Sunday, October 19, 2014

What is God's?

A Sermon preached on October 19th (Pentecost XIX) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

One of the many gifts of this church is the variety of different national, cultural, and religious backgrounds we all come from. I think they are a cause for joy and for celebration, although they will occasionally lead to misunderstandings. 

One potential area for misunderstanding could be the political role of the church. In our various home countries the relationship between church and state is very different. If we just look at our “big three”, the countries most of us come from, the UK, Germany and the US, we have on the one hand in England a fully established Church in which parliament, including some bishops, has the last say on changes in doctrine and structure and even worship. Allowing women to become bishops will for example require an Act of Parliament. In Germany the major churches, while not established, receive church tax, and play a significant role in education, health care and the provision of social services.  On the other hand in the USA we have a strict constitutional separation of church and state. Interestingly though as I discovered while living and studying there, it seems that more politicians feel called to establish their  religious credentials in the US than in the other countries – as one advisor of former UK PM Tony Blair famously said: We don’t do religion. 

These two different approaches, on the one hand some sort of unity of Church and State, and on the other hand their complete separation, seem to be echoed in today’s readings. In the OT reading from Isaiah we heard that God had anointed and appointed King Cyrus of Persia and that God promises to go before him, opening gates, leveling mountains, and subduing other nations. Yet in the Gospel reading, Jesus answers the Pharisees’ trick question with the famous phrase: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” – and that sounds like a very clear separation of the two! The relationship between church and state is currently also a topic of discussion for the German Protestant Churches. In the so-called Luther decade, the run up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, each year has a theme and this year’s theme or motto is “Reformation and Politics.” You might even have heard of or attended one of series of sermons that well-known politicians have been giving at different churches in Wiesbaden – all of them based on the story of the feeding of the 5,000.

But to understand what the Biblical passages are saying about Church and State, we need to take a closer look at their context. The section of Isaiah this morning’s readings came from was written by someone scholars call second Isaiah. We assume that a book that covers a period of 250 years, from the events leading up to the fall of both Jewish kingdoms, followed by the exile of Judah to Babylon, through the time of exile and finishing with the period immediately following the return to Jerusalem, was written not by one person but by 2 or 3 prophets or schools. Second Isaiah was writing towards the end of the period of exile. 

Our translation hides how shocking the statement made about Cyrus really is. “His anointed Cyrus” is literally God’s Messiah Cyrus or in Greek “Cyrus Christ.” In the OT the term Messiah is only used with reference to kings, and occasionally to prophets and priests, but not as we now use it to the Son of God. But all the same, this is still first and only time a foreigner is given this title. In the view of the prophet, King Cyrus was doing God’s work and whether Cyrus wanted it or not God was using Cyrus as his agent and instrument, to defeat Babylon and to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. It didn’t matter that Cyrus probably never knew what honor he was being given and as the poem says, he doesn’t even know God. But he is still called by God and named by God and he is – for a brief period of time – Israel’s savior. As verse 6 tells us, the purpose of Cyrus’ calling is “so that they,” the whole world, “may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.” The message is that God is above human institutions but also willing to use them for God’s purposes. God’s love for God’s people and God’s power are victorious, in this case through a State, through the Persians under King Cyrus. 

If we turn now to Jesus’ saying about the emperor this too came in a very specific context. The Pharisees were out to trap him and they thought they had the perfect “Catch 22” question. If Jesus acknowledged the pagan, foreign sovereignty of Rome over Israel by saying it was lawful to pay taxes he risked losing all or many of his followers. And if he denied Rome’s right to collect taxes he risked his life – tax rebels were crucified in those days, so things have got a little better, you only risk a prison sentence now!  

How does Jesus get out of this? Well, first he establishes that the Pharisees actually had the coins they hated so much with them. They hated the coins because of the human image on them – a picture of Caesar – and because of the blasphemous inscription describing Caesar as a son of a god and as high priest. By the way this is the reason for the money changers in the Temple, the ones Jesus threw out. Special “kosher” coins were needed in the Temple precinct both as monetary offerings and to purchase sacrifices. Just to be on the safe side, and as we are in the middle of our annual stewardship campaign, we don’t mind what is on the coins and notes you give to the church!

Anyway, Jesus then elegantly sidesteps the issue with his statement that if Caesar is on the coin, then it must belong to him. Jesus knows that he will eventually suffer the fate and punishment of a tax rebel, but that will be for something much greater and much more important than rebelling against some human authority. When Jesus is killed by the state and rises again it is a demonstration that God is above human institutions. God’s love for all people and God’s power are shown to be victorious over the worldly powers and dominions. 

Let’s come back to the idea of image again. The coin is Caesar’s because his image is on it. But, as the author of the reflection sheet you will find in your bulletin also reminds us, Jesus is not really agreeing to a separation of two different areas – one public where human power rules, and one private, where we are allowed to serve God, preferably quietly and without disturbing the neighbors. No, as God has given us everything in creation and as “the image of God, made flesh in Jesus Christ, is also stamped on the face of every human being with whom we share God’s creation”[1] everything also belongs to God and everything should also serve God’s will and purpose. That is the simple truth that both readings make clear, each in their own way.

How the church is organized and financed is not important, and I am glad that with the exception of the Vatican, churches do not run states. But that does not make religion a private matter. Only a few verses later in the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (22:37-40) Jesus summarizes the Law as loving God and loving your neighbor. This is an imperative not only for our personal but also for our political engagement. The church and its members, we, are called to speak out, to act and to take public positions on issues that impact our love of God, and of God’s creation, and of our neighbors who are each and every one made in the image of the one, true, living and loving God. As Christians our final allegiance is to God and to God’s kingdom, which is not a State but a way of life and of living and of loving.

[1] Stewardship Narrative for Proper 24, The Episcopal Network for Stewardship

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