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WHAT ABOUT TAXES?

Matthew 22: 15-22

 

According to a story, God was sitting in Heaven one day when a scientist spoke to him looking Heavenward: “God,” he said,” it looks like we don’t need you anymore. Science has figured out a way to create life out of nothing. In other words, we can now do what you did in the beginning!”

“Is that so!” said God, amused. “Tell me about it.” “Well,” the scientist said, “we can take dirt and form it into a human likeness and give it electronic controls for movements.”

“Well that’s interesting. Show me!”

So the scientist bends down to the earth and starts to mold the soil.

“Wait a minute!” God objected. “You have to get your own dirt!”

 

Of course we can’t really imagine dirt being able to form a moving person! But we are always thinking about what is God’s and what is ours, especially when it comes to possessions and money.  As we come closer to November 4th, I have yet to see a candidate campaigning for higher taxes! Since the days of the Roman Empire, when Caesar enacted the famous Census that we read from Luke chapter two every Christmas, Jews, Christians, and others have railed against being highly and forcibly taxed.  Even in Caesar’s day, plenty of people thought what he spent tax money on was extravagant- he had extravagant palaces and wealth enough to, as the saying goes, “pay a king’s ransom if necessary.” Even the puppet King Herod, who did what Rome asked, had palace after opulent palace of opulence. “Waste” is what some call it; “Pork” is what others call it. Some would even say that one of their greatest wastes was in over engineering their buildings and infrastructure.  The Roman Coliseum, the Pantheon, and the remains of the Circus Maximus can still be seen over 2000 years later! Talk about over-engineering! Hadrian’s Wall is visible in places all over Europe, and the Roman Aqueduct system of water transportation is still visible as well.  The Appian Way is still traveled as part of the amazing Roman Highway system that is a marvel to modern historians.  So today, and in Rome, there is pork, there is waste, and there is opulence; but in the mix of our benefits from taxes are things that are for the public good: roads, bridges, police protection, fire protection, public schools, the beach, and parks to name a few benefits we enjoy. When driving around Orlando I am aware of which roads are provided by tax dollars, and which ones aren’t as toll booths appear every few miles on some of them. What would our beachside be like without a bridge over the intercoastal waterway? And what if it were a toll bridge? Yesterday I needed to get from Flagler Avenue in New Smyrna Beach to a home just north of the Ponce Inlet lighthouse. There had been a death, and I hoped to get there quickly. I could see the lighthouse from New Smyrna Beach, but unless I left my car and took the water taxi, I couldn’t get there without an 18 mile trip up US 1 to the Dunlawton Bridge and back down to the lighthouse. No toll bridge or government bridge exists between that short span of water.  You see, there are plenty of places where we take government funded projects for granted until you see what life would be like without them.  Smart use of tax money; yes we need that. But taxes do many good things that bring on grumblers who enjoy the services. Of course we know in our day, as in Jesus’ day, some people are not as careful with money if it’s not theirs. We also know that greed and desires to be re-elected make people lose their sensibility.

It is likely that taxes affected Jesus very little; he did not seem to own anything from land to a house; yet he is asked about taxes in a question that seeks to trap him.  We can tell that things- material things- did not matter much to the one who preached “store up treasure for yourself in Heaven, and not here where moths can eat it and thieves can steal it.” Jesus is always asking his listener’s to consider the spiritual world over the physical world. “Live in the world but not of the world he once preached. He lets them know that there are some things that we must do and pay since we are physical beings; we need food, sleep, protection, and water. One day we will just need him—“living bread”—instead of daily bread. One day, taxes, rent house payments, or car payments will be left behind. But for today, Jesus gives his answer like this: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; (pause) and render unto God the things that are God’s!” Words on a page don’t jump out as clearly as that. He knew the question he was asked was a trap. “If he argued against paying the tax, [the Herodians who are Zealot Nationalists, and the Pharisees who resented the Roman rule but generally put up with it] could accuse him to Pilate of anti-Roman activity. If he supported the tax, he would lose some of his supporters who opposed taxation. You will note that he himself did not have a coin. True religious people, there in the Temple Courts, would not have carried in Roman coins; they would have exchanged them for Jewish Shekels. But these “officials” [Herodians and Pharisees] produced a Roman coin on which the inscription read: ‘Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus.’ Here, in the most holy space in the holy land, Jesus’ adversaries produced a coin that violated the dictates of their own religion!”[INTERPRETATION, Matthew, John Knox Press, 1993, p. 253.] No wonder Jesus saw them as hypocrites. Jesus answered in a way that would not trap himself, but trap his questioners. In his own mind, however, did he not acknowledge that for us to live in this world takes money, taxes, and physical structures? In his own mind, was he not remembering the times he himself sought food, water, and shelter? He too knew what physical needs were.  Yet in his own mind and ministry he was more on the Kingdom things, that is, on spiritual things? He set a balance for Christian living. In studying this passage, John Calvin wrote that “Christ declares that it is no violation of the authority of God, or any injury done to his service, if, in the respect of outward government, the Jews obey the Romans.” [Calvin’s Commentary, Vol. XVII, p. 44.] 

