That title is a reference to the aphorism of Jesus, “give back to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God”. That phrase is more than a slippery evasion of the question the Pharisees were asking him. It is a startlingly deep teaching on limits to the temporal state and the extent of the requests of the Gospel. There are of course book length treatises that examine this. This sermon attempts to focus on three things:
1) What the things of Caesar are by bringing in Romans 13
2) What Caesar should provide, and a simple description following Peter Leithart’s taxonomy: guardians, babels and beasts, of the limits of our giving back to Caesar.
3) What giving back to God means with a focus on three ideas: a) bearing the image of God through baptism, b) the summary of the law as our spiritual worship and b) the gospel tithe.
Carrying crosses is a tricky subject. Or maybe I should write that discerning crosses is difficult. Sometimes what you think are crosses are just being a drama queen martyr. They could be avoided, but the scene is too desirable. Sometimes what we put as crosses are just common difficulties. A cross in the sense of the text is something forced on you by the world because you won’t put its priorities first. And more specifically, a cross is something you encounter because you specifically put Christ first. Jesus bore the cross, because he remained faithful to His Father. He would not give the pinch to the Sanhedrin or to Caesar.
This sermon looks at what are some very American or rich western crosses. It is tempting to dismiss them as crosses because of that adjective, rich western. But we don’t pick our crosses. Our trails are ours. I don’t say it in the sermons, but there is an old saying “those He wishes to destroy first he makes rich”. The deceptions of the world in the west are very attractive things. They are also often very good things, if in their proper order and time.
And that is the crux of crosses. They come not because the creation is bad. They come because Satan has marked his prey. They come because the ruler of this age wants you get things out of order. The faith of Jesus Christ gets things in the proper order.
The deeper theological term that this sermon circles around is kenosis. This contrast used as a summary refrain: The city of man seeks God to add to itself, The City of God seeks God to empty itself, is the kenosis statement. Every path of discipleship involves some emptying of the self. I’ve applied this here in a stewardship frame; it was budget preparation day. The first step in a robust spirituality is often a turning back to God, an emptying from ourselves, of a determined percentage of income. (The traditional response is the tithe, but the important point is putting kingdom values first.) The American church from what I’ve experienced has a problem right here. It is just not willing to turn over finances in a serious way to God. The reasons are legion and many are legitimate. But those reasons pale in comparison to the distrust that is built by not surrendering a portion to God.
But I think this applies in a much larger way to today. There is a much reported phenomenon of spiritual but not religious or the new “nones” in reply to religious beliefs. And I’ve got a big problem with most of that. And yes my current livelihood depends upon the religious aspect, so I am a partisan. But the call of Jesus is to turn our gaze away from our navels (stop being curved in on ourselves) and in this age to turn toward the cross which is the ultimate emptying of self. And Jesus’ vision in not a personal spirituality, or at least not exclusively. I can’t be like the rich young ruler looking to add spirituality to everything I’ve already got. Jesus’ vision is incarnational. The church is that incarnation. The church is the place where a true spirituality is created. The church is that 100 fold return of brothers and sisters…and persecutions. If it is not, it isn’t fulfilling its purpose.
One of theses days I’m going to write a novel with that title. It’s an allusion to Gen 31:19,32 and as with so much else from that Ur-Book, its a powerful story that we play out again and again like a musical fugue.
The Gospel text for this day is one of those repeats and an appropriate horror story as we get to Halloween. The contrasting character to Jesus is a man who knows he’s trapped by his household gods but can’t leave them. The task of discipleship is to learn to leave them behind. This man’s question is every man’s question or should be. That novel, amongst the characters, the protagonist is the one who in the eyes of the other characters has failed miserably but who is actually the only one who is free.
The big struggle this week was the question have I let the gospel predominate. I went back and forth in my pondering about that call to deep discipleship and how it might be taken. It could be a law proclamation of the second kind. All one might hear is the refrain to give up the idols and the application to do more and feel convicted. We know the responses when told to do something we really don’t want to do before we are ready to break the fugue. It could also be a law proclamation of the third kind. What must I do? Look at the commandments. That is how God intended us to live. Actually putting requirements back on people seems like a reversal of the gospel. If you are proclaiming the captives free, how then can you put the chains back on?
But Jesus didn’t seem to have any such qualms about being explicit. And that gets to a core recognition of the gospel. We can talk about the gospel in those freedom metaphors, but the call to “follow me” is every bit as much the call of the gospel. We can get deep in the Lutheran weeds and get all worried about passive righteousness. We can piously mumble true words about “I cannot by my own reason of strength follow Jesus”. But in the midst of the Christian life there are moments where it certainly feels like a choice. Like the one Jesus put to the rich man. The choice is really do we hear the gospel and walk in the way Jesus has laid out for us, or do we go our own way. So what I hoped the sermon opened up was not a list of preacher saying you must do x – which would all be great things for the preacher – but a space for the hearer to ask that question – “what must I do?” – and hear Jesus’ answer. These are your household gods and need to be left behind. Whatever they might be.
