Above all gods

18th Sunday after Pentecost (October 16, 2011)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 45:1-7; Ps. 96:1-9; I Thess. 1:1-10; Matt. 22:15-22

Last week Daryl traveled to northern Iraq to meet with MCC partners and staff and participate in the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative conference (ICSSI) and Erbil International Marathon for Peace and Nonviolence.

Wheelchair participant is one of 1,500 participants in the Erbil International Marathon for Peace and Nonviolence (photo by Carly Taylor)

Iraqi non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from across the country gathered in Erbil and were joined by international organizations like MCC to focus on the role of civil society actors in rebuilding Iraq.

Drama troupe at ICSSI conference portrays life in Baghdad (photo by Carly Taylor)

Among other things, these organizations have played a key role in demonstrations across Iraq aimed at increasing basic services, improving living conditions, fighting corruption and reforming government. Participants expressed the important roles of youth, women, labor unions, an independent media and international solidarity as reforms are implemented in the coming years.

Coffee art displayed at the ICSSI conference in Erbil (photo by Carly Taylor)

Christian partners in northern Iraq are diligently working on creating the infrastructure – schools, hospitals and jobs – to make it possible for Christian families to stay in Iraq. By some estimates, more than half of the Christian community has fled Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led war.

Mar Qardakh School is one of many new institutions being built by the Christian community in northern Iraq

In the region this week tensions heightened between Iran and the United States after U.S. officials charged Iran with attempting to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Israel and Hamas reached an agreement whereby Israel will release some 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas for five years.

The Common Lectionary readings this week compare God with many false gods that vie for our allegiance.

In the Old Testament reading God uses the Persian king Cyrus to achieve God’s purposes, even though Cyrus doesn’t recognize God. “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god,” declares God. “I arm you, though you do not know me . . . there is no one besides me . . . I form light and create darkness.” (Is. 45:5-7)

“God is to be revered above all gods, writes the psalmist, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” (Ps. 96:4-5)

In the Epistle reading, Paul applauds the church at Thessalonica for their reputation of “turn(ing) to God from idols, to serve a living and true God…” (I Thess. 1:9)

In the Gospel reading the religious leaders try to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes to the emperor. Jesus sees through their duplicity and asks them to produce a coin. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” queries Jesus. “The emperor’s,” they respond. “Give, therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus retorts (Matt. 22:20-21). Jesus exposes their collaboration with the emperor, while forcing them to deal with the reality that everything belongs to the true God.

The solidarity conference in Erbil offered glimmers of hope, as Iraqi NGOs banded together to discuss the country’s future. But speaker after speaker also reflected on the enormity of the task that lies ahead in rebuilding a war-torn country where government corruption is rampant and trust levels are low.

The Lectionary readings provide assurances that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted — even by bad leaders. In spite of the fact that some leaders do not recognize God or God’s desire for justice and peace, they unwittingly become instruments to achieve God’s overarching goals.

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