 

Over the years, one of my friends recognized when I became too upset about a subject to think straight. He called it getting “wrapped around the axle.” I’ve gotten wrapped around the axle about forced mandates for fire alarms in the church and the forced removal of doorstops; I’ve been distracted by derogatory journalists who continue to write destructive things about our denomination too. People driving slowly in the left lane get me bothered too, but that’s another subject!  Jesus sounds like he wants me, and you, to focus on first things first; to do what needs to be done to live on earth; but spend more energy and focus in preparing ourselves and others to live in this world the way Jesus lived: caring, sharing, healing, and praying.  We have too much on our plates when it comes to the Kingdom of God, to let taxes wrap us around the axle, filling our hearts with anger and our minds with details that will not go with us when we die. Certainly we, like our Lord, should work for justice and ethical practices while we are here. But at least as important:  let us work on that which saves our souls and the lives of others!

(Let us pray, using verses 1, 2, & 4 of the hymn in the bulletin, “Let There Be Light, Lord God of Hosts.”)

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  October 18, 2008

   

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WEDDING CRASHERS

Matthew 22: 1-14

 

Unlike the sophomoric film with the name “Wedding Crashers,” where two desperate and immature men find out the times and dates of wedding receptions and come unannounced to eat food, drink booze, and meet women; today we have a story about a single wedding banquet crasher. Even before that story, however, we have the dilemma of people saying “no” to a king’s insistent request to be his guest at a banquet to honor his son.  So let’s unpack these two stories starting with the last one first.

 

Author and minister Max Lucado is also an avid golfer. He tells the story of pro golfer, Scott Simpson, offering him a pass to the Master’s Golf Tournament. Here is how he oozed gladness about the invitation:

“A pass to the Master’s is the golfer’s Holy Grail. Tickets are as scarce as birdies on my scorecard. So I was thrilled. So off (my wife and I went) to Augusta National Country Club in Augusta, Georgia, where golf heritage hangs like moss on trees. There you find the green where Nicklaus sank the putt. The fringe where Mize holed the chip. The fairway where Saranson hit the approach shot. I was a kid in a candy story. And like a kid, I couldn’t get enough. It wasn’t enough to see the course and walk the grounds; I wanted to see the locker room. That’s where the clubs of Hogan and Azinger are displayed…. But they wouldn’t let me. A guard stopped me at the entrance. I showed him my pass, but he shook his head. I told him I knew Scott, but that didn’t matter. I promised to send his eldest child through college, but he didn’t budge! ‘Only caddies and players,’ he explained. He knew I wasn’t a player, and he knew I wasn’t a caddie. Caddies at the Master’s are required to wear white coveralls. My clothing was a dead giveaway….

