Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 22, 2023
[sermon begins after two Bible readings]
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And 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, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
Matthew 22:15-22 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
I’m going to go out on a limb and confess that Halloween is not my favorite holiday. The ghoulish stuff creeps me out. The gory stuff makes me queasy. And the demonic stuff disturbs me. I close my eyes during trailers for horror movies because those images do NOT belong in my head. I’m a Halloween scaredy cat but I love kids. Kids too small to walk house to house are pulled in wagons by their caring adults, still working on their “Rs,” saying, “Twick or Tweet.” Kids still in elementary school whose parents are hollering manner suggestions from the sidewalk while their kid screams “Trick or Trick,” too strung out on sugar to remember to say, “Thank you.” And kids in their teens who may or may not wear costumes and cart around their candy stockpile in a pillowcase with a barely audible, “Trick or Treat.” I’m the goofy adult at the door just happy to see them, telling them they look great or to have fun or to be safe. We may spend the rest of the year telling kids not to take candy from strangers but the weirdness of the trick-or-treat tradition is irrelevant in the face of that cuteness, excitement, and treats. Tricks are another thing altogether. The 1920s were the worst for tricks when pranks set cities on edge. No one likes to be tricked. Tricksters have a grand time but being tricked ones is no fun.
Tricks were on the minds of the Pharisees, their disciples, and the Herodians, as they treated themselves to a fool-proof test that would cut Jesus down to size. But tricksters were no match for the table-turning Jesus. He turned the tables on them as easily as he overturned the tables of the temple’s moneychangers in the last chapter. Ordinarily, the Pharisees would have had nothing to do with the Herodians who seem to be pro-Roman by virtue of their name. But it was time for this troublemaking Jesus to go, so the rivals joined forces against him.
First, they treated him to flattery, praising his sincerity and his impartiality. Then came the trick – “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” If Jesus answered, yes, he would have angered the people; if Jesus said no, he would have angered Rome. Jesus found third answer, give to God what is God’s and give to the emperor what is the emperors. That test seems straightforward even if tricks were involved.
Here’s the more interesting question to me. Why did the Pharisees’ disciples have that coin inside the temple? It had the head of Emperor Tiberius, son of Caesar Augustus. As Caesar, Augustus was considered divine, so Tiberius was at least the son of a God. Tiberius’ head on that on a coin would have been blasphemous in the temple because it was the image of an idol, a false god. In verse 20, “head” is literally translated “icon” in the Greek. As an icon of a god, that coin was an idol forbidden in the temple and should have been exchanged for a shekel outside the temple door to put in the offering. Jesus had a trick up his own sleeve when he asked them to show him “the coin used for the tax.”
Watching Jesus escape a trick is a real treat especially when it leaves us with tricky questions to play with. Jesus asks about Tiberius’ image in a conversation about loyalty. I confess that I’m not immune to my own fangirl moments with certain public figures. I’m self-aware about them but it makes me wonder about how we’re bombarded with people and brands that demand something of us, our time and attention for sure. But they also demand our dollars and our loyalty. Lyn Goodrum, our Publications Administrator, was working on the worship bulletin and she asked if I wanted to use these assigned verses in Matthew on Commitment Sunday today. They’re not your typical inspiring verses about money. I said, yes, I want to use them because they help us think about what Jesus was up against and what we are too. It’s okay to take a hard path through scripture and let it challenge our assumptions and ask us tough questions. We can also bring other scripture into the conversation, too.
Earlier in Matthew, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus preached to his disciples, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In that story and in our story today, Jesus pushes his listeners to deeper connection with God, working out for ourselves how we are to live and follow in the way of Jesus. Isn’t that one of the appealing features of faith? That we get to wonder, decide, fail, and try again in the way of Jesus? We engage our conscience and our hearts without tricks to confuse us or treats to persuade us. While Jesus’ way isn’t always clear, it is the way of God who is good. God who loves us first without demanding a performance of our own goodness or tricking us into loving God back.
I think about this kind of stuff a lot when it comes to stewardship and giving money to the church – well before I became a pastor and now that I am one. Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard from a few Augustana people, including from Nick again today, about our faith and financial gifts working together in ministry. Last week, Jordan made a point to mention that we each give what we’re able to give. Some of us can give a little and some of us can give a lot. If you’ve never given regularly, our Stewardship Committee asks you to consider starting to give $5 a week; and if you’ve been giving regularly to increase your giving by up to 5% of that amount. Rob and I have been giving by automatic withdrawal for years to make it one less thing to remember on the to-do list.
All of us giving something works together to make ministry thrive for our congregation. Thriving includes caring for each other, our ministry partners in the community and our staff. Thriving includes our building and grounds through which we welcome people and offer hospitality. We’re not perfect. Ministry is messy simply because there are people involved and people are messy. But Jesus was always on the side of the people and calls us to the same. Our answer to Jesus’ call is a mixed bag but we keep giving financially and doing ministry together because our hearts follow our treasure. Jesus knows us and the human condition all too well.
I’ll close today with these opening words that we heard today from Paul’s beautiful, pastoral letter to the church at Thessalonica. Scholars think that this was his earliest letter to the churches and may be the oldest writing in the New Testament as few as 10 years after Jesus’ died. Paul remembered the Thessalonians before God and then he celebrated their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Our world needs hope right now. Each of us needs hope.
Out of our own need for hope we become messengers of hope for a weary world. Not an illusory hope or perverse optimism in the face of hard things. But a true hope that challenges us to turn away from the sin that hurts ourselves and each other here and around the world. A true hope that deepens our love during suffering. And a true hope that shines light into the darkness of despair. We hold that hope for each other and for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God and amen.
 Emily Martin, “The history of trick-or-treating, and how it became a Halloween tradition.” National Geographic, October 23, 2022. The history of trick-or-treating, and how it became a Halloween tradition (nationalgeographic.com)
 Matthew 21:12
 Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcase for Bible readings on October 22, 2023. www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts
 Skinner, ibid.
 Matthew 6:21
 Yung Suk Kim, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Virginia Union University. Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22 for October 22, 2023. Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary
 Lutheran Study Bible, 1 Thessalonians – Background File, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 1942.
 1 Thessalonians 1:2