God’s Abundance in a Hungry World

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 18), Year A, August 3, 2014

Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-21, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Isaiah writes: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” And from our Gospel lesson, we hear the story of the feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus takes two loaves of bread and two fish, and feeds thousands of people with many baskets of food left over. These are just two of many places in the Bible where God provides food and water miraculously, or promises to do so. In the creation stories, the first home of humanity was a garden with abundant food. When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and needed water, God created a new stream, gushing from a rock. When the wandering Israelites were hungry, God gave them manna and quails to eat. The prophet Elijah came upon a widow who was starving in a famine, and God provided for them by making her jug of oil and jar of flour never run low. Jesus helped the disciples catch lots of fish. Throughout the Bible, the most common image used to describe the kingdom of God is a feast. You want to know what heaven’s like? According to the Bible, it’s a party with lots of good food.

When you put all of these different passages together, we can safely say that God likes feeding people. God loves feeding people. God spends a lot of time and effort seeing to it that people have enough, and even more than enough. God provides abundantly. God gave his only son to save sinners, to give the world the true Bread of Life. Jesus Christ gave his own body and blood to nourish the world. God gives without counting the cost; God gives extravagantly. When God sees a need, in body or soul, God gives.

So why don’t we live in a world of abundance? If God wants people to be fed, why is there hunger? Why is there starvation? It’s true that God’s good creation is broken by sin and death, and so that there will be problems in the way the world works until Christ comes again, but why, specifically, do people go hungry? Why is it that even in America, one of the richest nations on Earth, there are seven million households where people regularly go hungry because they can’t afford food? Why are there people here in North Dakota—including children—who don’t have enough to eat?

Each of our two readings gives an answer. In Matthew, the disciples see that there is a large crowd, and they’re getting hungry. So they go to Jesus and ask him to send the crowds away so they can find food. Jesus tells them no—there’s no need for the crowd to go away. “You give them something to eat,” he tells his disciples. The disciples protest. “We don’t have enough!” they say “We can’t possibly do that. There’s only five loaves and two fish. It’s not enough.” There isn’t enough. That’s the way human beings tend to think. We believe there isn’t enough to go around. We don’t tend to believe that God can and will provide. God gives abundantly, but we fear scarcity more than we trust God’s bounty. In the case of the disciples, they’ve been watching Jesus heal people and perform miracles all day. But providing food … it doesn’t even occur to them that Jesus could do that, and when they are told to feed people in his name, they balk. We can’t. We don’t have enough.

In the case of the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples’ belief in scarcity caused only a momentary pause before Jesus stepped in and provided the miracle of abundance. But a belief in scarcity can do far more damage than that. When we believe that things are scarce, that there isn’t enough to go around, the natural response is to hoard and keep things for ourselves. We have to be sure that we and those we love will have enough! If there’s only so much to go around, we need to make sure that the right people get it. And as for everyone else, well, life just isn’t fair. When we believe in scarcity, the rich and powerful focus on accumulating more and more even at the expense of others. When we believe in scarcity, ordinary people are less likely to help those who need it. When we believe in scarcity, we are more likely to be guided by fear and selfishness than love.

One of the things we do, when we focus on scarcity, is to try and decide who deserves to be helped and who doesn’t. We’ll put in place elaborate and expensive systems to make sure that only the right people get help. And we tend to be so afraid of people cheating the system that some people will use it as an excuse not to help anyone at all. But notice that the food isn’t only for the worthy people. Everyone in the crowd got fed. I’m sure there were some people who had more than enough money to buy their own food. I’m sure there were others who were lazy or alcoholics or just all around nasty people, who didn’t deserve to receive a miracle, who didn’t deserve a free meal. But Jesus never separated anyone out. Everyone who was there got fed, whether they needed it or not, whether they deserved it or not. That’s what grace is. We talk about the grace of God, but I don’t think we always pay attention to what it means. Grace means love and forgiveness and good things given to people who don’t deserve it. Grace is God reaching out to sinners, Jesus sharing a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes. Grace is God’s abundant love, overflowing for everyone. Listen again to Isaiah: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters! You who have no money, come, buy and eat!” Everyone. All people. This is not just good news for the good people. This is good news for everyone.

