Sermon Sunday October 22, 2023 Proper 24
Lessons Exodus 33:12-23
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail
was written April 16, 1963 (have copies in back of church)
This letter is worth a read if you’ve never read it, or a re-
read if you have already read it. Let me read one part of a
paragraph that Dr. King wrote about in this famous letter
that he wrote to religious leaders while sitting in jail in
“You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to
break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern.” Dr. King
goes on to talk about agreeing with St. Augustine of Hippo
saying, “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Dr. King was, of course, talking about the unjust treatment
of people of color in the South of the United States. The year
was 1963, and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing.
Direct Action, Dr. King’s words, was being taken to overcome tremendous injustices against people of color, and
Dr. King ended up in jail in this instance after a peaceful
Today’s readings for the 21 st Sunday after Pentecost give us
a lot to chew on as we contemplate the position that Dr.
King, and indeed, perhaps we ourselves, struggle with. That
is giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and giving to God what
is God’s as our Gospel from Matthew rings in our ears.
First, let’s take a step back to the O. T. In our first lesson
from the Book of Exodus, we see Moses in conversation
with God. Moses is basically nagging God to make it known
that he has found favor in God’s sight. In other words,
Moses is asking God to make sure that the Hebrew people
know that God has given Moses a position of authority
among God’s chosen people.
We have seen in weeks past how this people has gone after
Moses, blaming him for everything from bad food, to no
water, to poor accommodations wandering in the wilderness,
to the making of an idol! Moses, you stayed on that
mountain for too long. We thought you were dead!
It’s only natural that Moses wants a little backup from God
by making sure that everyone knows that God is present
God tells Moses, “Okay, I’ll do ask you ask Moses. And yes,
you have received my favor. But make no mistake Moses, I
am still God (implying that Moses is not!). I will protect you
in my presence by covering you with my hand when I pass
by. I’ll take my hand away when I pass, and you will be able
to see my back. Because I am God, you cannot, and no one
can see my face and live.” Or maybe by looking back at our
lives, we can see where God appeared, even though we
didn’t see God at the time.
This also shows a growth in Moses relationship with God.
Remember how Moses started out with God in the burning
bush? Who are you? Now Moses is having a conversation
with God. He is showing a growth in his relationship with
God, like we hopefully can do.
God is just reminding Moses, and us, who is God here. I
think Moses was just given a gentle reminder of who is God.
Our psalm for the day, Psalm 99 picks up on this theme of
God being God (and therefore we are not). “Extol the LORD
our God: worship at his footstool. Holy is he!”
St. Paul reminds us in his First Letter to the Thessalonians
that our God is the living and true God. This surely harkens
back to God is God, and God is our Creator. We are thankful
for Jesus, the Incarnation of God as a human being, whose
face we can see and live!
Then we have today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew.
This is surely one of the most famous pieces of Scripture,
and one that often makes our heads spin.
At the beginning of the passage we may want to shout to
Jesus, “Don’t answer! It’s a trick! They’re going to trap
you!” Two millenia later, even we can see that. Of course,
Jesus is up to the task and doesn’t fall for the trap, even
though it’s a no-win situation. Jesus turns the tables on the
Pharisees and Herodians.
These two groups are not natural allies with each other. The
tax being talked about was the one demanded by the Roman
occupiers of Israel. You are either with the pagan
conquerors like the Herodians who wanted to keep their king
in power, Herod Antipas. Or you were on the side of the
Pharisees—those who upheld the law of God. It was not an
easy task to get these two groups together. They must have
been desperate to do something about Jesus, who was
constantly upsetting the apple cart of both groups.
Jesus knew that if he answered in favor of one group over
the other, he was in deep trouble either way. So, he asks for
a coin, and asks his own question. “Whose head is on the
coin? Caesar, or the emperor, came the answer. Then give
Caesar his due and God his. How ingenious!
Remember that Caesar was considered a god by the
Romans. However, Jesus and the Jewish people would have
taken seriously the line from Psalm 24 “The earth is the
LORD’s and everything in it, and its inhabitants.” And since
the Jewish people would not consider the Roman emperor
God or a god, Jesus’ answer was like a “nothing burger.”
Jesus was effectively asking both the Herodians and the
Pharisees who were they worshipping? They were caught,
could not answer, and slunk away.
This passage has fueled great debate and controversies over
the centuries, however. Ideas concerning law and order
where no law can ever be questioned, to ideas that any law
can and should be overthrown since God made the earth,
everything in it, and its inhabitants. God therefore is the
ruler of all things.
That brings us back to Dr. King, St. Augustine, and just and
unjust laws. First, just a reminder about the definition of
what is just or justice from the book Crazy Talk. Justice is
what God demands of us all so that all may thrive.
So…in view of laws that we may not agree with…so that all
may thrive doesn’t mean resorting to violence to achieve our
ends in opposing the law. With violence, all cannot thrive.
With violence comes hate and destruction which God does
not demand. It also doesn’t mean anarchy which is complete
and utter chaos. Justice cannot exist in complete and utter
St. Augustine declared that there are just and unjust laws.
That means that we follow the just laws (what God demands
so that all can thrive) and work to change the unjust laws.
We change unjust laws through peaceful means, education,
dialogue, public opinion, voting for new legislation, and
peaceful protests which is what Dr. King and the entire Civil
Rights Movement was about.
Laws that support hate of others, that do not allow others to
thrive, beg us to ask the question, are we supporting Caesar,
a false god, or are we rendering to God what is God’s by
these types of laws? In other words, who are we
worshipping? An ideology? A political party? An
individual? Or are we following the way of Jesus, God
Incarnate, whose face we can see and still live?
So, Dr. King found himself sitting in a Birmingham jail
because of his peaceful work against laws that failed to
allow people, all people, despite the color of their skin, to
thrive. Dr. King found himself writing the letter from
Birmingham jail, much like St. Paul sitting in jail 2,000
years ago writing to various and new Christian communities.
He was writing the letter exhorting his fellow clergy, who
were telling him to wait, it was not the right time to demand
equality for people of color. Dr. King asked, and why after
over 300 years of discrimination, was Dr. King giving to
God what was God’s? Dr. King was letting his fellow clergy
know that he was following the true, living God, and giving
to that God what was his due, rather than giving to Caesar
his due. What he was doing was what God demands so all
can thrive. Amen.