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Sermon: Caesar vs. God

This sermon was preached at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on October 18, 2020.

Matthew 22:15-22

The Question about Paying Taxes

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him (Jesus) in what he said. 16 So 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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 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.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

This month, I’m not doing a sermon series and instead decided to follow the Lectionary. This means I’m relying on the scripture selections that are part of a three-year cycle and pre-chosen many years in advance and laid out according to the church year. We’re in the season after Pentecost which is often when we hear stories and teachings of Jesus life. Yet this is what I strangely find when I do use the lectionary’s assigned scriptures which are picked for this day long before current events unfold. I often find that there is some remarkable correlation between the scripture and the current situation. Sometimes spot on that it leaves goosebumps on skin. This was one of those weeks. The subheading to the scripture that Carl read is, “The Question about Paying Taxes.” Not only did I get goosebumps this week, but I also groaned out loud. “The Question of Paying Taxes?” Seriously. Ok, God, we’re talking about this… now? This week? This month? This year? Two weeks before a contentious national election in which paying or not paying taxes is one of the central, controversial themes and this is where the scripture takes us? How much easier it would be to just NOT go there. You know, to like maybe talk about butterflies and rainbows, or Shadrak, Meshak, and Abednego, even though their names are ridiculous to pronounce.

I guess I could have just picked another scripture lesson- and you would probably have never even known. But God works in mysterious ways and I know from experience often takes us just exactly where we need to go, whether we want or not. And so I left the scripture in and, put on your goulashes because we’re going to wade into the water.

This lesson today brings in a lot of hot issues: partisan trickery, the ethics of paying taxes, resistance in the face of an unwanted government, and what seems to be a separation between religion and politics. But for sake of simplicity, I’m going to boil this down into one main question on which everything else hinges: can you be both a dutiful citizen AND a person of faith? In other words, how does our faith relate to our politics? It’s a sticky question now and it was a sticky question in Jesus’ day. The sneaky Pharisees after giving Jesus some airy compliments, try to trick him into saying something that will incriminate him. They ask: “Is it lawful (in the sense of the religious law, that is) to pay taxes to the emperor?” You see, if Jesus said, “no! You shouldn’t give money to Caesar because our loyalty to God is surely above our loyalty to government” then Jesus could have been tried for treason by the Roman empire. But if Jesus had said “yes, you must follow the rules and pay your taxes come hell or high water,” then Jesus would have been rejected by his many Jewish followers who abhorred the Roman occupation and considered Jewish law above Roman law. It was a pretty nifty trap, the Pharisees thought.

But Jesus was wiser than the traps of conventional thinking and partisan bickering, and he used their trap as an opportunity to open minds. First, he put them on the spot. “Hey, speaking of money, show me some of that money you’d would use to pay such taxes?” And they had to admit that they carried the currency of the Roman government in the pockets of their clergy robes. “Who’s picture is on that coin?” Jesus asks. “It’s Caesar’s,” they cannot deny. And then Jesus replies, using the traditional language here: “Then render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” With this statement, Jesus’ enemies are left speechless. They had not considered an answer that essentially said, yes, you can be BOTH a good citizen AND a person of faith.

Our country, the United States of America, was founded by people who wanted to enshrine the freedom of BOTH/AND. That one could be BOTH a dutiful citizen AND a person of faith. And so for us, as Americans, it’s not so much a question of if it can be done in theory but rather if it can be done in practice, you know with integrity.

Let’s talk about that.

When can we actually be both a dutiful citizen and a person of faith? Here’s the very simple answer: when our civic duty serves God’s larger mission. Sometimes this passage from Jesus will be interpreted to mean the spiritual and the political realms are separate. But I think that’s a missed reading. The issues we debate in our politics are many of the issues that fill the pages of the Bible in their most elemental form: injustice, poverty, crime and punishment, human relationships, amendments and laws, corruption, degradation of life- human and non-human, border “security,” and exploitation for the sake of self-indulgence. And that’s just a start. Last time I checked there’s a pretty big overlap between what our Bible teaches and what our government has influence over. That’s why integrity matters among people of faith who must “render unto Caesar what is Caesars.” In a democracy, guess who’s Caesar? It’s us, the people. As people of faith, we must apply our Biblical values in the voting booth. We must hold our government accountable for the ways in which the coins we give are spent. Are they building up the Kingdom of God, or are they doing something else….?

So then, the flip side of this coin: when can’t we be both a dutiful citizen and a person of faith? Again, it’s a simple answer: when we’re asked to worship and serve something that is not God. Listen, it ain’t no brass candle stand, but we’ve all seen the “gods” our governments can build and then expect us to bow down to. Here’s a few to think about:

· The god of Fear: fear of people who are different from us; fear of the other political side; fear of the truth; fear of fear itself. Fear weakens us and undermines God’s word, where it is said more than 300 times in the Bible: Do not be afraid.

· The god of Money & Wealth: Oh how often we measure whether a government is good or not based on how our own bank account is looking. Money is a powerful god and every time “we the people” put the wealth of a few over the wealth of the many, we have bowed down to this god.

· Our own security: how easy it is to be so enamored with our own fortresses and the weapons that protect us that forget what Jesus’ blessing for peacemakers even sounds like. When we put our trust in human-made security, then we have admitted that God’s protection is not enough.

· Earthly rulers: Caesar’s armies were everywhere. His face was on all the coins. He was considered a god by many. But where is he now? He is dead and his empire has fallen because all earthly rulers will eventually fall. Its not about them. And if we chose them as our god, we’ll fall right along with them.

You see, Jesus isn’t dividing the world into “political” and “religious,” “governmental” and “spiritual,” he’s saying that what belongs to God includes everything that could ever belong to Caesar. Sure, give Caesar what bears Caesar’s image, but tell me, what bears God’s image? All of creation! You, me, the person down the street, the birds of the air, the lilies of the field. Jesus sends the clear message that while it is appropriate to pay taxes to the government, our highest loyalty is to God. And because our highest loyalty is to God and God’s realm of love and justice, what we render unto Caesar must strive to live up to those ideals.

A higher loyalty to God means loving our neighbors, whether they’re across the world or across the aisle. It means changing the narrative away from crass partisanship and a “me first” attitude toward one in which we find common ground. A higher loyalty to God means we don’t find our identity in our partisan encampments, the TV news channels we watch, or the bubbles of like-minded friends we have on the internet. We find our identity in God because it’s in God’s image that we are made. And unto God that we give what is God’s – which is to say, we give ourselves – and we work together for a country and a world in which God’s most sacred values are brought to life.

In these final days and weeks leading up to November 3, I want you to make a special effort to see the image of God in someone with whom you disagree. Connect with them- not about politics- but just ask how they’re doing and let them know you’re thinking of them in the midst of this crazy, polarized time. Give unto God what is God’s. Change the narrative. Don’t worship the wrong god.

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