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Sunday, 19 October 2014

What Belongs to God - a sermon for Freedom Sunday

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Please note that although this starts off the same as the sermon preached on this Sunday in 2011 and 2008, it finishes very differently.

Has anybody got penny on them? Or even a pound coin? Okay, whose picture is on the front of it?

We’re used to our coins, aren’t we – we barely even notice that they have a picture of the Queen on one side, and a few odd remarks in Latin printed round the picture. They basically say Elizabeth, and then DG, which means by God’s grace; Reg, short for Regina, means Queen, and FD means Defender of the Faith – a title, ironically, given to Henry the Eighth when he wrote a book supporting the Pope against the Protestant Reformation, long before he wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon and had to leave the Catholic church.

When I was a little girl, though, before decimalisation, coins were even more interesting, as they didn’t all have pictures of the Queen on – the old shillings, sixpences, florins and half-crowns had often been issued during the reign of George the Sixth and pennies were often even older – it was not unusual to find penny that had been issued during the reign of Queen Victoria, even! My father used to make us guess the date on the coin, based on which reign it was, and if we were right we got to keep it. Not that we ever were right, so it was a fairly safe game for him, but it made sure we knew the dates of 20th-century monarchs!

Different countries have different things on their coins, of course; if you look at Euro coins, they have a different design on one side depending on which country issued them: the German ones have a picture of the Brandenburg gate, Austria has a stylised eagle; the Irish ones have a harp. Those Euro countries which are monarchies have a picture of their monarch on them, as we would if we joined the Euro, and the Vatican City ones have a picture of the Pope! I don't know what the newer Euro countries, like Estonia and Poland have, but it wouldn't be impossible to find out! That might be a nice game to play with my grandsons when they are a little older, perhaps – but they would learn them too quickly, I think.

This convention, of showing the monarch on your coins, dates back thousands of years, and was well-known in Jesus’ day. But unfortunately, this raised a problem for Jesus and his contemporaries, as the Roman coins in current use all showed a picture of the Emperor, and the wording round the side said something like “Son of a god”, meaning that the Emperor was thought to be divine.

You might remember how the earliest Christians were persecuted for refusing to say that the Emperor was Lord, as to them, only Jesus was Lord? Well, similarly, the Jews couldn’t say that Caesar was God, and, rather like Muslims, they were forbidden to have images of people, either. So the Roman coins carried a double whammy for them.

They got round it by having their own coins to be used in the Temple – hence the money-changers that Jesus threw out, because they were giving such a rotten rate of exchange. But for everyday use, of course, they were stuck with the Roman coins. And taxes, like the poll tax, had to be paid in Roman coins. You might remember the episode where Jesus tells Peter to catch a fish, and it has swallowed a coin that will do for both of their taxes. But that was then, and this is now.

Now, Jesus is in the Temple when they come to him – in the holy place, where you must use the Jewish coins or not spend money. “They”, in this case, are not only the Pharisees, who were out to trap Jesus by any means possible, but also the Herodians, who actually supported the puppet-king, Herod.

The question is a total trick question, of course. They come up to Jesus, smarming him and pointing out that they know he doesn’t take sides – so should they pay their poll tax, or not? If he says, yes you must, then he’ll be accused of saying it’s okay for people to have coins with forbidden images; it’s okay to be Romanised; it’s okay to collaborate with the occupying power. And if he says, no don’t, then he’ll be accused of trying to incite rebellion or terrorism.

So Jesus asks for a coin. I expect it was the Herodians who produced one – the Pharisees would probably not have admitted to having one in their pockets, even if they did. And he asks whose image – eikon, the word is – whose image is on the coin? And they said, puzzled, Caesar’s of course, whose else would it be?

And we all know what he said next: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God what belongs to God.

It’s kind of difficult, at this distance, to know what he meant. Was he saying we need to keep our Christian life separate from the rest of life? God forbid, and I mean that! If our commitment to God means anything at all, it should be informing all we do, whether we are at worship on Sunday or at work on Monday or out at the pub on a Friday! There is a crying need for Christians in all walks of life; whether we are called to be plumbers or politicians, bankers or builders, retired or redundant! Wherever we find ourselves, we are God’s people, and our lives and values and morals and behaviour need to reflect that.

So what is Jesus saying? It’s about more than paying taxes or not paying them. It’s not about whether we support our government or whether we don’t.

I think he’s saying that there doesn’t have to be a conflict. The image of Caesar is on the coin – but we, we are made in God’s image! If we were coins, the writing around us would say “A child of God”, not, as for the Caesars, meaning that we are gods ourselves, but meaning, quite literally, that we are God’s beloved children. There isn't really any difference between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, because, ultimately, everything belongs to God.  Even the holy people, the Pharisees, had to use these coins when they went to the market.  There isn't really much difference.

Yes, we need to be good citizens – both Jesus and Paul make that clear, one way and another. And yes, that includes voting as and when we're entitled to do so, and paying such taxes as we rightfully owe, but it also includes making a fuss when things aren't going as they should.

For instance, why do we still need food banks and soup kitchens? I think it's disgraceful in this day and age, and I emailed my MP about it; of course I only got back the vague sort of answer that if and when his party came to power they would Do Something About It – I'd really like him to be asking Questions in the House every week or so to find out what the Government is doing about it.

And maybe we should be writing to him – or her, if you're up this end where it's Kate Hoey, rather than down my end where it's Chuka Umunna – about traffiking. As I said at the start of the service, we've been asked to think about that today, as yesterday was World Anti-Traffiking Day.

We've all read horror stories about people who came over here in all good faith, thinking they were going to be found a sensible job and somewhere to live, and then they found themselves enduring slavery, and worse than slavery. There was even a case here in Brixton, not just so long ago. And the people involved are afraid to get help, as they are here illegally, and may well have fled very difficult situations in their home countries. The people who offered to “help” them, quote unquote, were preying on their fears as much as on their hopes.

There was the case of the Chinese cockle-pickers, some years ago, in virtual slavery up in Morecambe Bay, who were forced to work when it wasn't safe and were drowned.

We have all read stories about girls forced into prostitution, and so on. And I have a horrible feeling that these ones are only the tip of the iceberg. We must and we will pray for these people, obviously, but also, if you even suspect anything like that is going on near you – report it! If you don't want to go to the Police, I'm sure Anti-Slavery International or Stop the Traffik would help – in fact, I recommend a visit to their websites as there is a lot of information on there, including ways in which we can help.

You see, there isn't really much difference, is there, between giving to Caesar what is Caesar's, and giving to God what is God's. These poor people are, each and every one of them, someone for whom Christ died. Someone who God loves so impossibly much he couldn't love them more. I'm sure God's heart breaks when one of his beloved children is sold into suffering, raped, beaten, overworked, not paid at all.... and I'm afraid it happens rather more frequently that we would like to admit it does.

One of my favourite books is called These Old Shades, and in it, a child character is taken to Versailles, where the King is holding court. And on the way home, the child says, “The King was lovely, just like on the coins”. I often wonder whether, if we were an image on a coin, people would recognise us. Perhaps, if we are whole-hearted about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God, and recognising that really, there's very little difference, maybe they would. And in the meanwhile, let's do what we can to stop the injustices of our modern world. Amen.