Tomorrow is voting day in the UK, both for local and devolved governments in much of the country, and a referendum across the whole UK on how we elect Westminster MPs. I’m too busy writing essays to come up with any new thoughts. Instead, here is my sermon from one of the services I preached last year on the Sunday before the General Election:
For the last couple of occasions when I have preached here at Hurst Green in the evening I have made reference, either as a focus or in passing, to that favourite American drama of mine – The West Wing. When I first agreed to preach this evening I wondered whether a theme might arise where I could do so again. Then I realised what Sunday this is, or more to the point I remembered what the Thursday following this Sunday is. And I knew that once again the West Wing would make an appearance – but not yet!
As a Local Preacher I am called to look at how scripture, how our faith, relates to our lives. It’s something I can admit to not always doing particularly well – on occasion, I admit, I’m too theoretical and not enough practical. Well this week sees the arrival of an event in all of our lives which brings the practicalities of our faith into a very clear focus – the election. I’m afraid I’m going to, at this point, admit my age, when I tell you that my first general election, and I first voted at the age of 18 (just), was the one in 1997. After casting my vote I stayed up all night and watched the results coming in, watched as Peter Snow projected the national result from the very first North East England results, told the nation that, of course, such a swing wouldn’t really hold at a national level, and then watched, almost open mouthed, as it did hold. The next day I fell asleep on the bus home from college having not slept in more than 24 hours. In 2001 I took 2 days off in the middle of the university exams period to travel back to the Westcountry, where I knew my vote might help win a seat (the result in my uni constituency was a foregone conclusion!), then went to the count and watched as my preferred candidate lost. In 2005 I spent the day running a committee room and then went to the count as a scrutineer, watched my preferred candidate win, and then went and watched other results come in at the home of the MP’s agent.
Until less than 3 weeks ago I would probably have said that this election did not seem quite so appealing. Then we had the first debate, and the first post-debate polls. Suddenly this election got very interesting – once again I shall be struggling through a Friday having got little or no sleep the night before!
And one of the major focuses of all those currently campaigning in the election is the economy and that three-letter word that has concerned people since biblical times – TAX!
There are those who use this evening’s passage as a direct command from Jesus that taxes are a good thing and that we should pay them. But this is not the case. I do not mean that I don’t believe we should pay tax but that tax, in the way we understand it, is not the subject of conversation in the tricky question that the Pharisean disciples and Herodians put to Jesus. The tax they are talking about was not really a tax but a protection racket. You know, the kind of things Mafia-type gangs put in place – pay us and we’ll protect you from other people, and us! Roman citizens were not being asked to pay Caesar’s poll tax, for they were automatically under the protection of the Pax Romana. No, in effect the Empire was saying to its subjects, rather than its citizens, pay us some money in order that we continue to protect you from other nasty people, and so that we don’t completely crush you and obliterate your civilization ourselves.
For the Jewish authorities this demand caused a major concern. Mainly the Roman authorities were reasonably laissez-faire in their attitude to non-Roman religions, and while they struggled to comprehend the Hebrew one-God idea they tolerated the Jews as much as anyone else. (It must be remembered that most subjects of the Empire were followers of pagan multi-God systems who often simply added the Roman gods, or at least the Emperor, into their own belief system, something Judaism couldn’t do.) The tax presented a problem because it was seen by many Jews as tantamount to making an offering to another God other than Yahweh. They saw paying the tax as making a financial sacrifice in order that someone other than Yahweh would protect them – and the protection of Israel was something scripture clearly put in the hands of Yahweh – I am Yahweh, the Lord, your God, and you shall worship and pay homage to no other god but me!
So, in answering the question, it seems as though Jesus has a choice – back the tax, and deny God as the one true God of Israel, thereby risking the uproar of his disciples and followers, or denounce the tax, and face the might of Rome as it pounced on him as an agitator! Answer one way and the Pharisees would have him against the wall, answer the other and the Herodians, the puppets of Rome, would have him instead.
And instead he amazes them with an answer they were not expecting. In fact, he doesn’t answer the question but throws the question back to them. How does he do this?
Well, firstly he takes the question and breaks it down into its parts. He removes the focal point of the protection money and looks more deeply at the issue. This is not, he says, about money, it’s about the Empire and the Kingdom, it is about what is human and what is Godly. It is not, Jesus says, a case of either/or. You are human, so you are in the Empire, but you are also followers of God, and so you are of the Kingdom.
And then Jesus really throws the curve ball – “Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s, give to God what is God’s”. He does not say which the tax belongs to: that, he says, is for each of you to decide for yourself.
So what does this conversation, this episode of Question Time, say to us on the eve of an election which may be as game changing, if not more so, as the one 13 years ago?
There are those who would say that elections are something of the Empire and to be true citizens of the Kingdom we must withdraw as much as possible from the Empire. This was the argument of desert fathers and the early monastic orders, until Dominic, Francis and Columba turned the focus of monasticism back out to face the world. It is also, in some ways, the argument of ardent secularists, who argue that faith and politics must not mix. To this argument I would point out that Jesus’ reply has two parts to it, and the first is “Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s”. Jesus is explicitly acknowledging a need to engage with the Empire, to be, we might say, in the Empire, even if we are not of the Empire. Voting is not an activity of the Kingdom, for it is a Kingdom in which God is not elected but in which God calls us to obey him not through laws but through love. Voting is a way in which we are offered a way of engaging with the Empire, of making the Empire more closely resemble the Kingdom.
Should we vote? Yes, absolutely, because it is through voting that we can help carry out our duties as both a subject of the Empire and a citizen of the Kingdom.
But, of course, we can’t just vote, we need to decide how to vote! And this is where I turn to the second part of Jesus’ equation – the act of voting is an acknowledgement of being within the Empire, but who we vote for must be an emblem of our citizenship of the Kingdom! And what is it that rules the Kingdom? Is it a concern for ourselves? Is it money and power? Is it our own safety and security? No, it is God who rules the Kingdom, and God is love: self-sacrificing, risk-taking, other-focussed love! We must vote, we must engage with the Empire, but when we do it we do so not on our own behalf but on behalf of those whom we are called to love. Will your vote, will my vote, give money to the poor, house the homeless, feed the hungry, heal the ill and the injured, bring peace to the war-torn? We will have different ideas on the best way to do this, and hence I don’t tell you who to vote for, but rather how to vote. How we vote is of God, and therefore we must give it to God.
I mentioned The West Wing at the beginning, and you’ve all held on, waiting to hear what it is I have to say on it. It is this: that through the whole series, but especially in the first two seasons, there is a phrase that is echoed by several characters, most noticeably President Jed Bartlett and Press Secretary (later Chief-of-Staff) CJ Cregg, “Decisions are made by those who show up”.
This phrase contains two truths. Firstly, if you want to have a say in something, such as who runs the country, you have to show up. Secondly, and more importantly but sometimes missed, it reflects the reality that those who show up have a decision to make, a decision that can be incredibly difficult and challenging.
On Thursday we are called to show up. In voting, I would suggest that we give to the Emperor what is already his. But how we vote, that is where we give to God what is God’s. I pray that each of us receive the wisdom necessary to make the right choice.
Sermon preached at Hurst Green Methodist Church in the Purley Circuit
2nd May 2010