10.23.22 Sermon Transcript: "Fish Stories: However..."
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, oh Lord, our rock, and our redeemer.
I want us to think a little bit today about the stories of scripture… the Old Testament, the New Testament… the stories of God's people Who taught them to you? What were your introductions to the stories of faith? think about your favorite stories I have the privilege of sharing some of mine each week Last week, we talked a little bit about Jonah. A children's story and yet much more. Comedy, irony in the Bible. The Bible itself pushing against other stories of Bible itself. Calling us to discern when is the right time? What is the right response? To challenge our notions of who is in and who is out. While also maintaining boundaries of what is right and what is wrong.
How did you come to learn these stories? Think about the people that taught you the people that taught them. People long ago… and still to this day there are places in the world where people risk their lives to tell these stories. What is it about these stories that make that worth it to them? We who gather in freedom and security often take these stories for granted.
One of the decisions that I have made as a pastor, and it's not a permanent decision but it's the way I'm working right now, is that I don't tend to preach from the lectionary. There's absolutely nothing wrong with using the lectionary. It is a tremendously useful tool. Among its best attributes is for pastors and churches that follow the lectionary. You hear the same text in the Roman Catholic Church, in a Lutheran Church, in a Baptist Church, in a Methodist Church, and when you all wind up at Nu Grill for lunch, you can have a conversation. That's a good thing.
And there are resources around the lectionary. In many ways, I make my job as a preacher much, much harder by not following the lectionary because there are dozens of podcasts and websites and books and references. You know the scripture for that Sunday, here's a selection of 30 hymns. Pick four, you're done. Now, I admit, I cheat a bit. I pick the scriptures based on the themes and the series I'm doing… but then the first thing I do is go to a lookup. When is that scripture used in the lectionary? And I pull those resources…
But one of the reasons that I don't tend to preach on the lectionary is that my experience is that a lot of churches have heard the lectionary for many, many years. I was at one church that was so into the cycle that when I got there, the senior pastor and I made an intentional decision to continue using the lectionary and so we could pull up a bulletin from three years ago. That's the cycle and we were pretty much done. But me being me, I decided to tweak the prayers and people at that church noticed! They notice I had changed a prayer… which tells me they've done that prayer on that Sunday long enough that they knew it. Have you ever had that experience? I've been listening to some old albums lately… and you know what the next song is? You haven't listened to the album in 20 years but you know what the next song is because you've done it so many times? They knew the prayers. It was like, oh my! And this this was a Methodist Church. This was not a high liturgy kind of church but anyway, be careful what you mess with. At that church we had some wonderful conversations about that but one of the decisions I made is because people think, I've even had that conversation here with some pretty knowledgeable people. People think the lectionary covers the whole of scripture and it doesn't. If you follow the lectionary faithfully to a three-year cycle and if you read all four readings every Sunday, (which nobody does.) You'd cover maybe 70% of the Bible. and there's some really important stuff that's not in that 70 percent and today's scriptures are among them. We never hear in the lectionary about the people celebrating the law in Nehemiah and pledging anew their tithes and their offerings to support the rebuilt temple. And while you might know this story of the coin and the fish's mouth, it's not in the lectionary and so it doesn't come up in that three-year cycle. And I think it and the context to both are well worth pondering. Especially when we're thinking about stewardship and our giving to the church. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Make good your vows to the Most High.” When we talk about the temple, usually this is the image we have. The second temple, specifically Herod's temple. This is the temple as it would have been seen during Jesus' lifetime. When I preach about the temple, this is the image I tend to use. This particular image is from a scale model of first century Jerusalem that I saw on my tour of the Holy Land. It is maintained by a group of archaeologists, so as they learn more things, they edit the model. It is powerful to see how this temple dominated the skyline of Jerusalem in the first century. but that temple was relatively short lived. When we talk about the temple, we start with the Tabernacle In Exodus, the people are told in excruciating detail. How to build this tabernacle, chapters and chapters about specific craftsmen, specific techniques, specific materials that God might be present in a visible way among God's people. As they are wandering in the wilderness. As they are journeying from slavery to the promised land, through their own resistance and shortcomings, through their wandering, through their sin. They take this tabernacle with them, this tent structure. They develop and follow ritual of sacrifice and community and that tabernacle lasts through the 40 years of the wilderness and then they move into the promised land and they move away from that model.
