You can hear our gospel writer Matthew the Evangelist nearly shout to Jesus in the set-up to today’s lesson the renowned words of Admiral Ackbar from “Star Wars: Episode VI— Return of the Jedi”: “It’s a trap!” The Pharisees and Herodians have made strange bedfellows and have slithered their way over to Jesus in order to snare him with an unanswerable question. You can hear their sliminess in their opening words. “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.” Oh, they try hard to butter him up there in the beginning. They express this false praise in order to manipulate the people listening in. They hope that the ones standing nearby will not see what this is really all about, because they want to entangle Jesus right in front of them. And that’s when they go in for the kill: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

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We’ve had 24 hour news coverage here in the US since January 1, 1980 when CNN first launched on cable. That’s more than 42 years now of hearing news updates around the clock. And you know as well as I do that most of that news has not been of the feel-good variety. Rather it’s a lot of bad or even awful news, with a heavy dose of fear to go with it. That’s a lot of negativity even when there isn’t a major catastrophic event like what’s currently taking place in Israel and Gaza.

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On one of my first forays into the desert southwest, I found a children’s book called Coyote: A trickster tale from the American Southwest.  A large blue coyote graces the cover.  The story begins by telling us that Coyote had a nose for trouble, and he soon finds his way to a mesa where some crows are chanting and dancing.  Coyote wants to dance too, so he asks old man crow if he can join them.

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There’s a wonderful scene in the original “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” move where Toula is introducing her non-Greek boyfriend, Ian Miller, to her family for the first time.  All of them are there, the aunts and uncles and cousins and what appears to be twenty-five different people named Nick or Nicki. As they are standing there, Toula’s Aunt Voula says excitedly that she will have to have the couple over for dinner. Toula quietly tells her aunt that it won’t work out because Ian is a vegetarian. There’s a blank stare of incomprehension from Aunt Voula. So Toula says it more clearly, “Ian doesn’t eat meat.” “He don’t eat no meat?!” Voula says incredulously.  “What do you mean, he don’t eat no meat!”  And then she smiles, and says, “Oh that’s okay. I make lamb.”

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Pep talks often have a prominent place in movies.  A group of rag-tag individuals has come together and their leader wants to inspire greatness in them. Often these speeches comes mid-way through the film after we’ve learned something about these characters and know what they’re up against. Sports films have cornered the market on these inspirational talks, of course.  

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One of the things that amazes me about scripture is that there’s always something new to uncover. Even though I’ve read the Bible cover to cover and many of the stories of the gospels have been the basis for numerous sermons over the years, there are still times when I’m surprised. It happened for me in our passage from Matthew for this morning. We heard that Jesus was going around teaching and proclaiming the good news, and healing people, and then he notices the large number of people. Jesus was just out there doing his thing, when all sorts of people started showing up around him. It’s not surprising, of course, he is curing every disease and sickness, and he’s got a pretty compelling message to boot. But still a lot of people are now gathering. Crowds of them, in fact.

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There’s an old adage about congregations that seems relevant for today’s gospel lesson: “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”  The problem is that many of us like museums and their collections, pieces of art lauded for their importance and beauty, for their exquisiteness and highbrow sophistication. With the possible exception of the work of Banksy, we tend not to hold up graffiti in the same way we value a Monet. So it is with churches. We prefer displays of perfection from the assembled people rather than imagining it like the sick ward at a hospital.

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So there’s quite a bit of background in our story from Numbers that we didn’t hear this morning. The people of Israel had recently experienced their freedom through the Exodus, and have left Egypt behind for good. However, being enslaved had provided them with some regular foods that they could not find in the desert wilderness. God had been providing them with manna—literally “What is it?” in Hebrew—which appeared every morning except on the Sabbath in order to be collected from the ground. (They got a double portion Friday mornings.) They used it to make cakes and breads to sustain them. 

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Our lectionary committee, the ones who chose which readings we get on any given Sunday, knew the reality of Christians well.  Recognizing that most of us wouldn’t mark the Feast of the Ascension which happened this past Thursday, they made sure our first reading from Acts included Jesus’ Ascension.  Here we sit three days past the Ascension and seven days until Pentecost in the in-between time.  We’re still in the midst of those Great Fifty Days of Easter with our flourish of Alleluias, but I bet it’s the dregs when it comes to any Easter candy left at your house.  In seven days we’ll bring out the red hangings and hear again of the Holy Spirit’s coming like tongues of fire.  But in the mean time, we wait.

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