As most of you know, I conclude my Homily every Sunday with the word Namaste. And I still laugh about this – one of our church members, Greg Plowe, said that when he first started coming to this church, he thought I was ending my homily saying, “Have a nice day.” But the word namaste, it's a really beautiful ancient Sanskrit word. And what it means is, “The light in me, recognizes and honors the light in you.” Isn't that beautiful?
And I recently discovered that one of our UCC churches in Chicago is named Namaste United Church of Christ. Isn't that great? The pastor there, Reverend Marilyn Pagán-Banks. And she is also the executive director of an organization in Chicago called A Just Harvest. They provide food for the hungry in Chicago.
Now, before she came on board, the organization was called Good News Community Kitchen. And when they changed the name to A Just Harvest, one of the donors said, “I'm really concerned. I give to this organization, because you're called The Good News Community Kitchen, and I'm all about the good news of Jesus. Now you changed it, and I just don't understand. What does Jesus have to do with all this justice stuff?” And Maryland Pagán-Banks responded by saying, “Justice has everything to do with Jesus!”
You may remember a few years ago, I was wearing this t-shirt made by the UCC. It was also on hats and banners. And it says, Justice. It's a Jesus thing. And it has a quote from Matthew's Gospel which we read this morning.
That's what we as Christians are called to do, to build a world of justice. Reverend Banks recently in a blog post shared this. She said, “Yes, Jesus fed the hungry, and calls for us to do the same. But Jesus also called out systems and structures that kept people hungry and poor. The powers that be were pretty okay with Jesus feeding people. But the minute he began to question them, and agitate them and turn over tables and call them to account, that's when Jesus became a risk.”
And this is what got him killed.
Jesus was political, breaking bread with women and Tax Collectors was a political act. Healing on the Sabbath was a political act. Turning over tables of exploitation was a political act. Riding into Jerusalem was a political act. Jesus embodied his faith, and this was political.
Now, the reason I share this with you today is because of our gospel reading, for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, it's not just in Matthew's Gospel, this story is in all of the Synoptic Gospels. It's that famous line where Jesus says, render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and render to God, what is God's. And many Christians think that that means Jesus is saying, keep religion and politics separate.
But is that really what he was saying?
Well, we know in the United States, of course, we have separation of church and state, and that is very important. And if you were here this summer for my July 4 weekend sermon, I was talking about how our founding fathers were very clear about establishing that the United States of America was a place with freedom of religion, that it isn't a country established on one faith like Christianity. It's a country where everyone can practice whatever religion they want. Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or practice no faith at all. That's what makes this country so great.
In the Constitution, the founders purposely kept out the word “God.” It appears nowhere in the Constitution. They were very clear about that. And then some of you say to me, ‘Well, how come then on our currency, it says In God We Trust? A in our Pledge of Allegiance, we say one nation under God?
And I responded by telling you those words came to us in the 1950s. Many of you were alive in the 1950s. So it wasn't that long ago.
Our founders did not include those words – what was happening in the 1950s? Very conservative Christians in America started a movement of getting involved in politics, and affecting the political landscape. And we see what it leads to. We've seen in our country in recent years this rise of Christian nationalism, where people want to establish the United States as a Christian nation.
But that's not what it was founded to be. All we need to do is look around the world and see how dangerous it is when a religion, a specific religion tries to become the government.
So what is Jesus saying here? Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's? Well, as we heard, the authorities are trying to trick Jesus, they're trying to trap him. This isn't the only example. If you read the gospels, you'll see they're always trying to entrap him, no matter what answer Jesus gave, he was going to be wrong. If he said, Yes, give to the Emperor, they'll say, well, then you support the Empire. And if he says, We'll don't pay taxes, then they'll arrest Him for treason. So he can't really win.
But Jesus, of course, was a very smart person, and a very wise teacher. So he says, show me the coin that you use to pay taxes. Oh, you see the guy's name on there, Caesar. And his picture. Give that to him. That belongs to him. But give to God what belongs to God. Jesus is trying again to say, pay your taxes, but also that requires another duty and responsibility.
