What Caesar Can’t Have: Sermon for October 16, 2016

Note: This is the third and final installment of a sermon series on “Faithful Citizenship”. Please see the previous two posts for the whole series.

pabloA couple of weeks ago I read the story of a town in Germany called Bamberg. In the 1400’s the people really wanted to build a town hall. The king of the region, fearing what it might mean if the citizens started talking to one another about town issues, refused to allow it. But finally, he relented. He told them, “you can build a town hall on any land that I do not own.”

But here’s the catch: under the law, the king owned all the land. The town hall idea was essentially shot down.

I’ll come back to that story, but I share it because it reminded me a little of the Biblical passage we are looking at today. Today is the third and last sermon in our “Faithful Citizenship” series. And today we are looking at story where Jesus says something that is often quoted, and often misunderstood: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”.

I’ve heard that used to try to explain our duties to God and country. Some say that to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” means to just pay your taxes. Others say it means that there should be a complete separation between the institutions of church and state, an idea I support. But others say it also means that our values don’t matter when we are thinking about who we are as a country. That means we can act in our lives as citizens in ways that are contrary to what our faith asks from us. That idea I don’t support.

Overall, like so many other Bible passages, this one phrase can be debated and twisted to justify or condemn so much. Which is why I think it’s so important that we look at the context.

Jesus was teaching and some people came to him to ask a question about the religious person’s duty to Caesar. Caesar was the Roman Emperor who was oppressing the region, and ruling over the people, and there was an uneasy truce between the religious authorities and the Romans. And taxes were a huge part of this. The people were being taxes to support the empire. Tax collectors are talked about in the Bible as outcasts because they were Jewish people who were working for the Romans, the oppressors.

But the religious authorities who were starting to fear Jesus saw an opening here. They knew that if there was one thing the Romans didn’t tolerate, it was people not paying taxes. And so, they decided to set Jesus up. They sent people to ask him about taxes, hoping that Jesus would say “don’t pay them”. If he said that, they could then go tell the Romans who would do what the religious leaders were too scared to do: they’d arrest him and maybe even crucify him.

But Jesus knows what’s up pretty quickly. And so he uses the moment to teach an even deeper lesson. He asks for a coin, and he asks whose head is on it. The people say “Caesar’s”. And so Jesus tells them, “give to Caesar what is Caesars, but give to God what is God’s.”

It was a brilliant answer. They couldn’t turn Jesus in because he hadn’t said anything against the emperor. On the face of it, he said “pay your taxes”. But, on the other hand, he hadn’t left God out of the equation either. He said “give to God what is God’s”. And if you were just listening to Jesus as someone who was trying to trick him, that was all there was to it.

But Jesus is saying something far more subversive here, something that his disciples could hear and take to heart. Something that, if the religious leaders and Romans understood it, would have scared them far more.

You see, Jesus didn’t think much of the money. He picked it up and sort of looked at it and saw the face of a mortal man on it. Money was, and is, fleeting. And the empire it belonged to, strong as it was, would not last. You can almost hear him saying, “eh, let Caesar have it”.

The truly subversive part of it is this: give to God what is God’s.

What Jesus was really saying was this: there are things that Caesar can’t have. For all of the Roman power, for all of the money, for all the fear that they instill in our people, at the end of the day, the better things will never belong to them. Because those things, because you yourself, belong not to Rome, but to God.

That was a revelation to me when I first started to understand it. I’ve told you about growing up in a family where everyone served in the government or military, or was married to someone who did. I saw that service as honorable, and I still do.

But in my mind, at a young age, I conflated faith and country. I thought that God loved this country more than any others, that God loved Americans the most, and that because of that we could never do anything wrong. We were always the good guys, and we were always right, because we had God on our side.

That’s dangerous thinking, and not only is it un-Christian. It’s also un-American. It’s un-American to believe that we are so perfect that we will ever do the wrong thing. We have always been a country that works towards a “more perfect union”, and not one that believes we are already perfect.

But beyond that, for the Christian, we have to keep our loyalties in perspective. We can love our country deeply. We can serve it. We can work for its betterment. We can vote for the person we believe will do the best job leading it. But at the end of the day, we have to remember this: we can give to Caesar what is Caesars, but there are some things that Caesar can never have.

14695591_10101342086230278_4939264485415979914_nThat begins with our very souls, and the values that guide us. Last week we talked about some of those values: justice, kindness, and humility. There are so many others too. We each have to examine our consciences, pray for wisdom, and then ask God for the strength to not compromise those values, even in times when it feels like we are compelled to do otherwise.

And I was reminded of that this week when reading the story of a World War II solider named Private Desmond Doss. Private Doss was raised in a branch of the Christian faith that prohibits its members from taking up arms. Doss agreed with that, but the same time, Doss felt a strong call to serve his country. And so he enlisted in the Army.

