Who or what unexpected in your life shows you God’s grace? Perhaps it’s the last person or situation you expect. This is a homily I gave to my congregation at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lakeport, CA as a lay preacher in training. Some of the content is specific to our needs but I think the main message is universal.
Proper 24 October 19. 2014
Isaiah 45:1-7 Psalm 96:1-9(10-13) 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 Matthew 22:15-22
I will give you treasures of darkness, and treasures in secret places.
In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. Amen
What are the treasures of St. John’s? Certainly, our spiritual wealth is deep and flowing. Each of us bring wisdom to our congregation gathered from our life experiences, successes, failures, pain, and joy. We bring our gifts: gifts of faith: the talent of our hands, of words, of listening, of administration, of seeing a need and asking for help to fill it, all done in our human way but led by our love of Jesus. And because of all of this wealth, the challenges our church faces will be met. There are treasures hidden by the darkness of the future, treasures that for us are in secret places called grants and gifts, pledges and plate offerings. Our dear church is 116 years old, and truth be told she’s showing her years. Thanks to generous donations we’ve done a lot already: the exterior has been refurbished, new shingles, new supports. But, listen… the wiring here in the sanctuary must be replaced someday, there are concerns for the Thrift Store and Food Pantry. We need to remodel our entrance for handicap accessibility, and make space for wheelchair access here in the sanctuary. And dare I mention earthquake retrofitting?
We are blessed with your work in the thrift shop and pantry, in the prayer shawl ministry, in making our church beautiful with flowers inside and out, in taking care of the myriad administrative tasks a church needs to keep functioning, in preparing the worship services and bulletins. I’m sure there are ministries I’m not mentioning; ones you do quietly. Thank you so much, but our church has many other needs as well: Eucharist ministers, worship leaders, alter guild members, someone to proof read the bulletin…a twenty minute weekly ministry…extra counters for the money we received during services, Vestry members for the coming year.
I read a lot of religious blogs, and in them there is speculation about the viability of traditional forms of Christianity. Church attendance is supposedly at an all time low, people flock to churches that seem to offer worship as entertainment and a much narrower message of the Gospel than I believe found in the Episcopal church. But dark times happen, and in them some of the greatest spiritual growth occurs.
The Hebrews, captured once again, lived in Babylon for two generations, their children never having stepped on the land of Israel. The exile was a dark era, yet scholars believe that during these 70 years of captivity, when there was no temple, no center of worship, was when the oral history of the Jews was first written as the Talmud and worshiping in synagogues began, treasures discovered when the future must have seemed bleak and deliverance a dream.
The Jews did not expect liberation from a non-Hebrew, but God works in unexpected ways. Cyrus, the ruler of the Achaean Empire which stretched from the Balkans to the Indus Valley, the mighty Cyrus who was the most powerful person on Earth stormed the gates of Babylon. Certainly, the Jews trembled along side the Babylonians when they saw his army approach…but after he conquered the city, he did what none of them could have foreseen in their wildest hopes: Cyrus freed them, and they returned home.
Isaiah’s words in today’s reading was an answer to the questions the people around him must have asked as they were faced with their liberation: is it proper that a heathen be our savior, for a non-Jew to help us rebuild Jerusalem? Isaiah answers, “Yes!”…echoing all the yeses within scripture bound in God’s love…God suffers along with us, and he will use even tyrants and emperors to express this love, to give meaning to our suffering, to surprise us with hope and renewal when we have wandered away, or have been captured by people or places far away from any light. As Christians, we believe this love finally manifests in Jesus who embodies our suffering, our hope, and our deliverance.
The Pharisees were not expecting Jesus’ response when asked about taxes. They were, of course, trying to trap him. The fact that the Pharisees had a coin with Caesar’s face on it meant they were up to something, as Jews were allowed to have their own coins without Caesar’s image. The emperor was officially thought to be divine, the son of Augustus…the son of God…everyone who watched this scene knew this, and so the tension ratcheted up as soon as the words were out of their mouths. If Jesus had said, “Pay Caesar,” he would seem like a traitor to his people. If he said “Don’t pay Caesar,” then he could be charged with sedition. Yet, Jesus thought out of the box…and didn’t really answer them. What are things of the empire anyway? What are God’s? How does our Christian faith shape our economic decisions? What unexpected things can we find in our talent and treasure? How do our small grains of mustard seeds accumulate into having enough to do what needs to be done, not only with Saint John’s but the world as a whole?
I entreat you to be diligent in sharing your gifts and pledges to St. Johns, to be diligent in recording your hours of work and your expenditures, and to help us think of and find unexpected sources to preserve this church and our faith community for generations, for children who are exiled in the Babylons of the future, whose paths someday may lead them here. Let us pray that mighty Cyruses of funding come out of unexpected places, let each of search our hearts to know what resources and time we can give to our church, our family, so that we may continue to honor God and show the love of our Savior in this treasured place of worship.