There are regular events throughout the year where pastors from our Synod gather for one reason or another, and usually there is a time for us to talk and share what’s going on in our different corners of Western North Dakota. Many of the pastors from the oil field have the same story, and they tell it time after time. You see, we hear of all the money going through the oil patch, but there has also been an increase in poverty. Prices of housing have gone up so much that even people with what used to be good jobs can’t pay the rent. And so many of the newcomers are isolated, alone, desperately in need of human connection. There is so much to be done in Jesus’ name, from giving out food and help with emergencies, to building playgrounds for children so that the new children have safe places to play—all kinds of ministries that those churches are being called to. Each one of those ministries takes money, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. And the members of those congregations have the money! Many of them are making quite a lot of money from oil royalties in addition to their normal salaries. Enough to buy a brand-new RV every year, or go to Europe every year, without counting the cost. Yet when the congregation asks for just a small portion of that money to minister to the desperate needs of the community, they balk. “Why should we have to be the ones to pay? Let someone else do it. It’s not our problem. We’ve earned this money; we’ve had hard times, and now times are good, so we’re going to have fun.”

Or consider the situation down on America’s southern border, where thousands of children have fled from extreme danger, seeking safety. The streets of Columbia and other central American nations are more dangerous today than the streets of Iraq were at the height of the war. Gangs, fueled by drug money, give children as young as ten two choices: join us, or die. In desperation, their parents give them what money they can and send them north, across thousands of miles, because it is their only chance of survival. And how do some Americans respond, when they see these children? They complain about the cost of feeding them, and want to send them back to almost certain death back in their native land. After all, they’re not our children, and feeding and housing them is expensive! And we don’t want other people to think that America might be a safe place to come.

When the disciples saw a need, when they saw that people were hungry, they tried to figure out how to do something about it. They wanted to send people home to buy food. Jesus told his disciples to give them food instead. The disciples didn’t think they had enough, but Jesus proved them wrong. Even a very little, given in Jesus’ name, can give big results. But the more we focus on our own needs, on our fears of not having enough, the more we want to hoard what we have. And so you end up in a situation where there is more than enough resources in the community that nobody should be going hungry, but the people who control the money won’t even acknowledge that there is a need—much less that they should do something about it.

Contrast this with a church up near Bottineau. They studied and prayed about what God was calling them to do, and they decided that God was calling them to step up in the community and provide for the needs that nobody else was. They decided to trust that God would provide enough for them to do this, and sent out a call into the community asking what people needed. The Monday after they decided to go ahead with this project, the pastor got a call. There was a single mother in town whose car had just died. The family was poor; the car couldn’t be fixed and she couldn’t afford to buy even a used car. But without a car, she couldn’t get to work. So she needed a new car. Could the church help? The pastor gulped. A car is a big-ticket item, even a used one. For a little bit, she faltered. Surely, God couldn’t provide that much. But she decided to take it on faith that God could, and she posted the need on the church’s Facebook page. By the end of the day, a reliable used car had been found, and the money raised to purchase it and register it. They trusted in God to provide a miracle of abundance, and God did.

The disciples saw a need. They saw that people were hungry, and they wanted to do something about it. But even when Jesus told them to feed the people, they didn’t think they could. They had seen Jesus working miracles all day but they didn’t trust that he could help them help others. “We don’t have enough,” they said. Yet God provided enough, and more than enough. God provided abundantly for everyone there, rich and poor, good and bad. God provided, and no one went hungry. It makes me wonder: what are the needs in our community? Where are the places in Underwood and Washburn where people have needs that aren’t being met? What things is God calling us to do that we shrug aside because we don’t think we can do anything about it? May the God of abundance, who gives his own body for our bread and his own blood for wine, who gives miracles of abundance, so guide and nourish our hearts and minds that we may, like the disciples, be instruments of his grace.