When he got to basic training, he refused to pick up a weapon. He was berated by his instructors, called a coward and beaten by his colleagues, and threatened with prison. But he was finally allowed to become a medic, a non-combatant, and he deployed to the war with no sidearm, and no way to defend himself.

In the Pacific in 1945 he was caught in a fierce battle. That day, choosing time and again to but himself at risk, he personally saved the lives of over 75 men. And at the end of the day, he became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, this country’s highest military decoration. All without firing a shot. All without compromising his understanding of the Christian faith. All without giving to Caesar what he believed to be God’s.

Whether you agree with Private Doss’ understanding of the faith or not, you have to admire his integrity. It’s a reminder that we are called by God to work for the good of our communities and country, because God has given us gifts that can be used there. But we can never forget that our true citizenship is in a higher place.

Balancing the two can be tricky. But it’s not impossible.

I began by telling you the story of the Bamberg, Germany town hall, and the king who believed he had outsmarted the people, and forever stopped their building project. But the thing about Caesars is that eventually someone figures out that they don’t really own everything.

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Creative Commons image, T A McGath

One night the villagers in Bamberg went down to the river, and in the darkness they pushed 90 wooden pilings into the middle. They built their own island, one on which they could build their town hall. It wasn’t the king’s land, after all, and at the end of the day he found no way to stop them. That’s how the people of Bamberg let Caesar have what was Caesar’s.

In our earthly lives we have to deal with a lot of Caesars. We may well feel like the king holds all the cards, and we have no power to make the choices we know we should make. But that’s not true. There is always another way with God. It may require us to build something completely new, it may require us to take great risks, but it is always possible.

We are citizens. And that is a holy calling, one that we must embrace and use for good. But before anything else, we are beloved children of God. And so is every other person on this earth, not matter what borders surround them.

As we live our lives, as we work for good, and even as we cast our votes, we can never give to Caesar what should be God’s. Instead, we can only use all that God has given us to ensure that slowly but surely we are making life on this earth a little closer to as it is in heaven. Not just for us, but for all who belong to God. Amen?

Holy Week in New Hampshire, Ten Months Before the Primary

Last week, just after Senator Rand Paul announced his candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination, a new message hit my email box:

The first email.

The first email.

I live and pastor in New Hampshire, so political emails and phone calls are not unexpected, even though I am still relatively new to the state. But the wording of this email was curious. For instance, the assumption I “supporting” Senator Paul’s efforts to “bring Constitutional values to Washington” or to “advance the conservative movement”.

I had never signed up on any Rand Paul list, or even any Republican party list. So, I came to a logical conclusion about why I was getting the emails: my college friends who delight in signing one another up for political causes we find objectionable had scored another victory. “Very funny, y’all,” I thought, as I posted a screenshot of the email up on Facebook calling them out.

In the end it turns out that my college friends had nothing to do with it. In fact, that Facebook post made it clear that I was far from the only New Hampshire pastor getting spammed by Rand Paul’s campaign. First one clergy colleague, and then others nearby reported receiving the same emails.

That was when I actually checked which email address was being used. I have a personal email, the one my friends would know, and I have a church email address, one that someone looking at church websites or lists of clergy would find. And it was the church email address, the .org of a non-profit religious organization, that was being used for the political ads.

Later that same day I received a second email from Rand Paul:

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In this email a video of Senator Paul’s faith testimony is included as well. Presumably our shared Christian faith is supposed to make me feel like I should vote for him. At the bottom of the email was also a link to a “feedback” site where I could say what was important to me as a Christian by signing a “statement of faith”.

It looked like this:

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Let me be clear. I have a personal statement of faith, and Rand Paul is in no way whatsoever a part of it.

Through the last few days I have received more emails from Rand Paul’s campaign. I have contemplated unsubscribing, but at this point I’m interested in seeing what he sends to me. I’m also curious how many other candidates will also be finding my email address, and those of my colleagues, and sending us unsolicited campaign announcements.

Why does this disturb me? It’s not because I’m not interested in politics or good governance. In college I spent my summers interning in the U.S. House of Representatives before deciding the ministry was my real calling. But, I have always kept abreast of elections, and made informed voting choices. In fact, I’m excited to watch the New Hampshire primary play out in my community over the next year. The town I live in frequently draws visits from candidates, including to the town hall right next to the church. I find this all fascinating.

But that is who I am as a private citizen.

Yes, my faith plays a role in my voting. When I enter the polls I don’t leave my faith behind. And, as a pastor I encourage people to vote, and to make their decisions about whom to vote for out of their own personal faith commitments. But, beyond that, I never encourage anyone to vote for a specific candidate or party. Because that is not the role of the pastor, or the church. In fact, it goes against everything we believe in this country about separation of church and state (a tenant that protects not only the state but also the church).

