Goose River Lutheran Church, Hatton, ND
October 18, 2020 (Celebration of Ministry/Holy Closure)
Pentecost 20/Matthew 22:15-22
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
“Public figure accosted by rival groups of critics”
No, that’s not the latest newspaper headline in this wild and wooly political campaign of 2020!
It is, rather, a lens for exploring our gospel lesson from Matthew 22 which begins on this ominous note: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said…”
Not unlike nosy reporters or pushy political operatives in this autumn of 2020, the Pharisees want Jesus to go on record saying something that will come back to haunt him. They were plotting how to trick Jesus into making himself look bad—just as he moves through the same fateful week in which He will face a treacherous betrayal, a crooked trial, and a brutal crucifixion
The Pharisees, in this case at least, had allies: a rival Jewish group, known as the Herodians.
Normally these two Jewish “parties” were at odds with one another, especially over how they related to the Romans who had conquered their nation. Eking out an existence under the harsh thumb of their far-off Roman emperor, the Pharisees tended to oppose the Romans, while the Herodians tended to collude with the Romans.
But what united these rival groups, in our gospel today, was their shared suspicion of Jesus, which is why they posed this ticking time bomb of a question to him: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the [Roman] emperor or not?”
Can a devout, God-fearing Jew pay the required “poll tax” demanded by the Roman emperor?
Seeing right through their ruse, Jesus asks his questioners why they’re “putting him to the test.” And then he asks them to show him one of the Roman coins used to pay the poll tax—a tax that signified the Jews’ subjugation to Rome, a tax that raised revenue to support Rome’s oppressive government.
Jesus’ questioners were surprisingly quick to produce one of the denarius coins they used to meet their tax obligations to the Romans.
But now it was Jesus who put his opponents under a microscope, by asking them to read the inscription on the coin. Archaeologists suggest the inscription may have read like this: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, majestic son of the majestic God.”
What’s too bad here is that all we have are the words Jesus uttered—with no hint of his tone of voice or any gestures he might have made.
I picture Jesus holding up that Roman coin—to show how small and inconsequential it was!--as if to say: “give to the emperor exactly what you owe—about a day’s wages, and not a penny more.”
Jesus acknowledges that Caesar has a rightful claim on all his subjects—to bear the cost of running his entirely earthly empire. Give this little man his little bit!
And then I picture Jesus stretching out his arms as far as he could, as he goes on to say: “And give to God—God the Maker of all, God the First and the Last---give to God what belongs to God!”
…which included, by the way, all those tiny coins destined for the emperor’s treasury--for the emperor’s poll tax was also part of God’s “everything!”
Well that shut them up—these Pharisees and the Herodians—who, “when they heard this…were amazed; and they left Jesus and went away.”
But I bet they were still pondering, still turning over in their minds how Jesus had responded to their “gotcha” question…..and I especially wonder how they might have reflected on that second question: What did Jesus have in mind when he commanded them to give to God what is God’s?
That, my dear friends, is the question I hope you and I will also take home with us today.
What is Jesus asking of us and everyone else, when he says: “Give to God what belongs to God?”
…to which the short, sweet answer is: “Everything!”
If (as it says in Psalm 24:1)…if ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’--then we are duty bound to give everything to God…
…and while that certainly includes lots of stuff, it also encompasses realities that, though intangible, matter more than all the things we can see, touch, or hold!
· Give God all your loyalty…100% of your allegiance.
· Give God all your love…every drop of devotion you can muster.
· Give God all your gratitude…every last “thank you” that flows from your lips!
· Give God your deepest trust and your most ardent faith!
· Give God—and God alone!--all the glory and praise God deserves.
That’s a pretty tall order, though, isn’t it?
On our own, the very last thing we want to do is give God everything that belongs to God. On our own we’d just as soon keep it all for ourselves—so self-centered, so “curved in upon ourselves” that we are.
But God has not let us languish in such a sorry, selfish state! God came to earth and walked among us in Jesus Christ to pry us loose from ourselves….to die for our selfish waywardness…and thus to open us up to live as the precious daughters and sons whom God created us to be.
This great good news—news we never tire of hearing—news that’s as essential as food, clothing and shelter—this great good news is why Goose River Lutheran Church, has existed for 136 years!
For you see, although each individual believer is precious in God’s sight…we individuals proclaim God’s surpassing goodness best by coming together.
So when Steele County ND was being settled by waves of Norwegian immigrants in the late 19th century, it was only natural that they banded together in congregations designed to become beacons of God’s light here on the ND prairie.
So your congregation was founded in 1884, when some of these new citizens of the USA gathered at the Halvor Berg farm and—in an act of profound faith in God--began meeting together in local country school houses until your first church building was erected in 1888.
Goose River Lutheran Church’s “birth story” is a powerful reminder that nearly all of our ND rural congregations existed as communities of people, long before they became identified with a building….or, in your case, a series of buildings—thanks to the tornado and the fire that destroyed your first two church buildings (!)
What led your forebears to establish this congregation was a profound act of faith, trusting that God deserves our “everything”—and that a living, breathing congregation is what best equips us to praise God, spread the gospel, raise our children in faith, serve our needy neighbors, and extend our Christian witness across the globe: joyfully proclaiming that there is a God who has given us everything so that, in faith we might return that everything to the One who made us and in Jesus Christ remade us to be God’s people.
And now, if I may share with you a pastoral word as you approach the holy closure of your congregation: I urge you to take this step in the confidence that bringing your corporate existence to conclusion is just as much of an act of profound faith as was the establishing of your congregation back in 1884.
The reason I say that is that the Church, the eternal community of Jesus Christ is always being enfleshed in an ever-changing world.
My dear friends, you don’t need me to remind you of how much has changed over the last 136 years.
Looking at the demographics of this area, we notice that Steele County peaked in 1910 with a population of 7600 persons…and we also notice that today’s Steele County has a quarter of the population the county had in 1910.
Despite facts like population decline in rural areas, we may still struggle to acknowledge it’s time to bring the mission of this congregation to its conclusion. We could even blame ourselves, imagining that if we had just believed a little harder or worked more energetically—we could restore this congregation to its original size , scope and level of energy.
As people who believe that God has given us everything, freeing us to give back to God our “everything,” we know that we’ll continue living out our Christian faith and witness, even after this congregation is dissolved and the doors of this precious building are closed.
It is an act of profound faith to do so: an act of trust that the same God who has made everything will draw you into new circles of fellowship with other believers, so that you’ll continue to give back to God all your devotion, all your love for one another, and all your determination to keep sharing the Good News of Christ wherever you go, through whatever fresh faith community welcomes you into its fold.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.