This was a great news clip. One thing that kept running through my head was that the Mormon faith in the USA is roughly 3.2 Million people. For comparison the LCMS is roughly 2.5M, Methodist 11M, Baptist 36M, Roman Catholic 57M. How does a group of people who are roughly the same size as the LCMS have such a strong influence on the culture such that two representatives were running for President and their charity is widely known even in the relatively naked public square of NPR?
From the conclusion of the piece…
They would pay a full tithe on the profit when they sold a stock. Yet, if they dumped a stock for a loss, they wouldn’t use the loss to offset and lower the income they tithed on. Unlike taxpayers, the Mormons in the study weren’t big fans of taking deductions so they could send less money to the church.
“They’re worried about being petty with God,” Dahl says.
I asked a Mormon bishop in Salt Lake City if a few more rules defining income might make tithing easier on Mormons or bring in more money for the church. He said all this soul-searching about what you owe God is kind of the point
One of the old christian faith’s practices of lent was almsgiving. That was a practice beyond the tithe. It was direct charity to the less fortunate usually. Ultimately is was a practice that spoke to a recognition of the 10,000 talents. (Matt 18:24) There are plenty of people who would look at the mormon tithe and the question of being petty with God and scream legalism or works righteousness as if they were attempting to buy salvation. Instead it might not be a bad question for lent. In light of the cross, how are we being petty with God? Maybe the LDS are a mirror to our Christian practice. What we give to God doesn’t buy us salvation, but it is a first look at how we value that grace. It is cheap, or costly?
I had this old game – Fortress America. Think Red Dawn but a lot geekier and without wolverines. Everybody (but Canada, which had declared itself Switzerland) was attacking the United States. The United States defended its turf and expelled the invaders. Think about that for a second. What kind of fears are displayed in a scenario game where the United States in the 1980’s is getting invaded? If you look at the picture of the box nearby it has the unmistakable picture of Saddam Hussein on it. The geek kids of the 80’s played a game that encouraged speculation than Saddam was invading the US.
I want to point at a post by Richard Beck at Experimental Theology. From my reading – and you can ask my wife how we drown in books – what Dr. Beck ponders and scribbles is a treasure to the Christian church. I’d say it should be part of your everyday reading except that it might burn a little too bright. The post that I’m linking to is part of a series mulling over Heb 2:14-15 which includes the phrase, “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death”. In that phrase and what Dr. Beck is poking is the center of some of the things we’ve been looking at around here.
The Lutheran way of talking about just what Jesus has done and is doing for us is to talk about that unholy Trinity of Sin, Death and the Power of the Devil. We often reduce the gospel to just the dimension of sin, but the gospel is larger than that. If we stop at a therapeutic gospel of feeling good by being forgiven we can still find ourselves outside the kingdom. Our lives can still be lived in slavery to the fear of death.
What that looks like is the inward spiral of control that we looked at in Ann Voskamp’s work, One Thousand Gifts. Something bad happens, we experience loss, and we don’t trust God. Our entire life becomes a Fortress America retreat exercise in establishing a perimeter of control and asserting ourselves at that wall. When that wall is over-run, we retreat further and further establishing areas of control. And we do this not realizing how we are living our whole lives in slavery to that fear and how stunted and small our world becomes. When we seek to save our own life out of fear of loss and death, we lose it.
Christ has come to bring life and bring it abundantly. And here is where this intersects with our stewardship thoughts. We have said in that series that the goal of stewardship isn’t really to fund the church or anything like that although that is a side product. The goal of stewardship is that you recognize and trust God’s providence. It’s our money we say. We as a country are not as rich as we thought and we seem to be playing a never ending game of musical chairs over who is going to take that psychic (and real) loss. We are asserting control. We are retreating. We are running in fear. All fights over “my money”. Stewardship and the tithe that we talked about is a place where God starts punching holes in those chains of slavery to the fear ultimately of death. If we are able to give the firstfruits, from the first dollar, we are starting an outward spiral of grace. God – I’m not retreating anymore. That doesn’t work. I haven’t been able to protect any of my fortresses anyway. You handle it. Does giving that 10% mean you’ll be safe? Absolutely not. In fact it will weaken your ability to guard your turf. Everyone else is using 100% of “their money” and now you are using only 90%. But it places you in Beck’s “fellowship of need”. The goal of stewardship is that you recognize and trust God’s providence. In being gracious, we recognize our need of grace. In stopping claiming “my money”, we are freed from our slavery to fear of loss. We are saying back to the power of
the Devil – do what you will. Though it all be gone, you still have nothing won. The Kingdom’s ours forever.
The slave does not remain in the house forever, the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:35-36) And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! (Mark 3:32-34)