Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Blessing Return

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 19, 2014

Year A, Proper 24: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22
A Blessing Return
            So, today we get to hear Jesus on everybody’s favorite subject: taxes!
            Taxes have always been a hot-button subject in the United States. Our country got its start in large part because we didn’t want our tax money going to England.
            And to this day, the easiest way to get elected is to promise no new taxes, or, even better, to lower taxes.
            Americans who are otherwise perfectly law-abiding people are when it comes to taxes sometimes willing to walk very close to the line – or even take a chance and cross the line and do a little cheating on their taxes.
            People justify not paying or cheating, just a little, on their taxes in all sorts of ways.
            “It’s my money.”
            “The government takes too much of my paycheck!”
             “I don’t want my money paying for bombs or welfare or the space program or…” whatever it is we happen to dislike.
            “Everybody cheats on their taxes, a little.”
            Please don’t raise your hands if any of these rationalizations apply to you!
            Every once in a while there will be a story in the news about celebrities like Teresa and Joe from The Real Housewives of New Jersey who cheated on their taxes or even somehow just didn’t pay taxes, sometimes for years.
            I’ve even had some friends and acquaintances who have admitted sheepishly that they might have a missed a year or two of tax returns, here and there.
            Well, I don’t know about you, but even if I was tempted to cheat on my taxes I wouldn’t because…I find the IRS scary.
            Here at St. Paul’s, I’m usually the one who brings in the mail. And, every once in a while I’ll find in the mailbox a very official-looking letter from the IRS. I always feel a split-second of panic and dread until I make sure that the letter is addressed to the church and not to Sue and me personally.
            I still worry when it’s addressed to the church - but I figure if it’s about the church I can share whatever the problem is with the wardens and vestry.
            At the same time, unfortunately, I’m not the most super-organized person when it comes to keeping all my documents and forms in good order.
            So, Sue can tell you that this toxic combination of worry and disorganization means every year I get a little bonkers when it’s time to gather up all our receipts and pay stubs and W-4s and W-2s and all the rest.
            Every year I worry that we have lost some important form or too much or too little money was withheld from our paychecks.
            You’d be amazed how complicated clergy compensation is (we spent a lot of time working on it at last week’s Finance Committee meeting), so I worry that something has gone horribly wrong and I’m going to end up with a huge tax bill or worse.
            At least so far – it’s all worked out OK.
            But, I’m still very careful with our taxes. And I bet you are, too.
            Well, taxes were a hot button subject back in First Century Israel, too.
            During the earthly lifetime of Jesus, Israel was occupied by the Romans. Some Jewish people, like the priests figured out ways to get along with the Romans, while others actively rebelled. Most probably just kept their heads down and went about their lives as best they could.
            But the Roman occupation meant that there was always great tension usually just beneath the surface.
            That tension was one of the reasons why the priests and elders were so concerned that Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem as a king, threatening to upset the fragile peace between Rome and Jerusalem.
            And the Roman occupation made taxation a hot button subject.
            Many Jews were unhappy about having to send their limited wealth off to faraway Rome – having to pay to support their oppressor.
            Which brings us to today’s gospel passage, where we pick up right where we left off last week.
            We’re in Jerusalem and the religious leaders are challenging Jesus.
            This time we’re told it’s the Pharisees who want to trap Jesus.
            And we’re told that the Herodians – people who support Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet ruler of Galilee - are also there.
            Anyway, the Pharisees try to trap Jesus in an impossible situation by making him choose between God and the emperor. They ask Jesus,
            “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
            But, Jesus easily evades their trap, saying,
            “Give… to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
            For centuries that verse – better known in its King James translation, “render unto Caesar that things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” – for centuries that verse has been used to get Christians to obey the government.
            I don’t know, maybe that’s what Jesus meant.
            But, as I’ve reflected on this passage I hear Jesus reminding us to be as careful with our obligations to God as we are with our obligations to Caesar, to the government, to the IRS.
            Most of us are, if not anxious then at least careful, as April 15 approaches.
            But, are we anywhere near as careful about our obligations to God?
            How careful are we about our obligation to love one another the way God has loved us?
            How careful are we about our obligation to forgive those who hurt us – and to ask forgiveness when we mess up?
            How careful are we about our obligation to share the Good News through our lives, through our actions and words?
            How careful are we about our obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves, to see Christ in absolutely everybody, especially the people we don’t like one bit, the people we can’t stand?
            How careful are we about our obligations to God?
            What if, say every April, God required us to file a return, itemizing all the ways that we had loved and served other people?
            Which would be more complete, our income tax return or, let’s call it, our blessing return?
            In today’s gospel lesson, some people tried to trick Jesus into choosing between the government and God.
            Jesus slipped easily out of their trap and instead reminded the Pharisees and the Herodians – and Jesus reminds us today - to be as careful with our obligations to God as we are with our obligations to Uncle Sam.