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Praise for the Dishonest Manager

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 25), September 22, 2013

Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I saw that this text was coming up in the preaching schedule, I groaned.  And, this week, at the pastor’s Bible study I go to, we all complained about it.  If you were listening when I read the Gospel, you probably understand why.  Jesus said, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  How the heck do you preach that?  There are many excellent commentaries where great scholars and preachers go through the Bible and discuss it, but even the best of them gets to this parable and falters.  A lot of them try to cop out by finding all sorts of reasons why Jesus didn’t really mean what he said; others invent all kinds of backstory for the characters in the parable to make their actions more palatable.  And while those interpretations are very comforting, in the end we have to go back to the story that the Bible gives us.

Remember that in chapter fifteen, the Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors.  So Jesus told them the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, and then the parable of the Prodigal Son, and then he finished up with the parable of the Dishonest Manager that we just read.  And what a parable it is!  It’s no surprise that the Pharisees ridiculed him for it.  If there are scandals and things that don’t make sense in the parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Prodigal Son, there isn’t really anything in the parable of the Dishonest Manager that makes sense.  It doesn’t make sense economically and it doesn’t make sense morally.  A man cheats his master and gets praised for it?  This is not the kind of thing one would expect any self-respecting religious leader to preach about—even one so disreputable as to eat with sinners and tax collectors.  On an economic level, we modern Americans are lovers of money, just like the Pharisees.  Like the Pharisees, we want prudence, hard work, and honest dealing to be rewarded with riches, and we want fraud and embezzlement and wasting money to be punished.  On a moral level, we want that too—we want good people to be rewarded and bad people to be punished.  For a lot of people, that’s the main point of Christianity: to scare people into behave by making sure they know that good people go to Heaven and eternal reward and bad people go to Hell and eternal punishment.

This parable turns that whole system of belief on its head.  Jesus flat-out tells people that cheating and fraud are good!  It’s no wonder the Pharisees ridiculed him!  I think if Jesus showed up today in any church in America and told the same story, we’d react just like the Pharisees did.  Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth?  Learn from the “shrewd” tactics of the children of this age?  Give away other peoples’ wealth in order to buy friendships?  Come on, Jesus!  That’s not what any good, God-fearing person—lover of money or not—wants to hear.

Let’s back up for a bit.  What do you think Jesus meant by dishonest wealth?  What do you think constitutes dishonest wealth from God’s point of view?  The 7th grade confirmation class and I were studying the Israelites wandering in the wilderness during the Exodus, this week, and we talked about how God provided all their needs for forty years.  The ones who had a lot didn’t have too much, and the ones who only had a little didn’t have too little.  No one could save or hoard anything; they had to depend on God’s grace to provide what they needed.  Those who had a lot didn’t have too much, and those who had little didn’t have too little.  That doesn’t sound much like the distribution of wealth in the world; here in America, the gap between rich and poor has been widening for the last twenty years, the middle class has gotten smaller, and more and more people are falling from working-class into poverty.  And if you look at the world as a whole, the distribution of wealth is even more out of balance.  And part of that comes from unjust things done by previous generations where rich and powerful nations took advantage of poorer nations.  Part of that comes from unjust things being done today, where many companies manufacture goods in poor countries where they don’t have to worry about pesky little things like the safety of their workers.  Consider the conditions in Bangladesh, where over a thousand workers in a garment factory died when their factory collapsed on top of them this last April.  We profit—we get cheaper clothes—because their working conditions are disastrously unsafe.  Then consider today’s first reading from Amos.  God condemns dishonest business practices—and I can name the modern equivalent of every one, things that are common in the American economy.

