There are times when I don’t know what, or even how, to pray. I am therefore grateful for the saints of the past and present who make their prayers available as prayers we can pray. The following is one such prayer from Stanley Hauerwas…
Lord Jesus Christ, we live in a world without lords. We have presidents, but they rule with our consent – or at least this is the story we tell ourselves. We believe that just as we claim to govern, so we govern our own lives. We are not set up to use “Lord” language. So, do you mind if we call you “Mr. President,” Jesus? That, we confess, sounds strange. You did not and do not act like you are running for office. Driving money changers out of the temple seems a bit beyond the pale. What is worse, at the wedding at Cana you were a bit short with your mother, and it is even more troubling that you never married and spent most of your time with a bunch of guys. We worry a bit if you ever came to terms with your sexuality. When all is said and done, we do not think you are going to be elected for president.
So, what are we going to do with you, Lord Jesus Christ? We confess that we do not have the slightest idea. All we can do is pray that you will destroy our presumption that we are our own lords. We fear such destruction, sensing that it may have something to do with death, and as Yoder tells us, in the life and death of Jesus we find a reality and the possibility of all that your teachings say. It is possible to live that way if you are willing to die that way. Is that really part of what it means to call you Lord? I guess this means we have to get serious when we haven’t the slightest idea of what it might mean to get serious.
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 it 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.
The Pharisees weren’t on board with Jesus. His fame had already spread through Galilee, rumor of a Transfiguration was weaving its way through the hoi polloi, and he entered Jerusalem, rather dramatically, on the back of a donkey.
Which is to say nothing of his table turning, religion rebuking, or demon demolishing.
And the Pharisees find themselves in a situation where they could no longer stand for the man who was upending all the powers and principalities which benefitted them the most. So they come up with some schemes to trap Jesus in his words and, hopefully, turn his would-be crowds of disciples against them.
They begin with flattery, of all things: “Hey Jesus! We know that you’re kind and charming and sincere and faithful and loving and caring and, and, and…” It’s as true as a description as anyone could ever hope for. And, weirdly enough, the Pharisees speak a truth about the Lord without know exactly what they’re saying.
They build him up and butter him up in order to bring him down.
“And because, Teacher, you are all these wonderful things, we have a question: It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This is a remarkably clever question for the Pharisees to ask because there’s no good answer – Jesus is put into an impossible situation.
If Jesus says that taxes shouldn’t be paid, it would make him a rebel against the empire and the target already on his back would only grow larger.
If Jesus says that taxes should be paid, he will appear to be a collaborator with Rome and would quickly lose his credibility as a prophet.
But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. At least, not directly. Instead Jesus does what he has done so many times before – he answers the question with a question of his own.
“Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites? Give me one of the coins for the tax…”
Someone reaches into a pocket and presents the denarius which results in one of the best known sentences from the Gospels: Jesus says to them, “Whose head is this on the coin?” And they say, “The emperor’s.” So Jesus replies, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they hear this, they are amazed and they leave.
Unfortunately, through much of Christian history, we Christians have not been amazed by Jesus’ answer and we have misappropriated it in all sorts of ways. For, more often than not, we have tricked ourselves into believing we know exactly what Jesus meant with his rather inexplicable response.
For example: Many of us today, that is Christians, assume that we can, and have, two loyalties: to God and to Country. We are told, of course, to never let our loyalty to the state infringe upon our loyalty to God, but its never clear when or if such a conflict will ever happen. So we keep on doing the things we do and saying the things we say such that, today, many of us Christians are usually Pharisees but don’t recognize ourselves as such.
Which is just another way of saying that a whole lot of us American Christians are more American than we are Christian.
But, back to the passage at hand…
Notice: Jesus, himself, doesn’t carry the coin used for the tax and he has to ask someone else to provide it for his little teachable moment.
He does so, in all likelihood, precisely because the coin carried the image of Caesar, and to carry it and use it was in violation of the 2nd of the 10 commandments: “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. You shall not bow down and worship them” (Exodus 20.4-5).
Jesus’ response, then, seems to be done to call into question the carriers of the coins for having them in the first place. And, to make matters even more contentious, the Pharisees in question were known for their stark and zealous observance of the Law!
