Sing to the Lord a New Song

The Rev. Betsy Porter
St. James Episcopal Church, Eureka Springs, Ark.
October 16, 2011
18 Pentecost Proper 24
Matthew 22:15-22

There is nothing so certain as taxes except maybe death. The Pharisees and the Herodians knew this when they tried to trap Jesus in today’s gospel.

“Is it right to pay taxes, to render tribute to Caesar?”, they asked him. It was a lose-lose question. If he responded that, “yes”, taxes should be paid, he would be guilty of blasphemy. The Jewish holiness laws forbade a Jew from touching Roman money. Roman coins had Caesar’s likeness on them. Caesar was considered to be a god. So, if Jesus voted for paying taxes to Caesar, he would be guilty of idolatry and blasphemy in the eyes of the “church” represented by the Pharisees.

But, if he said that taxes should not be paid to Caesar, he was risking the wrath of the “state” represented by the Herodians. He was declaring himself a revolutionary by this response.

There was no right answer. There was no way he could win, but he did by turning the tables on his critics. He said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And his critics and we are left to figure out what this means.

How on earth do we honor God as we try to be good citizens at the same time? What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God? Where do we draw the line?

In many churches when the offering is presented at the altar, this is said, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Everything belongs to God. Some of it is on loan to us and to Caesar. We are stewards of what belongs to God but we don’t own it.

And the whole tax thing gets tangled up with the stewardship thing. Often we pay taxes to maintain our world—taxes to run schools, to build and repair roads, to provide help for the poor, the sick and the elderly. We pay all kinds of taxes—we are faced with income tax, property tax, sales tax, fuel tax, hotel and airline taxes, even taxes on the food we eat and the clothes we wear. Some even pay so-called “sin” taxes on cigarettes and alcohol.

When I think too much about taxes, my eyes tend to glaze over. So much in my world is out of my control. Except by exercising my right to vote, I have very little say about the subject of taxation. I could refuse to pay and instead go to jail. I could choose civil disobedience. Some have chosen that path. It is not an option that I would choose.

To whom do we belong? Sometimes it feels like we belong to Caesar. Make no mistake. We belong to God. We were created in the image of God, not Caesar. We are to give ourselves back to God because it is to him that we belong.

What does that mean? What are the consequences of giving ourselves to God?

I recently read a piece about a man who completely gave himself and his resources to President Nixon. He supported his campaign and election generously. He worked to ensure Nixon’s election with his vote, influence and money. Later when Nixon was involved in the Watergate scandal and resigned from office, someone asked this man what he had learned from the experience. The man replied that he felt betrayed. He suddenly realized that while he got to vote, pay taxes, and enjoy the benefits of being a citizen of this nation, his real citizenship was in heaven. And he realized God will never betray him.

Because we belong to God, we know he will not forsake us.

Because we belong to God, we belong to the people of God—the body of Christ. By virtue of our baptism, we are members of a holy family. We belong to God; we owe everything to God. We are able to pay back and to pay forward by sharing our blessings with this holy family.

When I cook at Flint Street, our local food bank and food pantry, I know God is present. I can feel it. But God doesn’t need a hot meal nor a warm winter coat nor medicine for his arthritis nor a warm, safe place to sleep. His people, the family of God, our family, need those things. When we provide them, we are giving back and paying forward with those things that are already God’s but on loan to us.

Our actions mean that we give back to God that which belongs to God. It means we give of ourselves and our resources. Most of us have to work at this. We sometimes forget that what we have is only on loan. We hold on to our stuff which is really God’s stuff. We sometimes forget to share it.

As we were traveling home from Colorado a few days ago, we stopped in a small town just off I-70 somewhere in Kansas to grab breakfast at a McDonald’s. There was a nondescript bus parked in the lot. And around the entrance, there were a number of men eating and smoking. They didn’t appear to be friends. There was very little conversation nor smiling. Later we wondered if they were workers going to an assignment or perhaps inmates of some kind although they weren’t dressed in prison garb–just shabby work clothes. Off to the side, but part of the group, was a very young man, probably a teen. He was a tall skinny kid. When we went in, he was eating one of those tiny ice cream cones. You know, the kind that are sometimes given free to little kids. It wasn’t much of a breakfast.

When we placed our order, I thought about buying a breakfast for him, but I didn’t do it. I didn’t take the opportunity to give back. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was afraid he would reject my gift, throw it back in my face. Maybe I was just complacent. Maybe I had my eyes and ears and heart closed. I only know I didn’t do the right thing. I didn’t do the right thing and my chance slipped away.

As we drove away, I saw that young man, God’s child, shivering in a corner trying to get out of the fierce Kansas wind. That image will be with me for a long time.

If we open our eyes, we will see so many opportunities each day to give back to God what is God’s by giving to his people. It is up to us. Yes, there will always be taxes to pay but everything else, including our best, is still there to share.

Today is a new day. I invite you to sing to the Lord a new song—a song of giving back to God with a grateful and generous heart!

Amen.