October 22, 2017
Matthew 22:15-22, Exodus 33:12-23
“Learning to be Human”
In a Bible study with James Fowler, one of my seminary professors, I complained about the way God often seems so angry in the Old Testament. He replied that the Old Testament is the story of God learning to be God. I had never thought of it that way before and it calmed me a bit as I realized that God created people and gave them autonomy and was constantly having to respond when they didn’t act according to plan. It certainly fits my experience of parenting. Many times, I have asked “Why did he or she do…?” Anne Marie has reminded me just as many (or more) times that Why? is not always a helpful question. I can’t help but wonder if God has asked that about human beings. If God is learning to be God, we must be learning to be human. We learn to be human the way we learn to do anything…trial and error and practice.
We have cruised through the Exodus story, but today we are coming to an ending. Moses is near the end of his life. He knows he will not go into the promised land with the people. He is having an intimate conversation with God in this passage and Moses is asking God to promise to travel with them all the way. He is asking for assurance once again. Do you remember the words of assurance God gives Moses when calling him to lead the people out of slavery? They are very simple, “I will be with you.” Clearly, God has been with them. God parted the Red Sea when the Egyptians were on their tail. God gave them manna when they were hungry. God gave them water when they were thirsty. God gave them commandments (rules to live by) when they were all over the place and needed direction. Now Moses is asking again, “Are you going with us, God? Are you? Will you go with them after I am gone? Will you?” You can hear the anxiety. And God says, “I will. I will be with you…no matter what.”
Then Moses responds that he just needs a little proof. How about a glimpse? Moses asks for God’s glory and God promises goodness, grace, and mercy. Then God gives him a glimpse. God has been faithful to the promise to be with them every step of the way. When I pray, I pray that God will be with us every step of the way. What I am really praying is that we will trust that God is with us every step of the way.
How much of our lives do we spend looking for resonance between our inner and outer selves? What will it take for us to really know we belong to God and God is always with us? If we really believe it, what will it take to live like it?
The text from Matthew is two enemy factions – the Herodians and the Pharisees – teaming up against Jesus. They try and trap him with a seemingly innocent question “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The Herodians were in favor of the tax, but the Pharisees were opposed to anything that might make the king appear to have more authority than God. A yes or no answer would trap Jesus with one of the factions, but he won’t bite. Instead he lobs it back to those who ask it. He calls them hypocrites for pretending to ask an innocent question. He takes the coin and tells them to fulfill their obligations as citizens AND to be disciples. The authorities were into either/or thinking. Is it God or country? Our country seems to be divided into
an either/or place. We seem to have little, if any, room for both/and. Yet, Jesus says they are both citizens and God’s beloved disciples. There are times when being a citizen puts us in direct conflict with being disciples. At that point, we have to determine whom will our actions reflect. This is not easy. I think that is why Jesus delivered it to them in the form of a question. He knew they needed to wrestle with it. He knew that finding deep resonance as a citizen and a person of faith requires hard work on our part.
Either/or thinking keeps us from digging deeper. It allows us to avoid the hard work of being human. We so easily buy false dichotomies. We are convinced that one cannot possibly be _______ (you fill in the blank) and be Christian. Two women who were walking around a somewhat overcrowded English country churchyard, and came upon a tombstone on which was the inscription: "Here lies John Smith, a politician and an honest man." "Good heavens!" one exclaimed, "isn't it awful that they had to put two people in the same grave."
Remember the words God gave Moses? Goodness, grace, and mercy. We are the bearers of God’s image. We are created by God and our lives are intended to reflect God’s goodness, grace, and mercy.
I think I get the answer to the question, “What belongs to the emperor?” I find the question, “What belongs to God?” more difficult. The answer is that everything belongs to God. If I am a walking reflection of God, how will I live? How will I give?
A monk found a very precious gemstone. He put it in his knapsack and carried it with him. One day he met a traveler in need who asked the monk to share some of his provisions with him. The monk opened his knapsack to share his food, when his fingers found the gem. So he lifted out the stone and gave it to the traveler.
Overjoyed by his good fortune in the valuable stone, the traveler went on his way. A few days later, however, the traveler caught up with the monk. He begged him again: “Please, give me something more precious than this stone.” He said, Please give me that which prompted you to give the stone to me.”
What I seek as a follower of Jesus is that deep resonance that allows God to flow through me. I don’t just want God to exist on the outside. I want to trust God so deeply that my life flows out of that trust and into this big, beautiful, troubled world that we inhabit.
And if that doesn’t happen easily, then I perhaps I can act my way into that way of thinking. Perhaps I can act in a way that says I am trusting God with my whole being until I am actually able to do that. Perhaps I can give the precious gemstone and find myself converted from the outside in. Did I mention that this is not an either/or operation?
The late Danny Thomas lost his life savings of $600.00 at a time when he was out of work. He and his wife, Rosie, had a baby on the way, and they needed money. Danny worked at part-time jobs so Rosie could buy groceries. He also borrowed money from friends. It was a tough time in his life. A week before the baby was born, Danny had the grand total of seven dollars and eighty-five cents to his name. What would he do? “My despair led me to my first exposure to the powers of faith,” Danny would later recall.
On Sunday morning Danny went to church. When the offering plate was passed, he put in his “usual one dollar.” But something unexpected happened that day. A special missions offering was taken. The priest explained where the mission offering would go, and Danny felt he had to give something. “I got carried away,” Danny said, “and ended up giving my seven dollars.” He had given away all his money that Sunday. What in the world had he done? He walked up to the altar rail, got on his knees and prayed aloud. “Look, I’ve given my last seven bucks,” he prayed. “I need it back tenfold because I’ve got a kid on the way, and I have to pay the hospital bill.” He went home with a mere eighty-five cents in his pocket--all the money he had in the world. “You won’t believe this,” Danny Thomas later wrote, “but the next morning the phone rang in the rooming house hall.” It was a job offer. He was offered a part in a commercial. The job wasn’t much but the pay was good--seventy-five dollars. “I literally dropped the telephone receiver,” Danny remembered. “First I whooped with joy; then an eerie feeling came over me.” He remembered what he had prayed at church the day before. “The seventy-five-dollar fee,” he said, “unheard of for me at that time, was almost exactly ten times the amount of money I had donated to the church.”
I am not advocating belief in magic, but I am advocating for living a life that is so deeply rooted in trust that we allow ourselves to live as if everything belongs to God. Let us live lives that practice trusting in God. Let us live our lives in a way that allows God to grow from in the inside out or the outside in each day. Let us learn how to be human as we offer our whole selves to God.