March 17, 2013

Rev. John Watts

NampaFirst UMC


Mark 12:13-17


(Pink Floyd’s “Money” is played.)

That song by Pink Floyd came out in 1973.  That’s the year I graduated from high school.  That’s 40 years ago, which means I have a high school reunion coming up this summer.  That song belongs on the soundtrack of my life, if I may borrow the title of Clive Davis’ new autobiography.  It’s interesting to reflect on how my attitude toward money has changed over 40 years.

I’ve gone from not having any money and it didn’t bother me, to not having any money and it bothered me greatly, to having a little money and wanting desperately to have more, to having a little money and being content with what I have.  But I’ll be honest with you.  Some days I’m more content than others.

One of my memories from back then was traveling throughCentral Americawith friends and running out of money.  I don’t remember being scared.  One of my great memories of that adventure was riding on the back of a farmer’s flatbed truck, the wind blowing through our hair.  We were laughing and having a great time.  We didn’t know what we were going to do when the truck stopped but that was OK.  We’d figure it out.

And I also remember 18 years later signing the papers on our first home and feeling fear in the pit of my stomach.  What would happen if we were unable to come up with the money for the mortgage payment on the first day of any of the next 360 months?  I had achieved the American dream, but it didn’t feel like a dream come true.  I had more stuff than I had before, but I felt less free than I felt when I had hardly any stuff.

Here are some questions to ponder:  Do we have our money or does our money have us?  Do we own our stuff or does our stuff own us?  Is our relationship with money a healthy relationship, or is it toxic?  Is it abusive?  Is it life-enhancing or life-destroying?

We’re on a journey to hope and we hope we have enough money to get there!  On any journey, you’d better be carrying a little cash.  It may be possible theoretically to live off the land like they do on “Man vs. Wild”, but I don’t think any of us wants to try that for long.  It takes money just to keep going in life.

Here’s the question:  Is money something we use to keep us going on our journey or is money the whole point of the journey?  Is money the destination as well as the way to get there?  We’re calling this a journey to hope, but isn’t hope just another word for money?  You have money, you have hope.  You don’t have any money, you don’t have any hope.  Or could it be that money is not the same thing at all as hope?  In fact, that if we’re not careful, money can sabotage our journey to hope?

When you go backpacking, you learn by experience what to carry and what to leave behind.  Leaving the backpack home and living off the land is not a very good idea, unless maybe you’re Bear Grylls on “Man vs. Wild”.  On the other hand, if you insist on carrying too much, you are going to be so weighted down you won’t be able to move.  You need to travel light, but not too light.  You need to know what are the essentials and what are the luxuries that in the wilderness turn out to be dead weight.

There’s one detail in today’s scripture that jumped out at me.  When Jesus needed to produce a coin to answer the Pharisee’s question, did you notice he didn’t reach into his own pocket to pull one out?  Did you notice what he did?  He asked them to show him a coin.  It sure makes it sound like he didn’t have a coin of his own to show them.  It sure sounds like Jesus traveled light.  I remember another hint in scripture that Jesus wasn’t carrying around any excess baggage.  “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Mt 8:20).

I don’t think Jesus is telling us we all have to be poor.  At least I hope not.  But it is interesting that so often people who have very little are the ones who are most generous in sharing what little they have.  And those who have much often live lives characterized by fear of losing what they have.

I think the lesson from the way Jesus lived is to be clear about what you need to carry on your journey and what is just going to slow you down and get in your way and even come between you and God.

And that leads right into this little encounter Jesus had with these Pharisees and followers of Herod.  This was not a friendly audience.  Jesus knew that going in.  They were laying a trap for him.  It wasn’t the first time.  They had stayed up late coming up with the perfect trick question.  It didn’t matter how he answered it, they had him either way.

But first they buttered him up.  “Teacher, we know you have integrity, that you are indifferent to public opinion, don’t pander to your students, and teach the way of God accurately.”   It’s always a warning sign when people who don’t like you very much start saying nice things about you.  And sure enough, it was just to soften Jesus up before they hit him with their best shot.  They dusted off the question that was their secret weapon and they let ‘er rip: “Tell us, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

The question may sound innocent, but it really wasn’t.  It was in the category of, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”  “Yes”, means you were beating her and “no” means you still are.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”  “Yes,” means you are siding with the hated Roman oppressors.  “No” means you could be arrested on the spot for advocating rebellion againstRome.

That’s when Jesus asked for the coin.  He answered a question with a question.  “Whose image is on this coin?”  He knew the answer.  But he wanted to hear it from them.  They told him, “Caesar.”  And now he was ready to answer their original question.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”  He didn’t answer “yes”.  He didn’t answer “no”.  He didn’t do what the politicians do and dodge the question.  He answered it.  He said, “Give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his.”

I think the paying of taxes is probably a subject on many of our minds these days.  We are a little less than a month away from our annual deadline to “give Caesar what is his”.  There is a pastor in this conference who hasn’t paid any federal taxes for decades.  He is opposed to all war and refuses to pay taxes that will help fund our military.  The IRS knows.  He has told them.  All this is out in the open.  His strategy has been to keep his income low enough that it doesn’t reach the threshold where he would begin to owe taxes.  But the IRS has their ways.  In his case, they have placed a lien on his pension.  Caesar is powerful.

I know my friend wouldn’t agree, but I think Jesus is telling us here that it’s OK to pay our taxes.  Even if we don’t agree with everything Caesar is doing.  Even if it burns you like it burns me that our national debt is growing by $39,000 every second.  Caesar still is entitled to his share.  And especially here in this country.

