October 22, 2023. The Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost. Sermon preached by Rev. Mary Lee Wile

Two weeks ago, I took my 8-year-old granddaughter to Dairy Queen after school. She wanted me to give her the money so she could order and pay all by herself, but I didn’t give her enough and she had to come back for more. “I forgot about tax,” I told her.  “What’s tax?” she asked. Once she had her cone and was settled back in the car, I offered a very basic explanation. “Taxes,” I said, “are extra money added onto the things we buy, from groceries to stuffies to shoes to ice cream cones, that go to pay for public services. So the extra 20 cents you paid for your ice cream gets added to all the other bits and pieces of taxes collected, and it adds up to enough to pay for things like schools and teachers, firefighters and police officers, for helping people hurt by disasters like wildfires or war, for keeping the roads in good shape– taxes help pay for things that are meant to serve the common good, what’s best for all of us.” 

This week, when we biked home from school along McKeen Street, I got to watch as she greeted every one of the road crews we passed with, “Hello!” or “Good afternoon!” knowing that her ice cream cone helped pay for their work.

Now, mine was a very simplified explanation of taxes that left out the disparities and the inequities and the fact that not everyone agrees on how our taxes should be spent, but I wanted her to know that in a compassionate society, our taxes should make life equitable, safer, and better for more people. Paying our taxes can actually be a way to nudge us closer to God’s dream of a beloved community — and no, it doesn’t always work that way, but it’s meant to– which was certainly NOT the case with the taxes demanded by the corrupt Roman establishment in Jesus’ time.

And yet, Jesus said to pay those taxes, too. Give to the emperor — in his case– or to the government — in ours — what is theirs.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He then goes on to tell the Pharisees and the Herodians to give to God what belongs to God. And embodied in those words is the understanding that because we belong to God, we are to give our whole selves to God.

Now that’s a lot harder than those fire drills in my freshman college dorm where we were required to show up outside in the middle of the night with two things that were most precious to us, to have thought enough about it ahead of time so that when the fire alarm went off – or an actual fire broke out – we wouldn’t dither around trying to decide. I always took my contact lenses and whatever paper I was working on.

God, on the other hand, asks for more than two things. A lot more. Like: everything. All that we are and all that we have and all that we love belongs to God. I know this, and yet in some ways I’m still that college freshman, clutching not contact lenses and essays in the middle of the night, but my fears for a troubled child, or my nameless horror at a terrifying situation in the world, holding them as though they belonged to me, as though somehow I know better than God what to do. It’s why I fill my days with prayers about entrusting “all who are dear to me to your never failing care and love,” or recite lines from hymns such as “into your hands, we place your own,” hoping that the repetition of these words will help me finally open my hands and my heart and give them to God, whose own they are anyway.

But then, in my contrary way, I wonder, “What does that mean, to give them to God?” After all, I know a lot of us cringe when we hear about people offering their “thoughts and prayers” to victims of tragedy, theoretically putting them into God’s hands, but taking no action to alleviate the situation – we cringe because entrusting people or situations into God’s hands doesn’t actually let us wash our hands and forget them. But then again, on the other hand, that certainly isn’t saying that we shouldn’t pray. For example, I’m sure a number of you have encountered in the past week the poem entitled “The Prayer of the Mothers,” co-authored by Israeli and Palestinian mothers, which begins:

God of Life:
You who heal the broken hearted, binding up our wounds.
Please hear this prayer of mothers.
You did not create us to kill each other
Nor to live in fear or rage or hatred in your world….