In a world where we frequently hear concerns expressed about the future of the church in the face of declining attendance and a secularized world, it is easy to forget that these anxieties are nothing new. Every generation has experienced anxiety about the state of the church as they perceive the end to the way things were before and uncertainty about what the future holds.
I’m reading through a wonderful little book at the moment, “The Comfortable Pew,” which is a uniquely Canadian analysis of the state of the mainline Protestant churches in the country. It was commissioned by the Anglican Church in Canada, hiring an independent journalist to help them figure out the root causes of declining membership and a diminished stature in the broader society.
It was written in 1965.
It is equal parts fascinating and distressing that the critique the author offers still holds up to this day, almost sixty years later. The problem the author identifies is that the church broadly, and the Anglican Church specifically, offered nothing, made itself irrelevant in the face of the major social and moral crises of the day, especially nuclear proliferation and business ethics. To be clear, it is not that the church couldn’t offer something substantive, it is not that it couldn’t claim a moral voice and teaching to address these urgent issues, but that it chose not to.
It was an abdication by choice, made in decisions small and big. It was aided by clergy who preached sweet nothings on Sunday mornings and by a national church too afraid to engage with difficult topics. It was as though the church, as a whole, had decided that our faith was only about the hour or two we spend in church on Sunday mornings. Outside those two hours, the church refused to speak and a civic, secular faith, spoke instead.
To put it another way, on Sunday morning, we give to God what is God’s, and the rest of the week, we give devotion to Caesar.
As Jesus was teaching, he was approached by two unlikely allies: a group of Pharisees, devoted to the purity of Jewish practice and law, and a group of Herodians, who were supporters of King Herod and all that he represented. They were not the sorts that typically worked well together, but they approached Jesus, side by side, to try and ensnare him in a trap that they had devised. It was a seemingly simple question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus answered that it was, the Pharisees would have been enraged. If he answered it was not, the Herodians would have been scandalized.
But knowing what was in their hearts, Jesus responded to their question with a question of his own. “Whose image does the coin bear?” They pulled out a coin and showed that it bore an image of the emperor. Jesus’ answer was simple, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”
In Jesus’ words, we are eager to hear his permission to keep our faith and the rest of our lives in two separate spheres that rarely, if ever, meet. We show up on Sunday, or as convenient, to give to God what is due. But in our business dealings we are shrewd and cutthroat, because protecting shareholder value is sacrosanct.
I was listening recently to a news story on the radio, if I remember correctly it was a business story about how Uber had been able to grow even while losing money by advantage of the ultra-low interest rates after the recession in the late 2000’s. Truthfully, what the story was about doesn’t really matter, what is important was a single line, “money chases after higher returns.” It is as though money were anything but an abstraction. It is as though money were a thing with a mind and a will of its own. So we think very little of investing in morally corrupt businesses, we think very little of business practices that devastate communities, so long as they give good returns. It is, after all, what Caesar demands.
We show up on Sunday mornings, to give to God what is due. But in the face of attempts to expand MAID to minors and to those with mental illness, in the face of the woman who was offered MAID when she checked into a hospital with suicidal thoughts, or the woman who opted for MAID because she could not find adequate housing, our church stays silent. It stays silent because it is a difficult topic with lots of nuance. It stays silent because not everyone agrees. It stays silent because we are afraid to claim any moral authority. Because we are too timid to even voice the gospel message that Christ came to heal the sick and cared for the vulnerable and fed the hungry and brought wholeness to the wounded.
Andrew Purves writes, “If Christianity remains the cult of the private, the community, or the institution, it sanctions civil religion and ratifies the religious sanctification of society as it is.”
Or, to put it another way, we show up on Sunday, to give to God what is due. But the rest of the time, like Jesus said, we must give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
At least, that is the message we want Jesus to give us. It is the message we want to hear, because it absolves us of the difficult part of our faith. But that is not what Jesus does.
“Sure, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus says to those who were listening so very closely to his words. He did not leave it there, though, “And give to God what is God’s.”
What bears God’s image? The coin they held before him bore the likeness of Caesar on it, but certainly no coin bore an image of God—it would have been forbidden, a great heresy! Rather, the whole of creation bears God’s fingerprints, and nothing more so than you.
You, my friends, are made in the image of God. Each and everyone of you, in all your diversity and variety, bear the image of God, both individually and all together. Though Jesus’ words at first seem like an easy division in the spheres of our lives, though we really want to hear them as an easy division between our faith and everything else, his words are anything but.
Sure, give these coins to Caesar, but there is nothing that is not God’s, most of all you. And if you think that you do not, if you think that you could not possibly bear the divine image, then perhaps you have not looked hard enough.
This morning we are welcoming new members into our community of faith here at St. Faith’s. But what is the faith to which we welcome them? Is it a faith that is nice for Sunday mornings, but which has nothing to say about the rest of the week? Is it a faith that can only sanctify society as it is, in all its brokenness, because it does not believe it can do anything else?
Or is it something more? Is it a faith that reorients the wholeness of our lives? Is it something that changes us, transforms us, and in doing transforms the world around us? Is it a faith that brings the hope and Good News of the Gospel message to a world broken and without hope? Is it a faith that brings healing and wholeness to all of creation and for all who bear God’s image?
My friends, this is the faith to which Jesus calls us as his disciples! This is the faith to which we welcome our newest members this morning. This is the faith that leads us back here, our whole life long, so that we might be renewed and restored once again to carry it back into the world.
Preached by the Rev. Adam Yates
 Purves, Andrew. “Feast on the Word.” pp.1025.