20 Pentecost A—10/22/17
Isaiah 45:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Pr. Scott Kramer
This past week I made a pastoral visit to one of our own who as some of you know is recovering from a fall she experienced a few weeks ago. She is at a physical rehab center for at least the next six weeks; at the time of my visit she gratefully pointed out that the TV in her room plays the country music she enjoys.
As a country music fan, she would no doubt recognize the name Billy Ray Cyrus. He’s a country singer who today is probably not as well-known as his pop star daughter, Miley Cyrus.
Other than these two, the name Cyrus is pretty unusual in our time. But it shows up in today’s reading from Isaiah.
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—and the gates shall not be closed.
Just who was this Cyrus guy anyway? Evidently he was favored by God! Was he an Israelite? A Jewish king?
No! More than 500 years before the birth of Jesus, as in many periods in human history, there was a clash of superpowers: in this case, the empires of Babylon and Persia. Cyrus, king of the Persian Empire, set free the people of Israel and many other people from their Babylonian masters. For this action, Cyrus is described as a Messiah of the Jewish nation, the only time in the Bible a non-Jew is so called.
King Cyrus did not believe in the Jewish God. He didn’t believe in the God we believe in. He believed in his Persian gods. (Persia today is the nation of Iran.) But the prophet Isaiah proclaims that our God was able to use this “pagan” king for good. God didn’t seem too concerned in his nationality or his religious beliefs; it was his actions that counted. Cyrus freed the Jewish people from their Babylonian captors; for this, Cyrus continues to this day to be viewed by Jews as a hero.
Today’s reading from Matthew features another superpower: this time it’s the Roman Empire. For all the hardship and suffering imposed on local people by this empire, Matthew nevertheless doesn’t focus on the Roman emperor; for him, it’s the religious people who are the problem. It is they who forget that it is not religious beliefs and traditions but how well we imitate God’s love that matters. In this morning’s readings, the faithfulness of pagan King Cyrus is contrasted with the failure of God’s own people to be the face of God to the world.
Some of us here this morning remember the 1993 movie, “Schindler’s List.” Oskar Schindler was the ethnic German businessman who ended up saving around 1000 Jews from extermination by employing them in his factories during WWII. Oskar Schindler was no saint. He had at least one affair, he was frequently drunk and there’s little evidence that he had any religious faith at all. In fact, he was a member of the Nazi Party. And yet, Oskar Schindler saw what was going on around him. Troubled by what he observed, he did the right thing at the right time, risking his life and going bankrupt in the process. For his courage and compassion, this former Nazi is now buried in Israel, having received the highest award granted to non-Jews by the State of Israel: “Righteous Among the Nations.” Who knew that an “enemy” could do so much good!
What does it mean to worship God? What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Is it merely about believing the right things? Is it just “going to church?”
I invite you to turn to p.228 in your red book. This page is an excerpt from the Order for Holy Baptism, the point at which parents and sponsors make promises on behalf of children who are about to be baptized. In the middle of the page we read a list of responsibilities:
You are entrusted to teach them to…learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.
Now turn to p.236, in the Affirmation of Baptism. Among the promises we all make at certain times of the year are these:
To serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
It’s been almost a year since Americans elected leaders who represent values nearly the opposite of these baptismal promises. Although we pledge through our baptism to “care for others” we as a nation have become ever more indifferent toward or even hostile toward immigrants and people whose religions are not our own. And, instead of “caring for others” our leaders continue trying to demolish health care for all.
Our baptismal promise is to “serve all people” but we are encouraged by our leaders to hide behind walls with selfish slogans like “Only America First.” Even within our borders, instead of serving all people and practicing economic justice, our laws, policies, priorities, and party in power serve mainly the rich.
Our baptismal promise is to “care for the world God made.” Instead, our leaders continue to lower pollution standards and open protected lands to greed and exploitation.
God’s chosen people are called, as our baptismal promises affirm, to “serve all people, following the example of Jesus.” To claim the name of Christ while ignoring our baptismal promises is to earn the label Jesus applies in Matthew’s reading to the religious folks of his day: hypocrites.
Each of us daily faces the choice of clinging to ways of thinking and living that ignore our baptismal promises. Or, we can instead remember our baptism and embrace the unexpected ways that our God continues to work in history—sometimes even especially among people who do not share our faith. Where God’s people fail, we should not be surprised when non-Christians and “unbelievers” step forward as God’s agents for good in the world.
In his letter to the Thessalonian church St. Paul writes:
We know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you… And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers.
Dear friends, as we move through this season toward Reformation Sunday next week we recall that the story of Martin Luther is the story of God using ordinary, surprising people and ways of bringing about change to systems and structures that ignore God’s purposes. Like God’s people in all times, we are tempted to wrap ourselves in our religious or national identity. Let us instead, through thought, word, and deed claim and live out our baptismal identity, as examples for all. Let us be imitators of Christ, public witnesses to God’s love for us…and for all people!