The Impossible Choice

The Rock Metropolitan Community Church, West Hollywood, Calif.

The Path of Jesus is found where Christ’s followers honor the role of the state in maintaining justice and peace, so far as human discernment and ability make possible. We affirm the separation of church and state, even as we endeavor to support the state in as far as Christian conscience allows. (Affirmation 7, The Phoenix Affirmations)

Spiritual principle must intersect with the forces of the world, or we fail the challenges of history. The challenge is to create on Earth as it is in Heaven. If ideas remain in the womb of consciousness and are never given birth in the world, then we’re pregnant too long. (Marianne Williamson)

They sent some Pharisees and followers of Herod to bait him, hoping to catch him saying something incriminating. They came up and said, “Teacher, we know you have integrity, that you are indifferent to public opinion, don’t pander to your students, and teach the way of God accurately. Tell us: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” He knew it was a trick question, and said, “Why are you playing these games with me? Bring me a coin and let me look at it.” They handed him one. “This engraving – who does it look like? And whose name is on it?” “Caesar,” they said. Jesus said, “Give Caesar what is his, and give God what is God’s.” Their mouths hung open, speechless. (Mark 12:13-17)

This morning’s affirmation and the gospel lesson go hand in hand. Both address a very difficult choice that we as believers who are “in the world but not of the world” must make, the separation of Church and State. It is one of the many choices we must weigh in the balance, a thousand times a day.

And ultimately, it is an impossible choice.

Often politics and religion, rather than colliding as we’d expect them to do, collude. They make for very strange bedfellows, indeed.

In the Gospel lesson, we see that collusion in action. Religious leaders [the Pharisees] and political leaders [the Herodians] present Jesus with a lose-lose proposition in the seemingly-simple question they present to Him.

The Pharisees were the elite, the really righteous of the Jewish culture of the day. The political representatives of the tetrarch Herod Antipas [a puppet king handpicked by Rome] tended to be observant Jews only when it served PR purposes – but most historical investigation from extra-biblical sources [Josephus, etc.] reveal that it was a ruse to maintain political position. The two factions despised one another, but they found a common enemy in the Rabbi from Galilee who was constantly upsetting the applecart they had so carefully stacked high with advantages for themselves. So they were willing to collude to trap him into either public blasphemy {which would give them an excuse to eliminate Him from the picture legally} or public sedition, which would encourage Rome to eliminate him [keeping their own hands squeaky-clean].

So they baited a trap for him with false pretenses and with flattery. The appeal to vanity and ego is one of humanity’s oldest vulnerabilities, right back to the Garden of Eden.

Asking the seemingly-innocent question about the lawfulness of paying taxes in terms of Torah, Jewish law, they were probably certain they’d just given Him a brand-new skein of rope with which He’d hang Himself. This was the only interest they had in whatever He might have answered.

The duties of the believer toward God and State are not – as is commonly supposed – mutually exclusive, but rather are mutually inclusive. Since the laws of both entities are in theory put in place to provide a safe and moral environment, it’s almost impossible to answer a question like the one posed to Jesus in “either/or” terms.

We know from history – as did Jesus and His contemporaries, after all – that when governments get involved in religious practice and belief, hijinks are inevitable. Not the fun sort of hijinks, either.

In our own experience of the world, we know that when politicos stand on a platform of faith, they tend to use it to promote their own advantage, their own selfish interests. In our day, there’s a lot of political talk promising that our Western Society [and I suspect they heard this in Afghanistan as well, when the Taliban began to take a place in the public square a couple of decades ago] will be put to rights if we just return to our core religious values.

We do not need a theocracy. Theocracy has never been anything but a dangerous road. Even in the days following the death of Moses and before the crowning of King Saul, when Israel was intended to be a true theocracy, human agendas and/or human blindness always pushed God off the throne. This has never really changed.

Freedom of religion was intended to mean freedom from imposed religion.

Any time religious belief is co-opted by the State, it inevitably must become oppressive, not liberating. It suppresses free thought rather than setting thought free. The responsibilities and purviews of Church and State will always be intrinsically different, even opposed in some ways.

The State’s concern is domestic tranquility – peace in the land. The Church is concerned with spiritual tranquility; freedom in Christ.

As believers in an age where the call has gone out to “take back America for Christ”, if we look closely we will find ourselves walking a keen knife-edge, tempted to choose either Church or State over the other.

For us, this is and must remain an impossible choice.

And yet society demands that we label ourselves. Liberal or conservative? Protestant or Catholic? High-Church or Low-Church? Jew OR Greek?

Christian OR GLBTQA?

For some of us within this congregation there are other impossible choices. Sometimes we get so caught up in the earthbound mechanics of keeping the administration afloat that we run the risk of forgetting why we come together here on Foust Street as The Rock MCC.

For some, the impossible choice becomes “tithe OR eat?”

If each person within the congregation with sufficient means never to have to face that particular choice, a trifling amount of $18.18 per week would fulfill our budgetary needs. That breaks down to $2.60 daily. We spend more on lunch – worse still, snacks in addition to 3 meals a day – at Taco Bell than that amount.

Yet for some reason, we do not do the responsible thing and give that small amount. So the budget of the church falls into desperate straits, and to save “the good ole Gospel Ship” from wrack and ruin, there are well-intended cries for offering and rebukes that sometimes outlast the sermon in terms of time in the pulpit.

Each of us must stop giving away our power, our responsibility to others. We must stop giving away our PEACE to others – both WITHIN the State and WITHIN the Church hierarchy.

When we abdicate our responsibilities, we run the risk [which too often comes to ugly fruition in short order] of abdicating our freedoms as well. When freedoms are curtailed, exclusion is inevitably born.

The Realm of God is not about exclusion and exclusivity.

The Realm of God requires our decision making to be inclusive, to be both/and.

Instead of splitting our world and ourselves into secular / spirit, we are called out by God in Christ to the freedom of integration and wholeness.

There is no gentle or PC way to express this: all divisions, all labels, all exclusivity are falsehoods.

Jesus, throughout His ministry, confronted and called us to confront our preconceptions.

The quality in us the Adversary admires the most is our tendency to root ourselves in the soil of preconception. Preconceptions seduce us into seeing the world in either/or terms.

When we are faced with impossible choices, Jesus provides a staggeringly simple answer to us: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s.” Both / and.

Jesus calls us to include.

To be free.