so we can maintain our worship.
But then here comes Jesus – who like the prophets before him – says, we’ve forgotten to start with God. We’ve forgotten that relationship is the central claim of our identity – as God’s chosen. It isn’t about Herodians or Pharisees or Sadducees or Samaritans. It isn’t about the right way and the wrong way. It isn’t about the good people and the bad people. That’s not what religion is for – to separate people. God’s way is to unite – reconcile – lift up. God’s way is to start with grace and peace.
Tthe Pharisees and Herodians think their question will incite a riot. Jesus has just ridden into town on a donkey – Hosanna, blessed is he – and he is surrounded by crowds – some of who follow Pharisees, some Herodians – all political and religious parties represented. The trap is that he will either hurl the coin at the ground in disgust – denying Tiberius status as a God. Which would have the Pharisee camp on his side – and get them to feel superior to the Herodians. Or he will hurl the coin at the Pharisees in disgust and judgment that they would break the commandments of God by forsaking their religion and paying the tax. Then the Herodians can go tell on the Pharisees.
The trap is that Jesus will blame people which will cause division. Because the leaders would rather blame people then acknowledge the systemic problem.
There is nothing new under the sun.
Jesus does not do what they expect him to do – because unlike them – Jesus is not a reactive person. Oh sure, he gets angry when he sees people being made to feel less than – but Jesus doesn’t get hooked, the way most of us do. Because his starting place is God. Jesus is so aware – spiritually – emotionally – physically – of his unceasing connection to what is good – that the coin means nothing.
Jesus calls them hypocrites because they are leaders who wear masks. That’s what hypocrites were in Hellenistic period – the actors in a play who wore the masks. The say true things – the call Jesus teacher, they say he doesn’t show partiality, but treats all people the same – all true, but they don’t turn and face that truth (like we turn to face it in our gospel). Jesus doesn’t change how they teach or treat people. They are so afraid of losing their power.
The leaders start from a place of fear and exclusion. That’s never where Jesus starts from. He starts with himself – and then meets each and every person where they are – asks them what they want – and offers what he can. And when people accept what he offers – there are fruits – good things reverberate.
So, he isn’t baited. He’s brilliant. Give to the emperor – the coin is his – and it’s finite just like he is. Give to God – what is God’s. The implicit question to the leaders standing before him – what isn’t God’s? Its all God’s – Tiberius will come and go – God is forever.
And the leaders are amazed. And usually in these stories being amazed leads to something good – some sharing of the good news – but see what they do? They went away. They aren’t about to turn their hearts towards the truth and face it. At least not that day.
So what’s your starting place today? How are you cultivating starting place each day – so that in every thing you say or do – God is at the center? Would it matter in our world – if more individuals turned their hearts towards a starting place that focused on sharing grace and peace at the start of interactions? Do we believe that we – like the Thessalonians before us – can have an effect on the communities around us because of what we share that reverberates? If not then this – is just ritual – turning to face a book. I heard a priest say this week – if you receive communion in church – but don’t want to be in communion with everything when you leave – what’s the point?
The good news – is we get to begin again and again – we even get to be born again and again. So every day is a new day to start – every moment is another opportunity to practice. Day by day, grace and peace. Amen.