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In Search of a Moral Compass

June 12, 2012

A sermon preached by The Rev. Peter Nimmo at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 10, 2012

James 2.14-26          Matthew 22.15-22


In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It’s a great joy and pleasure for me to be joining with you all in worship on this Sunday morning. It has been  20 years I was last in the United States. In September 1991, I arrived at Princeton Seminary, fresh from completing my Bachelor of Divinity degree at the University of Glasgow. One of the very first American students I met was a freshman who whose room was just along the corridor from me, the man who is now your pastor, Jeff Geary. Erdman Hall was not the most popular dorm on the campus, for the rooms were small- almost claustrophobic- so that the students spent a lot of time in the hall, and in the common room, and so those of us on that hallway did a lot together. Jeff’s family in Chicago kindly hosted myself and my future wife, Katharina, during a road trip we did across the Midwest. And he and his family came and stayed at our home in Inverness, Scotland, some four years ago when Jeff was on sabbatical in Europe. And then there was the memorable occasion, when Jeff and I went along to a student party one evening. He stepped in the door, and saw a woman who him stopped in his tracks. As he gaped, this confident woman walked up to him and said, ‘My name is Noelle Damico- who are you?’ Jeff gave an incoherent reply in which he managed to get his own name wrong. However, they went on to make a great team together- and my family are very much looking forward to meeting Jeff, Noelle and August one more when they visit in early July.

I have been in my current parish some eight years now. At Old High St Stephen’s, we have two historic places of worship- St Stephen’s built in what was a new part of town just over one hundred years ago, and the Old High Church, the first church of Inverness. In 565 AD, St Columba, the Irish monk who had founded the monastery of Iona, travelled by way of Loch Ness to Inverness, where he met the king of the Picts, Brude, and converted him and his people. A Celtic church was established on a small hill next to the River Ness, where the Old High Church now stands. So we are the oldest of the churches of Inverness, the historic parish Church. We retain special links to the civic life of the city; for example, once a year the city councillors walk to the Church behind a pipe band and accompanied by school children, members of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and other local dignitaries, to attend what in Scotland we call, ‘The Kirking of the Council’. It is a chance for the Christian community to pray God’s blessing on the work of the council and the life of the city, to show that we are concerned with public issues- and for me to preach accordingly about the responsibilities our public officials have towards God and the community. I share the passion which I know many of you share for seeing God’s justice done in the world, and it’s with all this in mind that I find myself coming back to the United States to speak to people, to learn, and to think about how the Church today advocates for Christian values in today’s world.

Some time ago, our former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown- himself the son of a Church of Scotland minister- spoke of a ‘moral compass’ which he hoped would guide his approach to politics[1].. Of course, we all argued about whether he did manage to follow his moral compass! But then, we can ask that of any politician, of any individual, who claims to be trying to live up to their principles. And most importantly, we should ask it of ourselves.

For Christian people, our moral compass will very often be expressed using the language of the Bible. At our last Kirking of the Council, we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James translation of the Bible. We were able to generate a lot of media interest in our theme, for the Old High church actually houses a first edition of the King James Bible. So we read from that famous translation in our worship, and a some school children shared what they had learned about the way the King James Bible had affected the language and culture of the English-speaking world. And if, today, King James’s translation is not read so often in churches, still English-speaking people, whether religious or not, often recall the words of Scripture in the language of that 400 year old version: ‘Render… unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’; or ‘faith without works is dead’. But at the Kirking service, I pointed  out that the Bible had been influencing the thought-world of our nation for a lot longer. Indeed, people had been reading, listening to, preaching, pondering and singing the words of the Christian Bible on the spot we were worshipping since 565 AD- in Latin and Gaelic long before there was ever an English translation! And today these ancient words continue to resonate, as we struggle with modern issues.

For example: when we ponder issues of faith and politics, the conversation often comes round to the story about Jesus which we heard today from the Gospel of Matthew. Yet before we can use this story, or any other passage of Scripture, our first task must always be to see if we can understand its original meaning. What were the circumstances of the time? What did people back then think Jesus meant? Only when we have understood some of those questions can we begin to apply any wisdom there might be in this text.

Recently, we have been reminded just what price has to be paid for those basic human freedoms which we take for granted because we have inherited them. People across the Arab world have sacrificed much for the sake of human dignity. And in places like Syria, people are still being shot simply because they want a decent life. Well, Israel in Jesus’ time could be a dangerous place to express your views. Jesus did not live in a democracy. The Mediterranean world was dominated by one superpower- Rome, who held ultimate power in the region. Some regions, such as Jesus’ home region of Galilee, were ruled by puppet kings who owed allegiance to Rome. Jerusalem and the surrounding area were occupied by Roman legions and ruled directly on behalf of the Emperor by a Governor, Pontius Pilate. The place simmered with discontent, which sometimes broke out into open revolt. Rome’s way with revolt was drastic- violent repression, and mass executions, when hundreds or thousands might die a terrible death by crucifixion.

