Sermon: Relying on Caesar

10.19.2014   Preaching Text: “‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’” (Matthew 22:21)

Last Sunday, during a Deacons’ meeting, I gave a brief update on the work of the Study Group which, as you know, is looking into the future of First Church.

After I was done, one of the Deacons asked, reasonably enough, “How do you plan to get the word out to the congregation?” Good question, that!

While we don’t as yet have a definite plan, we do have some thoughts. As it is, we’re nearing the end of our investigations. We have focused on the Mainline Church’s past in an attempt to understand how we got to where we are today. Only with this knowledge are we in a position to reasonably go forward.

Not that we’ve figured it all out, mind you. In fact, what we’ve discovered is that we’re just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of what Christ is calling us to be and do.

For the fact is that what Christ wants is not always what we want.

A few years ago, to cite an extreme example, I served a church that was exceedingly unhealthy. They had had a pastor for some 25 years or so, and in that time had completely controlled him. My job, I quickly discovered, was to adapt to their wishes, as he had – no questions asked!

In my first newsletter article I attempted to counter a phrase I had heard innumerable times since my arrival weeks earlier. “This is our church,” or “my church,” I would hear various church members say.

So I wrote about how this church (as with any church) was not their church, our church, your church, much less my church. It’s Christ’s church. To suggest that this didn’t go over too well is a bit of an understatement.

I’m reminded of an installation service I once attended at yet another troubled church that had been going through pastors like it was going out of style. Delivering the “Charge to the Congregation,” the Area Minister told this story:

A man boarded a plane. After a time, the plane taxied out to the runway where it sat. Until, that is, it turned around and went back to the terminal. Then, after a bit, it once again taxied out to the runway for takeoff.

Confused, the passenger asked the flight attendant, “Why did we go back to the terminal?”

“The pilot thought he detected a problem with the engine,” the flight attendant explained, “so we went back to get a new pilot!”

Churches don’t always know what Christ is asking them to be and do. Instead, in time, they can fall into set habits that reflect their own highly subjective preconceptions and prejudices.

It is important that all churches understand this. As I began to say earlier, what the Study Group has come to realize in its work is that we all need to embark on the period of discernment, of listening, of discovery, of rightly perceiving what Christ is calling us to be and do.

Tony Robinson, in Transforming Congregational Culture, the text book we’ve been using for our group, argues persuasively that churches need to embrace what Peter Drucker calls the “adaptive challenge.”

Rather than making small, piecemeal changes such as reserving parking spaces for visitors or using nametags (none of which is a bad thing in and of itself!), churches need to make the kind of changes that, say, a heart attack victim might need to make, changes that significantly alter his or her lifestyle, which many include a new diet, a new exercise regimen, etc.

For the church, it’s not simply a matter of doing the same things albeit with a few minor tweaks; it often requires significant changes, each based on a fresh understanding of what Christ hopes to accomplish given today’s realities.

This, as I say, requires discernment, which is not something we’re particularly good at. We are instead a “can-do” society. We like quick fixes. We like to diagnose the problem and set about to get it done, hopefully by yesterday.

Proper discernment, on the other hand, requires attending to the often hidden, mysterious ways of God. It involves nothing less than listening and perceiving the Spirit of Christ in our midst. Figuring out what Christ wishes for us, as Robinson points out, cannot always be achieved by Roberts Rules of Order! We never know through whom the Holy Spirit will come (an innocent child as opposed to a seasoned parliamentarian, for example).

A big part of the problem, Robinson notes, is that we mainliners are so used to thinking that the wider culture has our best interests at heart – that it reflects the historically close relationship we once had, going back to before the founding of this nation.

The truth, however, is that the wider culture has turned away from us over the last 50 years, and, in some respects, has grown hostile to the church’s identity and mission.

Which is why today’s gospel reading may strike us as curious. Separating what is Caesar’s from what is God’s is not always easy in a culture that has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. After some 2,000 years of Christian influence, where its effects are felt in ways long since forgotten, we can grow complacent, assuming the culture to be anything but Caesar.

When we read about the confrontation between Jesus and his opponents, together with Paul’s words of encouragement to the ancient Thessalonian church as it faces strong opposition, it’s tempting to write this off as a historic antagonism unique to the ancient world at the dawn of the church’s beginnings.

As such, contemporary church life often reflects secular thinking and doing, much the way it did when most of us were growing up. What is called for, then, is a reevaluation of how we “do” church, in an attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Back in the fall of 2001, First Church held a “mission statement” retreat which consisted of a Friday night meeting (where we mostly ate lasagna!) and a Saturday morning work session.

Each of us was sent to a separate table where we listed a number of things the church should be doing. We then shared our list with the whole group (as they did theirs). The result was a hasty and largely irrelevant combination of listed items under the rubric of a “Mission Statement.”

This mission statement, as such, said everything and at the same time said nothing. It included everything but the kitchen sink. And as such it didn’t clarify anything or establish any kind of impetus to do anything in particular.

The way to do a real mission statement, in contradistinction, is to embark on an extensive period of discernment, where we listen to one another and hash out all manner of things. It is a holy time of listening, praying, and sharing. And in the end, it should produce a statement that is simple, in one or two sentences, that clearly states what we are about, as we understand Christ’s mandate for us in this time and place.

I would like to leave you with a few very basic questions that every church should be asking itself from time to time. They come from Robinson’s book:

  • What is God calling us to be and do?
  • What is our purpose as a church?
  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • What is our business?
  • The answers we give to these basic questions will go a long way toward defining First Church’s future. And though they may appear simple enough, they are about as challenging as any I can think of. Amen.