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October 22, 2017

Lectionary 29a

Isaiah 45:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22

Pr. Craig Mueller


WHO CARRIES A COIN ANYMORE?

Who has a coin in their pocket or purse? Raise your hand. I used to love my black coin purse. I stored change there so the coins wouldn’t jingle against the keys in my pocket. Instead of paying with dollar bills, it felt good, at times, to pay some strange amount like $1.76 with exact change.

But I never carry coins anymore. More and more people now say they don’t carry cash either. And you can see it in our offering plate. Most folks in our congregation give online.

Back to coins. Can you name whose head—whose face— is on each of them? Do they all have the words “In God we trust?” Yes!

The religious authorities are in Jesus’ face in today’s gospel. They are plotting how to trap him. After all, Jesus is challenging authority, both political and religious. It’s all leading to Jesus’ arrest and eventual death.

The trick question: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Taxes again. They are always unpopular or at least controversial. How do we feel about the government? How do we work for the common good? How do we support those most vulnerable? What about the new tax plan? What would Jesus say? Would he answer our trick question? Or give an enigmatic answer like he does in the gospel?

Jesus asks to see a coin. Now remember the Jews were under foreign occupation. Coins had the image of the emperor—Caesar—on it. Caesar was considered a god. Graven images were idolatrous. Even holding a coin with the image on it, blasphemous. How ironic that the Pharisees are the ones who have coin in their pocket, so to speak.

Whose head is on it, Jesus asks? No one can get that question wrong! The head—the image— of Caesar, they say. Jesus advice: give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

That is clear, or not. What does Jesus mean? And what does it mean for us? For some, it affirms the clear divisions between church and state, faith and politics. For others, it implies that we should honor government as a force for good in the world.

And what about the controversial topics? “In God we trust” on coins? American flags in churches? Whether taking a knee disrespects our country? If Jesus isn’t going to answer the question, couldn’t this sermon settle it once and for all? I wish.

At one point Luther suggested that God works through spiritual means in the church and through temporal means to maintain peace and civility in society.

Yet there are two sides of a coin. Things are more complicated than that. Many Americans find it impossible to imagine the president not being Christian, or at least religious. Yet in our first reading, God uses Cyrus—a Persian, pagan ruler—to bring about divine purposes. Cyrus, who doesn’t even seem to know the Lord, is declared God’s anointed. What gives?

But wait a minute, both spiritual and secular leaders can serve the common good. Yet, there can also be corruption in religion and in government. Luther got that right, too. Everyone—without exception—is motivated by both godly and selfish, sinful purposes.

And that’s what makes a venture into the realm of faith and politics complicated. There is no question that we are called to bring our faith into the public square as we raise our voices on behalf of those on the margins. Dividing the world into things that belong to God and those that belong to the emperor—or the government—may not be helpful, though. All the world belongs to God. In baptism we are called to take the words we say in church into our workplace and communities, homes and schools, into voting booths and out onto the streets.

Yet what do you do when your conscience is at odds with the government in which you live? The Augsburg Confession, a primary Lutheran theological document from the sixteenth century, says that we should be subject to political authority, but if a law or precept contradicts our faith, we should obey God rather than any human being.

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. There’s an image of Caesar on the coin. Give to God the things that are God’s. Think of it. We are coined in God’s image. Stamped with God’s very nature. Created with divine spark. Yes, no big deal, you say. Until we realize that other human beings also bear the divine image. Including those we disparage and deplore. Those we slam on Facebook.

When we have such certainty that we are right and no longer listen to people who disagree with us, we come off as smug and arrogant. Not exactly the image of God. Thank goodness it is God who first forgives, reconciles and accepts us, and give us the courage to get up again after we fall.

Give to God the things that are God’s? You probably think this reading is in October because that is when churches begin their stewardship campaigns. Wrong. It simply follows our reading through the gospel of Matthew. Yet is does invite us to take a look at the ways we use our time, our money, and all that we hold dear. I give to WBEZ but I change the station when the pledge drive come on. But before you change the station, our generosity appeal will not be a hard sell. Rather you will hear and read faith stories as members of this community how being part of Holy Trinity is important to their spiritual lives. I hope that you will join me in discovering the freedom that comes from living generously.

You may not have a coin on you, but you are God’s treasure. Holy Trinity has a radical welcome because every human person is worthy of dignity and honor. In other words, because all people are coined in the divine image, we give to God. We join the holy work of caring for our vulnerable earth. And for our siblings—friend and foe. It’s hard work. So in all the trick questions of life, and because of mercy alone, “in God we trust.”