Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
It has been a minute since I’ve been in this pulpit, after a busy month of traveling all over the place. And y’all have been busy while I’ve been gone! The quarter is seriously under way, the LEVN year presses on, and life outside of your programs carries on, too. It’s a big world out there.
If you’ve been here the last few Wednesdays or maybe the last few Sundays, you’ve been trekking through the lectionary as Jesus tells confusing parable after confusing parable. There were mustard seeds, and wedding banquets, and vineyards, and talents. Just as we have been immersed in Jesus’ stories about what the kingdom of heaven is like, his original hearers were putting the pieces together, forming a picture of a new and different world.
Some folks were not as sold on Jesus’ new way of being in relationship with God and with one another—some religious authorities and, of course, the Roman Empire. They, too, were connecting the dots between Jesus’ stories and their reality.
Remember, Jesus and company lived under occupation by the Roman Empire. Everyone was expected to revere and respect the emperor—Caesar Augustus—above anyone or anything else. The coin that Jesus is talking about depicts the Roman emperor as a deity, or as a conduit for the deity. You see, the emperor maintained a relative peace by allowing those under his occupation to worship their God, as long as they also pledged allegiance to him. You can bet that Jesus had a problem with this, because that utmost devotion is not for earthly kings, but for God our Creator, alone.
The tension between Jesus’ movement and those with political power was only growing. And while this week’s story is not a parable, it’s not exactly straightforward. Some of the folks who were opposed to Jesus’ movement tried to trap him, tried to get him to either openly pledge allegiance to the emperor or openly disparage the emperor.
They ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jesus knows what they’re after, and replies with another question, like many teachers do. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” He says. “Show me the coin.” When they show him the money that is used to pay taxes, emblazoned with Caesar Augustus’ name and title, he tells them “give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and give to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22)
Sometimes, when we tell this story, we do something a little anachronistic and turn it into a modern question: is it Christian to pay taxes? And that’s sort of an interesting question, because our tax dollars do a lot to build up our communities—pay for our schools, roads, fire departments—and that’s an important Christian value. We provide services and resources to members of our community who would otherwise go without.
But, we don’t all agree about how much of our tax dollars should be allocated to which things, or about which things should be covered by our tax dollars at all. A large portion of our tax dollars goes toward building weapons of war—not so much a Christian value. But we know, as citizens and residents of the United States, that we are accountable to one another and responsible for paying taxes.
So is it Christian to pay taxes? Yes...and no. But is that what Jesus is talking about?
Not entirely. Jesus is pointing us toward a larger question: are we servants of God or are we servants of the empire? And not just in the literal political sense—though absolutely in the literal political sense—but in an even more basic sense.
This is the most fundamental building block of our faith. In the commandments given to Moses, we start at the very beginning: “I am the Lord your God...you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3).
Everything that we have comes to us from God. Yes, we live in a society with a government and with corporations and other trimmings of capitalism, but as Christians we are governed by God first, and by the empire second.
What, that is not our capital-G God, have we devoted ourselves to instead? What do we cling to that is not the triune God?
More than a few things. Money. Power. Status. Security. Institutions—like our governments, our universities, our Churches. National sovereignty. We routinely place our trust and our devotion in things of this earth that cannot possibly sustain us in the way that God can. No human person—charismatic leader, revolutionary, emperor, dictator, or otherwise—provides us that which God provides. Our political leaders are not our saviors.
The commandments given to Moses, the ones that start with “I am the LORD your God,” go on to say, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).
When we talk about these “idols” or false gods, it’s important to note that we don’t mean other people’s gods, like the deities of other religions. The idols we’re not supposed to be making are things that the empire would deem holy—namely, itself. “Things we can get confused about that we think are divine, things we believe are of ultimate concern, things we might give weight to above all else that are not really holy.”
“Our institutions are not God; the Church is not God; the American flag is not God; our reputations and our egos are not God; comfort, convenience, and safety are not God.”
Have you noticed that I always say the same little prayer at the beginning of my sermons? Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always. It’s a habit I’ve gotten into, and it’s so simple that you may have stopped really hearing it. I certainly rattle it off unconvincingly, sometimes. But I say it every time because it is the truest truth I know. Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
There are important things in the world around us that we commit ourselves to, yes, but those things are not God. Those things are not eternal. Those things will end. The empire will fall. God will be with you, always.
Remember, beloved children of God, that you—and all of us—were created in the image of God. You, as you are this very minute, are holy. You are not merely a number in a database—the university’s or the Internal Revenue Service’s. You reflect not the shiny gold coin of the empire, but the face of God.
Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and give to God what is God’s. Give to the empire only that which bears its image, and give to God that which bears God’s image—you.  You have been given the gift of this life by the God who loves you. Devote yourself right back to the God who is devoted to you. Remember who you are whose you are. Amen.
 Margaret Ernst, “Say Unto Caesar: Whiteness is Not God” on The Word is Resistance from Showing Up for Racial Justice, showingupforracialjustice.org/podcast, 20 October 2017.