A Dangerous Intersection

Rev. Timothy B. Tutt
Senior Minister
Sunday, October 19, 2014
10:00 AM

“A Dangerous Intersection”
Matthew 22:15-22

 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Last week, as my family and I were leaving church, we walked out the front doors of the church to our car, which was parked on Whetherill.  As we crossed the street, we looked to our right and a mail truck was coming up the hill on Dale Carlia, a United States Postal Service truck.   That may seem like no big deal.  After all, everybody likes to get a letter from Aunt Fanny in Topeka or the fall catalogue from L.L. Bean.

What was interesting is that the Post Office was delivering the mail on Sunday.

Beginning last November, the United States Postal Service announced they would be making deliveries on Sundays as part of a deal with Amazon.com. 

From the earliest days of our nation until 1912, the United States Postal Service operated seven days a week, they did deliver mail on Sundays.   From 1912 until last year, there was – except in rare circumstances – no mail delivery on Sunday.

The decision to deliver mail on Sundays or not deliver mail on Sundays had a lot to do with the words we just read from the: The writer Matthew says, “Jesus said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.””  -- words maybe more famous in their King James form, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

So Jesus -- a traveling preacher from Nazareth -- and Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus -- the emperor of Rome -- have something to do with you getting a letter from your Aunt Fanny in Topeka and the fall catalogue from L.L. Bean.

 

Let’s start by exploring this scripture story, then we’ll come back to that mail truck.

“Hey, Jesus,” some people asked one day, “You mean well, you teach God’s ways truthfully, you don’t play favorites, so tell us what you think: Is it legal to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

This was a trick question.  The Pharisees in this story were strict Jewish religious folk who despised Caesar and Roman rule and paying taxes to Rome.  The Herodians in the story were Jewish aristocrats who were in cahoots with the Romans.  So when these two sides lined up to ask Jesus a question, trouble was in the making.

Are Roman taxes legit for Jews?  If Jesus said, “Yes,” he would lose the trust of a downtrodden people.  If Jesus said, “No,” the Herodians would try him for treason.

As one writer has said, “In a day when the state was sacred, Jesus dropped a bombshell that silenced his critics:  Yes, he said, you have an obligation to support the government.  But the authority of the state has its limits because there is also a duty to God’s [realm] – which claims a higher citizenship.   So, pay your tax to Caesar; it belongs to him.  See his picture is on the money.  But render to God the things that are God’s…”  (Walker)

Jesus didn’t really answer the question.  And he certainly didn’t supply the details.  How high is too high for taxes?  What if you don’t agree with how your taxes are spent?  Which part of life belongs to God and which part belongs to Caesar?

What Jesus did is paint the picture for us of a dangerous and complicated intersection – the intersection where faith and politics cross.  We are citizens of two realms this text reminds us.  And sometimes these realms clash.  And sometimes we must make difficult choices about to whom we should render and what.

 

Fast forward about 1500 years to another set of rulers and other preachers.  In 1534, King Henry VIII of England broke with the Church of Rome, mostly for personal reasons, but in the split he established the Church of England and declared himself as king to be the head of the church.  A noticeable change. Henry VIII died, as kings and emperors do.  During the short reign of his son Edward VI, Lutheran and Reformed theology made its way into the Anglican Church, with new ideas about who was in charge.  Edward died, and Mary Tudor came to the throne.  Many English reformers fled to Europe.  After the bloody reign of Mary, Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne.  During her reign, hundreds of dissenters who had fled to the Continent returned to England full of Reformed Protestant ideas. 

Some of these Reformers thought Elizabeth hadn’t done enough to purify the church.  They wanted more independent thought, more freedom for local churches.  These purifiers, these Puritans, held the idea that God was the true sovereign, not the king; scripture was the authority for life, not royal decree. 

In the middle of all of that, came Robert Browne, an Anglican priest.  He has been labelled “the first conspicuous advocate of Congregationalism in England.”  He is our denominational ancestor.  By 1581, Robert Browne had gathered a congregation in Norwich, England, along the River Wensum.  Parson Brown expressed his conviction that the only true church was a local body of believers who experienced together the Christian life, united to Christ and to one another by a voluntary covenant. Christ, he said, not the king or queen, was the head of such a church.   Reverend Browne was imprisoned 32 times.  He fled to Holland and eventually returned to England.

Others of those Congregationalists, those purifiers, those dissenters, those heretics in Holland opted for another path.  In time they set sail, some of them on boar a boat called the Mayflower, to find a new home.  They brought with them their radical ideas of liberty and community.  For a while, the Congregationalists got it wrong.  They thought that freedom from an intolerant king made it okay to establish an intolerant church.  And they tried to hang and banish and coerce anyone who disagreed with them.  But in time the Congregationalists learned from their Baptist neighbors in Rhode Island and their persecuted Catholic neighbors in Maryland and their Quaker neighbors in Pennsylvania, and they hit upon the idea of the separation of church and state.  (Short History)

When it came time for a new nation to write new laws, they wrote thusly: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

These new political leaders in a new land recognized that people live as citizen of various realms, some temporal some spiritual.  As with these words from Jesus, they didn’t spell out all of the details of exactly what it means for Congress to make no law regarding the establishment of religion.  They left tremendous room for interpretation.

And we have spent the last 225 years sorting out what that means.

 

In June of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the it violated the religious beliefs of the owners of Hobby Lobby to require them to provide certain contraceptives as part fo the Affordable Care Act.  That is a church state question.

Earlier this year, our national denominational body, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ filed suit against the State of North Carolina, arguing that the state’s marriage laws violated the First Amendment rights of clergy and violated the principle of the “free exercise of religion.”  They framed that as a question where Caesar and God were at odds.

In Houston this past week, it has come to light that the city’s attorney have subpoenaed the sermons of five preachers.  There are questions of religious liberty there.