But we, more often than not, treat this little moment as a way to ease our consciences when it comes to the relationship between church and state. Countless pastors have stood in places like this and used Jesus’ words to say some version of, “You have to pay your taxes to the government and you have to tithe to the church because Jesus says so.”
And yet, Jesus’ use of symbolic irony does not convey a recommendation to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that we should all learn to live with divided loyalties. Instead, he is saying to the religious elites that the idolatrous coins should be sent back to Caesar, where they belong.
Just as Jesus knows and sees no distinction between politics and religion, between church and state, neither does he know any distinction between government, economics, and the worship of God.
The people who seek to trap Jesus with this question about whether or not to pay taxes are revealed by Jesus to be the emperor’s faithful servants by the money they possess. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says earlier in the gospel, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
And here Jesus reminds the Pharisees and the crowds that you cannot serve God and the emperor.
Sure, we think, that’s fine for Jesus to say to the people way back then, but we don’t have an emperor today so this doesn’t really apply to us anymore. We, after all, have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
And yet, it doesn’t take long to look through the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or evening news to be bombarded with the truth: The people, whoever they may be, often turn out to be hungrier for power and loyalty than emperors. Emperors can just get rid of the people who disagree with the them. People in democracies have to convince others to be on their side, by any means necessary.
Okay, sure, we think, even if the people who rule the land are indeed sinners and lust for power, this still doesn’t really apply to us because we have a separation of church and state. In fact, Jesus is the one who came up with it in the first place right here in this passage!
And yet, there really isn’t a separation here, that is to say, in the United States. Take a look at a dollar bill (In God We Trust), or go through the Pledge of Allegiance (One Nation, Under God), or consider that, since 1973, the majority of Presidential Speeches have ended with a religious phrase (God Bless America).
Here in this country the so-called separation of church and state often leads to a legitimization of what the state is doing while simultaneously sequestering the church in the mythical realm of the private.
It’s why so many pastors have stood up in pulpits telling their congregations how to vote (even though we’re not really allowed to) and have encouraged a political way of being that has far more to do with a Donkey or an Elephant than it does with the Lamb of God.
I don’t know if any of you have noticed this but, to me, it feels like a whole lot of us are currently living on the edge. Between the pandemic and economic insecurity and cultural unrest and a seemingly never-ending presidential election season, there’s just a whole lot of tension. And then, to ramp up the anxiety, we stick the signs in our yards or on our bumper stickers, we scroll through different social media platforms to like the political posts we agree with and to respond, rather negatively, to those that run counter to our political way of thinking.
We’ve drawn our lines in the sand about where we stand.
And yet, for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, we seem to care a whole lot more about the Kingdom of America than the Kingdom of God.
And that’s not to say we can’t care about what’s happening in country, or that we shouldn’t get involved in decisions and campaigns and votes.
Jesus commands us to love God and neighbor.
Its just that we do all of that so easily without considering that our truest citizenship doesn’t come from an old document signed by some men in 1776, but from God Almighty; that we live not under the banner of Red, White, and Blue, but under the cross upon which Jesus died for me and you.
And this isn’t unique to the US of A – for two thousand years, we Christians have tried our best to make sense of having a king who rules from that aforementioned cross. And so we have twisted his words and actions to make Jesus an acceptable king for the likes of us and others. We’ve even claimed that he is “on our side” all while accruing power in whatever ways we can.
Yet, whenever we try to make Jesus fit into our image of what the world should look like, or, more specifically, what this country should look like, we lose sight of his call to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Because, behind Jesus’ brief and immensely important sentence is the fact that, as Christians, we believe everything already belongs to God!
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees creates a problem for them, and for all of us. We might not want our lives to be further problematized at a time like this, but Jesus loves creating problems – and to recognize that we have a problem is to begin to follow the Lord.
We might believe that we’ve got this all sorted out in our lives and in our culture but, as Christians, we know we have a problem when we do not have a problem.
One of the deepest problems with idolatry, and any sin for that matter, is our presumption that we will know it when we see it. We believe that we have the faculties and the power to know, on our own, what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is faithful and unfaithful.
But most of the time what we really need is a Savior who can stand in front of us, dangle the truth right in front of our eyes, and leave us amazed. Amen.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.
