Preached at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto, on Sunday, October 18, 2020.
Readings for today: Exodus 33.12-23, Psalm 96.1-9, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10, Matthew 22.15-22.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22.21)
This is the time of year as winter approaches when, at least before there was Covid, many of made sure that we kept our passports up to date and looked forward to using them to go somewhere nice and warm.
A Canadian passport marks us a fortunate person, a citizen of one of the freest and most prosperous countries in human history. We get a passport because we are a good citizen, law-abiding and of good character, and we agree to use it lawfully.
Somewhere in your house, you may have your baptismal certificate, probably from long ago, but you probably don’t take it with you when you travel. You don’t even need it to get into church! It never expires, and even if you lost it, you still have a cross on your forehead, , marked in holy oil by a priest who is likely long dead, a cross, which, as our baptismal liturgy puts it, “marks you as Christ’s own forever”. That cross wasn’t put there to fix your original sin, or to be a ticket into heaven. Rather, it was the sign of a vocation that we spend our lives trying to understand and to live out, our vocations as citizens of the kingdom of God.
Passport and baptism therefore are a kind of dual citizenship, showing that we belong on one hand to a nation of the earth, but also making us a citizen of the kingdom of God. Generally we tend to hold these kingdoms of earth and heaven apart, as secular and secular, having little to do with one another, and yet in the Lord’s prayer we acknowledge that God’s kingdom has an ultimate claim on our loyalty when we say “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven”. Baptism reminds us that we ultimately belong to God’s reign, started here on earth in Christ and fully brought into being at the end of time in the New Jerusalem, when the nations of the earth have passed away.
Jesus was born into a people who believed that they were first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God. They believed that God lived among them, in the Temple in Jerusalem, and claimed every aspect of their daily lives and obedience. In today’s gospel that view is represented by the Pharisees, while the other group mentioned, the Herodians (of whom little is known today), seem to have felt that faithful Jews had to give a little in order to get along with the ruling Romans.
The problem was that Roman rule was an insult to the Israelite’s view of the sovereign authority of God. Jews had to pay a tax to support the operations of the Temple with a Roman coin showing the image of the Roman EmperorTiberius, and the coin was stamped with the words TIBERIUS CASESAR SON OF THEDIVINE AUGUSTUS, thus claiming that the emperor was the son of a god. The coin used to pay the temple tax, a denarius, thus invalidated the whole point of the Temple, which was built to house and honour Yahweh, the one true God, whose law prevented the worship of idols and images of other gods (Deut 5.8).
The obvious trap for Jesus then is to force Jesus into either supporting rebellion (don’t pay the tax) or blasphemy (pay the tax with the idolatrous coin) but in asking his adversaries to produce a denarius, Jesus not only uses it as an object lesson in the two kingdoms but also, as is often noted, implicates themby making them find the coin in their own pockets! The move effectively says, “OK, smarty pants, tell me how you can even ask me this question when you’ve obviously found a way to live with this pagan idol in your pockets?” Jesus thus shows his adversaries that even good Jews have to find ways of remaining loyal citizens of the kingdom of heaven while living within the Roman empire.
It’s significantly easier for us to be citizens of Canada and baptized subjects of God. That loonie or toonie in your pocket or purse is in itself idolatrous. It bears the image of the monarch, whom our Prayer Book calls “thy chosen servant”, and for whom we pray that she “may above all things seek thy honour and glory” (p 70). The Queen embodies lawful authority for her subjects, including myself when I served as an officer in the Forces and held the Queen’s commission. However, as Christians, even as we give thanks that we live in a country as peaceful and well regulated as Canada, we recognize that there is, in Jesus’ words, a difference between the things of the emperor and of God.
In my first sermon to you, I used the example of our church and our government’s historic roles in the native schools as an example of systemic sin, so that even well-meaning people could at the time participate in a system set up to wipe out a whole culture, and in my opinion, “cultural genocide” is an appropriate term for what happened. Our church’s involvement in supporting the people of Pikangikum in northern Ontario is part of our witness that our country has often failed indigenous people who fully share with us the image of God and the face of Christ. It is precisely when our citizenship in our earthly country of Canada is unequal that we should fully engage in our common baptismal citizenship with our indigenous brothers and sisters and their ministries, while calling our earthly nation to repentance and renewal.
It has been often thought that Jesus’ words about the coin give the emperor a free hand to do what he wants in the world, while consigning the things of God to some vague spiritual realm that has nothing to do with earthly things. Even worse, some churches wrap themselves in flags and say that God actively blesses the Caesars of the day and cheers them on. Nothing could I think be further from the truth. Our baptismal status, our second passport if you will, means that we are not just citizens, but we are also called to be prophets.
Our baptism calls us to speak God’s truth when our country needs to hear it. For example, as we seem to be heading into a second lockdown, I’m reminded of something someone said about the first, that it was never really a lockdown, but rather it was rich people staying home and buying things that poor people delivered to them. Once again it seems we will be heading into months where those of us who can afford to work from home celebrate the “essential” and “frontline” workers who are paid little and who face greater risk. Meanwhile refugees, such as the families that we and other churches were trying to bring to Canada, continue to be locked down in camps in dangerous third world countries.
The English theologian and bishop N.T. Wright reminds us that just as after the financial crisis of 2008, when “the banks and the big businesses, having accepted huge public bail-out money, quickly got back into their old ways, while the poorest … just got poorer and stayed that way”, the same can and will happen again if the church remains silent and lets Caesar and Mammon, the idol of wealth, have their ways. Speaking as citizens of God would mean that the church returns to texts like Psalm 72, where “The righteous ruler] delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. / He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy”. Wright’s vision is for the church to help the world and its leaders, to call them to “wise human leadership” that “bring about fresh and healing policies and actions across God’s wide and wounded world” (God and the Pandemic 75).
As we move out of the season of Thanksgiving and into what appears to be a difficult winter, let’s always thank God that we live in such a peaceful and prosperous country as Canada. Let’s continue to pray for our Queen and for all our politicians, that God lead them and inspire them to do the most good for the most people. But, as God’s baptized citizens, let’s help our fellow Canadians see and honour those who are not always seen and honoured — the poor and the marginalized, migrant and trafficked workers, indigenous Canadians and refugees – because we can be sure that they are loved and honoured in the kingdom of God.