Many people fear the same will happen to them, not in Augusta, but in heaven.  They fear being turned away from the door.”  WHEN CHRIST COMES, Word Publishing, 1999, pp. 55-56.]  Some may be more disappointed than Max was at Augusta if they have grown up believing the twisted adage that “God accepts me just the way I am.”  “No; God loves you just the way you are, but we are to “give of our best to the Master.” God welcomes you and me into heaven only if we have on the right clothing.  Before you say that God can’t be that materialistic, let’s see how much spiritual clothing seemed to matter to God. Paul in Romans 13:14 wrote: “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and forget about satisfying your sinful self.” In Galatians 3: 26 he wrote: “You were all baptized into Christ, and so you were all clothed with Christ. This means that you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” And Isaiah once proclaimed: “The Lord makes me very happy; all that I am rejoices in my God. He has covered me with clothes of salvation and wrapped me in with a coat of goodness.” (Is. 61: 10).  When the prodigal son returned from his lostness, his father pronounces him “found” by putting new clothing on him: new sandals, a new ring, and new clothes.  Not the filthy rags that he was wearing. Now don’t get excited:  to hear that God rejoices when you get new clothes is not an invitation to shop! But imagine, if wearing a new outfit that you just bought changes your outlook on life, how much more does God want you to be clothed in a way that says to the world, “I have had a change of heart; I am living life differently from now on!” “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” David prayed to God. The stains on the clothes you buy at Kohl’s, Penney’s, Macy’s, Steinmart, or Target generally come clean with a washing machine and detergent. But how do the stains on the clothes we plan to wear to heaven come out?  How do the lies and thefts of word or action come out? No Tide Stick will remove them. How does the perspiration caused by living always for self come out of the clothes that adorn our souls? How will the dirt, the marks, and even the blood come out of the clothes that we plan to wear for the Kingdom banquet? Evidently the man in Jesus’ parable didn’t know; do you? Do you think God accepts everybody as they are, or that God loves everybody but challenges us to become more like Christ each day? Why bother to change if God accepts your “I dress to please myself’ look? The standards of dress for dining, for cruises, for graduations seem to all be gone, which in my mind taint the experience and the specialness. What about attending the banquet for the King?  Will you really try to get in with your “I really don’t care” clothes? Could it be that, like Max, you will not be admitted to heaven’s inner sanctum? By the way, on the last day of the Master’s week, pros were invited to let their guests caddie one game! Scott Simpson let the honor fall to Max. With gleaming white coveralls donned, Max Lucado walked past the same guard who didn’t even give him a second glance.  Why? Because he was wearing the right clothes.

 

Jesus shows us that we need to be dressed in his righteousness to be admitted to the king’s banquet. We need the clothing of our baptismal gown, the purity that comes from confessing to God and leaning on Jesus. That mean’s that the filthy and bloody clothes that he wore from the Garden of Gethsemane all the way to the cross were stained with our sins, and his blood was shed for our sake! If you, through your belief and life patterned after Jesus, give him your “guilty stains” as the old hymn puts it, then your clothing will get washed in the blood of Jesus.  Only Jesus can take blood and make a garment look white with it. Your mortal body will be clothed in whatever your loved ones decide to put on you when you die. But your spiritual body, the way it is dressed, is totally up to you. Jesus won’t make you change your clothes, but his messengers will urge you to change them in order to be dressed for the King’s banquet: clothed in a life of right choices instead of stained with a life of unconfessed and unrepented bad ones.

 

Of course the Kingdom is not just about Heaven; it breaks in now and then even on earth. How hurt and astounded the host of the Kingdom party must feel when we make lame excuses of why we cannot say “yes” to his invitation!  If the stock market has us knotted up in anxiousness, Jesus would counsel us with his Sermon on the Mount not to be anxious about life and this world’s trappings. If there are conflicts in your schedule, he would counsel you to put first things first. We get to be part of this great Kingdom, along with its joys, because others first said “NO!” If we too say “NO,” then the King will move on to implore others to come, and the invitation to you, or to me, will be withdrawn.

There was much angst in our nation this past week. Hear the invitation from the King who wants to clothe you in your baptismal gown again: clean, fresh, unafraid, excited for a new life in Christ. Give your stained clothes to him. Heaven’s gatekeeper has orders to turn away wedding crashers.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  October 12, 2008

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RENTERS OF THE WORLD

Matthew 21: 33-46

 

By and large, those who did not pay for things originally, and especially those who have an inability to pay for things that get broken, rarely take care of your belongings as carefully as you do. Films capture the escapades of an unsupervised boy named Kevin in “Home Alone,” a huge and loving, but clumsy and slobbering dog left alone by Tom Hanks’ character in “Turner and Hooch,” and what fraternity brothers in “Animal House” when the alumni and administration are gone.  Certainly some of you have rented a car, an apartment, tools, or even a home. Security deposits are almost always required to try to insure proper care of what was rented. Still, anything someone rents seems to get less attention and care than what you own; subconsciously do you care for what is yours, or what is loaned to you, in extra special ways?  Boys especially: think about when you got permission to drive the family car or minivan or station wagon in my case: did you wash it, clean it, and drive it carefully? Compare how you cared for their car with the way you cared for your first bought car? Did you wash it every day or just every other day? Did you check under the hood every time you drove it or every other time? Did you wipe off the door handles after someone touched them?  Both boys and girls seem to care best for what is theirs.