Ruling Jerusalem was no easy task for the Romans, for in Palestine, religious and nationalist sentiment inevitably went together, and this gave the place a special character, as Pilate discovered early in his term of office. Pilate had his legions bring their standards in the city- a common practice in many cities around the Empire, even if it no doubt caused resentment in some colonies. But since these standards had images of the Emperor- which the Jews regarded as idolatrous- the affair developed a religious dimension. So Pilate had his soldiers smuggle the standards into the city and set them up at night. There was a furious reaction when people discovered them in the morning, with mostly peaceful demonstrations, which led, in the end, to the removal of the standards- something which Rome would probably not have tolerated elsewhere. So Rome learned that although many Jews were willing to collaborate with them, or at least sullenly put up with them, when it came to matters of religion it was simpler to compromise sometimes.

It is against this febrile atmosphere that the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth took place. It’s strange that for many people today, whether they are churchgoers or not, Jesus is often imagined as a gentle man who floated around a pastoral landscape, offering words of wisdom without really upsetting anyone. But if Jesus was merely, as the old hymn puts is, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, it is hard to account for the fact that he ended up dying on one of those terrible Roman crosses. For Jesus had a way of upsetting people- especially those who held power in the religious establishment. Jesus was executed by the Romans like a common murder or terrorist. And Pilate ordered it at the behest of a religious establishment who convinced him that Jesus was a threat to Roman power and the peace of the country.

Now Jesus has left behind his native Galilean countryside and entered the city of Jerusalem. He timed his entry to the city well- it is the run up to Passover, the most important date in the religious calendar in Jerusalem. And wherever he goes, he causes a stir, provoking arguments and protests. Those of us who have read the book before know that in a few days time, he will leave the city for the last time carrying his cross, on the way to Golgotha, the place of execution beyond the city walls.

Jesus has annoyed and upset various religious and political leaders, who by this time are beginning to seek ways to silence him. They cannot do so too openly yet, for there is much sympathy for him among the ordinary people. It is a sign of the elites’ desperation that we are told that two groups which were normally great rivals, the Herodians and the Pharisees, get together in an attempt to trap him. The Herodians were the supporters of King Herod of Galilee, one of Rome’s puppet kings. They believed in collaboration with the Romans. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were staunch in their observance of religious duties and ritual, and resented the rule of pagan Rome in their land. But these old enemies have formed a coalition, and seek him out.

After some flattery (you teach the way of God, they tell him), they challenge him with a very pointed question: ‘Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?’ They are asking Jesus to make a judgement as to whether paying taxes to the Romans in compatible with their faith.

It’s a clever question, for the coalition partners think that however he answers, Jesus will get into trouble. If he says people shouldn’t pay the tax, then he can be reported to the Romans for sedition, and could expect to be arrested as a rebel soon afterwards. But if Jesus says the tax should be paid, that would discredit him in the eyes of the ordinary people who are his supporters. They didn’t like the Romans’ taxes- and not just because people usually don’t like paying tax anyway. It was also paying to a foreign king, and for some that meant also dishonouring Israel’s one true king, God himself. It’s a no-win question for Jesus.

But he sees through their trick. He has a Roman coins brought to him. Whose head and whose name are on the coin? he asks them. It is the head of the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Caesar. So, he says, pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. We are told that his opponents ‘marvelled’ at his answer, and left him alone.

We know that sometimes a politician, asked a hard question, will try to wriggle out of it with a bland answer to avoid trouble. So has Jesus given a politician’s answer, just to get him out of trouble? There is more than that. For by not answering directly, Jesus says something which transcends the moment. He offers, not a direct answer, but a principle- wisdom which will be useful for centuries to come.

Many people have read a lot into Christ’s statement- ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’. These words could be used to support the kind of constitutional separation of Church and State which is so important to Americans. Some have suggested that these words mean that Christ is only interested in what are called ‘spiritual’ matters, such as the salvation of the individual, and that he did not want his followers to apply his values to politics or in social action. But we should be wary of such claims, for many of our ideas about the relation of religion and politics  date from many centuries after Christ. We should be wary of reading into his words our own attitudes and prejudices.

In the original situation, Jesus was challenged to set out his attitude towards Roman government, towards the Roman Emperor. What does he think? What should his followers do? If we take his words in that original context: Jesus says nothing which could be used by his enemies to directly charge him with subversion. But he subtly puts the Emperor in his place. It’s not just what he says, but how he says it- his actions. He asks to be given a penny. He asks, whose head and name is on this? He says- or implies- that since Caesar’s head is on the penny, then the penny must belong to him. He is almost, I think, saying, this belongs to Caesar anyway, this little penny. So let him have it. Render unto Caesar what belongs to him. And render to God, what belongs to God.

But what does belong to God? In fact, everything belongs to God. The God of Israel was not just one local god among the many whom the Romans tolerated in their empire. When Jesus speaks of God, he means the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the only one true God. So, when you think about, Jesus is saying that everything belongs to God. Jesus is implying that the Roman Emperor can never demand ultimate loyalty. The Emperor does not stand as the head of a realm- the realm of politics, the realm of public life- which is somehow independent of God. The Emperor cannot stand as a sort of parallel god. He is only Emperor because the God who created him allows it. Jesus is saying that although it might be your duty to pay tax to the Emperor, even the pennies with the Emperor’s head on them belong to God, for God created even them.

