Caesar on Shrove Tuesday

A sermon to be preached at the  Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on Shrove Tuesday, March 5, 2019, by Christopher L. Webber.

TEXT:  Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Shrove Tuesday is not in the Prayer Book.
Shrove Tuesday is not really a religious occasion.
Shrove Tuesday has about as much to do with my faith as Halloween.
Exactly like Halloween, Shrove Tuesday grew up as a kind of a pagan blow-out before a serious Christian occasion.

Watch on the television news what they do in New Orleans and in Rio, and tell me what that has to do with Christian faith. What both Halloween and Shrove Tuesday are is one last chance to be silly before we need to be serious. That may explain the assigned first reading from Tobit in the Apocrypha (see below). I guess some committee somewhere thought it might be edifying for today, but I can’t imagine why.

I also have no idea what the Gospel reading has to do with either Shrove Tuesday or Lent – but it does tell us one thing we need to know at this moment in American history: God comes first. Always  – in everything – God comes first.

Jesus, I’m sure you know, was brought up on political charges and crucified as a danger to the state. And Christian faith is a danger to the State. It’s why for centuries the authorities tried to tame Christian faith by giving the church political power. The Archbishop of Canterbury has an interest in the state because he is appointed by the monarch and you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Our founding fathers tried to do it the other way by separating church from state and leaving the church – which was established in New England and Virginia – without power or influence.

It hasn’t worked out that way. It may not be established, but the church provides moral guidance for millions of citizens, and does it more effectively because it is not beholden to government. Politicians pay close attention to what the churches say – whether it be the Cardinal in New York City or the pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church. A politician as citizen may have views about abortion and tax support for parochial schools, but when the Cardinal or pastor takes to the pulpit to rally the troops, the politician pays attention. And so they should. They should pay attention to the beliefs of their constituents. The shame is that their constituents haven’t paid attention to what Jesus is saying in the Gospel today. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Can you imagine sitting down to consider what part of your life and possessions belong to Caesar? If you were to make two piles and put in one pile everything that came to you from God, what would there be to put in the second? So start from there. All that we have – all life – is God’s gift. God is the Creator. All that I have is God’s gift. When stewardship time comes around and I set aside ten percent for the church, I’m not being generous. I’m returning to God a small part of what God has given me. It used to be common to say at the offertory, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” It’s not in the current Prayer Book, but it’s still true.

All that we have comes from God and stewardship comes first. Taxes come second. Caesar comes second. But since what we give to Caesar was God’s gift first to us, we need to be sure that whatever we give to Caesar is used for God’s purposes. We have a vote to use to do what we can to ensure that Caesar uses our taxes – which are God’s gift to us – for God’s purposes, not Satan’s. So my taxes pay for a military to keep us safe and perhaps to keep others safe, but never to conquer or oppress or do harm to others.

My taxes can be used to provide assistance to those in need, but not for the benefit of the wealthy. My taxes can create schools and hospitals, roads and bridges, they can provide relief for communities devastated by fire and flood, and we can differ as to how much is needed for such purposes. We can differ also as to the value of a wall on the southern border, but the money to build a wall is God’s gift to us to be used for God’s purposes. God surely wants us to be safe, but God cares equally or more for women and children who are in fear of death and who turn to us for refuge.

If we are to use God’s gifts to us for God’s purposes, we need to be at least as much concerned for others as for ourselves. Politicians often appeal to our worst instincts – our fears and self-centeredness. The New York cardinal and Houston pastor have every right to talk about politics in the pulpit, but only if they support God’s priorities: only if they call on our politicians to care for others as much as ourselves, to welcome and care for the stranger in our midst, to support the

widow and orphan, those in need first of all.

So the gospel for this day – this semi-sacred solemnity – is a good one for all occasions, but perhaps especially for Americans this year as we argue about border walls and health care for all and climate change. As a nation, we have been blessed beyond anything Caesar ever imagined, yet there is need visible every day on our television screen and we have the means to make a difference. God has given us the means to make a difference. And whatever it is we give to Caesar, we should remind Caesar where it comes from and to whom it belongs and that it must be used to make a difference for good and to the glory of God.

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Readings for Shrove Tuesday:
A Reading from the Book of Tobit.
The same night that I buried the murdered man, I washed myself and went into my courtyard and slept by the wall of the courtyard; and my face was uncovered because of the heat. I did not know that there were sparrows on the wall; their fresh droppings fell into my eyes and produced white films. I went to physicians to be healed, but the more they treated me with ointments the more my vision was obscured by the white films, until I became completely blind. For four years I remained unable to see. All my kindred were sorry for me, and Ahikar took care of me for two years before he went to Elymais. At that time, also, my wife Anna earned money at women’s work. She used to send what she made to the owners and they would pay wages to her. One day, the seventh of Dystrus, when she cut off a piece she had woven and sent it to the owners, they paid her full wages and also gave her a young goat for a meal. When she returned to me, the goat began to bleat. So I called her and said, “Where did you get this goat? It is surely not stolen, is it? Return it to the owners; for we have no right to eat anything stolen.” But she said to me, “It was given to me as a gift in addition to my wages.” But I did not believe her, and told her to return it to the owners. I became flushed with anger against her over this. Then she replied to me, “Where are your acts of charity? Where are your righteous deeds? These things are known about you!”

The Holy Gospel according to St. 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.

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