Fast forward about 400 years and the kingdom has been established. The great David has ruled the north and south are united. David decides to build a temple. And he's told no. but your son, Solomon, will be allowed to and Solomon, the wise, builds this temple and he builds it on the side of Mount Moriah, the place by tradition where Abraham offered up Isaac. The highest point in what is now the city of Jerusalem and it was a wonder of the world. We heard briefly last week about the Queen of the South, the Queen of Sheba coming to visit Solomon, to learn of his wisdom, to visit his great temple. That temple was relatively short lived. By 586bc, the Babylonians have captured the southern kingdom and Jerusalem is destroyed. The temple is destroyed. The people are taken into exile. The leadership at least. The elite are hauled off to Babylon as trophies of war. the commoners are left behind. The poets and psalmist weep. How can we sing the songs of Zion on the shores of Babylon? By 539bc, a new ruler is in place. Cyrus of Persia has taken over both the Assyrian Empire and the Babylonian Empire, Cirrus now rules in Nineveh and Babylon and he issues an edict. We have that document in the form of this clay cylinder. It praises Cyrus's rule and it does a very unusual thing. It praises Cyrus's rule in the name of the Gods of the nations that he has conquered. Up until now, the norm was, if I conquered you, my God must be more powerful than your God, therefore, you should worship my God. but the Hebrews and some others had managed to continue worshiping their gods even in defeat and Cyrus of Persia embraces this. He says, rebuild your temples, rededicate yourselves, and specifically to the Hebrews, he says, return to Jerusalem. Not all of them do. They have developed a comfortable life in Babylon. But many of them choose to go back to Jerusalem and start anew. and not surprisingly, they run into some pushback Imagine how we might react if people had been gone from Fort Scott for 50 years, came in and started telling us exactly how to behave. How we'd always behaved. What the right way to behave was? We might get a little resistance. and further that, the Samaritans of the Northern Kingdom are thought of as outsiders by the Southerners but they have also intermarried and initially, they want to be part of this rebuilding. Those who had gone to exile say, no, you are not a part of it. You have done wrong …and there's this a debate over who is in and who is out and what are the boundaries? But through persistence, Ezra and Nehemiah and other leaders rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. They rebuild the temple. When they rebuild the temple, people weep. Some for joy that the temple has been reestablished. Some for sorrow that it is not the temple Solomon had built. It's a relatively plain structure. And yet this is the temple that had the longest lifespan. This simple, second temple persist into the time of Jesus. Nehemiah and Ezra proclaim at the dedication of the temple and the renewal of the walls, a new start for the Hebrew people. They invite all those around. They read the law presumably and by tradition the book of Deuteronomy. And people weep as they understand how they have fallen short of the standard God had set. And they rededicate themselves and we heard that read today. What they would do to support this new temple. The offerings they would bring. The renewal of vows and traditions, of festivals, of the dedication of the first fruit, of sin offerings, of different ways of relating to one another as the people of God, as worshippers at this temple. They reconnect to their faith. It is, in short, a very successful stewardship campaign, the people respond and they respond generously.
Fast forward again about 400 years, that temple has been rebuilt. During the lifetime of Jesus, Herod has come into power as the puppet or the symbolic ruler on behalf of Rome. And he sets about winning the hearts of the people by restoring and expanding the temple. And he rebuilds an even larger and grander than Solomon's had been. Massively extends the platform. Makes the temple itself larger, Raises it to new heights. Gold and finery, stables, It is a magnificent structure. This would have been being built and the taxes to fund it would have been being raised through Jesus' childhood was completed around the year nineteen. So, Jesus is 19 to 23 years old, depending on exactly when you date his birth. Jesus begins his public ministry at thirty. This temple dominates the skyline and the politics of the day. And the taxes are heavy. What has started as a gift …as a giving of generosity and offering of Thanksgiving out of people's dedication to their faith has become a requirement, an obligation.
