Belonging to God
Based on Exodus 33:12-23, 1Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
A number of years ago I was reading a message from a former Emergency Department physician named Bill Thomas. Dr. Thomas was “moon lighting” in a nursing home many years ago and was moving about the facility attending to the needs of the residents. He tells the story of entering the room of a woman who was recovering from a recent trip to the hospital. He performed his examination and spoke to her a bit about her current course of illness and therapies associated with her recovery. Off the cuff, as he was about to leave, he asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you today?” She motioned him over and when he got close she grabbed him by the lapels of his white coat and pulled him close to her. With great intensity and emotion caused by frustration and despair she replied, “I am SO lonely!”. Dr. Thomas says he doesn’t remember exactly what he said as he walked out of the room. He realized he had no medicines or medical approaches to treat her problem. He came out of her room and looked around the building at the employees bustling to and fro, the residents making their way slowly through their days – in everyone of them (including himself) he diagnosed how lonely they all were. Surrounded by people, all of them were isolated in their own little bubbles of loneliness – none of them truly called this place home, none of them belonged. Resonates right now, doesn’t it?! Here we are, continuing to be physically distanced in order to protect each other from infection, many of us wondering how to recapture our sense of belonging.
In April of this year a wonderful book was published entitled, “Together: the Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World”. The author is Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States. In the introduction to the book, Dr. Murthy echoes what Dr. Thomas diagnosed, writing, “…To be at home is to be known. It is to be loved for who you are. It is to share a sense of common ground, common interests, pursuits, and values with others who truly care about you. In community after community, I met lonely people who felt homeless even though they had a roof over their heads….” Our scripture readings today have much to say about what it means to be a community which belongs to each other and to God. Before we go any further, let us go to our God in praise and thanksgiving that we have a God to whom we always belong…
God has told Moses that it is time to lead the people from the mountain of God to the land that was promised to Abraham. In the dialogue between Moses and God, God says that God’s presence will not go with the people, but rather God will send an angel to lead them. God is still angry with the people over their apostasy with the golden calf. Moses, knowing that the people will not gel into a strong community without the presence of God, states, “…If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here….” Moses goes on to say that it is God’s presence which makes this people unique “from every people on the face of the earth”. Only God’s continuing presence indicates that the people belong to God.
We have an Epistle reading today which comes from what is widely thought to be the earliest letter from Paul to one of his church plants. Paul opens with a reminder to whom the believers belong saying, “…To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…”. Paul notes that the believers in Thessalonica were empowered by the Holy Spirit so much that they “became an example to all believers in Macedonia and Achaia”. The believers are bonded so tightly to one another and to God through their faith that they are tireless evangelists for God. They are bringing people to the Christ from all over the region, giving them a place to belong that worships the living God instead of idols.
The Pharisees plot a new trap for Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. They sent their disciples and a group of Grecian Jews known as “Herodians” to question Jesus. They try to butter Him up first by saying how truthful and impartial is Jesus, all as a set up for their question. They ask Jesus, “…Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?…” Jesus names their hypocrisy and then teaches them about belonging. Jesus asks for a coin (because his pockets are empty and he knows the Herodians are wealthy from the Temple taxes on the people). Jesus asks whose likeness is on the coin? The emperor’s, is the reply. Therefore, says Jesus, you need to choose to whom you belong…give the Emperor the coins that belong to him, and recognize that your main allegiance is to God to whom all creation belongs.
To whom do you belong? It is a question that believers need to routinely ask of themselves and of their faith community. Another way to ask this question is to ask whether you are rendering unto the Caesars in your lives more than what they are rightfully due? The Pharisees had elevated their allegiance to the Roman Empire and its leader over their allegiance and dependence on God. They were fully participating in the Empire’s unjust and inequitable economy – to the impoverishment of the very people that belonged to them. Jesus saw quite clearly to whom they had chosen to belong – even though they were supposed to belong to God. The Pharisees had forgotten God and had instead sold themselves into slavery to the power of the world. In so doing, they were capitulating to a power that would in just a few short years end up killing most of them.
The Pharisees (and many of us, I’m afraid) forgot what it meant to belong to God, the Creator of all that there is; the One from whom all blessings flow. The following story may jog your memories as to what it means to wholly belong to God: Just after the Great Depression hit, Donald Baiden lost his parents in a tragic accident. He was only 6 years old at the time. A judge suggested that custody of the six-year old be transferred to his only remaining relative – an aunt who lived in Kentucky. Just a few weeks after the accident, Donald was placed aboard a train and sent to his aunt’s. It became a home that nurtured and prepared him for the pastoral ministry. Some 40 years later, Donald received a letter from his beloved Aunt Jane. Her letter informed him that she was dying of cancer. In the letter she asked, “I wonder if God will remember me when I die?”
Donald wrote back using these words: “The train ride seemed endless. I knew that we were 3 hours late and I was so worried that you would not be there. I was comforted when your head servant came to greet me when the train arrived. Together we started on the journey to your home. Around me night began to fall and my world turned dark and fearsome. Your servant sensed my mood. ‘Don’t worry Master Donald. Your Aunty Jane has everything prepared for you. She has been making ready for just this day.’ ‘But the day is gone,’ I replied, ‘Surely, Aunt Jane will be asleep.’ ‘Oh no, not your Aunty Jane…look over there.’ Through the darkness there was a small light. It got bigger with every hoof beat of the horse team. As we went up the drive to the house, I wondered if I would like it there. I wondered if you would like and even grow to love me. And yet, that light in the window calmed my fears.
I was elated when you ran to greet me. You gave me an enormous hug and carried me into your home. There you had prepared a wonderful meal, a warm fire, and my own room that far exceeded my expectations and dreams. As you tucked me in with a kiss and a prayer, you said words to me that I’ll never forget. ‘Donald, you are home now.’ You asked me if God will remember you. The truth is that God never forgets nor abandons any of God’s children; we often lose track of God, but God never loses track of us! God has promised through Jesus that a place is prepared for all of us and it is like going home and being filled with the sense of belonging you showed me.” Belonging to God means that even when we are alone, we never have to be lonely – for God is as near as our next prayer. To put a fine point on this, brothers and sisters in Christ, loneliness only comes to us when we forget to whom we truly belong. Amen and amen!