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23rd Sun. after Pentecost, Proper 29, Year A

A Credit Crisis

Readings: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Sometimes it seems as if the only way through life is to flip a coin and leave it to chance. Take for example the current economic conditions in the world. It is impossible to avoid hearing about the ups and downs of a very volatile stock market. It is impossible to avoid worrying about our own ability to cope with the future. According to Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton University, this time period is for the American economy a crisis of faith. There is a growing lack of trust in the financial institutions and businesses that have backed much of the debt of the United States. The result, of course, is that they are no longer able to extend credit and so world markets have plunged. Here is an interesting observation for you! A friend pointed out to me that the word ‘credit’, comes from the Latin, ‘credere’, to believe or trust. When the banks extend credit to people they trust their ability to repay the debt. Credit has the same root as the word ‘creed’. That makes it a part of our faith language. We affirm our faith in the words of the creed. We put our trust in God. The current economic crisis is about lack of trust between creditors and those to whom they lend. Faith crisis at any time of our lives is about our inability to put our trust in God. The passages of Scripture today point out our need to do exactly that.

The Pharisees are up to their usual tricks. Once again they are trying to entrap Jesus. “Tell us what you think?” they say to him. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” The Jews had to pay a poll tax directly to Rome. It was a mark of their political subjection to a foreign power. It was a big issue for them, one which made it impossible to separate politics and religion. Rome, a pagan power, controlled the Promised Land, the land that God gave to the people of Israel. In the eyes of many that polluted their land. And so they ask Jesus, “Should the people of God express allegiance to a pagan emperor?”

It is a very clever trap! We all know that religion and politics do not mix. Their trap involves money, power, politics and ultimately, allegiance. On top of it all, they bait Jesus with false flattery. “We know that you are sincere. You teach the way of God with truth.”

But Jesus is not fooled. With the toss of a coin, he flips the question back to them. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” he asks. Taxes were paid with the Roman denarius. The Jews used coins without the portrait for the temple tax. The only answer they can give is “the emperor’s”.

“Give to the emperor the things that the emperors. Give to God the things that are God’s.” His answer is every bit as clever as the question. It literally flips the coin back to them. It gives credit where credit is due. The secular finds its place within the sacred. Jesus does not deny or ignore the dues owed to the secular world. At the same time he does not lose sight of the eternal and ultimate world of the spiritual and the divine. Indeed he leaves it up to us to decide what we mean by ‘what is God’s’.

The gospel message is an invitation to believe, to have faith, to put your trust in God. It is an important message for us to take in when we are undergoing any crisis of faith. So many things cause our faith to falter! Being a Christian does not mean that we do not suffer. To be human is to suffer. We will suffer life’s losses. In this congregation right now are people who are suffering loss. Our prayer list fills up every week with people who are suffering from sickness, mental illness, job loss, bereavement. How do we trust God’s promises at such times in our lives?

The Thessalonians are people who know how to trust God’s promises. This fledgling congregation has been open to God's call through many trials and tribulations. They trust that God is among them in a new way. They are able to experience Christian joy even in the midst of suffering and persecution. They live a life of faithfulness to the Gospel. Paul commends them for "their work of faith, their labour of love and their steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ".

Could Paul speak that way about our community? Do we really trust God’s promises? Do we live out the faith of our baptism? Are we faithful to our calling? What labours of love are done among us? What quality of hope do we possess? Does faith give us a basis for hope amidst the turmoil of our lives?

How do we learn to trust in God? “A television program preceding the 1988 Winter Olympics featured blind skiers being trained for slalom skiing, impossible as that sounds. Paired with sighted skiers, the blind skiers were taught on the flats how to make right and left turns. When that was mastered, they were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied beside them shouting, "Left!" and "Right!" As they obeyed the commands, they were able to negotiate the course and cross the finish line, depending solely on the sighted skiers' word. It was either complete trust or catastrophe.”

That is a wonderful parable for us in our life of faith. As we navigate life’s journey, in our blindness we often wander far from the path. And yet God is there showing us the way, shouting “left” and “right”. We can ignore the guidance, or we can put our trust in God. We can pray for our needs to be met. We can give thanks to God for all of God’s blessings. We can trust in God’s promises.
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