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What belongs to God?

“O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” (Psalm 99:4)

Standing on the steps of the downtown Amherst church he now calls home, Lucio Perez on Thursday afternoon asked the community to provide him strength as he continues to face the possibility that he will be deported and separated from his wife and children. First Congregational Church will provide Perez, an undocumented immigrant who lives in Springfield, sanctuary for as long as necessary to ensure that he is not forced to return to his home country of Guatemala, from which he fled nearly 20 years ago.

Perez sought sanctuary at the church Wednesday evening, hours before he was supposed to be in New York and boarding a plane back to Guatemala after Immigrations and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. “It’s been very difficult for me, everything that has been happening,” Perez said, adding that as a landscaper he “works hard to give a better future for my children,” three of whom are U.S. citizens.

The Rev. Vicki Kemper, pastor of the church, said providing sanctuary to Perez was first considered during a church meeting in September, but she and others at the church had hoped his situation would successfully be resolved before they had to take this step.

“None of us wanted to be here today. None of us wanted this day to come,” Kemper said. “This is not an action we take lightly, but at the same time it’s an action we feel we must take,” Kemper said, referencing Scripture’s call to love strangers.

In June, the congregation voted to become a community that welcomes immigrants. “The longer it went along it seemed Lucio had no other options,” Kemper said.[1]

In our reading this morning from the Gospel according to Matthew, we are once again invited into the reminder that this Gospel, as difficult as it can be, is the perfect companion for our time and place. Matthew is like a dog, who once owned me, who when he wanted to be paid attention to or played with, would grab hold of my pants legs and would not turn loose. Matthew drags us sometimes with weeping and gnashing of teeth into the reality that God’s righteousness and justice will prevail. That no matter the news or the events that we experience, God’s power is ultimate.

As soon as we begin to think that God’s power of love has been usurped by the powers of this world, as soon as political and spiritual leaders try to undermine our trust in God’s sovereignty, as soon as we start to doubt that our faith and our presence can make a difference, Matthew calls us back to remember that the beginning of wisdom is looking directly at the awe and the splendor of God’s love. And Jesus reminds us that what we think does not deter the determination of God to bring blessing for the meek, the persecuted, the poor and poor in spirit.

Jesus is facing his final days in Jerusalem. He has come into the city as one with great power. He has overturned the tables of the money changers, challenging both the political and religious authorities. The money changers were the ones whose transactions allowed the coin of the Roman empire to be exchanged for the acceptable shekel for use in the temple. Jesus’ authority had been challenged and he had responded with several provocative, even threatening parables calling into question the temple authorities and, indeed standing before God.

So, two important political groups in Jerusalem—the Pharisees and the Herodians– come together in an effort to “ensnare” Jesus. These two groups did not like each other. The Pharisees were strict followers of God’s commandments. They would object strongly to paying taxes to any pagan king and especially to a king who, like Caesar, placed himself equal to God. The Herodians, a group we know little about except that they favored King Herod, the puppet ruler appointed and protected by the Roman government, would want to maintain their favor with Rome and would have supported payment of the tax.

There were also crowds listening carefully to this debate. Some of them would have despised the Romans and their taxes and were poised to revolt at the slightest approval of their enforcement.

Roman soldiers were gathered, listening closely to every possible disruption, as Passover began. Their salaries were paid by the taxes and their jobs were to control these Jews who were making their lives difficult with their inclination toward political disturbance. Different groups listening with different ears, different motivations, and different hoped for rewards.

A simple “yes” from Jesus would have turned the crowd against Jesus and made him appear to side with the hated Romans. A simple “no” would have enabled the Pharisees to use his answer against him in their plot to have him arrested by the Roman authorities.

So, Jesus meets their challenge with one of his own. He asks someone to give him a coin used for the tax. (It is important to notice that Jesus does not have one.) This coin was a special minting of the denarius with the image and words acclaiming “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of divine Augustus” on one side and on the other side, the title “Pontifex Maximus” or High Priest” with the image of Tiberius’ mother Julia Augusta sitting on the throne of the gods. To any faithful follower of God’s law, the coin itself would have been an abomination. It violated the first commandment by Caesar’s claim of divinity and it violated the second commandment by containing an image of this false god.