All of you, of course, I assume, pay your taxes. And as the late Bishop John Shelby Spong – he passed away in 2019 – said, in those words that Sue read for us this morning, even though he knows that some of the money he pays in taxes, goes to things he doesn't believe in. He's okay with that, because of the freedoms that he got to enjoy in this country.
And I loved what he said. He says, “I believe it's my duty as a Christian to bear public witness against policies that Caesar adopts when these policies violate everything that I consider holy. We owe the Caesars in every generation a call to truth when truth is violated, a call to responsibility when incompetence is displayed, and a call to morality when evil is rampant. The time has come for us to render to Caesar what is due to Caesar. So do you understand what that means? Yes, I may pay taxes, and the money may go towards maybe funding an unjust war that I don't believe in. But also to render to Caesar means to speak truth to the powers that be. And so that's what John Shelby Spong was saying is the role of the Prophet. And I really do believe all of us as Christians are called to be prophets.
That means we have to speak uncomfortable truths to people in our families, and in our community, and to people in government or leaders in government. That's part of what it means to render to Caesar what is Caesar's.
In our E-Pistle church newsletter this week, I shared a quote from this wonderful book, which is called Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. It was written by Reza Aslan. And if you haven't read it, I highly recommend that you do. He says, “There is absolutely no difference between religion and politics in Jesus' time.” In other words, every seemingly religious word that came out of Jesus's mouth had very clear and unmistakable, political connotations to it. And I know that may be surprising, because, again, religion and politics, but really what Jesus was talking about was a way of life. Jesus was, as he said, trying to create a new world order, one in which the last, the least of these would be first, one in which the poor would be fed, the sick would be carried forward, the captive would be set free, the stranger would be welcomed.
That was the world he was trying to create, and cause us to create. So that's what we mean, every word that came of his mouth was a threat to the powers that be. And that's why they needed to silence him. That's why he was killed.
And so my friends, we as Christians, followers of the way of Jesus, are called to do the same. And again, it may get us in trouble. And it may alienate us from our neighbors and from people in our families. But that is the truth we are to call, to continue to build a just world for all, a world of peace and justice.
I'd like to conclude my homily today by going back to some words of Reverend Banks from the Namaste UCC in Chicago. She said, “To truly be the church requires that we not be afraid to claim our voice in the political arena. Like Jesus, the church must be willing and able to take risks in order to bring about real transformation and to be about the work of building the kingdom. The church was never meant to be a hiding place from the world, but a safe space in which we could resist, persist, and insist on the love of God being made manifest in our policies, in our laws, in our marketplaces, and in our governments.
So let us insist, resist and persist.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
Bishop John Shelby Spong
Jesus said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s.” His words suggested that the distinction was clear, that there were no gray areas. That is not the situation today in the United States, where religion has experienced a rebirth of zeal, and seeks to force a particular worldview on the people of this nation. I relish the freedom that Americans enjoy and the ideals for which this country stands. I think the taxes I pay to my government are still the best bargain in my budget. Yes, of course, I am aware that not all of our tax dollars are spent wisely, however, I still believe that the freedom this country provides is worth everything I pay in taxes. Taxes, I believe, are the payment that I am called upon to make for the privilege of enjoying life in this great nation. If that is what “Render to Caesar” means, then I am prepared to do so and joyfully. There is, however, much more to this admonition than just that. I also believe it is my duty as a Christian to bear a public witness against policies that “Caesar” adopts when these policies violate all that I consider holy. In the Judeo-Christian tradition that is traditionally the role of the prophet. Prophecy has nothing to do with predicting the future; it has everything to do with speaking uncomfortable truth inside the citadels of political power. We owe the “Caesars” in every generation a call to truth when truth is violated; a call to responsibility when incompetence is displayed and a call to morality when evil is rampant. The time has come for us to “Render to Caesar” what is appropriate, what is due to Caesar. The prophetic word of judgment must again be heard in the public arena. The prophets of our day must rise up and speak the ‘Word of God’ to our Caesar. In the Old Testament, when Nathan confronted King David, the King repented and changed his path. Perhaps if we, like Nathan, will render to Caesar that which is due Caesar, something similar will occur. I hope so. If it does, then we will recognize that we have also been rendering to God the things that are God’s.
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