Trinity 22, 22 October 2023
A sermon preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
I Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22
We live in tumultuous and distressing times. For two weeks international news has been dominated by the horrors of civilian deaths and relentlessly mounting division and hatred, and there seems little prospect of things improving. As we worship here in a place of peace and beauty, this makes a jarring background. So we seem to have a choice: turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to this insistent background; or keep it right in the foreground. Yet we are talking about events in the ironically named ‘Holy Land’, and the Gazan hospital where so many suffered and died last week is an Anglican foundation, so this isn’t all that remote. But like most of the billions looking on, there’s almost nothing we can do apart from pray. It’s horrible; and we are impotent in the face of it.
I’m going to come back to these tensions later on. But I want to consider the two pieces of Scripture we’ve been given this morning. Of course, neither of these directly addresses the world’s current situation, or provides us here with convenient advice. But they do offer sidelights on ways in which our faith may sustain us.
We heard the start of the first of 2 letters from Paul to the Christian community he’d initiated in Thessalonica – the major Roman city in Macedonia. I was interested to look at a map and see that the distance from Jerusalem to Thessalonica is nearly half the distance from Jerusalem to here. As these 2 letters are generally considered to be Paul’s earliest, you can infer both the geographical reach, and the rapidity, of the impact of Paul’s message.
These Thessalonians have responded to Paul’s teaching, they’ve abandoned worshipping idols, and they are apparently now eagerly waiting for Jesus to return. Paul commends them for this, but, if you read on to chapter 5, you’ll see that this is also causing Paul some concern. They are in danger of becoming religious nuts, akin to some of the millenarian cults which punctuate the history of faith: so obsessed with what they expect to happen that they lose both their moral compass and their grip on present reality. These Thessalonian Christians were in some danger of chucking over all their normal responsibilities, and simply waiting for God to sort it out.
In the gospel passage it’s a little easier to see what’s going on. Amidst the contentious religious environment of his time, some opponents of Jesus try to take him down by trapping him into choosing one horn of a dilemma: is he for, or against, the Roman regime?; for Caesar, or for the one true God? In debating terms, the answer Jesus gives is rather clever; but he also points out that the simple binary choice he was offered was false. Loyalty to God does not destroy all other obligations and responsibilities.
In our present circumstances, I draw two things from these ancient passages. We can’t wash our hands of what is going on in the world, horrible and complicated and unresolvable though it may seem to be.
And second, that apparently simple choices, and the supposition that taking one side must involve opposition to the other, are not always real. To abhor the appalling sufferings of Jewish communities through the millennia, and still this month, does not mean that Palestinians are not equally precious to God, and deserve care, protection, and hope.
We aren’t entirely impotent in the face of all this, and we must do what we can, however small, to support peace and justice and relief of need. And we must recognise what is also implicit in today’s readings: summed up in the seemingly banal phrase, ‘life goes on’. Some Thessalonian Christians wanted to live as though there was no tomorrow; the people trying to trap Jesus wanted him to choose between civic and religious obligations. But maybe we are most faithful, and offer most honour to God, when we choose instead to live in the midst of present realities, humbly seeking to love our neighbour as ourselves.