Peter is asked, “does your teacher pay the temple tax?” And Peter seems to need to defend Jesus here. “Yes, of course he does.” and at least the way I read this, you can almost see the wheels turning in Peter's mind. He does, doesn't he? Are we about to get in trouble? And he heads home. He heads back to the house in Capernaum that he shares with his mother-in-law where Jesus has stayed. But before he can say anything… and I envision Peter going back kind of the mood, “um…did we forget to pay the light bill?” but before he can say anything, Jesus asked him a question: “Who do the kings draw the tax from? Their sons or from others?” Like Peter, we know the way of the world, the Kings tax other people. Their children are free. The children are not obligated… Jesus is making a point here about who he is. Who we are as children of God. how we relate to structures of requirement and oppression. “However,” Jesus says, “However, so that we do not offend…” He gives Peter a task. Now, as Peter and Jesus are having this conversation in Matthew 17, Another reason I'm not a lectionary preacher is we tend to zero in on sayings on short readings and we treat them as isolated stories. And each one has a moral lesson that we can apply to today and we don't see them as part of a connected whole. When we're reading a story from Matthew 17, we have to realize that that's chapter started with the transfiguration. The chapter sixteen ended with Jesus telling his disciples that he would suffer die… Then, Peter and James and John go up the mountain with with Jesus and they have this vision, this experience of Jesus cloths are blindingly white, clean beyond human ability. Light emanating… and he's having a conversation with Elijah. He's having a conversation. With Moses, the law, the prophets, the heroes of Israel proclaiming the Messiah…. and Peter, James and John were overwhelmed.
Then they come down from the mountain and Jesus tells them in both Mark and Matthew not to tell anybody what they've seen until after his crucifixion. They encounter a boy who is apparently captured by seizures. In Matthew, he is thought to be possessed by demons and Jesus cast out the demons. He heals the boy. He makes him whole. and then he says, for a second time, that he's going to be given over to men, that he will be persecuted, that he will be crucified, suffer, and die. and the disciples are distraught by this. This is not what they want to hear and then apparently, as he's teaching… Peter is asked if he pays the temple tax. He says, “yes, of course!” He goes back. Jesus asked him about the children of the king. and who pays the taxes? However… Jesus says… however, this isn't what we need to fight about. This is important. I've made a point about who I am… but this isn't the hill to die on. So, that we do not give offense, go and cast a line into the lake, the Sea of Galilee, and the first fish you catch will have a coin in its mouth and that coin will be the exact amount of tax that you and I owe for the temple. So that we don't offend. So that this isn't the thing that we fight about. Because there is some good in the temple. In our religion, in our ways. Pay the tax. Use the gift. pay the tax for both of us.
As a side note… the tax is due from all males over 20 years of age. So, one implication of this story is that Peter and Jesus are the only two of the disciples that are over 20 years of age. Maybe the others have paid the tax in other ways. Certainly, Levi would have some resources. but Jesus provides and this isn't a story about them not having any coin This is a reminder to Peter about who Jesus is, about what all we owe ultimately comes from. That God provides all. That all things are created through him, held together in Christ's love. This is a sign for Peter a reminder a connection to all the other stories that Jesus has told. The times when he fed thousands with a few loaves and a few fish… the times he asked the disciples and gentile territory, how many loaves do you have? The times they didn't think it was possible but through Christ, all things are possible and all were fed. insiders, and outsiders… from a few fish and a few loave…. because God's abundance is beyond our capabilities and our vision. The times when Peter had confessed faith when he had done the seemingly impossible “because Jesus said so.” The times when the unexpected bounty convicted Peter of his own sinfulness and finitude, “go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” and the times when Jesus… didn't go away! Because Jesus already knows our brokenness. Jesus is not recoil from our humanity. He takes it on. He embraces it. That it might become whole. The story of what Jesus does immediately after calling the disciples to follow him, healing the leper… forgiving sins, something only God can do. Who is this Jesus? Who do we say he is? How do we respond?
