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.


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?

Marching Orders: Where Citizenship Meets Discipleship

The following was originally preached as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on July 3, 2016.

I’ve talked before about how much I love genealogy. I also really love American history, and for me researching my family tree is a way of finding where my family’s story intersects with the larger American story.

And so this week I was reading the stories of two men from here in Rockingham County; Isaac Hills and Edward Stevens. Isaac and Edward were from Chester and Brentwood respectively, and they were my 5th great-grandfathers. And I was reading about a document that they had both signed 240 years ago, in 1776. It read:

[Provincial and state papers]“In Consequence of the above Resolution of the Hon. Continental Congress, and to shew our Determination in joining our American Brethren in defending the Lives, Liberties and Property of the inhabitants of the United Colonies : We, the Subscribers, do hereby solemnly engage and promise, that we will, to the utmost in our Power, at the Risque of our Lives and Fortunes, with Arms, oppose the Hostile Proceedings of the British Fleets and Armies against the United American Colonies.”

Unique to New Hampshire, in the days after the Declaration of Independence had made its way here, every man of voting age was asked to sign on to this statement, which was called an Association Test. The idea was to figure out, in the face of a revolution that could cost everything, who was in and who was out.

I take pride in the fact that my family signed. But about now, you might be wondering why I’m talking about it on a Sunday morning, when I’m supposed to be preaching about Jesus, and his commission to the disciples. Jesus told them to go out into the world, two by two, and do the work of spreading his Gospel. He tells them that they will go out with tremendous power, and they will have the power to change the world and proclaim a new way. This passage is essentially Jesus giving his disciples their marching orders.

So, what does text about an entirely different context, long before America was even an idea, have to do with the founding of this country?

It’s a good question. I always hesitate to equate the Gospel with patriotism. I get queasy when I preach around big patriotic holidays. That’s not because I don’t love this country. I grew up in a family with a lot of patriotic spirit and generations of veterans and public servants. But as a Christian, I’m called to remember that God’s creation, and God’s salvation, are far bigger than this country.

That’s one reason why we have to continually emphasize that our ultimate loyalty is to God. We cannot fall into the trap of idolatry and worship anything in the place of God. That’s why we respect the American flag, but do not put it in our sanctuary. It’s why we remember days like the Fourth of July or Veteran’s Day, but we do not make them the focus of our worship. Our ultimate faith is in Christ. Not country.
And yet, this is where we live. It’s part of who we are. And, while the Gospel is not about America, we would not be faithful to the Gospel if we did not try to make this place better. And we would not be Christians if we did not try to improve the lives of our neighbors.

And that’s where citizenship matters. Because while we must never confuse our American citizenship as superior to our citizenship in God’s kingdom, we must also never leave our higher values out of our understanding of what it means to live in this country. We are called by our faith to citizenship.

Let me pause there to say this is not just a Christian calling. This is a pluralistic country and our faith gives us no greater claim on the American name than those any other faith, or those of no faith at all. But, it does influence how we are called to live here.

In fact, John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition from which we descended, went so far as to say that the highest calling a Christian can aspire to was not preaching the Gospel or any other religious pursuit. Instead, it was government service. Our highest calling is to make where we live better.

We are called to citizenship. But, just as Jesus said in this passage, the harvest is plentiful, workers are few.

I often bristle when I see politicians talking about Christian faith. Usually the Christian faith they are talking about seems to have little to do with Christ’s teachings. Especially in election years. And I’m not talking about politics here in the sense of telling you how to vote. There are good Christians in this congregation voting for every candidate who is running.

But I am saying that as Christians, we can change the story. Our faith can make us better citizens, and make better decisions. It can help us change the dialogue. And in a time when talking heads debate “Christian values”, it can help to shift the national conversation away from sound bites, and towards real Christian values.

What would it be like if we held up Jesus’ commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves as a baseline of how we treated one another? What if we looked at our candidates and held them up against those fruits of the Spirit we talked about last week? What if we looked for those things: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. What if we demanded better of our country, our leaders, and ourselves?

I think that is possible. But I don’t think it’s possible to do it alone.

Jesus knew what he was talking about when he sent his disciples out two by two. He knew they were going to face resistance. He knew they needed one another. And he knew that they would preach a Gospel that would cause them to be rejected.
That’s true even today. And that’s true where we live. In a time where polarization has led those who disagree with one another to the point of outright violence, we need a return to thoughtful citizenship. And in a time where fear is too often defining our dialogue, we have to choose another way.

And sometimes, that is going to mean speaking a hard truth about hatred, or oppression, or evil. Even when we find ourselves speaking that truth to hostile ears.

Jesus said to his disciples that they would be rejected, and that sometimes they would have to shake the dust of the places that rejected him off of their feet. Often Christians live in times and places where people get it wrong. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the Second World War, lived in one of those places. A German, he decided instead to follow Christ, and he shook the dust of Nazi hatred off of his feet, even as he lost his own life. We hold his story up as an example of choosing the harder right against an easy wrong.

But we would be wrong to think that this is something only those in other countries face. Because sometimes the most faithful thing you can do as a Christian, and the most patriotic thing you can do as an American, is to shake the dust of sinful policies and practices off of your feet.

When Dr. King clashed with law enforcement to walk across the Selma bridge, he was shaking the dust of racism off his feet. When Susan B. Anthony cast a ballot in the presidential election of 1872, and was arrested, she was shaking the dust of second-class citizenship for women off of hers. And when the conductors on the Underground Railroad stashed those escaping slavery in their barns and basements, they were shaking the dust of a country that condoned enslaving others from theirs.

Even as they broke the law of the land, they upheld a higher law. They upheld God’s law, and they upheld Christ’s call. And every one of them was condemned in their own time by those who called them un-Christian, and un-American. But they did it anyway.

Christ calls us to nothing less. This is not a perfect country. We have a long way to go. It never has been perfect, though. I think of 1776, and that document my 5th great-grandfathers signed for instance. They were banding together to say there was a better way. But even then, I can’t help but notice that no one cared much what my 5th great-grandmothers thought about it.

But the thing about this country is that things change. And things change because good people refuse to lapse into nihilism but instead work together to get them changed. That’s why seven generations later, I can vote in this country. And I can get married in this country. And I can stand in this pulpit in this church and preach this sermon.

Jesus sent his followers out into the world, and he sent us together. And some of ended up here.
As Christians, we are called to make it better, not just for ourselves, but for others. But we can’t do it alone. And so, won’t you come with me. Let us shake the dust of whatever is holding us back off of our feet, and let us transform this little part of God’s creation where we live into a more perfect union. Amen?