The more you look at where our wealth comes from, the more you realize that almost everyone benefits from shady practices, whether done by themselves or someone else, whether done now or in the past.  On some level, all wealth is dishonest; no matter how good and ethical we are, we have benefited from the injustice of others.  We can be very creative about justifying it or pretending it’s not true; it’s something we don’t like to acknowledge.  We tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter because it was so long ago or far away, and that we’re not the ones doing it so our hands are clean, and hey, we’ve been victims ourselves, too, so it all balances out.  If you give someone an unfair advantage, the first thing most people do is make up reasons why they deserve it and other people don’t.  We don’t like admitting that injustices exist, and we don’t like admitting that we benefit from them.  But deep down, even though we don’t even admit it to ourselves, we generally prefer wealth over justice.  Humans have always been taking advantage of one another, sometimes through brute force and sometimes through trickery.  It’s part of the brokenness of the world, part of what divides us and hurts us all.  So we make up reasons why it’s not a problem; and, failing that, we convince ourselves that what we do with our money doesn’t matter to God, so we can do whatever we like.

The problem is, God actually talks quite a lot about money in the Bible.  God wants a world where everybody has enough, and where nobody has too much.  God wants a world where all business practices are just and honorable, where everybody has a fair chance and nobody profits at someone else’s expense.  God wants a world where money is simply a tool, and not the be-all and end-all that we strive for.  God wants a world where people prize justice and mercy more than they do wealth.  God wants a world where no one is trapped by debt.  Until Christ comes again to heal the world’s brokenness and create all things new, we will not live in that world.  But that doesn’t mean that we should just bury our heads in the sand and keep on as we have been.  And it doesn’t mean that we should spend all our time bemoaning the injustices of the world but not doing anything.

The point of the parable isn’t how bad a manager the steward was to have that dishonest wealth; the point of the parable is what he does with it once he has it.  And what does he do with it?  He gives it away.  He takes the wealth entrusted to him, and he forgives people’s debts.  They haven’t earned it; they don’t deserve it.  But their burden is lifted through no merit or worth of their own.  It’s grace.  As someone with student loans, I can imagine what that must feel like.  I’m sure any of you who’ve ever borrowed a chunk of money to buy a house or a car or a piece of farm equipment can, too.  If the bank ever said “we’re wiping half your loan off the books, you don’t have to pay us back”, wouldn’t that take a huge load off your shoulders?  Wouldn’t you thank God?  Wouldn’t that free you up in all sorts of ways?

Have you ever been to a church where, in the Lord’s Prayer, they say “forgive us our debts” instead of “forgive us our sins”?  That’s because, in several places in the New Testament (including the Matthew version of the Lord’s Prayer), “debt” is used as a metaphor for sin.  Our sins are debts we owe the world and God, charges we’ve racked up in the great balance sheet.  So, especially in a parable, when someone’s forgiving a debt there’s usually a deeper meaning.  Who else forgives debts?  Jesus.  That’s what Jesus came to do on Earth, is to forgive people.  So by forgiving peoples’ debts, this guy is participating in God’s work.  He’s not being faithful to his employer or to the whole system of business and debt, but at the end he is being faithful to God’s wishes for the world, in his own small way.  Granted, he’s a crook who’s only doing this because he hopes to get something out of it.  And granted, he’s using somebody else’s wealth—wealth that he doesn’t deserve, wealth that doesn’t really belong to him—to do it.  And granted, he’s only doing a partial job; he’s not forgiving the whole debt, just reducing them.  He’s not a nice guy.  He’s not a good guy.  He’s not a trustworthy guy.  But he’s still doing God’s work, in his own small way.

So I guess I can understand why Jesus praised the guy, after all.  And it gives me hope.  We, too, sin; we, too, have access to advantages and wealth that we didn’t earn or deserve.  We, too, do good things for the wrong reason.  We, too, do good things only half-way.  We, too, are sinners who deserve to be dismissed by our master.  We are more like the dishonest manager than we’d like to admit.  And yet, he is proof that even dishonest wealth can be used for good; even sinners can participate in God’s work; and even people who do the right thing for the wrong reasons can be forgiven and rewarded.  May we, too, learn to use our wealth to be faithful to God rather than to the world.

