The Pharisees sent their disciples to Jesus to ask, “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  (Matt 22:17)

This being a political season, I wonder if the time has come for me to preach to you about the relative virtues or vices of taxation.  The question, after all, has recently been raised in a public forum, I seem to think.

This being a time of economic turmoil, I wonder if the time has come to add my voice to the chorus of what passes for wisdom about the crisis we are in and what to do about it?

The Gospel reading today seems to be inviting me to weigh in on these matters.  But I’m not so sure that any of you also wish to extend such an invitation.  There is wisdom to be found among the people of God!

Instead, I will meander, a bit, as I often do on foot, around this neighborhood.  And not long ago as I was meandering, I was walking by the Drake: the wonderful building that you can see when you walk out of the doors of this church, its grand cupola claiming a prominent space in the sky.  I have friends who used to live in a penthouse apartment there, just a floor or two below that cupola.  I loved to visit them and to sit on their big terrace looking out over the whole of the western view of the city.  Walk by the Drake, and you may be surprised to notice, as I was, that it was built in 1929 – a bit of a rough year, I’d think, for a luxury hotel (which is what it was built to be).  Walk down Locust Street to the east of here, just to the end of our block, and see that the Lanesborough – built to be the University Club of Philadelphia – was also built in 1929.

Of course it was in 1929, 79 years ago this month, that the New York Stock Exchange took its great plunge.  The Dow having peaked at a dizzying 381 points on September 23, it crashed almost 12% to 230 points on October 29, 1929.  (Those were the days!)

They had been the days – certainly in Philadelphia, and certainly for the banks here.  The wonderful, modernist PSFS building was also built in 1929 by the oldest bank in America: The Pennsylvania Savings Fund Society.  The Philadelphia Trust building (where Wachovia is, or was), was built a couple of years earlier in 1927.  The PNB building, which still supports the world’s largest ringing bell, was built on Broad Street in 1930.  By 1929, 30th Street Station was under construction.  And the Ayer Building was completed in 1929 on Washington Square – home to the nation’s oldest advertising agency.

Here at Saint Mark’s in 1929 the parish busied itself with moving its second mission church, Saint Michael’s, from 19th and Lombard in Center City out to Yeadon in Delaware County.

Of course, Prohibition was in effect in 1929, so I guess people had to keep busy somehow.  Olympic rower Jack Kelly was busy that year here in Philadelphia with his new-born daughter Grace.

It was, as I say, quite a time in Philadelphia.

And on October 12, 1929, just two weeks before the Stock Market crash, The Philadelphia Athletics scored ten runs in a single inning of Game 4 of the World Series against the Chicago Cubs, winning the game by two runs, and solidifying their lead in the series at three games to one – a series they would go on to win in the next game, played in Shibe Park, here in Philadelphia.

How quickly, I wonder, did the euphoria of the World Series win evaporate with the crash of the market?  How empty, I wonder, were the offices in all those bank buildings during the Great Depression, with its stifled credit market?  How different, I wonder, are the times today?  I wonder.

And I don’t know quite how to react to Warren Buffett’s recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times in which he shares a simple guiding principle: “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.”  That doesn’t sound much like the Gospel to me!

Except of course that it’s a perspective that counts on the reversal of fortunes.  And the Gospel is almost always about the reversal of fortunes.  From the moment Mary hears the unusual message from Gabriel this truth becomes clear to her: that her fortunes and the fortunes of the world will be reversed, somehow, by this Good News being announced to her.  The humble poor will be raised up, and the arrogant rich will be cast down.  The Gospel always sounds better to the poor (something we might keep in mind from time to time!)

Jesus, of course, knows this.  The sage from Nazareth even knows more than the sage from Omaha!  And notice how un-concerned is our sage from Nazareth with the question of taxes.  He will not be taken in with this “gotcha” question!  Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; what do I care about that?  But will you even give a thought to giving to God the things that are God’s?

Will we give a thought to giving to God the things that are God’s?

In the church, of course, we don’t have taxes.  The primary reason for this is because we all figure out what we have to pay in taxes, but the question in church is how much we feel called to give.  This church stands as a testament to the marvelous grace that men and women have felt called to give to the church with great generosity no matter how much they have had to pay in taxes.

And now we are in a difficult time.  And how can we give a thought to giving to God the things that area God’s?  What claim to does God have on your hard-earned dollars?  What right has Saint Mark’s to collect them on God’s behalf?  Especially now?!?  What if it’s just like 1929 all over again?

If it was just like 1929, what could I say to convince you that God has a claim to your money and to mine?  How could I persuade you that Saint Mark’s is the place that deserves the gifts you are called to give back to God… when it’s really a question of deciding whether or not you believe in the Gospel that brings a reversal of fortunes?  Because, while it isn’t true for all of us, very few of us are ever in danger of giving too much to God – myself included.  And the Gospel has always sounded dearer to those who are willing to give more of what they have away.

Christians have long held to an axiom that is more profound than Warren Buffett’s investment advice.  It might go something like this: Be hopeful when others are fearful, and when others are hopeful, rejoice that your hope has been compounded!

What if it’s just like 1929 all over again?  If it is, then a little girl has been born who will grow up to be a princess, and the most beautiful woman in the world.  (Be hopeful when others are fearful!)

Whether or not the economic situation today is really similar to that of 1929, there is certainly enough anxiety around to make a lot of people fearful.  But all we have to do is walk around this neighborhood to remember that the world did not actually come to a screeching halt in 1929.  And if the buildings that were built that year were more empty than full for a while, their fortunes have been reversed – and many of them are now luxury condos.  And do we really think that God has less in store for his people than he does for a bunch of buildings?  (Be hopeful when others are fearful!)

And in the seventh inning of Game 4 of the World Series of 1929, the A’s (who were down, 8 – 0) pulled off a reversal of fortunes that’s been called one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.  Do we really think that God has less in store for us than he did for a baseball team?  (Be hopeful when others are fearful!)

And although the A’s moved away long ago, if it’s just like 1929 no wonder the Phillies are headed to the World Series – and I’m just saying don’t be surprised if they win it in Game 5!  And do we really think that God has less in store for us than he does for the Phillies?  (Be hopeful when others are fearful!)

2008, like 1929, is quite a year.  There is cause for some measure of anxiety, it has to be said.  And amidst this anxiety, will we give a thought to giving to God the things that are God’s?  Or will we just argue about taxes, and fixate absurdly on what a plumber in Ohio might have to pay?

I suppose that depends a lot on whether or not we truly believe that we are called to be hopeful when others are fearful.

And during these next couple of weeks, as we hear more and more from the campaign trail that sounds like the loaded question from the Pharisees – Is it good to pay taxes or not? – Let us remember that Jesus found practically nothing to discuss on the topic.

Because he had a more difficult question to ask, no matter what year it is: Will you give a thought to giving to God the things that are God’s?

Put it another way: Will we be hopeful when others are fearful?

Good question.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
19 October 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 19, 2008 .