Matthew 22: 17-22: `Tell us teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?' Jesus, aware of their malice, said, `Are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?' Show me the coin used for the tax.' And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, `Whose head is this and whose title?' They answered, `The emperor.' Then he said to them, `Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's.' When they heard this they were amazed and they left him and went away."
During the first two hundred years of the Christian church's story, there was no entwined relationship between Christians and the state. Christians refused to worship the Emperor, serve as soldiers, or attend gladiator events in which men battled unto death. They treated slaves with kindness, shared all their wealth in common and helped the poor. So the Roman Empire persecuted them. They took their church properties, took their wealth, forbade them to worship and meet together, and exiled them. One Roman Emperor after another killed Christians by the tens of thousands. In Rome, the Church met in the tombs of the dead or the Catacombs for two reasons. First, they believed that Christ would come again soon and raise all the dead. Second, they knew the Romans were superstitious and would never go into the land of the dead to find them. During the first two hundred years this was the pattern. Beginning in the third and continuing into the fourth century, persecutions and crucifixions became much worse and ran from one end of the empire to the other.
On October 28, 312, all of this changed. Heading into battle to wipe out a revolt within the ranks of his elite cavalry, Emperor Constantine saw a cross in the skies and the words "In this sign conquer" (in Latin). He won the battle. And the story goes that he converted to Christ that day. When he returned to Rome, he burned the barns with the horses in them to the ground and there built his first cathedral, St. John's in Laterno, which stands on the same spot today. A few months later, in 313 AD, Constantine signed a law that placed Christianity on the level with all other religions. He also made the Lord's Day (or Sunday) a holiday by law. The Cross was stamped on the coin about which Jesus once argued with the Pharisees. Christians were no longer afraid. Christianity began its rise to power and acceptance under this emperor.
From destruction and persecution to protection and distinguished recognition by the state, Christianity has changed greatly in its relationship to empires and rulers over many continents and many years. Today, in the United States of America, we are one of many religions, although we represent the largest number of persons county by county, state by state of any religion in this nation. Now, we are Roman Catholic, but also Protestant and Pentecostal. Look around you. This would never have been possible before our sponsor Constantine experienced a changed heart and mind on October 28, 312 AD.
Now the relationship between Church and State is entwined. Here in the United States, some will claim that the original intent of the Founding Fathers was to bring their faith to bear on matters tying together church and state. However, according to our US Constitution, there is nothing written or inferred about the God of Abraham, Jesus, Mohamed, or any other gods, or any other forms of belief or non-belief - apart from absolute prohibition in Article 6, against any religious test for public office and the First Amendment's familiar declaration that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
In Article II of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, the author (who is unknown) but often thought to be George Washington or John Adams differentiates the role of our religion in Government. In the Treaty it is written: "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on Christian Religion." This treaty was debated in the US Senate, ratified and signed by President John Adams without a noted complaint about this clause. So, the Founding Fathers who survived the Revolution and were still founding in 1797, many of whom wrote and shaped the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution, agreed in an international treaty that our nation was not founded on the Christian Religion.
Today, the debate over the nature, place and purpose of Christians in shaping public policy and judicial decisions is a troubling one, to say the least. The proclamation coming from the ultra-religious right talk radio and TV has spoken a lie and perpetuated that lie loud enough and long enough to make folks believe that it is the truth. They say that our founding fathers were Christians who wanted our faith to guide this country. This is not true.
But, here is the rub for me, and I hope for you, on this slippery slope. We love Jesus. For the most, everyone here has been baptized and blessed in his name. Most of us believe he is the way, the truth and the light. Most of us believe the love we have come to know in him will guide us through life and all our relationships on earth, and hopefully guide our eternal way as well. The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ gives strength and sustenance to us. So, when someone speaks strongly on behalf of prayer in public school, or public policy which upholds what we believe to be "good Christian ethics," or they tell us about the Christian faith and values of our new and next Supreme Court justices, there is something inside of us which resonates with this talk. It resonates because we love Jesus, not because the purveyors of these beliefs are correct in their pronouncements about certain candidates or certain issues. I say to myself, "He loves Jesus! I love Jesus! It is wonderful that we share that in common. The Jesus I love calls me to care for the poor, help the orphan and widow, care for the aging, defend children and youth and support their public education, offer fair wages to hard-working people, stand against violence and war. So where does my brother in Christ stand on the issues? Do we share any of these things in common?" If we cannot connect on these issues, there may be another - who is not Christian at all - who knowingly or unknowingly - follows the Jesus I have come to know and love.
Two weeks ago, from this pulpit, I shared some of things I believe. Let me finish today with a few more reflections on the same theme:
I believe we need a wall of separation between church and state. We need to be able to see and speak over this wall, but it needs to exist in order to safeguard not only Christians, but especially those who come from different faith traditions or those who have no faith at all. Many times in the Gospels Jesus interacts with people who have no faith or a different faith. In every case, Jesus' grace embraces them and his love surrounds them. He never casts them out. They've had enough of that already. He holds on to them. So, if Jesus is able to accept and tolerate all people, where have we gone wrong, as his followers?
I believe the moral values I have come to know in scripture and through our Christian faith community are the best values in the world. However, they are not the only values. From Jews I have learned how to act justly and trust in our God who is Creator and ruler of the Universe. From Buddhists, I have learned how to be still and experience the "infinite within." From Muslims I have learned the nature of surrendering all to God. Hindus teach me about the beauty of eternal hidden in my heart. Confucianists teach me that through empathy we are able to maintain the fragile web of nature and civilization. The Ba'hi show me that we have more in common than we have differences between us and that, perhaps, one day we will truly see one another as brothers and sisters and live in peace.
Imagine a nation without these faiths. Imagine our civilization deprived of the fullness of these traditions. If policies and laws are shaped and formed by those who claim us to be a Christian nation, we will suffer from moral and ethical depravation provided by these religious traditions and thousands of years of philosophical and ethical teachings which inform our every law and belief. In addition, I am concerned that following the narrowing of these rich theological, philosophical and ethical may lead to go after science as well.
I, for one, don't want us to go down the path prepared by those who have a small God and a narrow vision of Jesus. This path, if taken and allowed to become our way forward will eventually constrict our vision, our laws, our hearts, our minds, and our very souls. As Kathleen Norris says in one of her poem's, "We are all God's chosen now. (And in the next breath) God help us because we are."
I believe we need to speak to our elected leaders in city hall, and at the County Commission, in the school house, in the statehouse, in the Capitol and in the White House. However, as we do so, we must do so grounded in faith, surrounded by prayer, imbued with the prophets' vision and our Savior's compassionate heart.
I pray that this great nation will not become like the empire of Rome in the early years of the Christian story. I pray that we will not, in the name of Christ, become a nation which stomps on those who believe differently than the majority. God help us all if we do. Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church