Amen.

The End of the Story

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10B (Ordinary 15B), Sunday, July 15, 2012

Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6: 14-29

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

Click to download a podcast of this sermon.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

How many of you watched Dallas, when it was originally on?  How many of you watch the new version they’re showing on TNT?  It’s a story about greed and power, lust and double-crossing.  It’s a story about flawed people, who get too caught up in their games and intrigues, even when they try to do the right thing.  The original series is the third-longest-running prime-time television show in US history.  After it ended, there were spinoffs, tie-ins, and re-runs.  Last year, TNT decided to resurrect it.  TNT’s version is not a re-make; instead, it starts up twenty years after the original ended, showing us what’s happened in the meantime, what’s stayed the same and what has changed.

And not much has changed.  The names and faces are somewhat different, as the show focuses on the new generation who were only children in the old series.  But the power games, the intrigues, the greed, the justifications, are all the same.  Second verse, same as the first.  It seems to be a good strategy, for the new show; after all, our love for drama and intrigues and flawed characters hasn’t changed much in the last twenty years.  That’s not surprising; humans have been telling stories like that since there have been humans to tell stories.  Sometimes we tack on morals: don’t you do that!  Sometimes we just follow the action with baited breath to see what happens next.

I think it’s understandable.  After all, the reason that stories like Dallas strike a chord is that, exaggerated and larger-than-life as it is, we recognize a little bit of ourselves in it.  Complicated relationships, petty jealousies and rivalries, ignoring how our words and actions hurt those around us, compromising our ideals to reach our goals … all of it looks really familiar.  Even more familiar are the justifications: it’s not really that  bad, everyone else is doing it, who cares about them.  We do it, too.  Instead of acting out of love as God calls us to do, we act out of hate and jealousy and greed and fear, and when we try to do the right thing we are all too ready to compromise for the sake of getting things done.  We do it in our personal lives, our political parties and leaders do it, and we even see that kind of behavior in church.  So it should come as no surprise to see a story like that told in the Bible, as well.

Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, ruled part of the Jewish lands during the time of Jesus.  He had married for political connections, but fell in love with Herodias, who was at the time married to Herod’s older brother who had been passed over in the line of succession.  So Herod Antipas and Herodias divorced their spouses and married each other.  Besides causing political problems with the family of Herod Antipas’ ex-wife, we can imagine what havoc and hurt it caused within the Herod family.  Adultery, alienation of affection, divorce, families splintering as everyone takes sides.  Everything played out on the public stage, private pain and shame made public.  Throw in lingering hostilities from the way Herod the Great divided his titles and wealth, and it’s a recipe for a nasty situation, in which the ideals of family and marriage are made into caricatures.

Everybody knew the Herod family was acting badly, but given their political power few people were willing to say it out loud.  John the Baptist did, and it cost him his life.  John had been sent to call people to account, one of a long line of prophets and teachers called to tell the truth about sin, to break through the web of justifications people spin for themselves.

Amos, the prophet in our first lesson, was another.  He lived centuries before John the Baptist, when Israel and Judah were independent kingdoms.  In his time Israel was ruled by Jeroboam II.  Now, as far as we know, Jeroboam’s personal life was less sinful than the Herod family.  But he made up for it with political and economic sins.  Under his reign, the rich and elite prospered by exploiting ordinary people and ignoring God’s laws.  Several prophets, including Amos, were sent to call Jeroboam and his people back to justice, to right relationships with God and one another.  God uses the metaphor of the plumb line to describe this. A plumb line is a weight on a string used by builders to judge whether a wall is level and straight.  God used a symbolic plumb line to judge whether Israel’s actions were just—and found Israel wanting.  In the same way, John held the actions of the Herod family up to a standard, and showed just how crooked it was.

