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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/19

Right now the financial market stinks. Things are so ugly that I’ve never been happier about the fact that I have absolutely nothing saved for retirement. In addition, the time of year is coming up where we talk about money in church, the stewardship drive. So of course, at this time I get a gospel reading that talks about money, even going so far as to talk about taxes. And I get to preach about it. Thanks pastor.

Of all the things I wanted to preach about, this wasn’t at the top of my list. And, if I hadn’t had to preach about it this year, I could have put it off for three more years. But no, I had to get this text now. Of course, even if I had managed to put it off, there still would be that day three years from now with this text, staring me in the face. Some things are simply unavoidable, like death and taxes. And if Jesus couldn’t avoid them, I certainly can’t.

So here goes. First off, why would religious folks, like the Pharisees, be asking Jesus about taxes? And why exactly might that help them entrap him? Hoping to get him like Al Capone for tax evasion? Not quite but kind of. Paying your taxes was the law of the Roman Empire much as it is today only much, much harsher. Failing to pay your taxes was an act of rebellion. If a religious leader was encouraging others not to pay their taxes then he was fomenting a rebellion. I think we all know how Rome felt about those who challenged their authority and it wasn’t good. This means that the Pharisees realize that they don’t have the power to do too much to Jesus. So they are hoping to get Rome to do it for them by showing that he’s a threat to the government and supports insurrection against it.

Clearly things don’t go as they planned. Instead of answering as they hoped, Jesus points out the image of the emperor found on Roman currency and says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” So hey, the emperor’s coins can go to the emperor. Sounds sensible enough. But Jesus also says something else, “and to God the things that are God’s.” So what bears the mark of God and thus belongs to God? Or it might be easier to say, “What doesn’t?” He made the earth and the stars. Everything bears his maker’s mark. He is the alpha and the omega. What can exist beyond or apart from Him? Not much that I can come up with. So does that mean we owe him everything in a state of utter dependence? Pretty much.

I for one hate to owe anyone anything. Gratitude is not always my attitude. I want to erase debt and be an equal. Failure to do so makes me surly, and I do a mean surly. Tell me I owe someone something and my hackles rise. Telling me it’s God and I owe him everything doesn’t help. Maybe I shouldn’t, but there’s still a part of me that resents it. Give with gratitude? Fat chance. The more it’s owed, the more I can begrudge it. I’m resentful that way. Giving because I have to, because I owe it, always rankles. It is especially difficult because it a debt one can never pay. There’s an old Lutheran confession that starts, “I a poor, miserable sinner . . .” I can’t help but feel that, yes, it is true, but it makes me feel more the inequality of the situation than bursting with gratitude. Trying to make payments on the installment plan on a debt I can never pay just feels hopeless and makes me feel helpless. And I hate feeling that way.

It’s true that there is a debt we can never pay. However, it is also true that we aren’t asked to pay it. God knows we can’t pay it and he’s not about to ask us to. It’s the reason for that whole Jesus thing. He came for us and for our salvation. Through no act of our own, but through pure grace, our screw ups and inadequacies don’t get the last word. By grace we are cloaked in faith. By this we can stand before God without endless shame. We can stand upright and whole, cleansed of our sin, not because we earned it or as part of a quid pro quo, but as a freely given gift. We can do so because of incredible grace and a love so strong that death could not stop it. We could not mend the rift, but God could repair it with the Son, and that is what God chose. He chose relationship and love over justice and estrangement. He made the move that we could not, erasing obligation and burden. He overcame futility and resentment, making us whole and giving us life anew.

Whatever we give to God it’s not an obligation, backed up by thunder, lightning and smiting if we should fail to comply. Anything we give, be it the sweat of our brow, seven hundred billion dollars or a hug when somebody needs it, is a gift given in love. Eternal life isn’t given in exchange for a ten percent return on investment and a lifetime of good deeds. It is simply given. What we do really is up to us. If we express thanks and want to share some fraction of what we have been given, it is an act freely done in love. It is like searching for the perfect present. I don’t do it because I am obligated to do so or because they will pitch a fit if the present isn’t perfect. Those who love me will love me if the present isn’t perfect and even if I show up empty handed. But I still look for that perfect present, hoping to bring that expression of absolute delight to their face, that look that tells me I have managed to bring them a fraction of the happiness they bring me and to express in some way my love for them.

What we can give God can never repay what we owe and we aren’t asked to do that. But can I give in love, because I love? That I can do.


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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