‘Give to God What is God’s’ – Taxes, Stewardship, & our relationship with God

Christ Lutheran in Louisville, Nebraska

I had the great privilege to be with the people of Christ Lutheran Church in Louisville, Nebraska on Sunday October 22nd, 2017, thanks to the invitation from my friend, Pastor Emily Johnson. The sermon focused on the appointed readings from the revised common lectionary for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 29A), especially Matthew 22:15-22, and Psalm 96:1-9. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from.

Grace and peace from God in Christ who loves you, is with you, and is for you, Amen.

A few weeks ago, when I looked ahead and saw what the gospel passage was for this week, I thought boy, your Pastor Emily is smart. Jesus talking about taxes, money, empire, and our relationship with God and civil authorities. She probably thought, “Perfect. Invite someone else to preach, and run as far as away as possible.” Just kidding! It’s a rich text to be sure, and perhaps a complicated one. It’s full of everything that you might try and avoid in conversation around the big table for Thanksgiving dinner, which makes it a perfect story to unpack here in church.

Today’s Story- about Taxes & a potential trap
Much like the last few weeks in our gospel journey, Jesus today finds himself being questioned by those in authority in Jerusalem, during Matthew’s telling of the events of Holy Week. The Pharisees think they have come up with the perfect question to trap him. They’re thinking, “We’ve got-cha now Jesus.” The Pharisees sent their disciples, and together have enlisted the help of the Herodians, who are political supporters of the Herod’s. As you might expect, they aren’t well liked by the Jews, and if Jesus gives the wrong answer here he might upset them; or alternatively, he might be guilty of sedition against the empire.

The beautiful sanctuary of Christ Lutheran in Louisville.

Of course, Jesus sees right through the trap yet again. But you have to give the trap setters some credit, they really tried to butter up Jesus and to get him to let his guard down. They say, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality…”[1] As much as this might be backhanded, it’s quite the compliment and shows a little bit of wisdom acknowledging that Jesus’ message is one for all people, without partiality. They probably themselves don’t believe it, but at least they acknowledge its potential importance.

So, they follow up on their words by asking, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”[2] Oh what a loaded question. Which Jesus responds to by asking, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.”[3] You know the story; the coin has the head of the emperor on it. And to this, Jesus reasons well, “‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”[4]

What are the Things of God? (and other questions)
Jesus doesn’t get caught in the trap of having to declare allegiance or protest. There’s another way. There’s a “both/and” tension here. And before letting his potential trappers depart in peace, he himself uses this as a teaching moment. Not only does he say give to the emperor, he also says give “to God the things that are God’s.”[5]

Jesus “does not let his potential trappers escape without reminding them of what really counts: returning to God the things that belong to God… in terms of Jesus’ instructions about discipleship.”[6] This is a stewardship insight to be sure. And one which begs the question, what are “the things of God?”[7] This was a question for the listeners of this story to ponder, but also for us.

More broadly in this passage there are big questions about life, community, and relationships. How do we live in the now and not yet? How are we called to be engaged in the world we live in? What unique needs are in our midst, and what ways do we serve our neighbors in need? How are we bearers and stewards of God’s love?

Some of the fun of Sunday School before worship.

One way that we engage in the world we live in, is by giving to our communities while also giving to God. We don’t have an emperor in the United States, but we do have government which we each support in our vocation as citizens, and through our duty of paying taxes. This makes possible laws, public education, defense and emergency services like fire, medical, health, and police, parks and recreation…. These are all things that are possible through “giving to the emperor what is the emperor’s.”

Stewardship involves being engaged in the world that God has entrusted to us, and serving and living faithfully. This includes questions of justice, equity, and vocation, but it’s also a recognition that we are stewards of our communities and contexts- including here in Louisville, and all of Nebraska. Our stewardship can be our legacy. Do we want the world to be better because of us? Do we care how we treat God’s creation? Do we care about future generation’s well-beings?

What is Stewardship?
I should take a step back and help define what stewardship is. I suspect by now, all of this talk of taxes and money has led some of you to cross your arms and look at your watches or phones and wonder, when’s he going to stop talking? Yeah, I see you. J But, here’s some good news. Stewardship is way bigger than just money. Stewardship starts with an understanding that all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s. So, when Jesus today says, to give to “God what is God’s,” this is what he is getting at.

Some of the crops next to Christ Lutheran

What we have, has been entrusted to our care by God to use, manage, and steward. This includes all that we have, and all that we are: our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, and minds; our stories, ideas, dreams, questions, and vocations; our time, talents, gifts, strengths, passions, and relationships; our treasures, money, finances, and assets; and all of creation and all that it consists of- including the flowing waters of the Platte, and the corn and soybean fields harvested or soon to be harvested. Stewardship is part of our identity as a Child of God who has been called, created, and is loved by God.

Stewardship is part of what it means to live a life of faith and growth as a disciple. We grow in our faith by telling stories of faith, and sharing all that God has done and continues to do, for us. We are so moved by all that God has done, that we can’t help but be overjoyed and want to share in this good work. So really, our response to God’s gifts and promises for us- how we live our life, the things we do or don’t do, the decisions we make, is our stewardship.