We may gripe about our government and we may have reason to gripe, but I don’t think any of you will disagree that it is an incredible blessing to be a citizen of theUnited States of America.

We have received tremendous benefits.  With these benefits comes the responsibility to pay for them.  We should do so willingly, even gladly, though I doubt if many of us do so very gladly.

Christians down through the ages have been known for their good citizenship.  They have paid their taxes.  They have considered it an honor to serve their country.  They have found it possible to be loyal both to God and to Caesar.

But when Jesus said to “give Caesar what is his”, that was only half of what he was telling us.  He also said to “give God what is his.”

We look at this coin and we see engraved on it the image of Caesar.  That meant it was minted by Caesar.  It belongs to Caesar.  Then we look at ourselves and what do we see?  We see the image of God.  That means we were made by God.  We belong to God.

It’s nice when it’s possible to pay our taxes, be good citizens, and still serve God.  It’s been possible to do that in this country.  We should thank God for that.  But when it’s not possible, when loyalty to Caesar and loyalty to God are in conflict, our first loyalty is to God.  Because we belong to God.  We don’t belong to Caesar.  We pray that it won’t come to that.  That we won’t be forced to chose.  We pray for discernment to see if it ever does come to that, because it is so easy for us to go along to get along.  We pray for the courage to always put God first.

Now this whole conversation about how theoretically there could come a time when we could no longer be loyal to both God and country may be interesting and may even be important.  But there is another area of our lives where we routinely put something else ahead of God.  What do you suppose that might be? (Hold up coin.) For many of us we think about money, worry about money, care about money a lot more than God.  In the way we live our lives, money is at the center.  We fit God in around the edges as best we can.

Do we own our money or does our money own us?  It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of money or very little.  Money can still run our lives.  People with a lot live in fear of losing it.  They worry about their taxes and they worry about their estate and they get tired of dealing with all the nice people who want a little of their time to see if they just might be a major donor to this or that worthy cause.  Not that I would know, but I have heard.  And people with very little money live in fear, too.  Their lack of money dominates their lives.  They worry about survival.  The whole focus of their lives is how they are going to get the money they need to keep going.  And the fear can turn into despair which is another word for hopelessness which is the opposite of hope.  So it doesn’t matter whether you have lot or a little or somewhere in between, money can rule your life.  Money can leave little room for God.  Money can sabotage our journey to hope.

God knows that and that’s one reason God tells us in the Bible to tithe.  It’s not another tax, it’s not another obligation, it’s not something to make us feel guilty if we don’t do it.  It’s God’s way of making sure we remember that God comes first.  We belong to God, all we have belongs to God, and whenever we put anything else ahead of God it messes up our lives.

Steve Tollefson told a joke when he preached here on Consecration Sunday.  You laughed but I wonder if you still would have laughed had you realized the joke was on us.  It was about the man who was baptized by immersion.  He went all the way in, but he was careful to hold his wallet out.  He was saying, “I belong to you, God.  All of me.  All of me, that is, except my money.”

Money is an important part of life.  Learning how to earn it and manage it and give it God’s way is a huge part of finding fulfillment in life.  We need money to keep us going on our journey.  But we need to own it and not have it own us.

And by the way, it’s not too late for you to be part of ourFinancialPeaceUniversitywhich meets each Thursday night.  I don’t know of a better series anywhere that teaches how to be smart with our money and to make sure that God comes first.

Today is a holiday.  It’s actually a pretty big holiday in terms of how big a deal is made over it.  I almost took down the purple and put up green.  This is St. Patrick’s Day.  He died on March 17, 461.  We think.  Things get a little murky between fact and legend when it comes to St. Patrick.  But there are a few things so do know.

He was born inBritain, notIreland.  He was born into wealth.  His father owned a large estate.  He was a deacon in his church, but historians say it was mainly because service in the church qualified him for a tax break.  Even back then taxes had a way of changing behavior.

It was because of the wealth into which he was born that a terrible thing happened to Patrick when he was 16.  He was kidnapped.  Thieves were attracted by the prospect of quick money.  They carried away everything of value they could carry, including Patrick.  They took him not so they could ask for ransom.  They took him so they could sell him as a slave.

They crossed theIrish Seaand for the next six years Patrick got to know the Irish countryside real well working as a shepherd.  It was not a job he was free to leave.  It involved a lot of time alone in nature.  That’s how he got close to God.  And that’s how he heard God calling him to offer Christ to the people ofIreland.  He escaped from his master, he returned toBritain, and then returned again toIrelandto do what God had called him to do.

I share his story because his story tends to get lost. St.Patrick’s Day seems to be more about parties and green beer than about St. Patrick.  But on this day when we talk about money, I thought we should remember someone who was born wealthy, who died poor, but who knew the joy of faithfully following God’s path for his life.  And so, in honor of St. Patrick:

May your joys be as bright as the morning,

And your sorrows merely be shadows

That fade in the sunlight of love

May you have enough happiness to keep you sweet,

Enough trials to keep you strong,

Enough sorrow to keep you human,

Enough hope to keep you happy,

Enough failure to keep you humble,

Enough success to keep you eager,

Enough friends to give you comfort,

Enough courage to banish sadness,

Enough wealth to meet your needs, and one thing more;

Enough faith to keep you true to God.

In Jesus’ name,   Amen.