Heads or Tails – Oct. 18, 2020

Heads or Tails

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Matthew 22: 15-22

October 18, 2020

Main Idea:  God is sovereign.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Did you know that there is a coin shortage in the US right now?  In addition to everything else in this extraordinary year, the pandemic has led people to limit their use of coins and paper money, which in turn has caused a coin shortage which has affected many people and businesses, including grocery stores, laundromats, and candy machines.  Those who still use cash are being asked to pay with exact change. Who knew that coins could be so valuable?  Our Scripture text for today is about a coin and to whom it should be paid.

Today’s text comes from the lectionary and frankly, it is quite challenging to talk about God and taxes so close to an election.  This text comes directly after the provocative parable we explored last week and it continues the story of Jesus’ conflict with the religious and civil authorities.  The text asks us to wrestle with our identity and our relationships with earthly authority and the authority of God. 

The Pharisees were a Jewish community that lived in strict observance of the Torah and who hated the oppression of Rome.  The Herodians were those aligned with King Herod and who supported and profited from Rome.  These two groups were naturally adversaries except for the fact that both saw Jesus as a threat.  When the Pharisees and Herodians came to Jesus with their question about taxes they were trying to trap him but it did not turn out as they planned.   They asked him whether it was right to pay the Roman poll tax with coins stamped with the Emperor’s face and the words “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, high priest” upon it. For a Jewish person to even hold such a coin would break two of the ten commandments.   Jesus asked to see the coin and those questioning him revealed their hypocrisy by taking some of this idolatrous money out of their pockets, right there in the temple!!!  Jesus’ point was that if they were using the emperor’s money for their own benefit then there was nothing to stop them from paying the taxes required by Rome.   And although his response to their question may seem like a direct parallel, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s”, in actuality, Jesus put Rome in its place as very small compared to God.  Rome could have its taxes while God has dominion over all creation.   Rome could stamp the emperor’s image on bits of metal while God’s image is stamped on every person and throughout all creation.  God is so much more than any government.  Our identity as children of God is so much more than any allegiance to any government.

As we ponder our identity and our relationship to God and taxes, let’s reminisce a bit about our Baptist history for it gives context to the present day.  Our Baptist tradition was formed in oppression by religious authorities.  We were English Separatists who left England for Holland and then the New World for religious freedom.  In Massachusetts, we were harassed and cast out by Puritan Congregationalists.  At the time of our nation’s founding only Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were without state supported churches.  Some states recognized, and supported by taxes, the Congregational Church, others the Episcopal Church.   The colony of Rhode Island had been formed in part by Baptists who had been run out of Massachusetts.  Roger Williams established the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, RI in 1638.    During the Revolutionary War years there was a prominent Baptist clergyman and travelling evangelist named John Leland, who was essentially the Billy Graham of his day.  As a Baptist who knew the history of Baptist persecution both in Europe and in the colonies, and who believed in soul freedom and the authority of the local church, Leland was passionately committed to religious liberty meaning that the state shall not support any particular faith, nor prohibit the worship of any.    He mobilized the Baptists of Virginia to push for religious liberty in their state by supporting Thomas Jefferson’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom”.   He also pushed James Madison to write “A bill of rights”; amendments guaranteeing religious liberty, free speech, and a free press.  Initially Madison was against writing any amendments; he thought the Constitution was fine as it was, so Leland decided to run against Madison as a delegate to Virginia’s convention to ratify the Constitution.  Madison quickly realized that Leland would get more votes!  And so they compromised, with Madison supporting the Bill of Rights and Leland withdrawing from the race.   After the Bill of Rights had been ratified Leland continued to preach and speak out about religious liberty, writing sermons, newspaper articles, and a document entitled “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable”.  He wrote “Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in doing so. (The Rights of Conscience Inalienable)”.  He also wrote “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…. Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another.  The liberty I contend for is more than toleration.  The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans, and Christians. (A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia)”. 

In 1801, John Leland worked with the town of Cheshire MA to create and transport a giant cheese to Washington DC as a gift for President Jefferson. Accompanying the Cheshire Mammoth Cheese was a letter to President Jefferson speaking out against slavery, noting that “the cheese was procured by the personal labor of freeborn farmers with the voluntary and cheerful aid of their wives and daughters, without the assistance of a single slave.” The cheese, made from the milk of 900 cows, “weighed 1234 pounds, was four feet wide, and fifteen inches thick.  Due to its size, it could not safely be transported on wheels, so the town hired a sleigh to bring it to Washington, D.C. during the snowy winter months. With Leland steering the sleigh, the three week, 500 mile trip became an event from town to town as word spread about the gift.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheshire_Mammoth_Cheese)  The people along the way came to see the cheese and they stayed to hear Leland preach about religious liberty.

So, what do our Scripture text, John Leland, and the upcoming election have to do with each other?   All three are concerned with our identity and our responsibilities to God and our nation.   Jesus acknowledged that there is a role for government; legitimate but limited in scope when compared to God.   God and government should not be combined or confused.   John Leland understood that a faith coerced is no faith at all.   He wrote “Is it the duty of a deist to support that which he believes to be a cheat and imposition?  Is it the duty of the Jew to support the religion of Jesus Christ¸ when he really believes that he is an imposter? Must the papist be forced to pay men for preaching down the supremacy of the pope, whom he is sure is the head of the church? Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has to do with the principles of mathematics.”  Our religious liberty can only be secured when all people are free to worship as they choose.   Now this idea is very appealing when one is in the religious minority, such as in John Leland’s day, but this same idea can feel threatening when one’s group is more powerful.   Many Baptists and other Christians today would be scandalized by John Leland’s ideas.    In these polarizing times, Christians are called to act in accordance with our faith and our values.  We are called to pay our taxes and to vote, to be good citizens, while never forgetting whose we are and to whom our first allegiance belongs.   Ultimately, we are not Republicans or Democrats, Progressives or Conservatives, we are children of God called to share God’s love with the world.

It is ironic and a bit amusing that the Pharisees and Herodians spoke the truth when they said ‘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.” (22:16b) They wanted to trap Jesus between God and Caesar but Jesus saw no conflict between the two.  The power of Caesar was nothing compared to the sovereignty and grandeur of God.  God’s power, God’s love is so vast in comparison to our human institutions.  Our true identities come from God who gives us life and purpose.  Our first allegiance is to God who made us and sustains us and to Christ who reveals God to us.  When we live evermore fully into our faith, we are guided out of discord and fear.  We live more confidently in God’s providence and grace.  As we prepare for this election and the days to follow, let us be mindful of the many gifts God has given us, especially the gift to know and love God freely and to serve God with our whole being.

Let us pray,

Most gracious God, we ask that you pour your Spirit upon us.  Help us to support the freedoms we enjoy so that all may be free.   Thank you for your guidance and grace as we strive to live lives worthy of you.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.