"Uncle Sam and the Church"

19 October 2014

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, pastor

East Rochester & West Walworth: Zion United Methodist Churches

 

Matthew 22:15-22

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

 

Prayer.

 

The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

This churn of political science has been

taught, forgot, and bungled repeatedly

from generation to generation.

 

Pharisees and Herodians

were like oil and vinegar.

The oil worked to keep the institutional religion intact.

The vinegar were collaborators with the enemy in a futile attempt to avoid catastrophe. Pharisees and Herodians were enemies

united by the single

potentially destabilizing lightning bolt

named Jesus.

Build him up;

then let’s take him down,

and the quieter, the better.

 

I don’t know about you,

but few things repel me more

than insincerity.

And the Pharisees and Herodians

play the insincerity hand in spades.

“Teacher” they say openly,

thinking to themselves,

“What two-bit hack of a rabbi gave you teaching credentials?”

“We know that you are sincere,” they continue,

thinking to themselves,

“And this is what we hope will get you killed.”

Buttering the toast more completely,

You “teach the way of God in accordance with truth,”

thinking to themselves,

“You wouldn’t know truth if it cracked you between the eyes.”

You “show deference to no one for you do not regard people with partiality”

all-the-while thinking to themselves

“Jesus, you are the ultimate loser.

You treat the last, the least, the lost better than everyone else.

You treat everyone as an individual;

What a loser!”

Of course, their words are spoken

with a tight lipped smile and batting of the eyes.

 

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

 

The trap is set,

and everyone waits for Jesus to take the bait.

Heads I win, tails you lose.

Yes, pay your taxes enrages the Pharisees.

No, don’t pay your taxes enrages the Herodians.

Either way, Jesus is going to jail,

soldiers can stand down,

peace will be restored,

and the Temple will continue to print money like it’s going out of style.

 

A modern day equivalent question would be

“Jesus, do you support a separation of Church and State?”

 

Our own Constitution

in the first amendment,

dated December 15, 1791,

“prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution)

 

This is the law of the United States

and it has become a foundation of our

freedom and liberty.

For 223 years

this cultural foundation

has protected American citizens

to express faith freely and without intervention.

It doesn’t keep the faithful out of government;

but it does keep the government out of the faithful.

 

There was no separation of church and state in the time of Jesus.

The religion was the state,

and it’s name was Rome.

The Herodians wrung their hands with glee.

The Pharisees submitted with reluctance

knowing their tight leash

was given as a quid pro quo.

Rome wanted a piece of the Temple tax.

The Jews were given suspicious permission

as long as they could keep the peace.

 

Jesus wasn’t carrying any money,

and neither would any faithful Jew

because imprinted on each coin

was the face of the Roman deity, Caesar.

Thou shalt not have any graven image

was taken to heart.

 

A Herodian gave up his denarius.

It must have been searing hot

in Jesus’ fingers as he held it aloft.

“Whose head is this, and whose title?

The graven image was revealed for all to see,

pronouncing Caesar as their god.

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

(Matthew 22:22)

The argument won,

the defeated slithered away

amazed at the wisdom of the backwoods teacher.

 

Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State”

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separation_of_church_and_state)

Many a good preacher

would cite Jefferson with one hand

and our Gospel in the other

to make the claim

that Jesus advocated this separation.

They would be wrong.

 

When we search Jesus more completely

and listen for our text to speak across his lifespan,

across the Gospels,

across the ages,

we can uncover deeper meaning

and apply that to our lives,

and our culture,

today.

 

First, we have a Savior, and his name is Jesus.

Our savior is not the state, the government, or any politician

whose stump are promises

we all know

will not be kept.

 

I am proud to be an American,

yet, as a disciple of Jesus,

I know America cannot save me.

Our nation can provide many things,

life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But, at the end of the day, our nation …

… no nation ....

is able to save me.

Nationalism doesn’t forgive.

Nationalism doesn’t save.

At its best, the nation protects.

At its worst,

well, we all know history well enough to know

that nations are capable of terrible atrocities.

 

Jesus, as well as everyone around him

had felt the iron boot of Rome at his neck,

and by proxy,

his betrayal by Jewish leaders.

 

On a large scale,

Rome came and went.

The Ottomans came and went.

History is littered with the remains of nations

who once were, but now

are not.

 

Jesus is pointing to a deeper

second truth.

None of this is ours; everything is God’s.

God created all there is and all there ever will be.

We are stewards of God’s creation in our own time.

But when our time on this earth ends,

like it or not,

stewardship of God’s creation

is passed to the next generation.

 

Give the coin to Rome

where iron rusts

and treasures are looted.

Instead, return to God

everything that is God’s. 

 

For today’s Christian

this should give us confidence

in this turbulent world.

Faced with unemployment or underemployment,

with the rise and fall of the economy,

with wars and the rumors of war,

with politics and politicians who fail us,

the faithful know where to place our trust:
Our trust is in God.

Our trust is in God alone.

 

Yes, we must work to improve the world,

live lawful and civil lives,

but we don’t do it for the sake of being good or moral people.

We work to improve this world

because it is God’s kingdom that we’re spreading.

We work to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ

in an effort to transform the world

from darkness into light.

 

Dear people of God,

be good citizens.

Better yet,

be good Christians

and good citizenship will always follow.

Christ alone will save us,

in this we grow our confidence

throughout life’s journey towards Christ,

as faithful stewards of God’s creation.

 

Give to God everything that is God’s:

life, talent, treasure, worship, prayer, devotion, and good works.

In return, we know from experience

and from a depth of faith,

that God provides.

God always provides.

That’s what it means to

be in love with God,

and to reach out in love to our neighbors.

Amen.