 

Sometimes, however, for profit or out of need, we have people rent our property or we pay people to maintain our property. For maintenance, we look for references from friends and neighbors: who did a good job? Is the company trustworthy?  And sometimes, no matter how hard a professional tries, there are those who are hard to please since what is being cared for is theirs instead of yours.  Now that I’ve had surgery on my shoulder, my days of changing my own oil are probably over; but years ago I trusted my cars to “professionals” for a period of time until one mechanic put so much new oil in my crankcase that it cause my oil seals to leak, and on two other occasions a mechanic “forgot” to change my oil filter. You see, it’s my car, and to me those things matter!  When I trim my own grass, my back screens never get cut; but while on a vacation several years ago, the professional who cut my grass cut four of them with a weedwacker. And once when the children were little, Mary Ann and I came home from an evening out and paid our babysitter, only to learn the next day that both big speaker cones on my stereo were torn from an unsupervised child. What might have happened to our children that could have been a tragedy when an eye was turned the other way? We seem to care the most for what is ours. But we also learn how to and who we can trust with our health, our home, and our loved ones.

 

As children grow up, parent’s nerves get on edge as they trust more and more work around the home to them, not just because there are so many jobs, but to teach them how to care for, repair, clean, and be responsible for what is entrusted to them. So with dusting comes broken nick knacks; with lawn mowing comes bent cutting blades or chopped sprinkler heads; with cooking comes spilled grease, sliced fingers, or chipped plates.  But parents cannot, and indeed should not, keep all such jobs to themselves. There will be some damage in the process of entrusting property to someone else.

 

Last week we listened in as Jesus told Pharisees a parable about a father and the two disobedient sons who would not do as he asked, Today we come to his next parable: a landowner, who allegorically has been interpreted to be the Heavenly Father, buys a vineyard, (i.e. some call it his kingdom, others call it Israel echoing Isaiah chapter 5: verse 2,) and he lets it out (rented it) to tenant farmers (i.e. Israel’s religious leaders.) In spite of pledges of trustworthiness, they fail to take care of what was entrusted to them. The landowner (God) sent his servants (prophets) to get the first fruits that the land produced. Like a story on the evening news, we learn that a number in succession are grabbed beaten. The landowner, deemed by some to be either foolish or naïve, finally sends his son to get the first fruits of the crops of the land. As we heard and perhaps suspected would happen, he was cast out of the vineyard (perhaps foreshadowing Jesus’ own death outside the walls of Jerusalem) and killed. Then Jesus asked the Pharisees, “When the owner himself comes, what will he do to tenants?” And they, from their own mouths, condemned themselves as they answered him: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease his land to others who will give him the fruit in due season.

 

Friends: this is a New Testament parable. The parables of Jesus not only hold up a mirror to religious people of his day, they are living words of God that, when held up, also reflect your face and mine. Today, this parable applies to those who have pledged to follow, and serve Jesus, and be stewards (care givers) of God’s earth and its inhabitants. How are we doing? From Genesis to the Psalms to the gospels to Paul’s letters, the earth is entrusted to our care; but not just the earth but also the streams and the seas; not just them but also animals and plants and forests, and air. But perhaps most importantly:  how are we caring for God’s children: helpless young ones, confused growing ones, or marginalized unloved ones? How are we caring for those who are handicapped, or elderly, or poor, or those who are emotionally broken down or victims of disasters or crimes? “How well do you think you are doing?” Jesus might ask us, stepping out from the pages of Matthew’s gospel. “All that my Father has given you is for you to enjoy, not for you to break,” he would say. The Bible says that everything is the Lord’s: even money. But it is ours so we can live, love, and enjoy. Still this past week, legislators have done an embarrassing job taking care of what was entrusted to them, haven’t they? What do you think God will do, or should do, about them? (Only silent mutterings on that, after all, we’re in church.) You see, when it’s not theirs, even if they are professionals, they don’t care for your things as well as you care for your things. So God says “Call it yours; I’ll watch what you do with it and if you remember me, and my downtrodden children, and help your own, I’ll trust you with more and be pleased.”

 

But the vineyard has been handled by crooked, uncaring tenants; things like greed and self-centeredness have alienated them from the God who lovingly made them and ultimately claims them. Ages ago in Genesis one, God listed what was good in the world. Like poetry, Genesis reminded us that God completed that list in six days. And friends, nothing is off of that list even today; nothing and no one. So, will we take care of God’s things and God’s children carelessly because they aren’t ours, or carefully because they’re his, but given to us for our care? After all, included in God’s Face Book list of most precious friends, is a picture of you.

Jesus invites his friends to this meal that is a foretaste of the wonderful Kingdom of God; spiritually wash your hands and hearts; the feast is soon to begin.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                      October 5, 2008