The Things that Are God's
by Louise Westfall
One of the significant losses of this pandemic has been its effect on time. The days all blur together when you’re basically doing everything from home. The invitation on one church’s outdoor sign, read “Join us for a Zoom conversation about coping with the pandemic Thursday 11am…or is it Saturday?” We struggle to mark and celebrate transitions. I’ve seen drive-by retirement parties, and pared-down backyard gatherings. Many who have died have been buried or cremated without the usual rituals and memorial services. Couples marry in private ceremonies, maybe shared over Zoom, but separated from most family and friends. It’s a loss because remembrance shapes our identity. It helps us define our “place” and purpose in an ever-changing world.
Central Presbyterian Church was founded 160 years ago this month. That’s something. We’ve shared historical photographs and stories from those early years. We’ve heard from some of our longest-standing members and their perspectives on Central’s mission: the tradition of preaching and music excellence; the warmth of its welcome; the priority of our outreach to neighbors in need. So at the outset I want us to take a moment and celebrate. Marvel at the reality of a faith community worshiping and serving in downtown Denver year after year, decade after decade, well into our second century.
Such remembering prompts gratitude: gratitude for our forebears’ vision and bold commitment; gratitude for their perseverance in the face of difficulty and resistance; gratitude for the dear saints still among us, inspiring us by their example. Gratitude to God whose Spirit has moved in this congregation and is still moving among us in love and transforming power. So let us pause right now to give thanks. Eternal God, Alpha and Omega: in the beginning you were here, and at the end you will be here. Your love knows no bounds; your mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. Your grace has flowed upon this congregation for one hundred sixty years, imparting blessings untold. We thank you for keeping faith with us, for leading us in paths of righteousness, and for renewing our call in every generation. We offer our praise to you for your word proclaimed, for a table of life-giving bread and cup, for refreshing waters of baptism as your beloved children. We thank you for disciples young and old who have been nurtured here in faith; for all who have been joined in marriage here; and all who have been comforted by the hope of resurrection. We thank you for deacons, elders, and ministers and staff and volunteers who have led and loved us; for generous stewards of material wealth offered for spiritual purpose; for ministries of worship and service, formation and fellowship–and for all whose lives have been touched by them. Receive our gratitude, Holy One, for the years through which you have brought us, and open us to the future you promise. We pray in the name and hope of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In that spirit of thanksgiving, may we turn our gaze toward the future?–what kind of a church will Central be over its next 160 years? One of the online continuing education classes I’ve taken this year had an especially appropriate title: How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going. Developed for pastors in congregations amid global pandemic, church consultant and coach Susan Beaumont highlighted ministry in a time for which none of us was prepared. We know at some level that we’re never going back to the “way things were” because those ways no longer work. But who knows where we’re headed and how we will be church in the future? Beaumont calls these in-between times “liminal seasons”–thresholds we’re crossing still in mid-step.
The book offers a path forward through deep memory, discernment of God’s good purposes, and freedom to experiment and fail. All those practices acknowledge uncertainty and perplexity and invite our questions and wonderment. Which makes today’s text a useful guide for finding the road to Central’s future. It’s one of many occasions when the religious leaders of Jesus’ day interrogate him to try to get him to say something that will discredit him with the people or plunge him into hot water with the Roman government. On the surface, it seems like a tricky, but trivial matter about one’s obligation to civil authority. Jesus turns it into a foundational declaration of identity, upon which the Church is built and the future created. A reading from the good news according to Matthew, in the 22nd chapter, reading verses 15 through 22. Listen for God’s Word! [Matthew 22:15-22]
There is no part of human life untouched or unaffected by the Hand of God.
Respond to a question with a question, and you’re sure to keep the conversation going. Jesus perceives the trap and calls out their hypocrisy. He asks for a visual aid, and they bring him a coin of the empire. Now there’s a little problem with that because in Jewish theology, to have such a coin with the face of Caesar upon it, was in clear violation of the second commandment prohibiting “graven images.” (That’s why there were money changers, to exchange these idolatrous coins for inoffensive ones manufactured so that Jews could participate in commercial enterprises). So what were these devout religious leaders doing with such a coin? Well, okay. So give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Hmmmm, Jesus seems to be musing, can you name anything that does not belong to God? I wonder if he went on to recite the Psalm they would have known by heart: The earth is God’s and everything in it; the world and everyone who lives in it. [Psalm 24] Don’t miss Jesus’ hilarious irony: Since everything belongs to God, nothing really belongs to the emperor, so you can faithfully give him exactly that.
