When Civic Duty and Christian Duty Come Face to Face

A Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost – October 19, 2014

 David H. Knight, Priest Associate

Send your spirit, God, to open our hearts and our minds to your Word, and strengthen us to live according to your will, in Jesus’ name. Amen.


From the hymn we sang earlier in this service:
Races and peoples, lo, we stand divided,
and sharing not our griefs , no joy can share;
by wars and tumults love is mocked, derided;
his saving cross no nation yet will bear;
thy kingdom come, O lord, thy will be done.

Hymn 573, stanza 2

The choice we face in today’s gospel reading is often a difficult one at best. Once again, the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus. You can just imagine them as they approached him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth…  Tell us what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  Jesus was aware of their scheme to entrap him.  He said, “Show me the coin used for the tax.”  Then he said “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They said, “The emperor’s.” He said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” For us the question of what is truly lawful can be can be answered only by looking to Jesus’ teaching on the greatest of the commandments when he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Marvin McMickle, President and Dean of Colgate Rochester Divinity School, suggests that the issue for most of us today is not as much about paying our taxes as it is about paying attention to what is happening around us and to whether or not the structures of power are carrying out their duties in a manner that promotes justice. We pay our federal, state, and local taxes, sales taxes, and taxes on fuel, hotel rooms and while we may not like paying those taxes we pay them anyway.  It is when our consciences begin to be in conflict with what our government may be doing in certain circumstances that our loyalties are challenged.

In his sermon last week, John spoke of how there are those passages of scripture that are etched in our memory.  Some of those passages for me are from scripture, some are from the Prayer Book, and some are from the hymns of our church as well.  From the 5th chapter of the book of the prophet Amos, for example, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

From the Prayer Book in the service of Holy Baptism,  (11:00 That we have heard this morning.) “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?  Today in this service of Baptism, as we welcome Campbell David into our midst, will you and I who witness these vows do all in our power to support him Campbell in his life in Christ so that as he grows in Christ he will strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being.

And then, there are the words of that hymn by Walter Russell Bowie written in 1910 and that still speak to us in our own day. These words, in fact, which I saw inscribed on the walls of a parish house at St. John’s Church in Jersey City in 1965, were influential in my call to ordained ministry and they helped to shape my perception of what the Church is called to be.

“O shame to us who rest content while lust and greed for gain
in street and shop and tenement wring gold from human pain,
and bitter lips in blind despair cry, ‘Christ hath died in vain!”

Already in the mind of God that city riseth fair:
lo, how its splendor challenges the souls that greatly dare—
yea, bids us seize the whole of life and build its glory there.”

Hymn 583, stanzas 2,4

There are those times when our civic loyalties and our loyalty to Christ’s call meet face to face.  Should Christians, for example, remain silent in the face of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Should Christians remain silent in the face of the various forms of violence that plague our nation and our world?  Should Christians remain silent when states pass laws or take actions that restrict the voting rights of minorities?  Should Christians remain silent in the face of racial injustice which is still prevalent in our nation?

Before Ebola eclipsed all other events in the news, a continuing story in the media has been the situation in Ferguson, Missouri.  It’s a hard story on so many levels.  It involves yet another shooting of an unarmed African-American male by a white police officer, an officer whose record of duty apparently has been exemplary.  A young man is dead, the life of the police officer, regardless of the outcome of the investigation and trial, will be forever changed.  There is finger pointing in both directions.  Whatever the truth is, the perception of racial injustice permeates the landscape in Ferguson.  Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Missouri, The Rt. Rev. Wayne Smith, among other religious leaders, has been present in the midst of the protests. “My faith,” he says, “compels me to be here.  I want to show solidarity and call attention to the structural racism of St. Louis.”  The Very Reverend Gary Hall, Dean of the Washington Cathedral, in a sermon on August 24th  talked about what is taking place in Ferguson. He spoke of how the hopes of racial justice, articulated 45 years ago by Dr. Martin Luther King, have yet to be realized.  Martin Luther King said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Dean Hall went on to speak about the signs of power that so often impress us.  “Most of us” he said, “are impressed by shows of strength—royal pomp, a display of weapons—as signs of power and authority. But Jesus is for us ‘the Christ,’ the Messiah, the anointed one because he is effectively an anti-king.  Jesus is not Caesar, nor does he pretend to be. What Caesar offers is a grotesque parody of authentic authority.  What Jesus offers is the real deal.  He brings compassion instead of hatred, healing instead of abuse, trust instead of threats…  Real kings don’t look and act like Caesar.  They look and act like Jesus.  What Jesus represents is what the power at the center of the universe really looks like.”

In our current series on Wednesday nights here at St. Mary’s, we are studying the book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Led by Henry Massie, this is an excellent series and it’s not too late for you to come even if you missed the first three sessions. To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful story, among other things, of Christian love. Harper Lee, who wrote the book in 1960 claims that it is not primarily about racial justice, or the failure of it, yet the implications throughout the book speak nonetheless to the aspects of human nature that make racism part of  our culture.  In the book, Tom Robinson, an African-American young man, was accused of raping a white girl even though the evidence could not confirm his guilt and, in fact, pointed to his innocence.  One of the most compelling moments in the book occurs at the conclusion of the trial when Atticus Finch, the lawyer defending Tom Robinson, speaks in the courtroom to the jury.  After pointing to all the evidence of Mr. Robinson’s innocence, he says in his closing argument, “I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts, and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality.  Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family.”  He paused.  Then he said, “In the name of God, do your duty.”  Atticus’s voice dropped as he turned away from the jury and stepped away.  He seemed to be saying something more to himself than to the court but those around him heard him to say, “In the name of God, believe him.”  In the name of God…  The jury returned with a verdict.  There was silence.  Their verdict: The defendant was guilty.  Nonetheless, the power of Atticus Finch’s words, “In the name of God, do your duty,” is a powerful reminder to us all when faced with matters that call for our standing for justice. “In the name of God” reminds us of what our first loyalty must be.  In the name of God, we must do our duty.  What does going to church and worshipping mean if we are not going to help others and, in the name of God, stand for justice?  Our response to people crying out for justice is our earthly test.  In the name of God, we must do our duty to strive for justice.  Yes, we have our civic obligations. We pay our taxes, but we are called to give back to God what is God’s and there will be times when our Christian duty will call from us a different response from what our civic duty might demand. Our Christian duty comes from Jesus himself.

Jesus said to those who asked him as he says to you and to me, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” May you and I have the grace and the courage to stand in the name of God for justice, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.