Pentecost Proper 24
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
THE REV. PORTIA SWEET
Today's scripture lessons say a number of things about IMAGE. Image is something most of us care about inone way or another, and it seems we begin caring about image from an early age. Variously, we concern ourselveswith our physical image, our professional image, ourimage in the mirror, the image our house portrays in the neighborhood, the image of our family that our childrenproject, the image our children project of US as parents,and our image as decent folk. In all these examples, theimage of concern is self-image.
Moses, in the reading from Exodus, is seeking an imageof God. Moses has obeyed God's command to lead thepeople out of Egypt and is now needing some assistancein managing them. Recall that earlier in the story of Moses, he encountered an image of God in a burningbush, so perhaps this particular quest on the part of Moses is understandable. Moses and God are engaging in conversation. God: “I know you by name and you havefound favor in my sight.” Now that is an image we would all desire.
Moses essentially is discerning what is it that God wantshim to do next. Although he understands that God hasfound favor with him and that God has promised to bewith him, Moses seeks a SIGN - a physical IMAGE sohe can know without any doubt that God is keeping hisword. But God says, “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest. You cannot see my face, and when I have passed by, I'll take away my hand that has covered you and you shall see my back.” What sort ofimage is that?
Now to the Gospel lesson. When the Pharisees, in yetanother of their attempts to trap Jesus with his ownwords, ask him if it was lawful for them to pay taxesto the emperor. Jesus holds a coin and looks at theimage stamped on it. The inscription on the coin required for the tax reads: Augusti Filius August Pontifex Maximus (“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”). The people of Jesus' time were expected to worship the emperor, who held himself to be divine. Ourown coins and paper money contain images - images ofdead presidents and founders of our nation. Today, the people whose images are on our coins are not worshiped, yet in many ways the metal and the paper on which theyappear certainly are worshiped. In answer to the question posed by the Pharisees, Jesus said, “Render unto the emperor that which is theemperor's and render unto God that which is God's.”
So, what kind of image is Jesus portraying or creatingfor us with his response? Some have interpreted thispassage to mean that things spiritual and things earthlyor commonplace are total opposites, one being “good” and the other “bad.” I am inclined to believe there ismore to this image than that.
Recently I was at a gathering where one of the speakerswas head of a management district near here. His jobis to work with businesses in the interest of economicdevelopment in a specific geographic area. His area,as is usually the case, is in transition and is becominggentrified, not unlike the Heights. The speaker citeda number of financial statistics reflecting increasedrecent investment and profits; new businesses created,and influx of certain desirable population segments.Then, he reported on the low rent apartments thathad been demolished and the new mega-mansionsbeing built. Cluttered, dingy little shops had beenrazed and replaced by fancy upscale retail centers.
Much has been accomplished through the efforts ofthis man's organization and he was quite proud of theirachievements. In truth, the area does have an imagemuch more pleasing to the eye than was the case just afew years ago.
Now, his audience was primarily clergy representing anumber of faith groups and religious organizations of longstanding in his area. Their churches must be benefittingfrom an increase in attendance and financial offerings.Yet, immediately the question was raised, "Well, are youaddressing the needs of these displaced people?" Are youincluding plans for low-cost housing and small businessloans or other means for family businesses to continue?Who and where is the voice of those who have been heremany years or who cannot afford to leave?
You see, image can be complex. If the image ofthe neighborhood is gleaming brick and mortar andbeautifully manicured lawns, and yet those who perhapscreated and sustained the neighborhood for many years,who labor and service the neighborhood are forced outand cannot find even modest shelter and are forced tolive in food deserts; if small family businesses are forcedto close because of increased taxation or influx of highend corporate merchants and unemployment figuresrise sharply - then what is the reality behind the image?
Heads or tails? Face of God or God's back?We live in the real, solid, brick and mortar, down anddirty, noisy world that is filled with images of violence,poverty, cruelty, sickness, and evil. That same world isalso filled with images of love and kindness, generosity,and beauty - and it is filled with the Holy Spirit. We maynot see God's face, but we surely see where God hasbeen.Paul was pleased with the image the Thessalonians projected. He wrote, "We know, brothers and sisters,beloved by God, that he has chosen you because theGospel message came not only in word, but in powerand in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. Serve aliving and true God." Paul urged the Thessalonians tobe an example to others of the love of Christ and of thetruth of the Gospel. And he could see that, in spite ofpersecution, they were inspired by the Holy Spirit andknew joy.
We, like Moses and the Thessalonians, we have a Godwho is very much alive and who has promised to bepresent with us always. This God of ours made us in hisimage, then came to us appearing in a human image,to reconcile us to himself when we had repeatedlyand foolishly ignored his love, his promises and hiscommandments. When discouraged, impatient, orstruggling through difficult periods, Moses' people soughta concrete image to follow, and, absent one familiarto them, invented one to follow, to worship and adore.Remember the golden calf. And perhaps that could besaid of modern man as well as of the Hebrew people- perhaps of us. We have silver coin and green paperidols and a plethora of daily reminders and seductivemessages of how these gods will bring us happiness.
Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland:One day Alicecame to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in atree. "Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do youwant to go?" was his response. "I don't know," Aliceanswered. "Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."
As I mentioned, image can be a complicated matter.Living as the image of God we were created to be, neednot be either/or. By God's grace we each have gifts;some of wealth, some of time, others of various talents,and knowledge. Paul exhorts us to be examples toothers: examples of this living God who favors us andknows our names.
Just like Moses, we must enter into conversation withGod and discern the path/road God has prepared for us. Ifirmly believe God equips the willing. I firmly believe theHoly Spirit will, if asked, guide each and every one of usto the way we are to use our images of dead presidentsand all our other gifts and sometime idols, not only forour own well-being, but also for the furtherance of thekingdom of our living God. We can use them to be thevoice of those who have no voice and to support theministries of those who walk among the least of them.
So - Where do you want to go? What example, whatimage of God do people see when they see you? Areyou one who calls on the Lord, acts with steadfast beliefthat your prayers will be answered - in God's time and inGod's mercy and grace? What kind of example are we?What image are we projecting?