Sermon – October 20, 2002

October 20, 2002

Pentecost 22

Render Unto Caesar

I have with me this morning your basic greenback. It is a dollar bill.
It is something, which whether we have a lot of it a little of it, we
are certainly familiar. On the face of the bill is the face of George
Washington. Often referred to as the Father of this country. Hero of
the revolutionary war. And our first President. Honored by rendering
his image on our currency.

Now, what this image represents is a host of things, depending upon
your point of view, and the time of year, actually. In one way, it
represents what we have earned, what we are worth in some sense, what we
have, what we need. We use it to meet our obligations, and by which
others sometimes measure our worth or value. If look at it from the
point of view of taxpayer, it is something with which you will part in
order to sustain our democracy and pay the bills of the republic. It
represents for us a history of freedom, a resilient economic system, a
nobility of humanity voiced in the Declaration of Independence that claimed
all people are created equal and are endowed with specific and
inalienable rights. This little old bill tells us a lot, and requires of us
many obligations; to obey the laws of this country, to pay our taxes,
maybe a patriotic obligation to serve our country in the military, as a
volunteer or just obedient and faithful citizenship. This dollar b!
ill represents the state, the republic, the United States of America.
It is the most desirable form of currency in the world because of its
stability. This dollar bill represents, virtually, the culture that we
live in.

When the Pharisees and the Herodians tried to trap Jesus into an act of
disloyalty, it was with such a prop as this, a trap, it turns out, they
had fallen into themselves. Under normal circumstances, the Herodians
and the Pharisees had as little to do with each other as John Ashcroft
and Hillary Clinton do in our day. So if you can imagine John Ashcroft
and Hillary Clinton combining forces to ask Jesus about something
controversial, you begin to get the picture. The only thing they had in
common was their awe of and intimidation by the emperor. After they
buttered him up, they posed the trick question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes
to the Emperor?” Jesus saw through their little ploy, and said, someone
give me a coin . . . he did not have one of his own. And he said,
“whose face is on this coin”. Actually the Greek word is icon. Whose icon
is on the coin. They answered, “The emperor’s”. Then, he said, “Give
to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s”.

Jesus wouldn’t be drawn into or set against the empire at that point.
Had he done so, he would have been arrested then and there as a
revolutionary, solved the problem of his detractors and that would have been
the end of that story, at least it would have been a different story.

But Jesus said, give to the emperor that which is his, but give to God
what is God’s. It is not an issue of participating in the structure of
the state so much as it is remembering who it is that owns us, how it
is that our worth is truly defined.

But in his response, Jesus does imply that there are certain
practicalities to which one may render a certain fidelity. He leaves out there
for us to consider, though, what is God’s . . . and that is what this is
all about.

It is not hard, in fact it is right and proper to give allegiance to a
country which is most just, mostly benevolent. But being a good
citizen does not make us good Christians. Paying our taxes and obeying the
law, being frugal, refraining from injuring people, sacrificing our
time, or even our lives, for our country, simply makes us good citizens.
That says we bear the stamp of the emperor. But it says little about
who we are as children of God.

Now, we are be called by Christ to be reconcilers, to be healers, to be
peace makers, and to seek justice, that’s true, and that’s also good
work for the state. But just being a good citizen does not make us good
Christians, nor does it satisfy anything to which the gospel calls us.
Because unless what we are giving to God what is God’s, then we are
simply being good citizens of the state. It is not enough to be a good
citizen. It only really matters if we do it in Christ’s name. To
serve as reconciler and healer and seeker of justice is to seek to live in
thankfulness to God’s grace, because he has said we are his children
and of such value that he would suffer and die for our sake. There is
the great paradox. That state would not die for us. Yet Christ did so.

What does it mean to give our ultimate loyalty to God. Well, if we
could draw a picture of God as easily as we can stamp faces of past
presidents on our currency, it would be obvious. In Roman times that was
clear. There was a picture of the emperor was on the coin. The
emperor was considered divine, therefore, if you followed the emperor, then
somehow you were being obedient to the divine. By putting his
picture on the coin implied that the currency of the realm was invested with
the divine, which made it even more compelling.

Let’s take another look at that dollar bill. On the back we see both
sides of the great seal of the United States. The front side, on the
right, is self-explanatory. It has the eagle, the olive branch for
peace, the thirteen arrows representing the 13 colonies. But the other
side, the back side of the seal shown on the left bears a little
explaining. First we see a pyramid, a symbol of solid construction and one of
the great wonders of the world. On top of the pyramid we see an eye.
That is the great eye of providence they called it. Above that eye we
see the Latin words ‘annuit coeptis’. That means ‘he has smiled on our
undertakings’. Then on the bottom of that pyramid we see the words
‘novus ordo seclorum’, which means ‘new order of the ages’. And, of
course, across the top we see the words “In God We Trust”. To invest the
currency of the state with the sanction of God is to give it even more
power and it is a distraction and it is a red herring. It has becom!
e almost trite to say that money, and that which it represents, has
become a god in this country.

It’s as though Jesus saw this coming. The coin of the emperor and now
the currency of our state bear the implication that it is God’s
currency. And somehow, then, it is easy to turn our nationalism, our
patriotism, into our faith and that’s wrong, and that’s a trap. I’m not
saying that money, or patriotism, or good citizenship or faithfulness to
our history is wrong in any way. I’m just saying, like the Beatles sang
in 1967, it can’t buy ya love.

In the first Creation story in the book of Genesis God says, “Let us
make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” The image that
we bear is the very image of God; we were created in the image of God.
Now, that doesn’t mean God looks like you and me, but the character of
God is instilled in human, and that character is that which seeks the
holy, which receives redemption, which loves regardless of the
circumstances. When we are called to give to God what is God’s, then we who
are created in the image of God are called to give our first loyalty then
to the one whose image we bear. We are the currency of the kingdom,
as is your neighbor across the pew and your neighbor across the sea.

To be the currency of the kingdom, to bear the image of God and to give
to God what is God’s is to live under God’s grace and ethic. But
to be claimed as one of God’s children, is to be the recipient of an
incalculable love, and unmeasured grace, a never-ending faithfulness which
no other currency, no other source can provide. And it calls us to
good kingdom citizenship, which may challenge from time to time our
response to the state, which may distinguish us from temporal citizenship . .
. issues like they are struggling with in Springfield this week–the
death penalty–with issues like war and peace. We view those issues as
the currency of God’s kingdom, ones called to spend ourselves in love
for the sake of him how loves us.

Finally, this is a story about who owns us. And we who have been
baptized and have been marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy
Spirit forever belong but to first and ever to, the loving and gracious
and faithful God whose image we bear. No amount of greenbacks can by
that, and no lack of these can ever take that away.

Thanks be to God. Amen

Copyright (c) 2002 by Pastor Robert J. Rasmus