St. John’s Lutheran Church
22 October 2023 + Lect. 29a (21 Pentecost)
Rev. Josh Evans
You could have asked me literally anything: about God, about the Bible, about ministry.
Instead, when it came time for the congregation meeting to call me as your pastor, only one question was raised: Are you a Bills fan?
You might recall at the time that my answer admitted that I had no idea what sport the Bills even played — and that, apparently, was still good enough.
I know now that the Bills are, indeed, a football team from Buffalo. I also know that loyalties — especially to sports teams — run deep.
Are you a Yankees fan or a Mets fan? Cubs. 🙂 (Maybe that’s the question you should’ve asked me…)
Beyond sports, there is much indeed that vies for our loyalty.
Companies go to great lengths to build brand loyalty among their consumers. I have a whole drawer full of store loyalty cards and an inbox filled with enticing coupons to prove it.
Earlier this week, a conversation in a clergy text study group I’m a part of evoked questions of denominational loyalty and what it means to be a particular kind of Christian — a Lutheran Christian, a Baptist Christian, and so forth.
As far back as I can remember, my school days at Trinity Lutheran School in Utica, Michigan, began with the pledge of allegiance — itself a form of national loyalty — not unlike the singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the beginning of every sports game.
The question posed before Jesus is itself one of allegiance and loyalty.
Thinking they could trap him into an all-or-nothing question, the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The answer is not so simple, as we soon come to hear. But even before that, the question of loyalty itself hides in the details.
The coalition of Pharisees and Herodians working together would have raised some eyebrows. These are two groups with very different loyalties: the Herodians, whose allegiance was to the Roman Empire, and the Pharisees, who resisted the Empire as part of an occupied and oppressed people. But together, their common loyalty to undermining Jesus’s authority leads them to their seemingly trick question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
If Jesus says “yes,” he will have effectively undermined his own teaching of putting God and God alone first. If he says “no,” he risks being branded as an anti-imperial revolutionary and an enemy of Rome.
The question posed to Jesus asks him to choose sides, as loyalties so often ask us to do. But Jesus’s response isn’t so simple: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Instead of all-or-nothing, yes-or-no, Jesus chooses a both/and approach. What Jesus recognizes is that those around him — both his opponents and his allies — live in a complex society. They are people of faith grappling with — and participating in — the realities of empire and everything that entails. While it is true that the Roman Empire was abusive and oppressive, it wasn’t quite so simple to just opt out.
How, then, to live in a world of competing loyalties? Think for yourself, Jesus says.
As one biblical scholar succinctly puts it: “What Jesus teaches us is a critical interpretation of the world, fearless determination thereafter, and conscientious engagement in the world, based on what we believe is true […] The goal of life is not merely to defeat the empire or adopt an ‘all-or-nothing’ policy but to love people, including enemies, strive after [God’s] kingdom and righteousness, and live in hope between now and the future.”
For the community receiving Matthew’s gospel, grappling with the aftermath of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, there are exactly zero warm and fuzzy feelings about Rome or its emperor. I imagine they would have been perfectly content for Jesus to offer a decisive “no” on the question of paying taxes.
Instead, Jesus’s answer offers something more profound and nuanced about loyalty.
Living as people of faith amidst the challenges of the world need not be an all-or-nothing loyalty that chooses sides. Jesus knows that his hearers have to live in the world.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” doesn’t mean an unflinching loyalty to the emperor any more than it means a rejection of devout loyalty to God.
Binaries are never helpful. We know this, and Jesus does too.
Jesus’s answer offers a third option — a way of living faithfully that does not compromise our belonging to the kingdom of heaven as he has been preaching it.
There’s the key: our belonging.
For Jesus, loyalty to God is not one-sided.
“Give […] to God the things that are God’s.” What belongs to God? Everything and everyone. You. Me. All of us. In the words of our baptismal liturgy, “You belong to Christ, in whom you have been baptized.”
We love because God first loved us, the epistle writer reminds us. Or said slightly differently: We can be loyal to God because God has been and always will be unflinchingly loyal to us.
In the waters of the font, we are made a part of God’s family, as God’s own beloved child. We belong to God, and nothing can ever take that away.
In that loyalty, there is belonging. And there is community in belonging.
On a recent trip to Boston, I found myself, at the invitation of a friend, in a Minnesota Vikings bar in the middle of Cambridge — yes, you heard that right.
I can’t say I had ever before watched a Vikings game in its entirety (or at all), but that particular Sunday, surrounded by a sea of purple and gold — in the middle of Cambridge, Massachusetts — I can say with 100% certainty: There was a fierce loyalty and enduring sense of community in that place.
Truthfully, it was more than a little infectious, and I may have impulsively bought a “Skol Boston” t-shirt, for which there may be photographic evidence on Facebook. But I digress…
In loyalty, there is belonging. And there is community in belonging.
If there is such fierce loyalty, belonging, and community at a Vikings bar in Cambridge, or a Bills bar in … wherever the closest Bills bar is …
How much more profound is the community of the church, rooted first in God’s fierce loyalty to God’s people?
What does it mean to belong to a community like that at St. John’s? It means gathering together for worship and prayer. It means extending mutual care and concern for one another — sending cards when one of us is sick, or just checking in with each other.
It’s a question worth pondering not just as we fill out our pledge cards next week, but one worth considering always.
Ours is a community rooted in the extravagant love of God in Christ for us and for all people … a community in which we get to experience a deep and abiding sense of belonging …
… a community that is worth being loyal to.