Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

  Northern Great Lakes SynodEvangelical Lutheran Church in AmericaBethany on Facebook  

Pentecost 10/16/2011

Today’s gospel, the “render unto Caesar” text, at first seems like it would be more appropriate for stewardship Sunday which is next week than it is for Anniversary/Confirmation Sunday which is this week, but maybe that’s not the case; maybe it’s actually better for this week because, for one thing, if it was next week’s stewardship Sunday text you already would have filled out your pledge cards so whatever pearls of wisdom I shared wouldn’t have much impact anyway.

As far as the anniversary and confirmation are concerned, well, the anniversary is about the church’s history and individual and collective decisions concerning money and how it is used are a huge part of any church’s history.  Bethany wouldn’t still be around after 141 years if not for the faithful stewardship of the founders and all those who have come after them so in that regard this text fits.  Confirmation represents the future, and the church won’t survive into the future without the continuation of the faithful stewardship of the past.  For Josh and Courtney, it’s not all on you, but as you become adult members of the church today, you are part of the future and your stewardship of time and talents and money is part of the future.

That’s part of the reason this text is a good one for today, but even more than that, it’s because I think Jesus’ response to the Pharisees opens this up to a much broader interpretation, one that raises questions for young people being confirmed and for the rest of us too as we think about the past and future of this church on this Anniversary Sunday. 

The specific question posed to Jesus did have to do with paying taxes to the emperor.  As the text says, the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus with the question because they knew if he recommended not paying taxes they could accuse him of undermining the government, if he said to pay the taxes they could accuse him of not taking the law of God seriously.  Knowing what they were up to though, Jesus failed to take the bait and instead gave an answer that couldn’t so easily be criticized.  It’s an answer that broadens the conversation and makes one think not just about money but about one’s general approach to all of life.  “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” Jesus says, “and to God the things that are God’s.”

There you have it.  It’s a great answer, except that it leaves every one of us on the hook, wondering what exactly does Jesus mean?  The Pharisees didn’t know; they walked away scratching their heads because Jesus left things open.  What he basically said to them was, “I don’t know.  What do you think?”  Darn old Jesus, he did that a lot; he rarely gave straight answers to anyone but instead left them to think about things, which is another reason I think this is such a good text for today.  Whether it’s about stewardship or the past or the future, it keeps us thinking and it would seem that that is what Jesus wanted.  He didn’t deliver heavy handed ultimatums, he gave people things to think about calling on them to work it out for themselves knowing that the answer would be more meaningful if processed that way.   

A life of faith has always included that kind of process.  When those Swedish miners and their families founded this church back in 1870, they had to figure it out.   There was no manual on how to start a church that they could go to.  They could go to the Bible for guidance, some of which was no doubt useful, but a lot of what they found would be stories and statements and poetry and letters that require interpretation, words that amount to, “I don’t know.  What do you think?” 

They had to make what they thought were faithful decisions, decisions that were true to the teachings of Jesus, and of course that process goes on today and will go on into the future.  The appropriate path never was and still isn’t crystal clear.  There’s still a lot that’s left open.  The spotlight today is on Courtney and Josh, but for any of us as we think about the future and our place in this church, what are our roles and responsibilities, again there’s no playbook to go to.  We have to find our way because Jesus doesn’t provide a lot of specifics.

What Jesus is setting up here is an honest journey of faith.  In doing that, he didn’t force his teachings on people.  There was a lot of what amounted to “Here’s something for you to think about.  Let me know what you come up with.”  It’s an approach that can be frustrating; it leaves us scratching our heads sometimes like the Pharisees in today’s lesson, but Jesus knew that just telling people what to do wasn’t the best way to develop disciples.  You might wind up with obedient, lock step followers, but not disciples.

The presenting issue for Jesus today is money, paying taxes, what belongs to God, what belongs to the emperor.  The overarching issue though, is discipleship.  We sometimes talk about how the church depends on volunteers to do most everything; there’s a few of us who get paid but mostly it’s volunteers that make things happen.  There’s truth in that, but still it’s probably a bad way to put it, because Jesus didn’t ask for volunteers, he called disciples.  That’s different, and discipleship is worth thinking about on Confirmation/Anniversary Sunday.

What kind of disciples are we?  For Josh and Courtney, what kind of disciples are you going to be?  Perhaps what you would ask is “How do we be good disciples?  What should we do?”  In which case I would pull a Jesus on you and say, “I don’t know?  What do you think?”  I might remind you that in Sunday School and Confirmation you’ve learned some things (I hope).  We’ve watched some movies together that have indirectly provided some models of discipleship, the ways some other people have done it.  You also see that in observing what others do, how they live their lives.  But still, there’s no one way to do it.  Each of us does have to figure it out and it isn’t always easy. 

But…Jesus doesn’t leave us entirely on our own either, although that doesn’t necessarily make it easier.  In fact, it might make it more difficult because while there is a degree of “I don’t know?  What do you think?” in Jesus’ responses, you often know which way he’s leaning and sometimes I think we all wish we didn’t know.

For example, in today’s “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, give to God the things that are God’s,” statement, it’s open ended but you know what Jesus is thinking.  He’s thinking, it’s all God’s, but that still leaves the question open because Jesus also had to know that taking him literally and actually giving it all to God would just create a new set of problems.  I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus wanted.

Discipleship though, is recognizing that it does all belong to God.  It’s recognizing that for us, all that we have is gift which is very different from saying, “It’s all mine.”  “It’s all mine” fosters selfishness that denies any responsibility for anyone else whether it’s through taxation the government imposes or if it’s charitable giving or offerings to the church.  “It’s all mine” is all about me and the heck with you.  Acknowledging that all we have is gift makes us look around.  It fosters generosity as we understand ourselves to be caretakers, stewards of what actually belongs to someone else and it means recognizing that we have responsibilities regarding the well being of everyone, all the different communities we’re part of, and not just ourselves. 

That is an attitude of discipleship and that’s what the Pharisees didn’t understand.  They didn’t see that for Jesus all of life is discipleship and life is lived together and that each of us then has to do the best we can to figure out just what that means because Jesus didn’t provide a lot of straight “how to” answers; there is a lot more “I don’t know.  What do you think?” that requires negotiation.  It starts though with an attitude, an attitude that sees life as a gift and not a possession.

It also starts with understanding whose possession we are and a Confirmation Sunday is a perfect time to be reminded of that.  Courtney and Josh, you were baptized quite a few years ago and at that time some pastor, Pastor Lee probably, made the sign of the cross on your forehead and said, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  On that day God made a claim on you, a claim that’s good forever and that’s a long time.  You belong to God, you are his possession and today you affirm that.  Today you affirm your discipleship as a follower of Jesus.  On a day when we celebrate the history of this church and the disciples who came before you, with you we also celebrate the future and nothing could be more appropriate.

In a few minutes you will be asked what you believe, and you will answer with the words Christians have used for as long as there have been Christians, the same words that all those people in the old confirmation pictures out in the narthex used (although the earliest ones would have done it in Swedish).  Those words are good words; that’s why we still teach them and use them.  But they are words, they are answers that prompt questions, and sometimes the only answer you get to the questions that are prompted is “I don’t know?  What do you think?”  You’re not alone though, as you try to answer those questions.  You’re not alone, ever.  You are part of a community and together we’re all on this journey we call faith.  With everyone else here today, I welcome you to it.  I welcome you to the journey.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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