And then calling Levi, the tax collector! With the same words he had called Peter the fisherman. “Follow me.” And expecting them to just work out their deep, deep, disagreements, a mutual disdain of each other's choices.
The times when Jesus had been confronted by the scribes, the Pharisees Jesus who is constantly performing signs, refusing to perform signs on demand. Recognizing the difference between someone who is genuinely curious, and someone who is trying to lay a trap. and yet, interacting, dining with, again and again, presenting opportunities to be convicted of our sinfulness, to repent, to follow, to see more clearly. Him telling the scribes and Pharisees that the only sign this wicked generation would receive is the sign of Jonah. We told that story last week. Outsiders who nonetheless try to persist and save Jonah… the insiders who runs away. The comedy, the mystery of God providing or appointing the great fish. Not as a punishment but as a blessing an opportunity, as a way when there seems to be no way. As an outward and visible sign of forgiveness, an opportunity to respond.
We talked about baptism as an outward and visible sign of the grace that surrounds us always even before we know it, even when we fall short, we are baptized. We are beloved of God and there is nothing we can do about that and yet God gives us the freedom to respond or not to reconnect to our faith, to remember who we are, and who we say Jesus is, and to live our lives in light of who we say Jesus is. To recognize God's provision in all things. And to respond, to realize what's worth fighting over, and when its best to simply get along. And then immediately on the heels of this story of the coin and the fish. We moved to chapter eighteen and I think it's worth pondering this teaching alongside the challenge to Peter.
As Peter and Jesus have had this conversation, as Peter goes, as he pays the tax… the other disciples come to Jesus. They are asking “who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus takes a child and he sets it among them and says, unless you come like these children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. This, these are his closest disciples. These are the ones who have left everything to follow him… and still he challenges and he uses the example of a child… who in that culture would have had essentially no worth. Little more than servants. a high high mortality rate… another mouth to feed, yet Jesus uses the child as an example of what true discipleship is like. If you continue to read chapter eighteen, it's quite challenging. Talks about millstones and being cast into the sea if you create a stumbling block for the least of these children. Talks about cutting off hands and gouging out eyes if they lead you to sin. They are passages and stories we struggle with especially if we're not reading it in context with all of these other sayings.
I envisioned the child getting impatient with all this adult talk Jesus is talking to the disciples. They're asking questions. The child notices how the light from his hand cast a shadow. Cool! and then there's a butterfly… Beautiful! The adults are busy talking…. but oooh… dandelion Watch the wishes float away. The child is busy enjoying creation. Maybe that’s what Jesus point about discipleship is.
I read somewhere recently that children under the age of six tend to laugh 600 times a day. Adults tend to laugh six times a day. I started counting... I don't.
Maybe I need too more often. Maybe I need to go out and blow the seeds off a dandelion and watch the shadows of my hand. Pay attention to the butterflies and the beauty of the change of the seasons…. to focus on what's really important to dispute and when it's best to shake the dust, let it go. To be childlike, to ask questions. To be curious, to be engaged with learning, and wondering about the world.
Who taught you about the stories of the Bible? Who introduced you to the mysteries of faith? How did those stories come to them?
I often talk about the fruit of the spirit as a sign that we're on the right track. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against these things, there are no law.” Those things are all ultimately about integrity in our faith. About doing what we say will do. about honoring our vows to the Most High,
Integrity is “to be integrated” to hold together mind and spirit and body… to be whole. A congruence of all the parts.
To be dis-integrated is to be pulled apart. Mind, body, and spirit working separately, at odds. Disconnected one from the other. Without integrity, there's a lack of cohesion between what we believe and what we say and what we do. One specific form of integrity is known as appreciative integrity, which is “to offer outward expressions of thanks that correspond to the gratitude that is felt.” That I think is what our estimate of giving card should be about. Not obligation, not a competition with others. Certainly not guilt or shame. But an outward expression of integrity, of doing what we can in, and through, and beyond the church. I’ll say again - all of our giving shouldn't go to the church. Yet all of our giving should be inspired by what we do here. God breathed, joyful, bearing good fruit. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.