If a pastor is telling their congregation how to vote, they are overstepping both legally and morally. And yet, I know of some pastors who do exactly that. Some even openly challenge the IRS bans on promoting specific candidates. I find this deeply problematic.

I believe Rand Paul, and perhaps others, know that. And perhaps when they went looking for the email addresses of New Hampshire pastors, they hoped that we would start talking about Paul’s faith or his candidacy. Maybe we would help to being Christian voters onto his campaign, and give him a leg up in this first primary state. And perhaps somewhere in Iowa my clergy colleagues there are getting the same emails too.

But Senator Paul will have no place in the pulpit of my church. And, frankly, he will have no place on my ballot next January either. The pulpit is reserved for Jesus. The ballot for one who will respect the lines drawn between church and state.

Blessed for a Reason: Sermon for November 16, 2014

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

I’m a bit of a history buff and so when I first moved to Exeter this summer I bought some books on the history of the town. One book I bought was put out by the historical society and it featured these two or three page snippets of Exeter history. And one story in particular caught my eye.

It was about the end of official tax support for churches, and in particular the loss of town funds to support this church. You see, New Hampshire, like most former colonies, had an “established church”. And in New England that was normally the Congregational Church. And if you lived in Exeter, a portion of your town taxes would go to support this church.

That worked here for the better part of 200 years. But by 1819, there was more than one church in town. This church had split into two parishes, there were now Baptists, and there was a fledgling Universalist church. And in Exeter, as in other places, people who worshipped elsewhere didn’t think it was fair that they should have to pay to support this church.

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That may seem like a no-brainer to us now, but it was quite a scandal at the time. People believed that doing away with public financial support for the church would lead to the destruction of the church, and even the end of morality itself. In the end, though, people decided that only the people who went to a church should support that church. And this church, like Congregational churches across New England, stopped being the official town church.

So what does that have to do with today’s Scripture from Genesis? The one in which God calls Abram, who later gets the name Abraham, out of the home he has always known and to a new place he’s never seen before? God tells Abram “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.”

That line, “blessed to be a blessing” might sound familiar to you right now, and if it does it’s probably because of this. That line is the Bible verse that United Church of Christ parishes have been using this fall for our stewardship campaigns. So you have seen it on the stewardship letter you received back in October, and it’s right there on your pledge cards.

And I think it was a good choice for those of us who are thinking about giving. I think it’s one to remember, and not just at stewardship time. Because, honestly, I think that’s being blessed to be a blessing is what the Christian life is all about.

But, when someone describes the way in which they are “blessed”, does it ever give you pause? Sometimes I hear people talk about how God has blessed them with a big house or a nice car or some material thing and it just makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s not that I think those things are inherently bad, but I just don’t think of God like that. To me that trivializes God, and makes God sound like some sort of divine Oprah handing out cars and iPads to ecstatic crowds.

And God is bigger than that. And not only is God bigger than that, but I think God expects bigger things from us too. And sometimes the way we talk about our blessings just doesn’t reflect that. And here’s why: being blessed is not about winning. None of us is blessed just to be blessed. That’s not the end goal here. Instead, being blessed is about God saying “here’s a tool…now use it to help others.”

In short, we are not blessed for our own comfort or satisfaction or glory. We are blessed so that we can serve others and glorify God. And because of that, all the things we don’t use in order to serve others and glorify God? Those aren’t blessings. Those are just trophies. And in the end, honestly they aren’t worth that much.

So, what does it mean to live a life of blessing? First, I think it means to live a life of giving, and not just taking. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t good to receive. We have all received grace upon grace from God and from others, whether we acknowledge it or not. But being a blessing means that you can’t stop there.

Because when we receive a blessing of any kind, whether it’s love or health or understanding or resources or anything else, we are receiving grace. It is not earned. It is given freely by a God who loves us. And we have a choice. First, we can take it and use it only for our own good. In other words, we can collect the trophy. Or, we can decide to say thank you to God by turning it into a blessing for others.

I’ve always found that the second is the one that not only brings blessings to others, but blessings back to me. Because, honestly, trophies aren’t good for much other than gathering dust. The joy and light that comes from blessing others is much, much better.

So, what does that look like? Recently I read a story that really spoke to me. It was about a man named Howard Lutnick. Lutnick is the chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, and so obviously a man of means. And so when he recently made a donation to Haverford College, in the amount of $25 million dollars, it was impressive. But, at first glance, you might not know that it is also a story about being blessed to be a blessing.

When Howard Lutnick was a high school student his mother died. And then, a week after arriving on campus as a Haverford freshman, his father died suddenly too. His sister attended another college and when she went to the administration to tell them she was now suddenly parentless they told her to become a waitress to pay her tuition. But Haverford acted differently.

