by Rev. Scott Summerville
..Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
This summer Mary Ellen and I took a trip into the wilderness. The wilderness has been an important part of our lives and our marriage. When my parents were living upstate they provided us with a base for our trips into the wilds. They would clean and store the camping equipment for us and keep it in working order. When our children came, they would take them off our hands when we went on our annual wilderness adventure.
We went in for rustic backwoods camping in places only accessible by canoe. Over the years we grew more attached to creature comforts; so much so that in recent years we have not found the energy to gather up the gear and make the challenging journey into the wild. It started to seem o-so-much-easier to rent a cabin or a hotel room.
This year something was stirring in my soul. I began to feel that something was missing in my life; I wanted to taste the wilderness again. It took weeks of work to reassemble our gear, patch the things that needed patching, get together the provisions, and get ready to go. It really was a lot of work. But in the end, to be out there hearing the call of the loons on the lake, being able to see the full expanse of sky – both in the day and in the night – leaping off the large rocks into the cool Adirondack waters, lying on a soft bed of pine needles looking up into blue sky between the deep green bows of the pines, listening to the crackling of the campfire, I was deeply moved and felt my spirit reconnected to the spirit of the wild.
We almost didn’t go. There was that moment when I thought, “Let’s get a hotel room or go to Montréal for a week. It is too much effort at this stage of life to load up a canoe and drive into the mountains, unpack the car, packed the canoe, paddle down the river and across the lake to our camping place, unpack the canoe, set up the camp, and not knowing what the weather would be like while all of this was taking place.” But something – something deep inside me – gave me a push to do the challenging thing instead of the easy thing. I have been so glad that we made that trip. Something in the wilderness penetrated my bones and is still there. Since we returned there has not been a single day that I have not returned in my mind to that beautiful spot in the woods and felt refreshed and wished I were there.
It would have been so easy to put it off for another year, and another and another, and never to have tasted this precious gift of earth and sky, water and fire. Lest I leave you with the wrong impression: even though it required a prodigious effort to get there and an almost equal effort to get back, in between, in that week in the woods, we did very very little.
Each of us needs a place of refreshment, a place to be renewed. I am aware that for most people, especially for most people over the age of sixty, wilderness canoe camping sounds more like an ordeal than a vacation. We each find relaxation in our own way.
At the very beginning of the Bible, on the seventh day of creation, the Lord God established the Sabbath – in the words of Genesis: “the Lord rested on the seventh day.” I have always found that to be one of the most profound verses in the Bible and one of the most intriguing versus to ponder: the image of God at rest. What does God do when God rests?
When the commandments were delivered to the Hebrews in the wilderness on tablets of stone, one of the first and primary commandments was: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” The idea of holy rest, Sabbath stillness , is not presented in the Bible as a good idea; it is presented as a sacred obligation and necessity. For the health of our bodies and minds, and also for the health of our souls, we need to find a place of refreshment and rest in the cycles and rhythms of our lives. We each need to continually look for Sabbath. But how hard it is for many of us to find that space – that Sabbath space – that time that is not filled with work and worry and the burdens of life.
Working parents – especially single working parents –may feel they are never able to carve out times and places free from work and stress.
People who are care givers for an ailing spouse or parent or child may find no obvious break in the 24/7 cycle of responsibility.
So many people are struggling to survive and cope in the modern workplace and cannot escape the constant demands and stress of jobs that have no beginning and no ending. I have a friend who was expected, even during cancer treatments, to work grueling hours and to meet impossible deadlines.
The biblical notion of Sabbath, the notion of necessary and sacred times of rest, has gone out the window for many people. And of course if you are hungry, if you are in an abusive relationship, if you are in the throes of grief, how do you observe Sabbath?
Where do you go to be refreshed? Perhaps you come here.
I heard someone say, “There are two places in the world where I go to forget about everything and relax: one of them is watching my favorite professional basketball team, and the other is church.” I don’t know what church he attends – he did not say – but this is an interesting proposition: church as a place to “forget about everything and relax.” I come to church for renewal; I occasionally relax while I’m here, but I would never describe this as a place “to relax and forget about everything.”
If we wanted to forget about everything, we would need to stop praying, because when we ask for prayer from the community we are saying to one another,” I want to be remembered, not forgotten; I want this person, this pain, this joy, this concern that is on my heart to be known and shared by others.”
If our purpose here was to relax, then we would not mention uncomfortable things here: hunger and injustice.
If were purpose here was to relax and forget about everything, then we would need to play soft music instead of reading and preaching the Scriptures. The Bible is not a soothing book. What was the topic of the gospel today? Taxes! Now there is a relaxing topic. The question Jesus was asked is: should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? The question has to do with a community of people living with injustice and oppression, trying to figure out whether to resist or whether to go along with the system that is oppressing them.
The question goes to the heart of the struggles of so many peoples these days. On the streets of Hong Kong young people are saying that they are not willing to simply go along, allow their freedoms to be gradually phased out. Should the people of Hong Kong go along and get along and not stomp on the toe of the Chinese government, or should they take a stand?
Many in our own congregation can recall or have parents and grandparents who can recall what it is to live under authoritarian regimes or colonial rule.
The power of the Scripture is that it does not just describe a moment in the past – it speaks to us in whatever turmoil and challenges we are facing in the present. The Scriptures never allow us to “relax and forget about everything.” Nor does the Bible give us a quick and easy answers. How did Jesus answer that question about taxes? “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” – Jesus was saying that you have to deal with the real world. You cannot ignore the emperor. You have to deal with money and politics and power. Religion does not take you out of the real world. You have to deal with it.
But then he expands his comment: “Give to God that which is God’s.” How do I make my way through this world, pay my taxes, pay my dues, take care of business, survive, without letting my whole life get wrapped up in those things? How do survive in the world as we know it and not lose my sanity or my integrity – or my soul. “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” In other words, “I am not going to give you a pat answer to your question – you each will have to wrestle with the question of how you live with integrity, how you will survive, how you cope, how you will balance the demands on your life.”
It is much easier to have religion give you all the answers, and let someone else tell you how to think, and relieve you of the burden of responsibility for your own life. That kind of religion is very popular, because it allows a person to relax and let somebody else think for them.
If you want to relax and forget about everything, you need to read a different book and listen to a different preacher and find another denomination, because our Scripture and our Jesus and our Methodist tradition is constantly challenging us to think, to love, to act and perhaps hardest of all, to change.
In the month of November on the first weekend, we will have our church retreat. These retreats give us a chance to let our hair down with one another, to relax together, to step away from our routines, and to be refreshed. The irony is that most of our people are too busy to go! That is just the nature of our lives these days.
On the second weekend in November, we will have our annual church meeting. November will be the month when people make commitments to the work of the church, leading and serving in the year ahead in a variety of offices and ministries. November will be the time we each make our personal decisions about how we will serve, both with our time and with our money. These are personal choices and are not dictated by any other person. We make our commitments freely.
There are times when we relax together. There are times when each of us comes here simply to catch our breath and find a cup of water for our thirsty soul. We come here for Sabbath. We come here because in the crazy jumbled stressful confusion of life we need the regular nourishment of our souls in the company of others.
There are times when we come to think through difficult and challenging issues and to work together to address the complex issues of our own community and of the world. We eat, we meet, we sing, we pray, we think, we serve. And in the midst of it often, by the grace of God, we forget – we do not forget “everything.” We simply forget ourselves; we forget our own burdens for a time, and we are blessed.
Grace and peace to you.