Sunday, October 22, 2017

In God We Trust

Matthew 22:15-22

Who can tell me what images are printed on American money? … (Usually dead presidents, long after they have died) … What is written on our money in addition to the amount? … (In God we trust)

What do you think was on Roman coins? … (The image of the current emperor, often with a description of him as the son of a god.) It would be like having the current $1 bill printed with “The Divine Donald Trump” on it.

Some Jewish leaders approach Jesus and ask him some questions about paying taxes.
The Pharisees want to restore the throne to the line of King David, and they view Herod as not the rightful king. The Herodians support the kingship of Herod along with his alliance with the Romans.

These groups are sort of religious political parties. Putting the Pharisees and the Herodians together is like trying to mix oil and water. Or Tea Party Republicans with Socialist Democrats. Jesus has done the otherwise unthinkable thing of uniting these very different groups against himself.

The topic they want Jesus to cover is the poll tax, which funds the Roman army in Judea. The real question is: Should Jews pay taxes to support a ruler who calls himself divine? The Roman tax has to be paid with Roman coins. Good Jews are not supposed to handle Roman coins because of the conflict it presents in keeping the first and second commandments. You shall have no other gods, and you shall not have images of gods, including of YHWH.

Jesus begins by asking to see a Roman coin. One of the leaders who is objecting to paying the Roman tax actually has Roman coins in his pocket. It is a conflict of interest that a good Jew has a Roman coin in his pocket, but Jesus ignores that fact.

Jesus looks at the coin and asks whose image is on the coin. Well, obviously, it’s the image of Tiberius Caesar, with the inscription: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”.

Once again, as in recent weeks, the leaders think they have Jesus trapped. If he supports paying the Roman tax, he is a traitor to the Jews, and at risk of supporting the worship of Tiberius. If he supports not paying the tax, they can turn him over to the Romans, and they can deal with him.

But, once more, Jesus has the last word, and the leaders must leave without a solution to the Jesus problem. “Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and pay to God what belongs to God.” 

Has Jesus answered their question, or has he evaded the trap? Is he saying, “Pay taxes to Rome”? Or is he saying, “Everything belongs to God, so don’t pay taxes to Rome”?  Once more, the leaders have lost in their effort to trap Jesus.

Let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning. What is printed on US money? “In God we trust.” What do you think this has to do with the way we use our money? Should we pay taxes in our community, our state, our country? … Do you trust God with your money, with your household budget? …

… From the early days of Judaism there was always a requirement of a tithe, 10% of a family’s increase. The tithe came off the top; the first animal of ten born was given to God; the first 10 bushels of wheat out of 100 was given to God, and so forth.

The ancient temple system required Jews to pay a tax – not an offering, it was literally called a tax – for the support of the temple. In addition, there were offerings of all sorts: large and small animals, and grain offerings. The offerings paid for certain services, for forgiveness, or healing, or ritual cleansing.

So, there were tithes and offerings. It is similar today: there is the pledge, the amount we plan to give every week, even if we pay it monthly. And there are opportunities to give other offerings, to the stuff the bus, or the turkey dinner, or hurricane relief.

Christians tend to challenge this idea of tithing. It is said, “Jesus did away with the law, so we don’t have to tithe anymore.” But I say to you, tithing is for our own good. Tithing forces us to plan how to use our money. Tithing forces us to make choices. Tithing proves to us that God will provide. Tithing forces us to trust God, just as our money says.

… I always wanted to tithe, but there never seemed to be enough money. Before I went to seminary, I was involved with Women of the ELCA. I was on the synodical board and another woman invited me to participate in a poverty immersion in Chicago. There, on the southwest side of the city, in a very poor neighborhood, I learned about tithing.

The people being helped at Bethel New Life always tithe, they told me, because they always know someone who has less than they have. Their weekly income might be $400, but they give $40 to Bethel to help someone else. I remembered this, and increased my giving, not to a tithe, but by a few percentage points.

A few years later, I went to seminary and promised myself that when I finished, I would always tithe my income. Today, Mike and I work to determine how much to give and where. We tithe, giving a total of 10% every month – most of it to our congregations, and to organizations like the Order of Lutheran Franciscans and Kiwanis. And we give offerings above that to Lutheran Disaster Response and ELCA World Hunger and our colleges and seminaries.

… I also learned about tithing from my son Dan. He and his wife Sarah began to buy things they wanted with the money they should have tithed. Then the car broke down, the water heater died. The money they should have given to the church went instead to the car and the water heater. “Mom,” Dan said, “we can’t afford to not tithe.” And he always tithes now.

… For some people, tithing their time is just as important. A farmer told me this story. “During planting and harvest time, it is tempting to work Sunday mornings instead of going to church. But, every time I am in the fields instead of at church, something breaks down, and I have to stop and fix it. I lose the time I thought I was gaining. That doesn’t seem to happen if I take the time to go to church.”

… One more story, told to me by my husband, a retired Presbyterian pastor. He was serving a church in Michigan and one Sunday a wealthy parishioner came to him and said he had some unexpected expenses and he would need to reduce the amount he gave to the church. Mike said he hoped things would get resolved soon and offered to pray for him. A few minutes later, Mike noticed the same parishioner calling to a buddy of his. “Hey, Tom, come look at the new car I just bought for my wife!”

… We usually have to learn the hard way to trust God with our money and with our time. Five years ago, St John had an average worship attendance of about 200. Weekly giving was about $5,000. There was no real need to worry about money or attendance. Money and new members just happened.

And then, stuff happened. Yes, I know I am simplifying. In 2016 ELCA records show the average attendance was about 65, and weekly giving was $1,200. In 2017, attendance has dropped, and giving averages less than $1,000 a week.  But the expenses remain.

The hard news is that the treasurer has had to take money from savings every month to pay the bills this year. The council constantly examines the budget for where the money is going, and to see if there are expenses that can be trimmed. There is little or nothing else to trim.  We keep looking!

So, now, it is up to you folks. Do you thank God every time that Social Security check shows up in your bank account? What percentage do you give of what you receive? Do you trust God with your money?

It is pledge season at St John. In a few weeks the council will adopt a budget for 2018. I hope that you will prayerfully consider how God can use what you give for the ministries of St John Lutheran Church. If you do not tithe, I pray you will increase the amount you give, and will consider increasing your giving by one or two or more percentage points. It all comes down to the question: How much do you trust God?

Please pray with me. Lord, you give us what we need, and then some. Teach us, lead us, inspire us to trust you with what we have so we can do ministry in your name. Amen