Sermon for October 19th, 2014

Sermon for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

October 19, 2014, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas

Sermon Text:  Matthew 22:15-22

Sermon Theme:  “Render to Caesar and Render to God?”

(Sources:  Anderson’s Preaching Journal, Cycle A; Embassy of Heaven Midnight Rider Newsletter, 1995; “Heaven Is a Tax-Free Paradise in Oregon,” online article; Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; original ideas; Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, 1986 edition).

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Paul Revere has established the kingdom of Heaven in Oregon!”  That’s what newspaper headlines said in 1994.  Of course it wasn’t the 18th Century Paul Revere of the American Revolution we know from history.

It was a pastor in Oregon who established “the Kingdom of Heaven” on 34 acres of land about twenty miles from Salem.  Twice Revere was jailed for issuing his own license plates with the word HEAVEN embossed thereon and for failing to pay property taxes.  He insisted that the kingdom of Heaven is not of this world, and that it is impossible to serve both God and the State.  He urged that his followers should not be yoked by the government, so should throw away their state-owned driver’s licenses and Social Security cards, cancel their car insurance, bank accounts, etc.  He argued that Jesus didn’t pay any taxes so why should we.

Revere posted a regular online Embassy of Heaven newsletter on the internet, entitled Midnight Rider.  He advertised his 34 acres as “God’s Government on Earth, and apparently had many followers, who were promised they could live tax free forever, first in Oregon, then in Heaven.  Officials in Marion County were unconvinced by any of Revere’s arguments, and informed him that if he didn’t pay the $10,000 he owed in taxes, they would put the 34 acres of the Kingdom of Heaven on the market.

Does the Kingdom of Heaven in Oregon still exist?  I don’t think so, as his online newsletter stopped in year 2000, and I can’t find any mention of him anywhere since then.

Revere’s main arguments were essentially that of the Pharisees and other religious zealots in Jesus’ day.  These are the same religious leaders who were responsible for Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, and who unintentionally helped to fulfill God’s plan for mankind’s salvation through His death and resurrection.

In today’s sermon text from Matthew, the Pharisees and Herodians wanted to catch Jesus in an either/or trap.  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?  They thought that loyalty to God and to the state were an either/or situation.  Jesus taught that both had a claim on our loyalty, but on much different levels.

As citizens of this world, we owe support to our government.  But we are also citizens of God’s kingdom, which lays on us a much more basic claim to our loyalty.  Caesar and God are not on the same level of loyalty.  God is the foundational loyalty on which all others are based.  In other words, Jesus affirms the government’s right to levy taxes for services but also insists that a person must pay God what is owed him, — namely, ultimate allegiance and devotion.

It would be difficult not to see Jesus’ words in our text as the Biblical authorization for the separation of church and state.  Thomas Jefferson , centuries later, said that the government should protect the churches from the State.

This whole idea of the separation of Church and State is a very hot button issue right now, with the City of Houston government, for example, subpoenaing Houston pastors’ sermons, newsletters, and even emails.  It was a hot-button issue in Jesus’ day, and that’s why He responded the way He did when the Pharisees and the Herodians asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

Christians today are often ambivalent about the issue, and that is understandable; but they should not be.  When Christians demand the government put prayer back in the schools, they need to think of how they would feel if Muslim prayers, for instance, were required in the public schools?  When you require prayer in the schools, whose prayer is going to be required?

Look at Denmark, Sweden and Norway, where there is a State religion, — and it happens to be Lutheran.  Part of the Danish taxpayers’ money goes to the church, and part of the pastor’s salary is paid by the Danish government.  If the government helps to support the churches, then the government can tell the churches what to do and maybe even the pastor what he can and cannot preach.  Church attendance is about 15% in Denmark, so having a State Religion does not make the church bigger and better.

Yes, the Bible teaches the separation of Church and State, but the Bible does not teach how to govern, how to stimulate the economy, or how to solve the problem of the Ukraine.  But God does give the Christian the wisdom to deal with those issues; therefore, the Christian should be involved in governmental concerns, which means, as awful as it seems, to be involved in politics.  The Christian should and does bring ethics and morality into the government and into politics.

No, separation of Church and State does not mean the Christian should stay out of the affairs of the State.  No indeed!  As a citizen, it is his duty to be involved.

In his attempt to deal with the distinction between Church and State, President Jimmy Carter, when he arrived in Washington after his 1976 election, did not allow religious services in the White House.  Yet, he confesses that he personally has never prayed more than during those years when he was President of the United States.  And he readily admitted that he was a Southern Baptist, and that he taught Sunday School in Southern Baptists churches.

The American tax code is often the source of headaches for many people during the first part of the year.  Every year, as our Secretary who works for H &R Block, can tell you, there are new rules or new exceptions to old rules; it’s almost impossible to keep everything straight.  That’s certainly one reason paying taxes is just as unpopular today as it was in Jesus’ day.  A 2007 report by the IRS stated that over 16% of Americans were delinquent on their taxes.

We can understand the temptation to rebel against the government by not paying taxes.  But Jesus did not give us that option.  His words were simple, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Now those rebels, like Pastor Paul Revere from the Kingdom of Heaven in Oregon, argue like this.  ‘Jesus said give to God the things that are God’s.  OK, so what belongs to God?  The answer of course is everything.  In that case, then, what belongs to Caesar?  The answer:  nothing!  OK, — so I don’t owe the government anything!’  That was Revere’s argument to get out of paying taxes.

But here’s the Biblical point that those who think such a way are missing:  All earthly powers derive their authority from God.  In rendering your obedience to the rightly constituted earthly authority, a Christian is also submitting to God’s rule.

This Biblical point is found in the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.”  The Explanation to Luther’s Small Catechism identifies “fathers and mothers” to mean parents, guardians, and other authorities at home, in government, at school, at the place where we work, and in the church.  God forbids us to despise our parents and other authorities by not respecting them or angering them by our disobedience or by any other kind of sin.

In answering the question, “What does God require of us in the Fourth Commandment,” The Explanation to Luther’s Catechism states, “God requires us to honor our parents and other authorities by regarding them as God’s representatives.”

Romans 13:7 says, “Give everyone what you owe him:  If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”

Titus 3:1 says, “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good.”

As those young people who have gone through my Confirmation classes should be able to tell you, the only time God approves of your disobeying authority occurs if and when the authority expects you to do something that is contrary to the Word of God.

As Jesus proves in the text, paying taxes is not contrary to the Word of God.

Today’s text from Matthew may not be the most popular text in the Bible, but it is surely one of the most important ones.  And, to me, the most significant line in the text is “Render to . . . God the things that are God’s,” understanding of course that everything is God’s!  Let us keep in mind the words of the hymn Mark just sang, “Take my time here on this earth, let it glorify all that you are worth; for I have nothing, I have nothing without you.”  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.