The Things that are God's
Psalm 96:1-9, Matthew 22:15-22 and Excerpts from Life Together: The Classic
Exploration of Christian Community by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Thank you once again for being here in what has been another hard week. Thank
you for showing up for one another.
As we bring ourselves once again to hear beyond the surface, I invite you to take a
deep breath and let yourself arrive more fully. And as you are so moved, I invite
you to join me in a spirit of prayer. God, may the words of my mouth and the
meditations of all our hearts, wherever they are, be acceptable in your sight, O
Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.” These words
from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic Life Together jumped out at me this week.
Interruption has been the theme of 2020.
We have been interrupted, disturbed and disrupted in some places beyond repair.
Things changed so quickly and so much seems to be shifting now at a rapid pace.
This feels true for our forests and our biosphere as much as it does for how we
work, how we do church and how we do our life together.
How we live and what we have come to expect has been dramatically modified
and it is all ever moving still.
Some of this interruption has been beautiful- sparking creativity and new
connections between us, the ingathering of new people, sharing our message
more broadly, the collective adaptation of our ministries, thinking about things in
dramatically different ways- this disruption has pushed us light years ahead in the
sense that in general, as a whole, we see things more clearly, both in terms of
what is failing and also in terms of what is possible.
But this great interruption wasn’t something we had the privilege of allowing,
rather it was forced upon us.
It has caused grief, it has been hard, and there is a tough road ahead and still I
believe that whatever name we have for God, even if we aren’t sure about a
Higher Power, we can celebrate that this has been a year to make things crystal
Orbits have gotten smaller, commutes less crowded, weddings have become
micro, everything has been stripped down, illuminating the most essential parts.
In our church life, we have chosen to use this time to clarify our commitments, to
be creative and to experiment. We have chosen to strengthen our structure and
foundation- to pivot quickly. And it seems for the world as a whole that many of
us have used this time to invest in righting our relationships with stuff, with the
earth, with ourselves, with our economic and educational systems and maybe
even to righting our relationship with our government. How did we get here?
This last part is what many scholars believe this text in the Gospel of Matthew is
about. As Andrew Purves writes, this story puts “The theological question before
us: what is the nature of the right relationship between the obedience to the
state and obedience to God?” He goes on, “The issue becomes complex and
important in view of civil religion, or when the ethos and policies of a particular
state are in some manner taken to be especially blessed by God, forging
theological exceptionalism as national policy.”
We saw examples of this last week when one Senator remarked over the
Supreme Court confirmation hearing that “This is the first time in American
history that we’ve nominated a woman who is unashamedly pro-life and
embraces her faith without apology.”
Claiming that there is only one political issue that is in support of human life and
discounting the Jewish faith embraced without apology by Ruth Bader Ginsberg
and Sonia Sotomayor is a perfect example of Christian theological exceptionalism.
Politicians and community leaders have historically claimed and are now claiming
more boldly that their policies are blessed by God, forging theological
exceptionalism as local, state and national policy. How did we get here?
How did we allow denial to go on so long that our beloved forests are burning?
How did we allow such hateful language to become the norm that now we are
nearly numb? How did we allow such inequalities in our educational and
healthcare systems? How did we get to a place that is so far from a just world for
Those of you who have learned some of my story know that I grew up in a
staunchly GOP household. We were taught how to set a table properly, to love
the outdoors and to get dirty, to work hard for what matters and we were taught
that America is the greatest country in the world.
That sounds so odd saying it out loud now because I do not believe for one
second that God cares more about one nation state than another. I will never
forget the day my friend Jonathan stopped me in the hallway after Mr. Sather’s
Honor’s English Class to ask me about Vietnam and how that made us all more
free or how it helped the people there or any of us. Even though my biological
father served in the Army and survived the Vietnam war, the view handed to me
was that it was that it was always about freedom, that it was about protecting the
When I went to college at the University of Arizona, I soaked up history, religion,
politics and at first I made my parents proud by not only joining a local campus
Christian ministry group. And later on, I was an intern for Arizona Republican
Senator Jon Kyle where I spent my days answering phone calls about everything
from alien citings to concerns about policy. I was duty bound to believe that only
one side, one view, one way of looking at the world was right. I listened to
conservative talk radio that reminded me daily on my rides to the campus that
this country was being ruined by feminists and the poor who take more than they
give. No one in my world then talked about how this country was started on
stolen land and stolen labor.
But I kept going to church and I kept reading the scriptures and slowly some of
the views handed to me were disrupted by my experiences, by the immigrant
voices in Tucson, by what I was reading in school and singing on Sunday morning.
At some point, my own history, my own cognitive dissonances about certain
political positions and Jesus’ words could no longer avoid a faceoff. I had to
confront the fact that most of the US history on which my political philosophies
were built, were fantasy and I could no longer avoid challenging some of the ideas
handed to me and all of this has layers and layers of grief that go on for me still. I
have had to accept that challenging certain views that have long been held dear
by those I love, would mean a loss of friendships and a fracturing of family
In some ways it was another world ago, but it taught me what social media
teaches us in this moment, we humans tend to hold on tight to the views handed
down to us. Second, we are confused and angry when our views are interrupted
or disrupted by the experiences of someone else. So often our first response is
defensiveness. Third, we are especially vulnerable when someone in power claims
to be on the side of the Holy.
In this season of voting and loud gloating about who is right, the Gospels put a
perfectly timed question before us: what does it look like to be in right
relationship with our government and with our God?
Jesus is asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" This is actually
the first of three sort of debates that he has with the religious leaders of his time
and this question is intended to be a trap.
As one commentator pointed out, “If Jesus opposes paying the tax, he makes
himself vulnerable to charges of sedition. If he supports paying the tax, he loses
face among the people, for whom such taxes symbolize Roman occupation and
Jesus knew and probably lived the reality that the taxes posed a huge economic
burden and he also knew that not supporting them publicly would appear to be
the same as appearing as condoning a kind of rebellion.
The parable presents us with a variety of questions: What is our responsibility, our
role, our call when the government asks us to participate in something we believe
to be against the commitments of our faith? What do we do when our tax dollars
are contributing to the suffering of others like high grade weapons to kill people
more efficiently, or subsidizing fossil fuel companies to extract from our precious
earth more easily?
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"
It is really a question that demands that we notice and live the difference
between what is legal and what is moral.
To what do we owe our God and to what do we owe our nation state?
You might recall the genius evident in the Letter from the Birmingham Jail where
the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King writes eloquently on this very thing. “I hope you
are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate
evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to
anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a
willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law
that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of
imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its
injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. Of course, there is
nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in
the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of
Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was
practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions
and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust
laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today
because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea
Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience. We should never forget that
everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian
freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a
Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the
time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a
Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are
suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" Jesus dances with this question
by saying, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” but the truth is, that is
As you heard, Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is not that God is the spectator and sharer of
our present life, howsoever important that is; but rather that we are the reverent
listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the history of the
Christ on earth.”