Of course Jesus isn’t proposing anarchy; in other places he told his followers to carry out civic obligations and in one instance, even produced the coin with which to pay the tax for himself and the disciples. But what’s astonishing here is the absolute priority Jesus gives to the things that are God’s. Which is to say, everything. Friends, the world is not a pie, sliced up into pieces with competing claims. This text is not about dishing out our responsibilities among religious, political, personal and social arenas. No, God rules over them all. There is no part of human life untouched or unaffected by the Hand of God. No other power has greater claim on us than God. Our primary identity is as the family of God. That’s first, and more important, more essential than our identity as Americans and our loyalties to family, kin, region, political party, or anything else. It’s an identity that hitches our individual selves to a larger purpose–one guided not by self-interest but love of God and love of neighbor.
Upon this rock-solid conviction the Church of Jesus Christ was founded. Our Central forebears built on this foundation and we have plenty of examples of how they demonstrated its truth through generosity, sacrifice, and flexibility to changing times. Plans for an educational building to accommodate the Post-World-War baby boom were put on hold for nearly a decade in order to direct significant financial support to the struggling Presbyterian Hospital and its mission to care for people, regardless of their ability to pay. It couldn’t have been easy to weigh the options, to go back to donors who thought they were contributing to Central’s growth and asked them to re-designate their gifts. I would have loved to have attended the Session and congregational meetings when this decision was discussed! But I remember how former Presbyterian Church General Assembly moderator Heath Rada stood in this pulpit a few years ago and thanked Central, eyes welling with tears, for the care his daughter received there upon her diagnosis of stage four breast cancer.
When we give to God the things that are God’s we are claiming Divine rule over every part of our lives. Love becomes the value, the goal, the strategy, the mission and the methodology. As a congregation we carry out our mission through a worldview that insists the way things are is not the way they have to be; the way God intends them to be. This congregation is to be nothing less than a representation of the Kin-dom of God described by the prophets and embodied in Jesus: a reality where justice rolls down like mighty waters, peace reigns, and all human beings–no exceptions–flourish.
It’s an impossible mission, were it not fueled by the love and Spirit of the living God. The Presbyterian Church has offered a particular way to express this worldview through the call of Matthew 25–care for the hungry, unhoused, immigrant, prisoner, sick and vulnerable. Central’s commitment to be a Matthew 25 congregation means we are intentional about building congregational vitality (e.g. engaging more of us in concrete ministry), dismantling racism (hanging a banner is just a symbolic start to the hard work of repair and reconciliation), and eradicating systemic poverty (providing food for those who are hungry as well as exploring why so many are impoverished). Give to God the things that are God’s as you mark your ballot for leaders and initiatives that will shape our life together. I noticed that the Presbytery of Denver Council and the Colorado Council of Churches are united in support of Proposition 118, establishing an insurance program for paid family and medical leave. As an employed single mother at one point in my life, I was deeply grateful for a congregation that never questioned the time off I took when my son had a sick day or needed my attention. Proposition 118 would extend this benefit to all Coloradans. Seems like one more way to care for vulnerable ones, and in so doing, serve Christ himself.
Faith over fear. Peace over panic. God over everything. [motto seen on a church sign] Not a bad way to live, and prepare to “be church” together in this time and beyond. Friends, I invite us all–members, leaders, staff–to recommit ourselves to centering Christ in our life together. To offer everything that is already God’s to God and the work of transformation. I pledge my remaining time as your pastor (long or short) to this holy purpose.
What will Central be doing tomorrow? God only knows. But God does know. As I think about it, the course title didn’t quite get it right. For though we may not know precisely where we’re going, in a way we do. If this great congregation follows Christ, then we will journey a road Christ has already pioneered, one which will surely lead us toward the bright horizon.
May it be so.