Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon: "What Belongs to God" (Matthew 22: 15-22)

In the first century, who owned everything? Caesar. Maybe you owned some land on which you grew crops, but Caesar could, if he wanted to, take your crop and even your land.
Because: all things belonged to Caesar.
Usually, though, instead of taking everything, Caesar just took a portion of it, in the form of taxes.
The taxes were high. Oppressive, even. And the way things were taxed, and the way soldiers marched in the streets, and the way Caesar’s image was everywhere, you could never forget that all things belong to Caesar. You could never forget that YOU belonged to Caesar.
In contrast to that, scriptures tell us that all things belong to God. God made us, God made the earth, everything we have is from God, and everything we are, and everything we do, is to give God glory. Because God made us, everything we do and everything we are belongs to God.
These are obviously two very contradictory ideas. If all things belong to Caesar, then all things can’t belong to God. If all things belong to God, then all things can’t belong to Caesar.
So: There were some powerful religious leaders in Jesus’ time.  These church leaders were very mindful that it was Herod who built the temple, and that it was their friendship with Roman authorities that allowed them to live privileged lives.
They knew how to quote scripture to the people, to make themselves look like good holy men, but they also were very good at making deals with kings and rulers. Deals that preserved their privileged status, their wealth and their authority.
Because of this, they walked a very fine line between Caesar and God. The scriptures they quoted were all about personal piety. They didn’t quote scriptures that talked about social justice. All the writings of the prophets criticizing kings and rulers for neglecting the poor - they didn’t focus on those.
They only focused on the scriptures that dealt with personal, private matters. Rituals of washing and fasting, things like that.
They ignored the writings of the prophets that talked about social justice because they didn’t want to upset Caesar. They didn’t want to stop the flow of favors that came their way. They wanted to somehow worship both God and Caesar.
Jesus was a threat to this. Jesus, just like the prophets, wanted to lift up the poor and the outcasts, and bring down those who were rich and powerful. Jesus wanted these powerful church leaders to humble themselves in order to lift others up.
That’s what true religion does. But the religious leaders in Jesus’s time used their position of authority to accumulate wealth and favors, which allowed them to live in multi-million dollar mansions, and have their own private jets - I mean chariots.
These religious leaders were so friendly with the ruling authorities that, every time the government oppressed people, persecuted people, took away people’s rights, they didn’t say a word. Instead they redirected the people’s attention elsewhere.
They told the people that religion is about praying and fasting and having faith and not sleeping with the wrong people. This is what they talked about. They didn’t talk about social justice, or helping the poor, or fighting for people’s rights.
Jesus did talk about these things. And the people listened to him. This made Jesus a threat to the religious leaders.
3,400 religious leaders recently sent a letter to speaker of the House Paul Ryan in support of immigrants. The letter said that immigrants are created in the image of God, and that the Bible calls on us to value and protect immigrants.
This past Wednesday, Fox News interviewed one pastor who disagrees. This pastor says that the Bible shouldn’t be used for immigration policy, and that those 3,400 other pastors are “leaning too heavily on compassion.”
I about fell out of my chair when I heard that. Leaning too heavily on compassion? God IS compassion. Jesus IS compassion. What else are we to lean on?
On his twitter page, this pastor proudly shares a picture of himself shaking hands with the president. This pastor knows that his own power and authority depends on him not criticizing the president’s policies. This pastor is just like those religious leaders of the first century who refused to criticize Caesar.
The religious leaders saw Jesus as a threat, so they looked for a way to trap Jesus. Maybe they could get him to say something against Caesar! That would get him in trouble with the authorities; there was no first amendment to protect him.
Or, maybe they could trick Jesus into saying something against God. That would get him in trouble with the people who followed him.
So they asked him: “Does the law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