The drop off box for the Reformation Commemoration care kits.

As I have been in this role as Director for Stewardship for about a year and a half, and living in Nebraska now for just about a year, I have seen and heard some amazing stories of generosity and stewardship in action. For example, one congregation has turned its entire basement into a care closet of sorts, which is set up like a department store allowing for anyone in need in their community to come and shop. Another, has turned an underused part of their building into a wood-shop to make furniture and prayer boxes for those in need. These are just two stories, and I’m excited to hear some more from all of you today after worship, including more about the 500 personal health care kits you’re assembling commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Our Duty and Our Joy
In our liturgy in worship, we often hear the pastor say as we prepare for communion that “it is our duty and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places, gives thanks and praise…”[8] This is our response to the free gifts of God that we cannot earn. The gifts of life and salvation. The gifts we know through God’s word, and the ordinary signs of God’s extraordinary promises in the water, bread, and wine.

Bags of towels to be made into care kits at Christ Lutheran.

God has done what only God can do, the work of salvation. We know this through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We respond to this with the psalmist today, “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord all the earth…proclaim God’s salvation from day to day.[9] We respond to this to through our stewardship in all its various forms, but also through our offerings. When Jesus says, “give to God what is God’s,” he’s also calling us to return to God a portion of that which God has first entrusted to us, or as with the psalmist we said, “Ascribe to the Lord the honor due the holy name; bring offerings and enter the courts of the Lord.”[10]

When we respond to God’s gifts, not only do we do this because God calls us to do so, but God does so for the sake of our neighbor. It’s through stewarding what God has entrusted to us, that God’s work is done in part through us. God works through each and every one of us in the way we serve and live to share God’s love, and help build the kingdom. When we remember this, it’s kind of humbling isn’t it?

I thought it was awesome that the mission statement for the congregation is read aloud both in Sunday School, and as a “Confession of Mission” in worship immediately after the creed.

For those of you who are farmers, you help feed the world. For those of you who work with cement or manufacturing, you are helping produce the infrastructure needed to grow and meet the needs of the world. For those of you who are teachers, you are serving and shaping young leaders, preparing them to face the needs of the world but to also ponder and creatively respond to life’s big questions- some that are old, and some that we do not yet know exist. For those of you who are students, your brains are being fed so that as you learn and grow, someday you will serve in many and various ways. For all of you, no matter your vocations and relationships, God uses you to do God’s work, so thank you for living and serving faithfully in your holy callings, and living out your confession of mission.

Mission Share
All of this is our response, whether it’s duty like paying taxes, or a joy, of doing God’s work of loving and serving our neighbor. One other way that you respond, is through your congregation’s participation in mission share. Mission Share is the way each of you helps support the ministry of the larger church through undesignated offering, which helps congregations do ministry that literally spans the globe by giving to the synod and larger ELCA.

Mission Share allows you, and all of the 245 congregations of this synod to: support missionaries; provide for new and renewing ministries; support the training, education, and development of new leaders, pastors, and deacons in this church; and even to support the many serving arms of the church like Lutheran Family Services, Mosaic, Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Camp Carol Joy Holling, Lutheran World Relief, and Lutheran Disaster Response, just to name a few. Obviously, there’s lots more than this that you are part of. Thank you for being a part of it, and for being stewards in this way.

Thank You (at the heart of stewardship)

Good words to guide our stewardship and neighbor love, as seen on a whiteboard at Christ Lutheran.

Stewardship is really about telling God’s on-going story and pointing to how we are all a part of it. It’s about inviting and asking people to be a part of this work, and to return to God a portion of “that which is God’s,” what God has first entrusted to us. And it’s about saying thank you- thank you to God and to each and every one of you.

So, in that spirit, thank you! Thank you for being the beautiful Children of God that you are who respond to God’s work and calls in various and unique ways each day. Thank you for serving alongside one another as the People of God, gathered here as Christ Lutheran, and sent near and far from Louisville. Thank you for sharing stories with one another of how you see God at work. But most importantly, thanks be to God for loving us, inviting each of us, and calling us together to serve and respond to God’s love as stewards. Amen.

Citations and References
[1] Matthew 22:16, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 22:17, NRSV.
[3] Matthew 22:18-19, NRSV.
[4] Matthew 22:21-22, NRSV.
[5] Matthew 22:21, NRSV.
[6] Walter Brueggemann, Money and Possessions, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), citing Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, 191. Though this reference is regarding the Mark version of the story (Mark 12:13-17), it’s nearly identical with Matthew’s telling (Matthew 22:15-22), and similar to Luke’s (Luke 20:20-26).
[7] Walter Brueggemann, Ibid., citing Pacific Lutheran University professor Rev. Dr. Douglas Oakman in Jesus, Debt, and the Lord’s Prayer.
[8] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 108.
[9] Psalm 96:1-2.
[10] Psalm 96:8.

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