The problem is, nobody likes to have their faults pointed out.  Most people would rather cover up their sinfulness and make excuses than face the consequences of their actions and acknowledge they did the wrong thing.  Unfortunately, that means that people who try and blow the whistle like John did sometimes get attacked.  Covering up the sin means getting rid of the one who pointed it out, and so Herodias ordered John’s death.  Herod Antipas knew it was wrong, but was more interested in saving face than in doing the right thing.  And so John died, and was buried.  Sin and death win.  The end.

What a depressing story!  John did the right thing, and got punished for it.  John tried to get people to recognize the sinfulness of their lives, the brokenness and the pain and suffering they were causing themselves and others, and was killed because of it.  It’s realistic—it happens all too often, throughout all of history—but it’s not the kind of story we want to believe.  How often have we seen something like this happen in our own lives?  People make bad, selfish, sinful choices, and other people get hurt because of it.  Evil wins, and God’s call is ignored.  Sinfulness and brokenness triumph.  Herod Antipas and Herodias chose hate over love, greed over generosity, grudges over forgiveness, reputation over goodness, and fear over justice, and they got away with it.  And John suffered and died because of their sins.

But notice where this story is told in Mark’s Gospel: chapter six, out of sixteen.  This is not the end of the story.  Rather, John’s death is just a part of a larger story.  And that story is the story of Jesus Christ, God’s only son, who came to earth to save us from our sins.  Christ came to redeem us from our sins, to bring salvation and hope and healing from all the brokenness in the world and in our lives.  He did this by dying on the cross for our sake.  Like John, Jesus died because of the sinfulness of others.  Yet Jesus’ death is not the end of the story.  Jesus died, but Jesus rose again from the grave.  And it is through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we are healed, that our sins are forgiven and we become the people God calls us to be.

John the Baptist died, but his death was not the end of the story.  In fact, it wasn’t even the end of John’s story.  In baptism, we are tied to Christ’s death and resurrection.  We are adopted as God’s children and share in God’s grace, and neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God.  Even in death, the victory of the brokenness of the world is only temporary.  Because in the end, love wins.  In the end, God’s grace triumphs.  When Christ comes again, there will be a new heaven and a new earth.  All those who have died in Christ will be raised; John the Baptist will be raised, too.  All the brokenness and sinfulness of the world will be healed and made clean.  It won’t be like the new version Dallas, second verse, same as the first.  It will be different—we will be different.  “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet together; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.  Faithfulness shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

Until then, we are sinners who live in a world of sinfulness and brokenness.  Yet we are also saints who have tasted God’s love and grace.  We are out of joint and crooked, yet we know God’s plumb line which calls us to justice.  May we follow God’s call, and let God’s Holy Spirit fill us with justice and love.

Amen.

In God We Trust

Pentecost 18 (Year A), Sunday, October 16, 2011

 

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96
1 Thessalonians 1
Matthew 22:15-22
Preached by Anna C. Haugen,Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Did you look at your bulletin cover this morning while you were waiting for church to start?  I sometimes find the pictures they choose interesting.  Today the bulletin shows a stained glass window of an open hand, spilling out three coins.  Now, being a stained glass window, those coins don’t give any detail about what the coins Jesus was talking about actually looked like, so let me describe them to you. There was a picture of the Emperor, as the Pharisees and Herodians note.  The custom of putting political leaders on money is one of the few things that hasn’t changed in the 2,000 years since Jesus lived and taught.  And above the image—in Greek, it’s called an “icon,” the same word used for religious paintings—is a slogan, a motto, because putting mottos on our money is another thing that hasn’t changed.  On Roman coins, above the Emperor’s icon, the slogan was “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus.”