In asking about “the law,” they meant religious law, the teachings of the faith, the teachings that said “All things belong to God.”  They were asking about giving support to Caesar who declared himself to be a god, and who demanded people worship him.
How would Jesus respond? How could he respond, without getting into trouble? If he says, “Yes, it’s ok to pay taxes to Caesar,” he’d get in trouble with the religious law and the people. If he said “No, it’s not ok to pay taxes to Caesar,” he’d get in trouble with the authorities.
Jesus said: “Show me a coin. Who has a coin? Show me one of the coins used to pay taxes to Caesar.”
They brought him a denarion. A denarion? A denarion represents the typical daily wage; you work a whole day, and the boss gives you one denarion.
A denarion gets its name from denarius, which literally means “ten asses.” That’s what it was worth. Denarius. So it’s worth a lot more than a dime or a dollar.
They brought him a denarion. A denarion? A Roman coin? There were rules about Roman coins in the temple. Did I mention this whole scene takes place in the temple? Only Jewish coins were supposed to be in the temple; Roman coins did not belong there. That’s one of the things the religious leaders taught. That’s why the temple’s outer courtyard was filled with moneychangers - the moneychangers Jesus got mad at and drove out of the temple, because they gave the people a poor rate of exchange, robbing them of money.
The moneychangers were there so that people could exchange their Roman money for holy temple currency.
They brought him a denarion. Jesus holds it up, looks at it... “Whose image is this on here? And whose inscription is this? I can’t quite make it out; Who is this?”
Well, obviously, it was Caesar’s image on the coin that the religious leaders handed to Jesus.
It was Caesar’s image, along with an inscription that read, "Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus..." Son of the divine… Son of god… Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of God...
These religious leaders taught that idols are sinful, that no one should possess any images of gods other than the one true God, which is why Roman money was not allowed in the temple, yet here they were with idolatrous Roman money, with an image of “divine” Caesar Tiberius, in their very possession.
The religious leaders tried to lay a trap for Jesus, but ended up getting caught in it themselves.
Here’s the thing: if you’re going to lay a trap for someone, make sure that you yourself don’t get caught in the trap!
Don’t go around telling people to worship God when you carry images of Caesar-as-god in your purse.
Don’t go around saying “we worship God, not Caesar,” when clearly, your whole lifestyle is dependent on bowing down to Caesar.
Don’t go around claiming to be a follower of God when you care more about what Caesar is doing in his palace than you care about what’s happening to the least of these out on the streets.
Don’t go around accusing others of “fake news” when you yourself are full of lies and “alternative facts.”
Eventually, you will get caught in your own lies, caught in your own trap, and the people will know what a fraud you are.
The fact that they are carrying around coins with images of “divine” Caesar shows who these religious leaders really belong to. It shows who they really worship. The fact that they are carrying around these denarions shows that, no matter what they say, no matter what they teach, their hearts do not belong to God.
Clearly, their hearts belong to Caesar. They have bowed to the golden calf. They have prostrated themselves before Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue. They have allowed Caesar to take control of their lives. They have allowed Caesar to twist and manipulate them, and what’s worse: they have allowed their devotion to Caesar to twist and manipulate religion. What they teach is not true religion. What they teach is not based on God’s truth. What they teach is what keeps Caesar happy.
There are a lot of these types of religious leaders today within Christianity.
But the gospel exposes them. Jesus’s words expose them. Jesus says:  
“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
In other words: choose who you are going to follow. Choose which of the competing trains of thought you are going to allow to shape your life.
Do you believe that everything belongs to Caesar, or do you believe that everything belongs to God? In your heart, who is it that you are really following? Caesar? God? Or do you maybe follow yourself?
To whom does your life belong?
It’s not just about paying taxes. It’s about who your life belongs to. It’s about who you really worship.
Maybe your life belongs to your wealth and your possessions. Maybe your wealth and your possessions are your God. For some people, their greatest emotional attachments are to things and money.
For some people, their greatest emotional attachment is to a building.
This didn’t happen here - I can’t imagine it happening here - but I once had a church elder say to me that if he had to choose between having a pastor and having a church building, he’d choose the building. He said that right to me.
I wanted to say to him, “OK, so when your life leads you into that dark valley and you need some spiritual help to find your way, I’ll pull out a two-by-four from the church and send it over to you, and you can just cuddle that two-by-four and find your comfort.”
The truth is that a church’s greatest attachment shouldn’t be to a building; nor should a church’s greatest attachment be to a pastor. The church’s greatest attachment should always be to God.
Because it is to God that we belong.
We belong to God.
Give to God what belongs to God.

Always remember: you were created in God’s image, not Caesar’s. You were created in God’s image, not Caesar’s. Many of us only hear this message once a week, on Sunday morning, but all week long we hear a different, competing message.
So remember:
You were created in God’s image.
And where God’s image is, God is present. YOU present God. You represent God. You belong to God. God is represented in you. Wherever you are, God is, because God’s image is in you.
People will wear shirts and baseball caps and even get tattoos that proclaim “Nike” or “Underarmor” or “Coke” or the name of their favorite sports team. What they are doing is branding themselves… and the corporations whose logos they are wearing are all too happy about it, because these people are presenting that company whenever they wear their logo.
Caesar tried to put his image everywhere: on coins, in the form of statues, anywhere he could - because in doing so, the people would see his image, over and over, and, they’d start to believe that they belonged to him. If he could have, I’m sure Caesar would have had everyone wearing a t-shirt or a baseball cap with his image or logo on it.
But God doesn’t need to place his image on coins or statues or t-shirts or baseball caps, because each one of us is already branded with the image of God. Every person you meet is branded with the image of God.
It doesn’t matter if they’re black, brown or white, male or female, gay or straight, transgender or cisgender, tall or short, rich or poor, old or young, left-handed or right-handed. If they are human, they are the image of God.
You are the image of God. You come from God, and you belong to God.
You don’t belong to the government, you don’t belong to the corporation, you don’t belong to the bank, you don’t belong to the media, because you were not created in their image. You belong to God, because it is in God’s image that you were created. You belong to God.
So give to God what belongs to God.