Two weeks ago I preached a sermon on the separation of church and state. As a congregation we looked at a few passages that addressed the tension between the state and the church and I proclaimed that perhaps now is the time for Christians to reclaim those things that make us seem strange in the eyes of the state (like refusing to bow and worship our country and politicians as if they were gods, or gathering together on a day set apart to hold ourselves accountable to honesty, truthfulness, and peace, or sitting before a table of ordinary bread and wine that become the extraordinary gift of body and blood).
After worship I invited everyone to join us for a time of further conversation on the topic so that it would feel less like a lecture and more like a dialogue. I used guided questions to help get the conversation rolling, and one particular question got everyone fired up: “Should Christians vote in the upcoming presidential election?”
Immediately individuals asserted that not only should we vote, but that we have to vote. As a right given to us through the constitution we must line up at the polls and decide who should be running the country. I tired to get the gathered group to think harder on the subject by asking if it would be more faithful not to vote, and therefore actively embody the fact that Jesus is Lord and that it doesn’t matter to us who wins the election; they didn’t buy it.
The conversation moved on from there to an assortment of other subjects, and when it was clear that we had exhausted the topic, we prayed together and prepared to leave. However, one person approached me as we were cleaning up and said, “I think the most faithful thing we could do is actually pray for our politicians, and in particular for the one we don’t want to wind up in the White House.”
Paul wrote to Timothy and urged him to remember to pray for everyone, including the kings and people in powerful positions. This was, and is, a call to pray for people who do not reflect the same kind of values and beliefs that we might hold. This was, and is, a call to pray for both Republicans and Democrats, for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
To be faithful during this particularly tumultuous political season requires prayerful discernment, and it also requires us to actually pray for our politicians.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.
Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is something different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit over the next two months that you won’t agree with, and if that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we begin with The Separation of Church and State.
The Church and the State have a long and complicated relationship. Like a number of romantic couples from popular TV shows, think Ross and Rachel, Sam and Diane, Jim and Pam, Luke and Lorelai, and even Kermit and Miss Piggy, the “will they/won’t they” question of their relationships has happened over and over and over again.
It began during the days of Jesus. A wandering and poor Jew developed a following that threatened the power dynamics of the Jewish leadership and the Roman Empire. His actions might have appeared innocuous, feeding the multitudes by the sea, healing the blind, walking on water, but what he said terrified those in power: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” sounds the beginning of a call to revolution.
And for living and healing and preaching the way he did, Jesus was nailed to a cross. But three days later he rose from the dead. The Christian church began in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, the power of the Good News of God’s triumph over death spread throughout the region and small groups gathered together to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. The book of Acts, and Paul’s letters, help us to see how the story traveled and took hold of the communities where it was received. Lives were transformed; the gospel spread, and the kingdom began to become incarnate.
But whatever the church stood for, and whatever the state stood for, was very different.
Most of what we know about the early church comes from scripture. Which is to say, we know what the church thought about the church. However, we do have some idea of what the state thought about the church. Pliny the Younger was the governor of Pontus (Asia Minor) from 111 to 113 CE. During his rule he wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan about the Christians in his community in response to their unwillingness to worship the Emperor: “They [the Christians] asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault of error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, not to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food – but ordinary and innocent food.”
The first Christians were strange, with their singing songs to a man who died on a cross, and sharing bread and wine, and promising to be good and trustworthy. How bizarre. And for nearly 300 years they were persecuted, abused, and killed for following Jesus. The state, Rome, resented the Christians and their weirdness. They refused to bow down to worship the Emperor like everyone else. Instead they believed some guy named Jesus was Lord. And for that, they were punished.
But then things changed.
In the year 312 CE something happened that forever affected the relationship between the church and the state. I cannot overemphasize this point enough; it changed everything. The story goes that emperor Constantine was preparing his troops for a battle against a rebellion from within the empire, and on the night before the battle he had a vision of the Greek letters Chi (X) and a Rho (P) in the sky and the words, “in this sign you will conquer.” From this vision Constantine ordered all of his troops to be marked with the Chi-Rho, which looks like the symbol on the right hand page of your bulletin. Chi and Rho are the first two letters of Christos (the Greek version of “Messiah”). After doing so, Constantine’s army won a decisive victory and he entered Rome shortly thereafter as the undisputed Emperor. The battle gave him complete control of the Western Roman Empire and it paved the way for Christianity to become the dominant faith.
The very next year Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity an officially recognized and tolerated religion in the Roman Empire. Within a dozen years, he called for the Council of Nicaea, which was the first attempt to attain a consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom.
