Let me tell you how it will be / There's one for you, nineteen for me / 'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman. It’s April 15th, tax day. The day we have to justify our existence to our country for the privilege of living in the already great country. Although, because April 15 falls on a Sunday this year we get an extra couple of days. Not sure why a couple, but I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. We’ll take it and run. Before writing those checks. Should five per cent appear too small / Be thankful I don't take it all / 'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah I'm the taxman. Some say the Beatles wrote this song in protest of the tax rate for entertainers in the UK at the time. Which were and still are frighteningly high. But though we pay a lower rate, we still grumble, we still chafe, we still wonder if it is worth it. A tax cut sounds good to everyone, except when it benefits everyone but us. If you drive a car, I'll tax the street, / If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat. / If you get too cold I'll tax the heat, / If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet. We just can’t win. So we grit our teeth and pay what’s due. Whether all at once or a bit a time from each pay check. If the latter, we think we’re coming out ahead when we get our refund, until we realize it was our money all along. Don't ask me what I want it for / If you don't want to pay some more / 'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman. And we don’t question, we can’t because we can’t figure out what we’re paying for anyway. Every attempt to “simplify” the tax code only adds more lines and more pages and we’re already lost in the face of the forms. We’re overwhelmed, oppressed, yet dutiful, responsible, respectful citizens and will pay our taxes because that’s what we do. Now my advice for those who die / Declare the pennies on your eyes / 'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman / And you're working for no one but me.
OK, there’s where we have to draw the line, “Taxman.” We don’t work for you. I know it feels like it. I know that’s the attitude that comes over us at tax time, that we’re working for The Man, the government, the machinery of politics as usual (and don’t let the advertisement fool you, it happens to everyone we send, no one is immune to the “way things get done” on that level - state or nation. Everyone we send thinks they can make a difference, can drain the swamp. Well, we may have changed some of the inhabitants, but the swamp still thrives.) But despite our feelings, we don’t work for the taxman. We don’t work for the nation, in the concrete or the abstract. Our allegiance is not ultimately to our country, as great as it is. We have a higher allegiance. We work for Another.
Mark 12:13-17 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?" But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, "Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it." 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." 17 Jesus said to them, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were utterly amazed at him.
We stand now in the glow of Easter. This is a season for running. For leaping. For dancing. This is a season for laughter and for living. We walked the stony path of repentance, the way of the cross. We followed in stunned silence as He poured out His life for us. We waved our Palms as He rode into town, our town, our neighborhood, on the skittish little donkey that looked as bewildered as we felt. But we shouted with the best of them. Hosanna, save us, King Jesus, Prince of Peace, Son of our ancestor David. Then we watched as He turned over the tables of our comfortable worship and drove out those who were in it for themselves instead for God and Father of us all. And we wondered if we were next. If that whip of cords He made was going to be used for more than setting pigeons free and sending lambs to their mothers. Then we sat at table with Him and at the meal that we had shared a hundred times, except this time it was different, He made it different. We squirmed uncomfortably in our seats as He washed our dusty feet. We sat uncomprehendingly as He turned bread into flesh and wine into blood. And He told us to remember. How could we forget? But that wasn’t all He said. He told us we would betray Him, we would deny Him, we would run to save our own skin when push came to shove. We shouted Him down for that, told Him off, said He offended us with His low opinion of us. Then we fell asleep in the garden, and woke to a riot. Flashing lights and badges and weapons of all sorts. And they took Him and we ran. For our lives we ran. But we watched. From a distance we watched as they tore Him to pieces, as they ripped His body and shed His blood. We shouted with the worst of them, who screamed for His death. And then we watched as they marched Him out to that trash heap of a hill, and with ruthless efficiency they removed the problem and washed their hands of the whole affair. We watched as the world grew dark. Darker than we had ever seen. Darker than we could even imagine. A darkness only broken by the sound of tearing, like a curtain somewhere, like a heart we knew. And we sat in the darkness. A darkness we thought would never end.
Here at Southport UMC we walked in that darkness by remembering grace. The Way to Heaven, the life of grace that we followers are called to live, to walk, to be every single day. It’s the only way through the darkness, the only way to come into the light again. The way to heaven includes a promise. A hope. The light that conquers darkness. Life that conquers death. We’ve been remembering God’s grace as the means by which we can walk in this world, when we embrace the light and when we are overcome by darkness. The way to heaven ends with the promise of glory.
So now what? We have come through our Lenten re-enactment, our journey to the cross and beyond. We now embrace the light again, grab hold with both hands, with joy that sets our feet to dancing. So now what? Now we live. Now we dance. Now we walk. We walk in the way.
Our new sermon series that begins this weekend is called Walking in the Way. It’s the so what after Lent. OK, so let’s assume we understand grace (and I realize that’s a huge assumption – let’s say we have an inkling, a glimpse of grace). But what do we do now? We walk in that grace. We live in that grace. So for next month and half we’re going to explore some test cases, some case studies about how to walk in the way. Some serious, some funny, some a little out there. But all of them a slice of life as people of grace.
Which brings us back to tax day. If we were hoping Jesus was going to give us permission to skip paying taxes, then we’re going to be disappointed. He gives the questioners a slip by answering and not answering the question at the same time. First of all it isn’t a sincere question, despite their flattery about sincerity at the beginning. They just want to trap Him. He can’t answer this one, they think, either way they’ve got Him. If He says “yes, pay the tax”, then the people, who hate the tax will rebel. If He says “no, don’t pay the tax”, then they can turn Him in as a traitor to Rome, preaching sedition. (And in fact, this is one of the false accusations against Him later - “He forbade us to pay taxes to the Emperor!” A case of yet another person who doesn’t listen to the sermon.)
But He doesn’t say yes and He doesn’t say no. He says what world do you live in? He says where are your priorities, where is your security, where is your hope? That’s what He says. If you are going to invest in government, then you’ve got to pay for it. If you’re going to use the benefits of a nation, then you’ve got to support it. If you are beholden to Washington, if you voted thinking you were getting a savior, then cough it up. If you think I’m being a bit harsh, that He was just being nice and drawing a line between church and state, then notice how it starts. “Show me a coin.” He doesn’t have one. He doesn’t carry one. He asks them and they reach in their pockets. Give to Caesar, render to Caesar the old versions said. Render. Like surrender, like give up, give in, give all to that which you think will save you. That’s the choice.
See, we do enjoy the benefits of living in this nation and therefore owe our fair share. But we don’t work for the Taxman, despite George Harrison’s compelling lyrics. We don’t. We work for God. We live for God. We love for God. So our true allegiance and our debt and our joy to give is to God. We can surrender to the state if we want, but as for me and my house ...