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Sing to the Lord a New Song
Mt. 22:15-22
Susan in San-Pedro

"The Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk." They had finally had enough. Enough of this Jesus of Nazareth -- the guy who had ridden into town on a donkey ... greeted by crowds shouting "Hosanna" and waving palm branches. This small town rabbi who dared to toss the money changes right out of the Temple in Jerusalem ... and when they demanded to know by whose authority he did such things, he turned the tables on his questioners -- telling one parable after another ... : "A man had two sons and asked them to go work in the vineyard ..." "A householder planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants who betrayed him ..." "A king gave a marriage feast for his son ..." stories we've heard as our gospel lessons these last few weeks

For the Pharisees who heard them, each parable was worse than the last ... as he challenged the traditions they held dearest: the authority THEY claimed: the orthodoxy they served. And Jesus wasn't done with them yet. Next week we will hear the final installment in this long series of conversations between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day ... the one that ends with "from that day on, no one dared to ask him any more questions." But for today, they DID have a question for him: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? So what was THAT about? Matthew has already told us it was not a sincere question, but a plot to entrap Jesus. To understand that aspect of the text ...of the questions ... of the plot ... a little context is helpful.

Jesus was speaking to people who lived under the oppressive yoke of foreign occupation: the Roman army. The denarius was the coin of the day for everyday commerce in the Roman Empire. It bore the "graven" image of the emperor. This same emperor fancied himself a god. The very possession of one of these coins by a Jew would be a grave sin against the second commandment. Yet it was the only coin recognized by Rome. This left the Jews in a dilemma and was partly resolved by the temple system of money exchange. The moneychangers that Jesus threw out of the temple were people who exchanged secular (dirty) money for the temple shekel that was considered clean and could be used for offerings. A little further study shows that not only was the head of Caesar engraved on it the inscription read "Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest." These words would have been blasphemous to any Jew. So in framing their question, the Pharisees thought they had covered all the bases. Jesus could answer “No, it’s not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar” and be correct within the levitical code but commit treason against the state ... or he could contaminate himself by messing with filthy, Roman money and they could say, once and for all, “this guy is no messiah ... he’s unclean.” Either way they had him.

Except they didn’t. “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the money for the tax” he said. And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this? ... Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away. Went away to organize his arrest and crucifixion -- remember it may be October here in San Pedro and Good Friday and Easter seem a long ways away ... but in the Gospel according to Matthew, these exchanges took place just days before the Passion of Our Lord. 

Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the whole earth. Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations; and his wonders among all peoples.

Our psalm for the day WAS the song that Jesus sang ... a new song that called God’s people to proclaim salvation to all people ... to declare God’s glory among all nations ... to sing to the whole earth. It was a song the religious leaders of the day could not bear to hear: for it pointed to the main issue of conflict between them and Jesus: he proclaimed the fulfillment of the Torah in terms of radical love and they insisted on legalistic interpretation: the Letter rather than the Spirit of the Law.

And so it goes today. Like observant Jews caught between obeying Caesar and being faithful to God, we too face cultural conflicts between our resources and our faith. Society constantly tells us our money is a symbol of our worth. Children watching television for hours at a time are bombarded with the message "you are what you own ... and you need more stuff!" What parent hasn't been faced with the urgent pleading of an insistent little one: "but Mommy ... I  N E E D it!!" That's a response to the lessons taught by the economy of scarcity: the one that tells you no matter what you have, it isn't enough. The one that values you as a consumer ... not as a person. I had a conversation with a member of the parish this week that illustrates the reality of that experience. We talked about the increasing lack of civility ... of what used to be called “common courtesy” that has sadly become UNcommon in our culture. “It’s more that a conflict between God and Mammon” he said. “Even when I’m standing in line to pay for a purchase, it feels as though they don’t see me at all; that the customer is somehow getting in the way of the work they have to do ... the conversation with a co-worker they have to finish.” And we agreed that when the only value is “the bottom line” there’s no room or time or motivation for valuing the humanity in each other.

The inattentive check out clerk is at one end of that spectrum ... road rage on the LA Freeways at the other. But they’re all manifestation of  that “economy of scarcity” that tell us there isn’t enough ... so we’d better grab ours or someone else will. Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the whole earth. Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations; and his wonders among all peoples.

The wonder Jesus calls us to proclaim is the extravagant abundance of God's economy ... that God wants us ALL to be whole ... to be healthy in body, mind and spirit and that we DO have the resources to achieve that end ... if we trust rather than fear: if we share rather than hoard. It’s an Economy of Abundance rather than a Doctrine of Scarcity -- and it’s as challenging to the religious, social and economic structures today as it was to the Pharisees, Saducees and Herodians in first century Palestine. For the doctrine of scarcity is everywhere: it fuels our economy, it informs our politics, it even infiltrates our churches: there isn’t enough money, power or truth to go around -- in order for me to “get mine” I’ve got to “take yours” ... in order for me to “right” you have to be “wrong.” How often in our discussions we are no better than the Pharisees in today’s gospel -- looking for conflict and argument rather than looking for truth. And yet, Jesus calls us to “sing that new song.” To trust that there is enough ... to believe that God’s abundance will, in the end, triumph. And when we forget, we’ve got the resurrection to remind us.

How different our world would be if we could really trust that: really live that way. If we could engage each other in conversation where we really SEE each other -- in all our humanity -- not just as a commodity to use or an obstacle to overcome.

This Sunday, along with churches throughout the diocese, we are observing a day of special intentions for those living with AIDS. BJ Ravitz, a member of this congregation, is away today at the AIDS Walk LA ... Jack Plimpton is here with us from the Diocesan Commission on AIDS Ministry to talk about Project New Hope here in SanPedro and other opportunities for ministry. "Why an 'AIDS' day?" is a question I hear asked. "What about breast cancer; MS; Diabetes; etc? Why single out one group for attention?" Well, I have two answers to that. The first is that it doesn't have to be "either/or". We are called to live into God's promise of abundance -- not fight over the scraps left from Caesar's table. If we believe and trust that promise, we can and will find ways to offer God’s healing grace to all who need it -- to be beacons of hope -- to sing that new song Jesus calls us to sing to ALL people ... ALL nations ... the WHOLE earth.

The second answer to “why single out ...” is that that's what Jesus did. (WWJD again!) He did not offer generic but specific calls to wholeness: he didn't heal in general, but in particular. The blind man at the gate. The Garasene demoniac. The woman with the issue of blood. Jairus' daughter. The Centurion’s servant. One at a time. A disease at a time. The person in front of him at a time. And today, on AIDS awareness day, the person in front of him ... in front of this church which is his Body in the world ... has AIDS. That’s the person who needs to hear the song we’ve been called to sing. The song that is as old as Isaiah and as new as today. The song the Pharisees could not hear because they were so busy trying to trap Jesus into an answer that would betray him that they missed the truth he offered that would save them.

Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the whole earth. Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations; and his wonders among all peoples.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.