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Enter the Passion: Risking Challenge

Message for March 15, 2020

Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1836-1902. The Tribute Money, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. RC=55996. Original source: File:Brooklyn_Museum_-The_Tribute_Money(Le_denier_de_César)__James_Tissot.jpg.

Texts: Matthew 4:1-11 and Matthew 22:15-22

I’ve shared in this pulpit before that one of the senior pastors I worked with as an associate was fond of saying, “Where two or three are gathered, there is politics.”

It’s my least favorite part of ministry, navigating the political waters, addressing “concerns” and “questions” from folks who, I fear, may be ready to jump in with a criticism or a heavy-handed, patronizing  “suggestion,” or who might step out of a meeting and begin engaging in gossip or what I refer to as “the meeting after the meeting” in the church parking lot. (Actually, I don’t encounter this activity very often at all in our congregation; this is just PTSD from serving other congregations talking here — and those congregations will remain unnamed.) That’s what I imagine as I “enter the story” of Jesus contending with various leaders in Jerusalem during Holy Week: skillfully doing a verbal “dodge and parry” among those those who wanted to trap him, staying centered, and still managing to teach, his wisdom astounding those listening in — and irritating those who thought it would be easy to shut this guy down.

Isn’t it an interesting exercise to juxtapose this scene in the temple with the one that typically begins the Lenten season — that is, Jesus’ verbal sparring with Satan during his 40 days’ sojourn in the wilderness? At the beginning of his ministry, and here near the end, Jesus is engaged in a wrestling match with powers that want to control and contain him, put him in a box, beat him into submission. And actually, Jesus must have found himself in this position constantly (like I said, “where two or three are gathered”)…

Right now, we, too, are engaged in hopeful — or fearful — “dodge and parry” with powers and forces beyond our control: not only a mysterious new virus, but the channels of communication, the weighing of which information reflects solid science and which is fueled by someone’s self-interest or concern for the public good. We pray, and we wonder about which aspects of human nature and human community will be revealed as this journey into the unknown unfolds. Who will be valued and included in the circle of care and who will be left behind? How will we “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s”? Where or in whom will we place our trust? How do we stay focused and centered in the midst of chaos and panic? How can we stay connected as a community? How can we be faithful to what we value?

And when we speak and act from our convictions, are we willing to risk being challenged?

How can we remain open to growing spiritually, even in times like these?

Would you repeat with me, again, the “echo-prayer” in which we have playfully engaged over the past few weeks?

We will dare to join the journey.

We will walk your loving way.

We will live your sacred story,

Through the things we do and say.

“We will dare to join the journey…” Our D.S. Schuyler Rhodes urged us in a letter on Friday, regardless of whether our congregations chose to hold worship as usual, to do so with modifications or assisted by technology, or to cancel, “PLEASE do not simply close up shop and hunker down in front of the TV.  For both clergy and laity I say that now is a moment for the love of Christ to be present and visible. Now is the time for God’s healing presence to be made plain.” My sentiment echoes Schuyler’s: “checking out” is not an option. We are called to keep on loving. We are called to keep on lifting our voices for the cause of justice. We are called to keep paying attention, and to point out where evil and selfishness are leaving the vulnerable and marginalized behind. 

We will dare to join the journey.

“We will walk your loving way…”  What does love look like in times like these? Love is picking up the phone, listening, offering words of comfort and courage. Love is making sure your neighbors are getting food if they can’t go out. Love is writing notes — to loved ones, and to decision makers. Love is refusing to give in to fear, doing so by engaging in fervent and constant prayer. Love is finding creative ways to stay connected. 

We will dare to join the journey. We will walk your loving way.

“We will live your sacred story…” Let us be open to the possibility that every experience in life has something to teach us, including this one. Let us believe and trust that our story is part of the great Story, part of a Whole, and that, as beloved children of our Heavenly Parent, we and our fellow human beings, and all of life on earth, are creatures of sacred worth. We cannot see this Whole; we can only see part. We cannot see all the outcomes, or the end, but we can trust that God does, and that God’s will is good. 

We will dare to join the journey. We will walk your loving way. We will live your sacred story.

“Through the things we do and say…” So let us keep doing. Let us keep loving. Let us keep our heads, and our hearts. As we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” let us look and listen for signs of God’s presence among us, keeping us strong, and let us hold onto that promise that God is with us in challenging times.

One of my Facebook friends, a Lutheran pastor, shared these words from reformer Martin Luther on his Facebook page yesterday. They were from an open letter written in 1527 entitled “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.”  In that year, bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) struck his city of Wittenberg, Germany. Many, including other faculty members from the University, fled, but Luther and other leaders stayed to tend the sick. In an age before Louis Pasteur and before knowledge about how germs are spread, he advocated for such measures as quarantining patients and establishing the cemetery outside of the town limits. Brother Martin lived for 19 years after this writing: 

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.

(Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999], 119–38; also posted on the LCMS Reporter website, March 13, 2020)

So let us “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” — and I interpret that to mean, right now,  that we’ll listen and heed the advice of our public servants. And let us “render unto God what is God’s” — offering our complete trust in God’s ultimate care and love.

May grace and peace of God be with us all. Amen.