When his father died, the president of the university called him and just said this: “Howard, your four years here are free”. As he tells it, he had been on campus a week. The school didn’t know who he was or who he would become. They just decided to bless him. And so years later, he turned that blessing into a blessing for others.

Now, you and I, we might not have the salary of the chairman of a large company, and perhaps we cannot afford to make $25 million endowments. (And if you can, I’d love to talk to you after church, by the way.) But that doesn’t mean that we are not capable of blessings others in equally significant ways.

First, we have to first look at the people and places that God has used to bless us. Who has been a blessing in your life? A parent? A teacher? A church? A friend? A school? A choir that sings every Sunday? Next, what would you say to those people and places if you could? And finally, what do you think they would want you to do with the blessings you have received through them?

I think about those people in my life who have been a blessing. I think of my college chaplain. I think of my parents. I think of professors who stayed after class to help me. I think of mentors who showed me which way to go. I think of churches I have known along the way. And I truly believe that God worked through all of them to bless me. And the only way I can fail them, and the only way I can fail God, is by choosing not to pass those blessings on to others. I can choose to live my life in a way that makes me a conduit of God’s grace. Or I can choose to turn off the switch, and barricade myself alone with all my trophies.

In the end, that choice is what stewardship is all about. Because stewardship is not just about money. Stewardship is about our whole lives. It’s about how we choose to live. It’s about gratitude and the way we respond to the grace we’ve been given. It’s about choosing to let our light shine, instead of hiding our light under a bushel.

That’s a choice we are constantly making with our lives. We choose whether or not to be good stewards of our time, our talents, our treasure. But it’s more than that. We choose whether or not we will use God’s blessings so that we can in turn be a blessing. We have that choice. But we just have to dare to take it.

When Abram was standing there that day with God talking to him, do you think he hesitated? God was giving him a pretty big promise there: I will bless you so that you will be a blessing. But, God was also asking a lot of Abram. He wanted Abram to take a risk and step out in faith. Perhaps we could understand it if Abram had never set out on his journey. But then again, if he hadn’t, where would we be? And how would the story of our faith have been changed if Abram hadn’t chosen to be a blessing?

I was thinking about how God calls us into uncertainty sometimes, and about how that’s when God asks for us to show up in big ways. I was thinking about that while reading that story of this church and how people stopped paying taxes to support us. And I was thinking about how people thought back then that this church would come crashing to the ground, and that would be the end of faith as we knew it.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, in1819 the tax payments stopped, but the Spirit didn’t. Instead, despite all the fear, not only did church attendance go up, but giving did too. And so, almost 200 years laters, you and I, improbably, are sitting here in the same building and still stepping out in faith. The author of the book I read wrote a telling line. She writes, “it turns out New Hampshire folks were never opposed to religion…we just didn’t take kindly to being told what to do with our money. Some things never change.”

And so, I will heed that caution, and I will never tell you what to do with your money, or with any of the other blessings you have received in your life. But I will say this. You have an opportunity do use your life and every blessing in it to do something extraordinary. You have a chance to be a blessing.

Because being blessed does not mean you have won. Being blessed means you are up at bat, and you get to choose whether or not to take a swing. You are the college kid who was blessed for no rational reason when the world dealt him a tough blow. You are a churchgoer in 1819’s Exeter who doesn’t know how the church will remain standing. You are Abram talking to God. And you are here, standing on the threshold of the next part of the journey. And your blessings are yours to do with as you wish. May you use them well, and may the world be blessed. Amen.

The Wide Middle Ground – New article in “The Commons”

Last week an article entitled “In Vermont, gods don’t vote” was printed in The Commons, the weekly newspaper for Windham County, Vermont. You can read it here: http://www.commonsnews.org/site/site05/story.php?articleno=5525&page=1

This week, I countered with these thoughts on the legitimacy of having a devotional before town meetings: http://www.commonsnews.org/site/site05/story.php?articleno=5571&page=1

New blog at Huffington Post: Separation of Church and Santorum

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. … To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.” –Rick Santorum

Rich Santorum’s quote about Pres. John F. Kennedy’s speech on the separation of church and state has received a tremendous amount of airplay this week. Even if you remove that last viral line, it’s a strong pronouncement of Santorum’s displeasure with the limits imposed on religious institutions in the public arena. It’s enough to make the ears of any person of faith who thinks differently than Santorum perk up.

Speaking as a pastor in a mainline Christian denomination (you know, one of the ones Santorum says is in “shambles”) I’m surprised to find myself in some agreement with one part of his quote. I also believe that it is “antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country … to say that people of faith have no role in the public square.” And yet, I would suspect Santorum and I have very different ideas of what that means.

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