Reverend Philip Stringer
LET US PRAY: You, O Lord, are the author of life. Speak to our hearts and fill us with the breath of your Spirit, that we may live and move in your ways, all the days of our life. AMEN
On October 10, 2002, my family and I arrived in Taipei, Taiwan, so that I could begin serving in a call as pastor at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. I did not speak Chinese and new very little about the culture we would be living in.
I shared with you earlier, what my Chinese name is, but I did not tell you how I got it.
On October 12 -- less than 48 hours after our arrival, terrorists in Bali, Indonesia, detonated a bomb that killed more than 200 people. Five of those killed and several of the injured were part of the Taipei Baboons rugby team -- 3 Australians, a Brit, a Taiwanese, and a South African.
The Australian ambassador called on me to hold a memorial service for the victims. People I didn’t know, from countries I knew little about, in a culture I knew even less about.
Three days earlier, I had been surrounded by family and friends in Chicago, and the world seemed to be fairly predictable and in good order. Now, as I rode in the back of the Australian ambassador’s car as it whisked me through the streets of a strange city, it all seemed so incredible. And I marveled, “how on earth did I get from there to here-- in this position?”
A few days later, in the garden of the Australian ambassador’s residence, I stood before a crowd that was waiting. “Comfort us. Encourage us. Restore our hope.”
I can do none of those things. I have no special powers. It’s just me. I’m just a person like you.
But I was the one standing in that place at that time -- and although I could not give these people what they longed for, I know the one who can give them comfort -- and can encourage them -- and can restore their hope. And so, I told them about him and what he promises.
It was shortly after this when Peter Chen, the Chinese Episcopal priest at the church said to me, “I have chosen a Chinese name for you. ‘Shi Chuan Li.’ See, it sounds like your name.”
I said, “what does it mean?”
He replied, “One Who is Happy to Share Good News.”
Today, I stand before you as someone no different than you. I have nothing of my own to offer you. But what I can do is invite you to look with me and listen with me as the Living Word of God offers Good News to us today through the Scriptures. Here is what the Word is saying:
God is sovereign in this world. God rules over all things and all nations and all people. And that is good news in a world that often seems to be spinning out of control.
God is sovereign. All things belong to God. YOU belong to God.
That may be easy enough for us to acknowledge. But here’s the thing:
One day, as Jesus was teaching, his enemies tried to trap him with his words so that they could destroy him.
The Pharisees believed that the Roman occupation was against God’s will, and they said that they rejected the emperor’s rule. Yet they present Jesus with a denarius. Caesar’s money.
This money is an abomination to them, so they say -- so much so that they won’t let it into the Temple. People had to exchange their Roman coins for Temple money in order to make an offering to God.
They say they are upright and Holy by rejecting the emperor’s claim to rule . . . until it comes to buying and selling. Then they set their principles on the shelf and carry around Roman coins.
And it makes me wonder if the Roman money and the Temple money might serve as clues to what is in their hearts. Perhaps “churchy” ideals and principles apply in the Temple, but not always in the world. That’s why they can plot to kill Jesus and still think of themselves as “holy” -- because they separate the two realms -- the things of God apply here. The things of the world apply there.
Isn’t that the challenge we face to our faith, too? Don’t you find it hard sometimes to take what you say you believe in here -- and apply it or stand by it when you’re out there?
Long before the Pharisees tried to entrap Jesus, the prophet Isaiah spoke to the Hebrew people in exile, telling them of how God is at work in their world, even though many don’t see it.
Cyrus has been chosen by God to be a messiah for God’s people -- and Cyrus may think he is his own boss and ruler, but he is only a tool in the hand of God.
“For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me . . . I arm you, though you do not know me.”
God acts whether we know it or not. Whether we remember or not. Whether we approve or not. God acts according to God’s own nature.
Or said another way, we do not shape God with our actions. It is God who shapes us.
The Pharisees, in rejecting the notion of Jesus’ divinity, miss that Jesus has that same quality of shaping us. They come to him, baiting him with sweet words -- trying to appeal to his ego with flattery so that they can manipulate him into committing treason.
But Jesus’ actions aren’t shaped by us. Jesus does what he does because of who he is. Jesus’ words and actions are driven by love and by unity with the will of his Father -- not by whether or not you and I — and the pharisees — approve.
I wonder about us. I wonder about who is shaping our actions.
Isaiah revealed to the people that all people and all things belong to God.
Jesus told his adversaries that it is OK to pay your taxes because there is no separation between what is the world’s and what is God’s. You give to Caesar; you give to the Pharisees -- it is all still God’s.
And you and me...
Jesus said, “whose image is on the coin? -- well then, that’s who owns it,” at least in worldly terms.
And what about you and me.
Our baptism liturgy includes this proclamation: “Child of God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit . . . You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Regardless of where your baptism took place, you bear the mark of God. Your brow proclaims that you belong to God. Not only in here, but also out there. You belong to God, whether you know it or not. You belong to God, whether you like it or not. You belong to God, whether you remember or not.
But life is better when we remember. Because when we remember whose we are, we remember, also, that God claims us for a purpose. God claims us for a mission.
When I was in Taiwan or China, it was inescapable that once someone heard my name, there was an expectation. “Happy to share Good News.” Peter (who gave me the name) told me, “Your name makes you like Santa Claus!”
That’s a big responsibility. A responsibility that sometimes I didn’t want. You can’t really hide with a name like that. I must be Happy to Share Good News whether I like it or not.
You are baptized into Christ Jesus for a purpose — and that purpose is to proclaim the good news of Jesus in words and deeds. “Happy to Share Good News,” is not just my name; It’s your name, too! That’s what that cross emblazoned onto your forehead means. You belong to God.
If that makes you uncomfortable, I know just how you feel. You can’t possibly save the world. You can’t offer comfort or encouragement or restored hope any more than I could in the ambassador’s garden.
...But we both know the one who can and does.
Today, the Word of God speaks to you, to remind you that no matter what the world around you is like, you belong to God. So, will you allow yourself to be shaped by the world, or will you live in the image of the One who claims you?
Is your answer as you sit in that pew different from when you are out there?
Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Christians, “don’t forget who you are! Remember who rules this world! Remember whose people you are!”
When politicians try to sway your vote by stirring up fear and hatred and division -- be on your guard. Remember who you are and stand fast. God should shape your vote -- not people who flatter you and appeal to your ego or play on your fears.
When Martin Luther was teaching about the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, and he came to that petition that cries out, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” this is what he wrote about it:
God’s kingdom comes whether we pray for it or not. But when we pray this petition, we are asking that it come among US. -- That is to say, we pray that we are a part of its coming.
The Good News is that God is love -- and the God of love acts in this world -- and in your life, not according to who you are, but who God is. Not according to how faithful you are to your calling, but how faithful God is toward you.
God acts in you and in this world, whether you know it or not. Whether you remember or not.
But here is the promise: No matter what you face in ANY circumstance, life will be better -- fuller -- complete, if you remember who you are (mark of cross on forehead).