And so, from a trick question asked by his enemies, and in dangerous times in ancient Jerusalem, Jesus brought forth wisdom which continues to inform contemporary Christian reflection about the state and politics. The Romans were not the government which the people of Israel had chosen. Yet government- any government- is necessary. When in places like Libya, the cruel regimes which had held sway began to collapse. there was much anxiety, for, brutal although they undoubtedly were,   they did bring a kind of clumsy stability. All nations need some framework which  allows people to have the necessities of life- clean water, electricity, safe streets, food, education, a banking system to allow trade, and so on. We saw what happened in Iraq when the government of Saddam Hussein was destroyed without there having been enough thought given to rebuilding not just the physical, but the governmental and legal infrastructure of that sad nation. Government- and it was a brutal and cruel government- was replaced for a time by anarchy, which is no real freedom at all.

So Caesar has his place- bringing law and order, at the very least. Government is necessary, and even when it is imperfect, most Christians would agree that for most of the time, we ought to render unto Caesar by abiding by the laws and paying our taxes and by being good citizens. But we will always prefer if governments act justly, keep the peace, and are not corrupt or inefficient. And in a democracy, we will not be slow to point out when we think government could be better.

For Jesus also says, ‘Render unto God what belongs to God’. For some, this is dangerous territory. ‘Keep God out of politics’ is the fashionable cry today, certainly on my side of the Atlantic. There are those who recall how religion has been misused, for example, by the hijackers of September 11 2001, or their comrades who blew up and bus and underground trains in London on 7 July 2005. Yet the vast majority of religious people- of every faith, including Islam- agree that to try to use God as a justification for such terrorism is just blasphemy. So for the radical atheists to try to dismiss God from public life, to dismiss the contribution of faith to public discourse and debate, is much too simplistic a response. Indeed, societies which have tried to abolish religious belief have been the some of the most morally bankrupt societies we have ever seen: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Pol Pot’s Cambodia. A society which tries to snuff out religion will eventually snuff out all free thinking and speech, for religious freedom is the basis of all freedom- as most Americans, I think, understand very well. So we should not be afraid to bring our convictions about God’s justice into social and political which take place in our public life, for I suspect that attempts to have a morality free of God will lead eventually to an politics free of morality.

This is not to say that Christians have all the answers, or that the one faith or denomination should have a dominant role- this is impossible, and even undesirable. If we argue for the place of faith in public life, we have to guard that for members of other faiths as well, and for those of no faith. And we will build alliances with those who share our passions and values, whatever their faith position. For the experience of my country- and yours- is that faith often encourages good citizenship. In the letter to James, the writer wished to make the point that a religious belief which did not result in the believer doing good for others was no real faith at all. He sums it up in the saying ‘faith without works is dead’. It is a faith without substance, which no-one will take seriously, for we are not living out in deeds the content of the faith we say we profess. And so down through history, so that around the world there are many who, inspired by their faith, work hard at serving other people and living out their Christian vocation to love their neighbour. And for some, political activity or campaigning is a one way of putting their beliefs into action.

For as Jesus reminds us, Caesar is not a god, and the State does not have all the answers. For Christians, there is always a higher loyalty- to the God of Jesus Christ, a God who stands with the poor and powerless, a God who stands for justice over expediency, a God who stands for peace over violence, a God whose truth-speaking lead him to the cross. And because we recognise that, we Christians will continue to worry politicians with concerns about issues such global warming’s impact on the world’s poor, about preserving essential services for the needy in hard times, about making sure  young people have a rounded education. We will protest when, at a time when many are suffering, some of the richest individuals and corporations are able to wriggle out of their duty to pay the taxes which support these things. In Scotland today, around a quarter of nation’s children live in poverty- so we ask our leaders- what are you going to do about that- for that is a question which is ultimately a moral question?, and it is the God of Jesus of Nazareth who is our moral compass.

There are times when it’s appropriate for us to do some rendering unto Caesar. Scripture instructs us pray for the important work of politicians and public servants; we should be supportive of them, as many of them sincerely try to do what they can for the common good in financially difficult times. But our prayers for them are directed to God, maker of heaven and earth, a God with no equal. It is to God alone to whom we can pray for the justice and peace which brings blessing on our cities, on our nations, and on our world. For the Scriptures witness to God’s vision of a world in which the poor and downtrodden are served, and not punished, by the political and economic structures and policies which our politicians frame and put into practice. Rendering to God means that we struggle for that vision, and that we remind Caesar that he, also, stands under the judgement of God.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

© 2012 Peter W Nimmo


One Comment leave one →
  1. June 12, 2012 11:17 pm

    Reblogged this on peterstudyleave and commented:
    From Pastor Jeff’s blog, the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday 10 June. Thanks for letting me loose on your congregation, Jeff!

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