21st Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 24A

TEXTS: Exodus 33:12-23 and Matthew 22:15-22


“For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” (Exodus 33:16)

“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this and whose title?” They 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.” (Matthew 22:17-21)

How many of you have had the experience of being nagged? As I set about trying to build a message for today’s blog, I found myself in that situation. But it wasn’t another person inflicting the harassment.

No. What was nagging away at me was a sort of dim recollection of an event that happened long ago—sort of a “half-memory,” if you will. It was such a sketchy remembrance that I’m not even sure whether I recall the actual event—or just remember being told about it.

But the memory—or whatever it was—simply wouldn’t go away. And no matter how hard I tried to concentrate on writing my message, I found my mind coming back again and again to this sketchy, aggravating, barely recalled, long-past event. It was nagging at me!

Now, those of you who know me well understand that I hate being nagged. But you probably also understand that—no matter how much I hate being nagged—it works! If you nag me, I will respond. And so, finally, I had to pay attention to this nagging memory.

The memory was this: Many years ago there was a debate between the evangelist Billy Graham and the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.1

Now, we all know who Billy Graham was. And probably many of us remember Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Mrs. O’Hair’s atheism was of the militant sort. She asserted the position that no divine consciousness created the universe—indeed, she was convinced that there was no such thing as a Supreme Being. She did not believe in God, and she did not want the rest of us to believe, either.

As I said before, I cannot remember whether I witnessed this debate on TV, or read about it, or was simply told about it. But I do know that Mrs. O’Hair was an intelligent and articulate person—and Dr. Graham was the person who got me interested in Christian faith.

So, as I began to pay closer attention to the nagging voice inside my head, I grew curious. What was there about this event—this encounter between America’s best-known evangelist and its most notorious atheist—that had anything to do with this morning’s Scripture texts? And how could I research such a question?

First, I consulted Dr. Graham’s excellent autobiography, Just As I Am. But I could find no reference there to such a debate—and no mention of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

Well, praise God for the Internet! Probably, I should have searched on-line first. For—after only about 10 minutes—I found myself directed to the website of St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Bowie, Maryland. And there—in an archive of sermons by the Rev. Richard E. Stetler—I found what I was looking for. Richard Stetler remembered the debate between Graham and O’Hair—and, thank goodness, he chose to write about it!

According to Rev. Stetler, the discussion between the two was actually quite civil; “fair and well-balanced” was the phrase he used. That surprised me a little, because I remember Mrs. O’Hair as being a rather bombastic—even vulgar—person. Certainly, she was one of these annoying people who seems to have an answer for everything. (Aren’t you glad we don’t have people like that in the church?)

Close to the end of the debate, however, Billy Graham asked Mrs. O’Hair a question that she could not answer. The way Richard Stetler remembered it, Dr. Graham said something like this:

“The compassion of Christians for the rest of humanity has been such that through the years we have founded and built countless libraries, hospitals, colleges and universities. We have improved the agricultural techniques and established schools in countries around the world. We have promoted psychological services, prison ministries, supported free clinics, and distributed clothing and food to those in need. We are frequently the first to arrive on the scene of local and national disasters. Mrs. O’Hair, can you give us a modest listing of the agencies and organizations that serve humanity that have sprung into being because of atheism?” 2 

Madalyn Murray O’Hair, apparently, had very little to say in response. But now I understood why this long-ago (and evidently quite obscure) debate was relevant to today’s lectionary readings.

In our selection from the Book of Exodus, there is a very insightful verse. Moses, I think, may have been having a crisis of faith. He appears in this passage to need reassurance from God that God will always be with him—and with the people of Israel.

Moses is outlining what he would like God to do. During his conversation with God, Moses says, in effect: “Your presence with us will distinguish us from any other people on earth.”

This was precisely Dr. Graham’s point. The people of God are a very distinctive people. Not perfect, mind you—but distinctive. Unique. Called—even “called out” of the world. Whether we are mindful of it or not, we who refer to ourselves as “Christians” belong to a group whose mission it is to make God’s love visible.

Oh, I know we’re not always good at it. Often, our behaviour stinks. We make mistakes in judgment. In fact, sometimes we make the mistake of judgment! We say things to each other and about each other that are unworthy of our high calling—and which betray the kinship Christians have with one another. Too often, we hurt each other with our judgments and perceptions. Too often, we backslide in our loyalty to Jesus. It’s embarrassing, and shameful, and scandalous.

Even so, God allows us—even calls us—to become the channels through which his grace becomes visible. We are the ones whom God sends into the world with the message of the gospel: the message of God’s redeeming love in Christ Jesus.

More than that, God calls us to be the embodiment of that redeeming love—the picture of it, if you will. The likeness of Christ is supposed to be stamped upon us as indelibly as Caesar’s likeness was stamped upon that coin Jesus spoke of in Matthew’s gospel.

When the energy of grace—of divine love—touches someone, it affects everything about them. Even the most miserable people can have their hearts touched by it. We are called to be the carriers of that energy—the bearers of that unique, distinctive, other-worldly love … no matter what!

Yikes! What a challenge! What a difficult task, especially when the people in our lives are being obnoxious. We may get to feeling like Moses did, dealing with those obstinate, faithless Israelites.

But look: when others are irritable, when their attitudes are lousy, when their words and deeds try our patience, can we see that such behaviours are, more often than not, a cry for help? Or a call for love? Can we respond graciously, because of who we have become within the Body of Christ? If so, then others will see in us the likeness of our Lord. If not, well …    

Christians are often judged as being hypocrites, as saying one thing and doing another, or of being no better than those who don’t believe in anything! And often—too often—the shoe fits. Hypocrites. Phonies. Sinners! We are all those things. But we are also much more than that. We are the body of Christ—“and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). We are Christ’s body. We carry his likeness. And that is what makes us distinct.

Those of us who are longtime church members tend to take our faith experience for granted. Yet—however uncoordinated and disjointed our witness may at times appear—we are members of one body. The collective consciousness (some would call it the “Christ consciousness”) of this fellowship nurtures us in God’s love. We do not see it. We may not always feel it. But it is among us and within us nevertheless. And when we remember to express it—when we remember to make Christ visible in our lives—then we see tremendous results!

When we seek to live what Jesus taught, our lives begin to change. To be sure, we have all fallen short of the glory of God—but we have all been created in the image of God. When we learn to give without counting the cost, our authentic identity begins to surface. When we learn to treat other people as we would like to be treated, even more of our identity begins to show. And so it is that, gradually, we become God’s own distinct people.

We too often forget that “where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.” We need to thank God for the treasure we find in Christian fellowship. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called out of the world—but we are also called into our distinct spiritual home. By claiming Christ as our Saviour and Lord, we are made one with him. We are re-created. We are made distinct. We are made different … and we are called to make a difference!

That’s what newness of life is all about, isn’t it?


1 Yes, that is the correct spelling of her name: “Madalyn O’Hair” not “Madeline O’Hare.”

2 “Who Gives God Visibility?” Sermon preached by Rev. Richard E. Stetler on October 20, 2002 at Saint Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Bowie, Maryland, U.S.A. (http://stmatthews-bowie.org/Worship/Sermons/2002/sermon_10_20_02.asp).

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