Honoring the Image

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, October 22, 2020

My father passed away last Friday, October 16. His obituary is published at https://www.musmannofh.com/listings. Rather than trying to prepare a new weekly article while I am busy with affairs of his estate, I decided to share with you the sermon I prepared for the Forest Avenue Church this past Sunday. It is a message that I believe is relevant to all of us.

Image-consciousness can be deadly. Just ask anyone struggling with anorexia or bulimia. Yet images matter. From the very first chapter of the Bible we learn that what makes humans special is that they bear God’s image. In the Ten Commandments, God warns us not to worship other images. John Calvin and his colleagues destroyed many treasures of art in order to cleanse houses of worship from images that distract us from God. The only image warranted in church, they believed, is God’s image itself, present in the believers who gather there.

Paul tells the Roman Christians to make a choice – either be conformed to the image of the world, or be transformed into the image of Christ. Which will it be? Whose image do we reflect – Christ or culture? (Romans 12:1-2)

In Matthew 22:15-22, Jesus’ opponents have him cornered. They pretend to be his admirers, but they are in fact trying to ruin him. He sees right through their evil intent and could easily just dismiss them. But he chooses instead to teach a lesson to them and to us.

They ask, “Should we pay taxes to the emperor?” Their question is a trap. If Jesus says yes, the Jews will be offended; if he says no, the Romans will arrest him for sedition. It’s a lose-lose proposition. They think they have Jesus boxed in. But they have no idea who they are up against.

Jesus calls for a coin and asks his questioners whose image is on it. “The emperor’s,” they answer. So, he replies, give the emperor what belongs to the emperor – and give to God what belongs to God.

What belongs to the emperor? Stuff. Money. Things of this world. If the emperor (or president, or governor, or mayor) makes a claim on our stuff, legitimately or not, so be it. It’s just stuff. God will provide what we need even when the emperor claims some of our stuff. The whole earth is the Lord’s after all, and God has promised to provide all we need. Remember the words of the psalmist, “I have been young, and now I am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” (Psalm 37:25)

As I began writing this, I was sitting at my father’s bedside as he lived his final days, before passing away this past Friday evening. He was nearly 97 years old, so he could well identify with the psalmist who says, “I have been young, and now I am old.” I once asked Dad – have you ever seen the Lord forsake the righteous? Never! The image of the Emperor may be stamped on all kinds of stuff. Taxes may be way too high. Yet the bottom line is that God will take care of us no matter what the emperor claims from us.

Which gets us to the second part of what Jesus said. “Give to God what belongs to God.” Jesus looks at the coin and asks whose image is on it. Now he turns the tables, effectively asking his inquisitors, as well as you and me, “And whose image is on you?”

We know the answer, of course. The coin bears the emperor’s image. It’s just stuff. But WE bear God’s image. And so we belong to God. Without asking them directly, Jesus puts two questions to us: 1. Have we given ourselves fully to the God whose image we bear? And 2. have we honored God’s image in our neighbor, especially the one we disagree with?

The emperor may force us to pay tribute. God doesn’t force us to give a thing. That is because God honors God’s own image in us. God cannot be forced to do anything. And God extends that same dignity to us, by refusing to force us to give God our selves, or to honor our neighbor. Even though we rightly belong to God, we have freedom of choice in offering ourselves to God. Jesus urges us to give God what belongs to God, but leaves it up to us whether we will do it.

This little encounter over the emperor’s claim gives us a window into how Jesus handles politics. Politics is high on our radar right now as we approach an election that gives us a choice between two radically different pathways forward. The emperor – for us, the President, the State – will make claims on us, no matter which way the election goes. And just as it was in Jesus’ day, whatever government asks of us can take nothing away from God’s care for us.

So perhaps our first lesson should be to take a deep breath and calm down. Political campaigns try to rile us up, as though the world will blow up if we elect their opponent. We can and should resist the fear they may try to stoke. We must do everything in our power to resist the way they divide people, leading good friends and even family members to stop speaking to each other. Despite what the campaigns say, it won’t be the end of the world for us if the other side wins. To be sure, there will be deep consequences that will shape the hard work that must continue after the election. But God will give us everything we need to carry on forward.

Jesus does not ask us to disengage from the emperor. Christians should be in the thick of politics, seeking as best they can to promote the values of God’s kingdom. If we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we have no choice but to put legs to that prayer by engaging the world in a way that brings it more in line with the kingdom of God.

Paul tells us that the kingdom of God is not about food and drink – that is, it’s not about stuff. Rather, it is about “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17) In other words, the kingdom of God is about right relationships, about assuring equality and dignity for all. We must do all we can to work in the political trenches for equal standing and opportunity for every person, regardless of sexuality, race, origin, or creed.

When John Calvin established a community in Geneva that was “Reformed according to the Word of God,” he was a pastor who preached every Sunday in the pulpit of the great cathedral of St. Pierre. He was also a professor in what became the first modern university in Europe, where he filled a great hall with his daily lectures. I’ve been to that cathedral and that lecture hall and can testify that they both had many adjoining rooms in which he could have kept his office, just as pastors and professors have always done. But I was shown his office, and it was located some distance away in City Hall. Calvin thought that the Gospel leads us to be in the thick of seeking public justice through the political apparatus. He was not the magistrate, but he kept a close eye on the magistrate.

Presbyterians have a special heritage of getting involved in public policy, seeking to assure that the relational values of God’s kingdom are brought to bear in the public sphere as much as possible. God doesn’t pick one party or one candidate over another, but God does care about whether righteousness, peace, and joy are being cultivated in the world. Which candidate serves that end better? Which party’s platform nurtures those ideals? Those are legitimate questions. The one thing we cannot do in good conscience is simply to turn aside and tune it all out. Political battles often devolve into mud slinging contests, and it is so very tempting just to turn away from them. But we dare not do so.

And so, beloved, stay engaged in your community. Vote. Work for justice wherever it is needed. Do it not because you like politics, but because you want to follow Jesus. He had every opportunity to retreat from the world, as did most religious reform movements of his day, but he stayed in the thick of things. It eventually cost him his life. It may cost us something too. We too will need to take up our cross if we are to follow him. Are we ready for the challenge?


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