From a vision of two Greek letters in the sky, Christians went from being persecuted and murdered, to being part of the state religion.
And now we fast-forward to today, to the United States, to a country founded on the principles of religious freedom, tolerance, and the Separation of Church and State. After centuries of the church and state co-mingling to a frightening degree, the founders decided to move in a different direction. After being persecuted for their different religious convictions they envisioned a new way forward. Recognizing that this place was, and could continue to be, a melting pot of differing ideologies, the forefathers articulated a political system whereby the state could not control religion, nor could religion control the state, and that those two things would find their fullest potential while being completely separated.
Constantine’s vision of conquering under the sign of Christ was over, and the time of secularism began.
Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, said, “Be subject to the governing authorities.” This is to say, follow the laws of the land, pay your taxes, be good citizens. Paul’s words echo through the centuries and reverberate here in this sanctuary: Do as the country tells you to do. If you’re called to serve in the military, go to war. If its time for a presidential election, vote with your conscience. If the government says there’s a separation of church and state, keep it that way.
And Jesus, speaking to his disciples said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you… If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.” Jesus’ words echo through the centuries and reverberate here in this sanctuary: Following me means acting like me. If people are being persecuted, you are to love them with every fiber of your being. If the government starts belittling people for what they believe, you need to stand up for the oppressed. If you feel called to live like a disciple, prepare yourself to be hated by the world.
These two scriptures from Romans and John contain the tension of what it means to be a Christian in the United States. We constantly wrestle between being subject to the governing authorities and pushing back against the governing authorities. We wrestle between what it means to love the world and what it means to be hated by the world. We, as disciples, live in the world but we are not of the world. We may be citizens of the United States, but our truest citizenship is in heaven.
Years ago there was a civil case raised against an organization for displaying a nativity scene on public property. Because of the separation of Church and State, the concerned citizen believed the nativity scene had to be removed. However, when the matter was brought to trial, the court ruled in favor of the Christian display. The reasoning was that because the nativity scene was next to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus, it had every right to be there. Christians across the country rejoiced when the matter was settled and celebrated what they thought was a decisive victory for the church.
But was it? Should we celebrate a time when the nativity is one of many signs of the holiday? Or should we savor its sacredness? Do we want the nativity to be the same as holiday cartoons, or do we want it to symbolize the profound incarnation of God in the flesh being born in a manger?
A few years ago there was another civil case raised against a baker for refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. Because of the freedom of religion, the baker believed it was within his right to refuse service to people who went against his religious convictions. The matter went to trial and the judge ruled that the baker unlawfully and illegally discriminated the couple for their sexual orientation. Christians across the country protested when the matter was settled, and vehemently opposed the ruling.
Were they right? Should Christians support the freedom to pick and choose who they serve? Or should they follow the command to love the way Jesus loved? Do we want the church to be connected with the religious liberty that isolates particular people, or do we want to go against the conventions of fanatical Christianity and love people regardless of any particular identity?
The separation of the Church and the State is a good thing because for too long the state controlled the church. The Constantinian revolution was certainly responsible for spreading Christianity across the globe, but it also led to things like the Crusades and the Inquisition. Constantine co-opted the church for the role of government in such a way that it limited the qualities that made Christians strange, and instead made them normative. Gone were the days when people lived by the convictions of Christ, and instead they went to church because that’s what they were expected to do.
But the era of Constantine did not die when our nation was founded. Though we articulate beliefs like the Separation of Church and State, it still says, “in God we trust” on our national currency, children still pledge their allegiance to the flag and country under God every morning before school starts, and we still have many courts where we must place our hands on a bible and are asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
So perhaps now is the time, the best time, to recover those qualities that will make the world hate us. Not the qualities of religious bigotry and prejudice that for too long have dominated the state’s view of the church. But the qualities of Christ-like love that drive the state crazy. Like refusing to bow and worship our country and our politicians as if they were gods, and instead worshipping the risen Lord. Like gathering together on a day set apart to hold ourselves accountable to honesty, truthfulness, and peace. Like sitting before a table of ordinary food of bread and wine that becomes the extraordinary gift of body and blood.
We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We might have national citizenship, but our true Lord is Jesus Christ. We are like strangers living in a strange land. Amen.