Sermon – October 22, 2017 – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Render unto Caesar

I will be careful not to go too far down this road, but all the efforts of Jesus opponents to trap him ended up blowing up in their faces. Through Scripture, the power of his own presence, to his dogged faithfulness to his mission Jesus eluded all of these attempts to snare him. Reminds me a bit of Wiley E coyote and the roadrunner. The coyote tried everything: jet suits, catapults, every imaginable kind of explosive, locomotives and helicopters. The roadrunner would not be tricked or flattered or enticed into danger.

Here again in our lesson today Jesus opponents set a trap, but Jesus would be neither fooled nor flattered and sidestepped their trap and once again blew their minds.

The traps the conspirators lay keep blowing up because they keep repeating a fundamental mistake.  You see, they felt that Jesus was competing for the same turf, and would recognize the superiority of their power.

We need to understand something about these characters.  The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians.  These were not birds of a feather.  The Pharisees were pious Jews who were anti-Roman, barely tolerant of the occupation, thought it was against the Torah.  The Herodians were of the lineage of the Jewish family who were delegated to be the proxy government for the emperor.  They were the puppet government.  And they conspired despite their differences because of the one thing that they had in common.  That  was their awe, their intimidation by the secular power of the emperor.  The Pharisees recognized the power of the Emperor and they saw it as an opportunity to put down someone who threatened their orthodoxy.  The Herodians were trying to cover their backs, to protect the Emperor’s interests.  What they had in common was the recognition of the power of the Emperor.  That was the trap they set for Jesus.  If they could catch him trying to undermine that power, then they had him.  They assumed he was competing for the same turf and when they sprung their trap and he sidestepped it, they were amazed.  Jesus is talking about an entirely different thing here.  A different power.  A different law.  He is making a distinction between the power of God and the power of Caesar, a distinction the conspirators had chosen to blur.

Jesus, in his response, does imply that there are certain practicalities to which one may render a certain fidelity.   But then he directs us to the the question, “what is God’s”.  And that is what this is all about.

We don’t have to look far in Matthew to discover exactly what he is talking about.  They tried to get him again.  “Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?”  He answered, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.   This is the greatest commandment.  The second is to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Render unto God, give to God what is God’s.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Jesus is giving us a great instruction.   To remember that, to live that, frees us from falling into the trap that Jesus’ detractors tried to set for him.

This lesson speaks to the exact point in our lives where our greatest tensions are located.  In the locus of competing claims, our conflicting loyalties.  Those times when we feel pulled apart.

These conflicts can arise in our most fundamental places, where our loyalties are strongest.   In our families, in our circle of friends, where the pressure of the group, the expectation of the culture or secular power will pull us one way and the understanding of our faithk and the ethic of God pulls us another.  Our greatest conflict lies where our greatest loyalties merge.

The arrogance of power, of the power of Caesar, lies in the expectation that the fear of the consequences of bucking that power will draw us into lock step behind it.    That’s what the conspirators against Jesus were banking on.  Against such things, Jesus calls us to remember what is God’s.    Sometimes rendering unto God can be costly.  It can create tension in our families, it may jeopardize our position at work, it can alienate us from our peers.  Sometimes rendering unto God can be costly.  It took Christ to the cross.  But because of the cross, the ultimate threat has been rendered ineffective.

To love God, to love our neighbor, if we live that, to do that, to invoke that in our moments of conflict frees us from the trap.  But it doesn’t just take us out of a dilemma. This is the formula for faith active in love.  This empowers us for a whole lifestyle, for a vocation of rendering unto God.   It gives us power, little people, common people , the power to change, the power to restore, to do great and creative things.      If we compete for the same turf, if we scramble for the same power, we can only accomplish the goals of those who wield that power.  To render unto God, to love God and neighbor creates a people who can accomplish far more significant things.

That is the gift that Christ points to here.   In those times when we’re torn apart by conflict the Spirit of God, given through Christ, empowers us to choose, to move.

It’s no wonder the conspirators were amazed.  Theirs was the power of might.  Jesus spoke of the power of love.  The power of might can take us only before the throne of  Caesar.  The power of love, takes us right to God.

Compelling power. . .  in Roman times . .  it was the power of might, fear, occupation, and it was dangerous to resist  . . . in our times, might it not be a more benevolent, seductive power .. .

Take a look at a dollar bill.    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.  One of the original founders of our republic.  And our first President.  Honored by rendering his image on our currency.

Now, what this image represents is a host of things,    In one way, it represents what you have earned, what we are worth in some sense, what you have, what you need.  We use it to meet our obligations, and by which others sometimes measure our worth or value.       If we see it as the image of one of our founding fathers it represents for us a history of freedom, a free 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 bill 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.  It is also one of the things by which we are most closely defined and which demands our loyalty.

Loyalty, fidelity to such things is appropriate, proper. 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 nothing about who we are as children of God.  But being a good citizen does not make us good Christians. Sometimes the gospel calls us to challenge the emporer . . . when laws are unjust, when people are marginalized or abused, when violence is employed inappropriately.. Then, for the citizen of God’s kingdom, loyalty calls us to act, to resist.

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.

This is a question of who owns us.   In Roman times a picture of the emperor was on the coin.  Now the emperor then was seen as a deity, god-like.  And so 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.

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”.   We have stamped the currency of the realm with the sanction of God, which gives it even more power . . .It has become almost trite to say that money has become a god in this country . . But this is a question about who owns us and who we serve.  It’s no surprise, is it that we are often drawn into the trap where we cannot distinguish the flag from the cross.

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.   This story is about making a distinction between the power of one against the other.  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.

We are called to see through a different lens.  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.     We are the currency of the kingdom.

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 grace.   The benefits and the obligations that we incur in the currency of our time are satisfactory in the temporal.   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.

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 one, the loving and gracious and faithful God.  No amount of greenbacks can buy that, and no lack of these can ever take that away.

Amen