Marked as Christ's Own Forever

Sermon Preached October 19, 2014
Proper 24A - Matthew 22:15-22
St. Mark's Episcopal Church

Earlier this week, some news out of Texas caught my attention: “Subpoenas for Sermons in Houston Draw Outrage” reads the headline in The Texas Tribune.[1]  Immediately I imagined the tax-exempt status of congregations being called into question – as had been the case with All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California when their priest preached an anti-war sermon in 2004.
The story in Texas, it turns out, is a bit different. Last May, the Houston City Council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (known as “HERO”) into law.  According to the Houston Chronicle the ordinance “bans discrimination based not just on sexual orientation and gender identity but also, as federal laws do, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.”[2] Shortly after this law went into affect, opponents began circulating petitions to put a repeal measure on the ballot and when those efforts failed, they filed suit against the city in early August resulting in the postponement of the ordinance going in to effect.[3]  A month later, city attorneys subpoenaed sermons given by local pastors who oppose the law and are connected to those who have sued the city. The subpoenaes state that the recipient pastors are to produce
“all documents or communications . . . in your possession, relating or referring to any of the following in connection in any way with HERO.”  The list of documents includes “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, or approved by you or in your possession.”[4]
Questions around freedom of speech, freedom of religion and, yes, even the churches’ tax-exempt status have been raised.[5] 
The Pharisees and the Herodians went to Jesus and asked, “'Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?' But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’”[6]  Apparently these questions have a way of sticking with us for a very long time!  But Jesus’ answer is helpful, I think.  Because upon being shown the coin, he turns the question on its head, asking those who would question him, “Whose head is this [on the coin], and whose title?” They, of course, answer, “The emperor’s” - Tiberius Caesar, divine son of Augustus.  And this answer points to the very malice intended by the Pharisees and the Herodians.  For the Pharisees were opposed to the paying of taxes to Rome, considering doing so to be blasphemy because while Rome saw Tiberius Caesar as the divine son of Augustus, the Pharisees understand that the only divine being is God and the religious law is clear: “you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol . . .”[7] They hope that Jesus will say, “yes, of course, pay the tax” for then they can say to the Jews, “look, a Roman sympathizer.”  The coin itself, used to pay taxes, is idolatrous for its divine attribution to Caesar.  The Herodians, on the other hand, support the paying of the tax to Rome and secretly are hoping that Jesus will oppose tax paying so they can accuse him of sedition against Rome.[8]  So where will Jesus come down?  As the Pharisees and the Herodians lean in for his response, Jesus, like a savvy lawyer, avoids the trap and answers instead, “Give. . . to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”[9]  And, with this one phrase, the trap is turned back on those who would question Jesus’ allegiance. 
For what does belong to the emperor?  The coin perhaps – after all it does bear the mark of his likeness.  But the larger question, it seems, is one left unasked: What belongs to God?  What bears the image or likeness of God?  For the Jews, the answer perhaps might be found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, you I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.”[10]  For you and for me, the answer, I believe can be found in our baptism: marking the sign of the cross on the candidate’s forehead, the priest says “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”[11]  You and I bear the image of God and are marked as Christ’s own for ever.  Richard Spalding refers to baptism as “the watermark of our true currency.”[12]  And how different this currency is from the currency of Rome – or the currency of our modern day marketplace.  For it is a currency marked not by power over, oppression, threats, and individual pursuits but marked instead by the love of God, the pursuit of justice, power with, and the communal fellowship of the Body of Christ.
And, once we are marked as Christ’s own for ever, we are invited to engage in all of life’s pursuits from this perspective – from the likeness of God.  Necessarily we will get it wrong – because I think all of us are aware that there are good Christians throughout the world who, in living fully out of their baptismal promises end up on opposite sides of a host of issues: the Pharisees and the Herodians were both religious peoples but they understood the issue of taxation very differently; Republicans and Democrats take very different positions on all manner of socio-political issues in this country and yet, many from both parties, do so from deeply held religious convictions. 
Being marked as Christ’s own forever is about asking, “what does it mean to bear God’s likeness in the world?”  How does my being a Christian play out every day?  Earlier this week I was speaking with a colleague who is inviting the youth of his parish to create personal mission statements - mission statements that they can look to as they discern what is the right thing to do in a situation.  I suggested that perhaps we already have that mission statement in the promises of the Baptismal Covenant.  And that Covenant gives us a series of questions we can use as we make decisions in our daily life – in the workplace, at school, around the dinner table, and in communion with one another.  Will our choice or decision be one that leads us back to the teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers of the church?  Does our choice or decision more forward our promise to persevere in resisting evil and, when it does not, do we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  Is our choice or decision one that provides an example of the Good News of God in Christ?  Does our choice or decision serve Christ and does it demonstrate our love of our neighbor as ourselves?  What choice or decision will we make that moves us closer to the justice and peace among all people, the respect for the dignity of every human being that God demands of us?[13]  Using these questions as a guide in our lives may not always lead us to the same answer – life is too complicated and most issues are simply too nuanced for that.  But, asking them reminds us that we are, indeed, marked as Christ’s own in Baptism.
We are marked as Christ’s own in Baptism and that mark is indelible - we wear that mark on Monday mornings when we reach for our first cup of coffee, on Tuesday evenings when we practice basketball with our team, on Wednesday afternoons when we teach a classroom of students, on Thursdays when we meet with a patient at the hospital, on Fridays at the football game, on Saturdays in the park.  We are marked as Christ’s own in Baptism. We are marked forever and ever. Amen.

[1] Aman Batheja, “Subpoenas for Sermons in Houston Draw Outrage,” The Texas Tribune (October 16, 2014) accessed on October 18, 2014.
[2] Mike Morris, “Council PassesEqual Rights Ordinace,” Houston Chronicle (May 28, 2014) accessed on October 18, 2014.
[3] Mike Morris, “Equal RightsOrdinance On Hold Pending Hearing,” Houston Chronicle (August 7, 2014) accessed on October 18, 2014.
[4] Woodfill v. Parker Case No. 2014-44974, Subpoena of Pastor David Welch, 152nd Judicial District Court (September 7, 2014) accessed on October 18, 2014.
[5] Katherine Driessen, “AmidBlowback, City Walks Fine Line on Pastor Subpoenas: Cruz, Abbott Slam Subpoenasin Rights Lawsuit,” Houston Chronicle (October 16, 2014) accessed on October 18, 2014; Aman Batheja, “Subpoenas for Sermons.”
[6] Matthew 22:17-19.
[7] Exodus 20:3-4.
[8] Marvin A. McMickle,”Homiletical Perspective for Matthew 22:15-22,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4 Season after Pentecost 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[9] Matthew 22:21.
[10] Isaiah 49:15-16.
[11] Book of Common Prayer, 308.
[12] Richard E. Spalding, “Pastoral Perspective for Matthew 22:15-22,” in Feasting on the Word.
[13] Book of Common Prayer, 304-5.