That’s quite a mouthful!  But what does it mean?  Tiberius was the name of the Emperor in those days, and Caesar was his title.  His father had been Caesar Augustus, who was declared a god, which is why he’s called “divine.”  The Roman Empire was fast establishing a religious cult around worship of the Emperor and his predecessors.  Pontifex Maximus, well, that means that the Emperor was also the high priest of the Roman Empire, the person in charge of keeping order among all the orders of all the various religious orders, temples, priesthoods, and other religious groups in the empire and making sure all the gods had their proper worship.  Caesar was the supreme political ruler, the one who put and kept Herod on his throne.  He was also the son of a god and (depending on who you talked to) possibly a god himself, and the single most important person in the religious life of the Roman Empire as a whole.  And all of that showed in the coins that bore his icon.

You can see why paying taxes to Caesar—which had to be paid in Roman coins, with Caesar’s image and titles on it—was a hot-button issue.  The taxes were often cripplingly high and always unfairly distributed, at the whim of the tax collectors.  But that was just the beginning.  I’m sure you all remember the Ten Commandments.  They start off like this: “You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol.”  And anyone with half a brain could take one look at those coins and make a good case for the coin being an idol, a physical representation of another so-called god, and therefore just having one in your pocket meant you were breaking the first commandment.  It wasn’t just a question about whether or not the taxes were fair, or whether you wanted to pay taxes to your foreign overlords.  Something much more fundamental is at stake in today’s Gospel lesson.  Is it possible to be faithful to the one true God in a world that worships so many other things as if they were god?

In some ways, the question was much more clear-cut in Jesus’ day.  You had the Roman overlords and their lackeys the Herodians, and you had the good, God-fearing Jews.  Today we live in a country in which most people have at least some allegiance to Christianity, a country which has considered itself Christian since before its birth.  The motto on our money says it: “In God we Trust.”  And yet, it’s not that simple.  Do we truly trust in God, or do we trust in our economic and political ideas?  Do we truly give to God what is his, or do we focus on giving ourselves what we want?

The Pharisees prided themselves on being faithful to God.  They studied God’s Word, and they worked out practical ways of living according to their understanding of God’s will.  They believed they were doing as God called them to do.  And yet, when God actually came among them in the person of Jesus Christ, they didn’t recognize him.  Worse than that, when their ideas of God conflicted with what God actually wanted, they set out to discredit him, to remove him.  They tried to use God’s own Word against him!  They could not imagine the possibility that God might not agree with their interpretation.  They weren’t trying to set themselves against God; they honestly believed that they were in the right and that Jesus was a danger to the right way to follow God.

I wonder what would happen if Jesus came back today.  Would we find that we sometimes think like the Pharisees without even realizing it?  Would we find that in some cases we use our faith and God’s Word to prove ourselves right rather than to seek out God’s wisdom and comfort?  I know it can be easier to go to the Bible to find something specific that I agree with rather than to read with an open mind, praying for the Holy Spirit to guide me.  And it can be easier to walk through life without thinking, to assume that because I am a Christian I already know what God wants me to do and how God wants me to think.

Those coins of Caesar’s said a lot about Caesar.  Does our money say a lot about us?  Do we really trust in God, or do we give God lip service while going about our lives?  Too often it seems like our trust is in our money, our politics, our prejudices rather than in God.  Are we faithful to God, or do we worship other things that draw us away from God?  Unlike in Jesus’ day, we can’t just look at the coins in our pockets and the statues in our sanctuaries to see where our faith lies.  As a culture we idolize politicians, entertainers, technology, riches, violence, sex, anything that promises to give us what we want.

Jesus said, “Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  I’m sure that a lot of his hearers wanted to hear him declare the Empire to be evil and say they didn’t have to obey it.  After all, the Empire was the power of the world that interfered with their faith and sometimes oppressed them.  Jesus didn’t do that.  Give to the Emperor the things that belong to him.  Civil government isn’t the same as the religious identity, and it doesn’t have to be.  The problem isn’t the things of the world in themselves.  The problem comes when we take the things of the world—leaders, money, anything—and put our whole trust in them, instead of in God.

