Sunday, 19 October 2008

Sermon notes for Sun 19th October

What is Caesar’s/ what is God’s

If you came to church to get away from news of the Credit Crisis and global recession – I’m sorry, but you can’t.

It’s tempting, isn’t it, to treat church as a holy space, where the worries of the world can’t intrude: sometimes we preachers make this worse by talking about ‘going out from here back into the world’. But the fact is that we are still in the world as we sit here in church. We may find here a sanctuary where it is a little easier to remember we are in the presence of God, but we cannot shut out the world: we remain in it, like it or not.

And neither are we here to exchange platitudes about what God might think of the state of the world. We are here to wrestle with what it means to be followers of Christ in our world, with all its headaches and its wonder.

There are apparently 66 more shopping days til Christmas, and you won’t thank me for mentioning it today! A friend sent me a link to an internet site ‘is it Christmas yet?’ – and when you click on it, it just has in large letters ‘NO’.

But Christmas will come, and with it a celebration of the fact of God become human (which is central to Christmas – at least for some of us) reminding us that God knows what it is to wrestle with the world, with flesh, dirt and blood, and with money, politics and economics.

In our Gospel reading today we hear how the Pharisees and Herodians tried to trick Jesus with their question of taxes. Some of us were looking at this passage at the Four Churches meeting on Wednesday evening and remembered that the Herodians were the politically-savvy, the ones supporting Herod as Rome’s puppet-king: they would have argued that paying taxes was necessary for the smooth-running of the country (by Rome).
Meanwhile the Pharisees were the ultra-religious, the ones who believed in the people of Israel as the people of God.
They would have seen any coins bearing Caesar’s image and the inscription declaring him emperor and god as a blasphemy – this is why there were money-changers in the temple, because sacrifices for the One true God couldn’t be bought with this terrible Roman coinage. You will have realised that the Pharisees were anti-tax paid to Rome.

Faced with a question of politics versus religion, what does Jesus say? Does he argue that he’s a religious person and won’t proclaim on political matters? Does he side with one or the other of these groups, and therefore alienate the other side? He gives a wonderful, wise and thought-provoking answer. Politics or religion? Caesar or the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob? Tax or no tax?
He refuses to allow them to be separated:
“Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s”
Caesar made the coin – give it back to him.
“and render to God that which is God’s”.
But where is God’s stamp seen? The reading from Exodus reminds us that even Moses could not see God’s face – no-one could point to God’s image on a coin and say ‘that coin is God’s’.
Jesus leaves us pondering – what is it that we have to give back to God? Where do we see God’s image?
Well, surely we have to give back to God what God has first given us: at our meeting on Wednesday we reflected that we often speak of giving up our time for a meeting – but actually that time is first given to us by God. When we meet to do God’s work we are only giving back to God some of the time he has given us – rendering to God that which is God’s.

And where do we see God’s image? The book of Genesis tells us that God made human beings in his own image – we each bear the stamp of God.
If we are to “render to God that which is God’s” we will be giving back our very selves – there is nothing that we are, nothing we can do, nothing we can earn that is not God’s.
Jesus deals with the political question of taxes – and places it firmly within the context of God’s ownership of the world, God’s kingdom.

I think this leads to three conclusions for us in the present credit crisis.

Firstly, we need to be aware of the human stories within the economic figures. We cannot separate the political from the wider human picture – we cannot forget that behind each figure is a person, beloved of God. 1.6 million unemployed in the UK at the moment means 1.6 million people seeking meaning for their lives, as well as a stable income. So we must pray and hope and support the people behind the headlines where we can.

Secondly, we cannot simply stick our heads in the sand and say this is a political problem and nothing to do with us – we cannot just leave this to others, perhaps to politicians to worry about.
The writer of the first letter to the Thessalonians says faith leads to action; love leads to labour; hope leads to perseverance. We cannot shrug and say we are religious and not political people – Jesus refuses to separate the two. As God’s people in God’s world we must think and act in God’s name.

Thirdly, when we are hit personally by what is happening – by the loss of a job by the falling value of assets, by reducing income, by worries about our pension – we can hold onto the fact that God is intimately concerned with us and by what happens to us. The Jesus who wrestled with the question of taxes is alongside us as we wrestle with the questions of our day.
When despair & panic are the order of the day we can remain calm, held in God’s hands, in a world in which the political and the religious are linked,
now and forever
Amen.

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