Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday of Easter. The Scriptures are Acts 8: 26 – 40, 1 John 4: 7 – 21, and John 15: 1 – 8.
I was thinking about two different things this week; one which dealt with the lectionary readings for this week and one that didn’t. But in a sense, they were related.
The one that didn’t immediately relate to the lectionary was about taxes. Now, I supposed that I could have written this when the lectionary includes Matthew 22: 21 (“Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his”). In fact, I have done so on several occasions; see “The Order of Things”, “The Parts of the Church”, “What Do You See?” or “A New Model for the Church”.
But in light of the discussion of these troubling economic times and what the government should and should not do, there comes a time when we have to consider what our taxes should pay for and what they actually do pay for. It is a discussion that goes beyond a simple sermon on Sunday morning or a piece on a blog during the week. But what is the role of taxes in our country and what is our role as citizens when it comes to the needs of the people and the country?
First, let us suppose that those who say we are paying far too much in tax are correct and we were to eliminate all the taxes we pay. This would mean that there would be no federal taxes, no state taxes, no local taxes, no sales taxes, no property or school taxes; no taxes of any kind. There are some who, I have come to conclude, would love that to be the case.
But if we eliminate all the taxes, then we would have to eliminate all forms of government and government services. This would mean not only would there be no welfare programs; there would be no military, no police, no fire-fighters or teachers in the public schools. There would be no government of any sort, be it local, state, or federal. There would be no departments to maintain the roads and bridges. There would be no one to insure that our food was safe to eat or insure the quality of the air we breathe or the water we drink (though I am not sure that is being done right now anyway).
This, of course, is an extreme view of the removal of taxation from our society. But there are reasons for government and reasons for which we pay taxes. And those who espouse a limited role for the federal government and want to see it limited by the reduction or removal of federal taxes fail to see, I believe, that state and local taxes are raised in proportion to the reduction in federal taxes.
Granted, there are many things that we pay for with our tax dollars that perhaps we shouldn’t but that’s the point of all of this. What should we be paying for? I am reminded of the poster/bumper sticker that says “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” But it is more than money spent on the military-industrial establishment in relationship to the money spent on our school systems. It is the fact that the money spent within that establishment doesn’t go for the people in the establishment, the personnel who serve. It always seems as if it goes to the corporations and “trickles” down to the rest of the people.
Should spending on the defense on this country be any greater than the spending on basic services? And shouldn’t the money that is spent on defense be directed towards the individuals who, like the police and firemen, put their lives at risk instead of towards the businesses and corporations that are part of the business.
Whose worth is greater? What should a policeman or a fire-fighter get paid for serving in a vocation where their lives are on the line every day to save ours?
And in one sense, that is the same problem within many of our organizational structures. We tend to pay those at the top more than we pay those who actually do the work. Should an administrator in a school system be paid more than a classroom teacher?
Should some services, such as mass transit systems, be a part of the government or should they be self-sustaining entities on their own, dependent on the revenue they receive from their riders? There is a need for services that only a government can provide; the question is and will always be one of priorities. It is also a question of values and worth? Whose effort is worth more to the future and safety of this country? Isn’t a classroom teacher more valuable to the success of this country because they are teaching the future citizens?
The fundamental question isn’t and shouldn’t be about taxes but whether or not what we receive for the value of the money that is spent. And it also should be about the relative value of an individual’s work. I have no problem with anyone individual making any amount of money as long as 1) it is sufficient to meet their needs, and 2) as John Wesley stated it, it isn’t done through the exploitation of others. If a person makes $1 million dollars a year, then their efforts must be worth it and they must need that sum of money. Right now, I don’t see how anyone can earn that type of salary.
And I think it is time that we seriously reevaluate our priorities and our values. And that brings me to my second point. How do we define success?
Many years ago, a friend of mine and I worked out a scheme of life. We saw the world as divided into winners and players. Winners in this case are not necessarily the ones who win the contest in question but rather win in the ways of life. They see life in an entirely different way.
Players, on the other hand, only see life in terms of who wins and who loses. It isn’t about playing the game but rather what the final score is when the game is over. Players live for the present moment; winners play for the future as well. For a winner, it is more important to have put forth your best effort than it is the final outcome. As John Wooden put it, “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
But how do we become capable; how do we achieve success? It ultimately comes down to what we do as individuals but what if society is such that we are prevented or blocked from achieving any form of success. I grew up in an environment where the color of your skin determined the success of your life; I have seen too many situations where one’s financial worth was the determining value in the success of one’s endeavors. I would much rather achieve success on my own but that requires, if you will, a level playing field and the field on which we play today is hardly what one could call level.
There are people in need today and the level of need that is required by all the people goes far beyond what any one individual can do. The story from Acts that is part of the lectionary today speaks of the actions of one man acting in response to the needs of another individual. And I will not argue that such a response is the best response and one that we have all have to consider. But what happens when the needs of the many are greater than the abilities of the few? What then? What is the role of government to be when the people as a group are crying out in need?
John the Evangelist wrote his three pastoral letters to a community of believers, a community brought together by the belief in what Jesus had done for them personally and for the world. It was a community of believers that was still under the threat of persecution for their beliefs; yet they persevered. I think the one thing that is forgotten today is what the early church was like and its impact on the world around us.
We say that we are a Christian nation but we have forgotten our own roots. Somehow we have forgotten what John wrote in 1 John 4: 20 – 21,
If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.
And we cannot love people if our priorities do not put the people first. We are faced with a major crisis today; a crisis that transcends the boundaries of states and countries. Some would say that the resolution of this crisis is to accept Jesus as one’s personal Savior. But the majority of those who make this proclamation have no desire whatsoever to see others succeed. They see the salvation of souls as a measurement on their own personal scorecard.
By the same token, we cannot do things for others in hopes that those actions will bring us salvation. It doesn’t work that way, either. We individually must make our piece with Christ and we individually must open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit.
But as was pointed out to me some forty years ago when I first confronted this dilemma of what individuals need to do in this world, when I accept Christ as my Savior, I must begin working for Him with all my heart, all my soul, and all my life.
When Jesus speaks of the fruit of the vine, He points out that a branch cannot bear much fruit unless it is part of the vine. And we cannot bear much fruit as Christians unless Jesus is a part of our lives. We cannot preach the saving grace of the Gospel and then turn around and deny others bread to eat. We cannot preach the power of the Holy Spirit and seek power for ourselves, to hoard and manipulate as we desire. Our acceptance of Christ as our Savior and our opening of our heart to the power of the Holy Spirit means that we have a new view of life. It is a view of the life to come and it is a view of the life that is right now.
Just some things to think about this day.