The intersection of faith and politics is complicated.

 

So, back to that mail truck.  When the United States was created, mail was delivered seven days a week.  And that was an intentional effort by the government, at least by the Post Office, to say that the government is not the church, the government does not respect religious sentiments and did not recognizing holy days.  

In the early 1800s, some Christians began to complain about.  Having mail delivered on Sunday was a violation of the Sabbath and was an affront to Christians, they said.  Local post offices began to close on Sunday.  As this clamor grew, Congress, which oversaw the Post Office, went so far as to pass a law in 1810 mandating that every post office must be open on Sundays for at least one hour.

Not surprisingly, that little law angered many vocal Christians – not all, but many – who were determined to make Sunday – a religious holy day – into an American holiday.

The conflict grew so that in 1811, the Postmaster General – a man named Gideon Ganger – a Congregationalist by the way -- instructed letter carriers to “to pass quietly [on Sundays], without announcing their arrival or departure by the sounding of horns or trumpets, or any other act calculated to call off the attention of the citizens from their devotions . . . .”  In other words, deliver the mail on Sundays, he said, but be very quiet about it.

That didn’t fix the matter.  The controversy grew.  The Senate held hearings.  My favorite part of that is a senator in 1820 who issued a report saying that rather than trying to enforce Christianity by stopping mail on Sundays, Christians should: by deeds of benevolence — by Christian meekness — by lives of temperance and holiness. …combine their efforts to instruct the ignorant — to relieve the widow and the orphan — to promulgate to the world the gospel of their Savior, recommending its precepts by their habitual example…” In other words, the senator said, instead of harassing the Post Office about delivering mail on Sundays, why not just act like Christians.”  “Their moral influence,” this senator went on, “will then do infinitely more to advance the true interests of religion, than any measures which they may call on Congress to enact.”

The pro-Sunday mail group and the anti-Sunday group continued arguing, with one side saying that the government should honor God by stopping mail on Sundays and the other side saying the government wasn’t doing God’s work in the Post Office, it was rendering unto Caesar.  In time, the Civil war and larger conflicts sought attention.

Eventually, however, by 1912, with growing fundamentalism in the American churches and with postal workers wanting to have one day – any day! — off of work,  the Post Office stopped its Sunday mail delivery. Until last year that is, when money from Amazon.com seemed to trump any argument of religious liberty or the separation of church and state.  (Gourley)

I suppose the intersection of church and state is not just the merging of two paths, it is the much more complicated coming together of religion and politics and economics and personal preferences and growing interreligious expressions and much, much more.

The relationship of government and religion is complicated.  Deciding what we render unto Caesar and what we render unto God is difficult business.  It requires deep thought, gentle listening, and patient citizenship.

I don’t care so much about seeing a Postal Service truck puffing up the hill on Dale Carlia as I walk out the front doors of a Sunday.

I do care about the Hobby Lobby court case and what that means for reproductive rights and for corporate responsibility for healthcare.    I do care about the UCC General Synod court case and what that means for the religious beliefs of clergy and the ability of couples to get married.  I will watch with interest the City of Houston and these subpoenaed sermons and what that means for the freedom of the pulpit.

And beyond our shores, I do care about groups like ISIS and Al Quaida, who merge in dangerous and deadly ways government and religion into one armed entity.  Those groups and their egregious ways troubled me.  But I think, in time, they shall fail.  They shall fail because they run contrary to the spark of freedom that dwells within the human soul.

Yes, there a things -- small things -- that we owe to Caesar or even to a Republic.  But there are other things -- grand things – that we owe to God, most of which are gifts from God -- the gifts of intellect, the gifts of thoughtfulness, the gifts of grace, the gift of the liberated soul.

 

Almost a hundred years ago, one of the heroes of my childhood church, the Rev. George W. Truett, came from Texas to Washington, DC, to deliver a sermon.  He preached to a crowd of 15,000 people assembled on the east steps of the Capitol. 

In his sermon he said, “It is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of his [or her] conscience, and, as long as [one person] does not infringe upon the rights of others, he [or she] is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty. Toleration implies that somebody falsely claims the right to tolerate. Toleration is a concession, while liberty is a right. Toleration is a matter of expediency, while liberty is a matter of principle. Liberty is a gift from God.  ….religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced, … it is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel [women and] men to conform to any religious creed or form of worship, or to pay taxes for the support of a religious organization to which they do not believe. God wants free worshipers and no other kind.”

 

When the Pharisees and the Herodians came to Jesus with a trick question, he didn’t fully answer.

And when the writers of our First Amendment penned their words, they didn’t further interpret their application.

Despite this long-winded sermon, I have not told you what I think you should think or do about Sunday mail delivery or these court cases or about subpoenaed sermons.

I would suggest living on the side of liberty.

And I would say that, if forced to choose between the side of Caesar or the side of God, choose God’s every time – choose God’s side.

Amen.

 

 

 

Sources:

§  “Two Sides of the Same Coin,” sermon by Rev. J. Brent Walker http://bjconline.org/two-sides-of-the-same-coin/

§  “Short Course in the History of the United Church of Christ: Our Reformation Roots” http://www.ucc.org/about-us/short-course/

§  Postal Service to Make Sunday Deliveries for Amazon by Ron Nixon, New York Times, November 11, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/11/business/postal-service-and-amazon-strike-deal.html?_r=0

§  Forgotten Baptist Heroes: Richard M. Johnson (1780-1850): Sunday Mail Delivery by Bruce T. Gourley http://www.baptisthistory.org/bhhs/bsb/bsb2013_02.html#first%20story

§  Sermon on Religious Liberty, Rev. George W. Truett, May 16, 1920. http://www.mainstreambaptists.org/mob/truett_sermon.htm