That’s why Jesus didn’t stop there.  Give to God the things that are God’s.  So what belongs to God?  Everything!  God created the heavens and the earth, all that is, seen and unseen.  God created us, each and every one.  Jesus Christ heals us from the things that leave us broken in body and soul.  Jesus Christ gives us life even in death.  The Holy Spirit comes to us to comfort us, guide us, and inspire us.  Every good thing that we have and every good thing that we are, comes from God.

Giving to God the things that are God’s means opening ourselves up to God’s grace and mercy.  It means listening for God’s call instead of assuming we already know what God wants.  It means acknowledging that we are God’s. Giving to God the things that are God’s is about living as God’s people, even in the midst of a world that gives God only lip service.  The world may promise us what we want, but only God can give us what we truly need: our lives, our true and deep relationships with God and one another, and the peace beyond understanding.

Amen.

Essential Grace

There is a huge debate in the ELCA today about issues of sexuality.  There are several different views on the matter, many of which are in bitter opposition to one another.  Some congregations are leaving the church.  Some people are leaving their congregations.  Some, despite opposition on both theological and social grounds, are staying.  But how can we stay together in one church with such differences?  With such heated debate over whose interpretation of the Word of God is right?

We are not the first to have a major conflict within the church.  There have been times before when serious differences of practice and belief have challenged our ability to be a unified church.  This has happened many, many times over the history of the church, over issues that continue to be major and over issues that to us today seem to be largely irrelevant.  What can we learn from our forbears in the faith?  For the reformers in the 16th century, who were trying to create a new identity as Christians after having left the Roman Catholic church that had defined Christianity in the West since the very beginning, the solution was to divide things into essentials–those things that could not be compromised–and adiaphora–those things that were largely peripheral.  Adiaphora might be (and often was) comprised of issues that were at the heart of everyday life and practice of religion.  It was often bitterly fought over.  But those on differing sides of the issues could still come together as the body of Christ.  If we apply that question today, what are the essentials, to us?  What things are adiaphora?

As Lutherans, we hold that the core of the Gospel is justification.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; we are all sinners.  But we are also all saints, called and redeemed by God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God.  We are saved by the grace of God, by his steadfast love.  No action or inaction of ours can change God’s saving will.  This is the core of the Gospel.  While other theological interpretations may change, this stands firm.  No one on any side of the issue is challenging this.

The sexuality question is not one of Gospel, but of morals.  How does God want us to live in this fallen world?  And while the Gospel does not change, morals can do.  A century and a half ago, there were Lutherans in America who believed that slavery was morally acceptable.  A little over half a century ago, there were Lutherans in Germany who believed that Hitler’s treatment of Jews was not only morally acceptable, but even praiseworthy in some cases.  There is a great deal of material in the Bible that can be taken to support either position (much of the Old Testament in the former case, though most emphatically not Exodus, and the virulent anti-semitism of the Gospel of John, in the latter).  Despite their claim to Biblical support, today we believe them to have been horribly, tragically wrong.

I believe both slavery and anti-Semitism to be of much greater concern to Christianity, much closer to issues concerning the heart of the Gospel, than issues relating to homosexuality.  There are only five references to homosexual behavior in the Bible.  Paul’s letters and the holiness codes of Leviticus each contain two one-verse references to homosexual behavior included in a laundry list of forbidden behaviors.  Then there is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in chapters eighteen and nineteen of Genesis, which in the text is an issue primarily of inhospitality, violence, and xenophobia in which homosexuality is a manifestation of the depravity of those two cities, not the main problem.  (Compare with the parallel story of the Levite’s Wife in the nineteenth chapter of Judges; compare also with Jesus’ reference to Sodom in Luke 10:12 or Matthew 10:15.)  Commentators did not begin to cite homosexuality as the main problem of Sodom and Gomorrah until several centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Bible is saturated with stories about the grace and mercy and love of God, and with commands to love one another and protect the vulnerable.  And yet we are tearing our churches apart–tearing the Body of Christ apart–over four verses and one dubiously-interpreted story.

For further study, here are a collection of responses to the sexuality issue collected by the faculty of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.