Jesus asks the group to consider the coin and tell him whose likeness and whose title is evident. They cannot avoid the answer. “The Emperor,” they say. Jesus then tells them “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Give back to Caesar the coin with his image and give to God that which bears God’s image.

Jesus doesn’t give a clear and direct answer to the specific question being asked about paying taxes. He sees to the heart of the dilemma and asks his questioners to consider a larger framework of worship, idolatry, and ultimate loyalty. The question that there will be conflict between the demands of the state and Jesus’ teaching is already assumed. The Pharisees and Herodians frame their question around “Is it lawful…?” They are confronting Jesus because they see him as a troublemaker. The situation is confirmed that this is a confrontation of rival authorities.

Jesus’ reply to his questioners calls those who hear and those who read these words to respond to the demands of this confrontation. Jesus makes it clear that the final authority as to what belongs to Caesar rests, not with Caesar, but with God. This is not a question of equal claims being made on our lives. Caesar’s place, though it may seem to be ultimate at times, is determined by God. God’s place is never determined by Caesar. As Christians, our lives and our actions, the way we treat and respond to our fellow human beings, the way we view our responses to the demands made on us, are established by the absolute authority of the God of love.

What does this story mean in these difficult days when immigrant fathers and mothers are being sent away from their children; when the poor, especially the children, are being denied basic needs in life such as food and health care so that the most wealthy can receive more advantages from tax cuts; when those who long to be united in marriage with the ones they love are despised and rejected by the law of the land; when one person’s rights are valued over another’s simply on the basis of their skin color or religion or gender definition?

Jesus does not give us direct answers, but he does throughout his life and his ministry direct us to see that the way we consider these decisions matter—the language that is used or abused, the stories that are privileged or silenced, the people who are protected or oppressed, the sins we confess or indulge, the truths we proclaim or deny—makes all the difference in the world.

The question of our ultimate loyalty is what Jesus is really talking about as he deals with the efforts to ensnare him in a question about taxation. Jesus is saying simply that what belongs to God is nothing other than ourselves—our heart, soul, mind, and strength. There is no higher claim on us. Our lives are God’s and all that we do is marked by that conviction. All competing claims are to be evaluated and understood in light of whose we are and whose image we bear.

When I look to Jesus in thinking about how to live out my faith in the world, I see no way that sidesteps deep humility, surrender, and sacrificial love. Figuring out my taxes is the easy part. What is challenging is facing daily the opportunity to live with Christlike humility. I see no permission to protect my security at the expense of another’s suffering, no evidence that truth telling is optional. I see no kingdom that favors the arrogant over the brokenhearted and no church that thrives for long when it confuses that which is Caesar’s with that which is God’s.

Each of us have been given holy work to do. In Bishop Curry’s sermon at Evensong last week, he challenged us all who seek to follow Jesus saying that the message of God’s redeeming love, infinite grace and mercy has been “hijacked.” The larger world does not see us as instruments of God’s love. Rather in survey after survey, the church is seen as close minded, judgmental, and bigoted. Bishop Curry called on us—the Church—to counter this distorted interpretation of our faith with the “loving, liberating, and life giving message of Jesus.” If I really belong to God, if I am really made in God’s image, then I need to practice my faith and lead my life in the ways that reflect who God is. In every decision, every action, every vote, I must remember that the God whose image I bear is a God of love.

Today we will witness to God’s grace and mercy in the face of the horrendous opioid crisis affecting too many lives. We will pray with our feet and with our lips for God’s healing presence to comfort and strengthen all persons who struggle with addiction and all who love and support them. We will stand asking that this country’s resources be allocated towards treatment so that those who seek it may live a whole and healthy life. We will witness to our belief that each of us are God’s beloved children made in God’s beautiful image. We will proclaim by our presence that we believe in God’s eternal authority, knowing that God’s active work in this world never fails.

So we will give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—we will pay the taxes. But we are to give to God what belongs to God—which is all that we have and all that we are. We must always remember that our first allegiance is to a power that will remain long after earthly empires rise and fall. Our first and highest faithfulness is to God who is the author of our salvation and the Creator of us all—whose being is the source of love.

 

[1] Scott Merzbach. Staff writer for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. October 19, 2017. http://www.gazettenet.com/First-Congregational-Church-in-Amherst-is-providing-sanctuary-to-Lucio-Perez-13206623

 

 

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