To God the things that are God's October 22, 2008

by Joy McDonald Coltvet
Director for Vocations and Recruitment

Last week, I was in Madison with one of our LSTC alum, Pastor David Vasquez, a campus pastor at Luther College. He had raised concern for immigrants at our meeting and he had mentioned the raid of a meat-packing plant in Iowa-a story that I've followed from a distance since I have a very good friend, also in Iowa, who is married to a Guatemalan. So I asked David to tell me the story. For about two hours, he told me how has given the last five months of his ministry, with the blessing of Luther College ministry staff, to respond to a crisis in the neighboring community of Postville, Iowa. Perhaps you've heard about the immigration raid, the largest in Iowa history, which resulted in the arrest of 390 people, mostly Guatemalan, from a Kosher meat packing plant in this small Iowa town of 2400.

But, what I didn't know and only learned from David, was the ongoing impact on this fragile community. On the day of the raid, a security force of 900 entered the town with helicopters, sharp shooters and riot gear. David said that 50 officers could easily have managed it-but there were 900. This is a community which has had an ethnic mix of people for quite some time (Guatemalan/Mexicans, Orthodox Jewish and Anglos) but on the day of the raid, a school that had always emphasized the gift of racial/ethnic diversity had to divide all the Spanish-speaking children out from the other children and gather them in the cafeteria to tell them what was going on and figure out what to do with those who could not be sent home before they figured out whose parents were now missing. This is a community where a handful of organizers had been trying to gather immigrants in order to address the abuses of the meat-packing plant and inform immigrants of their rights, but the raid came most people did not know they had a choice about what to plead when they were arrested and as people unfamiliar with U.S. policies of not imprisoning parents of small children and all-too-familiar with terror in Guatemala were asked, "Do you have children?," they answered "No."

So, now, five months later, a handful of people have been working to list, track and find the 400 people who have been in prison across the country so they might not be simply "disappeared" or lost in the system with no charge against them, to help people know their rights, to testify before congress about the excessive force and abuse of what happened...and this tiny group of leaders, including Pastor David, are exhausted. Postville is in shambles, not only economically but psychologically and spiritually, with children of all ethnic groups needing psychological help as witnessed of this dramatic day and the crumbling of the whole community from the inside out as each part of the tiny economic system has been completing dependent on all the rest. And maybe the saddest reality (as I listened to Pastor David) is that congregations in nearby towns, people of faith, are nowhere to be found, because at the center of this conflict are people we in the U.S. have called "illegal."

"Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

There are so many directions one might go in preaching these words of Jesus-in this political season, in this economy, in view of stories that challenge our loyalties and assumptions, in view of the many questions we ask as people in ministry and preparing for ministry, in view of the questions we're asked as leaders and those preparing for leadership, in view of the situations we're thrust into as church-sometimes very unexpectedly, even unwillingly drawn into theologically challenging and maybe life-changing encounters.

I only have to sit at a table at a graduate fair in downtown Chicago to remember that we are speaking a totally different language here... "THE-O-LO-GY... what does that mean exactly?" I was asked. OR "Lutheran School of Theology... oh, well, I'm not looking for that but I believe in what you're doing-I read T.D. Jakes and I agree with a lot of what he says." Or just the other night, when a passerby put his hand to his heart and said with a smile, "I'm just not there yet." Or the beautiful woman who passed by, pointed at our sign and said, "I think that's really what God's been calling me to do my whole life..." and kept walking.

So, it's no small thing that you are here-at a seminary, studying theology, working, teaching, preparing for and doing ministry, being stretched and challenged, plunging into questions just by virtue of being here that many, many people do not have the opportunity or inclination to engage.

That said... I know that it sometimes feels like we're smack in the middle of this gospel story-questioning, exposed, face-to-face with controversy-and did we really mean to sign up for this?

Whether we're playing the part of the Herodians and Pharisees, ready to trap Jesus, just to show him...

Or whether we're walking with Jesus into a trap laid out to break us...hoping to God that the Holy Spirit will show us a way through, a wise word, a way out of no way...

It can seem like there's really no way out of the dilemmas we're in.

                Do I do all my reading or care for my spiritual life?

Do I exercise or spend time with my family?

Do I take out more loans or keep eating ramen?

Do I rest tonight or canvass for the election?

How could I possibly trust after what happened to me?

How can I possibly address the immensity of injustices in the world?

And yet, doesn't faith require action?

Or in the words of an LSTC student yesterday, "I wish God would write God's name a little bigger because I'm not even sure anymore which is which."

And whether we're the unfair questioner of God or the receiver of the questions, we're kind of in the same place... stuck in dichotomies that leave us faced with the deeper question:

                Is there an option C? If we believe God's imprint is on us and through us and  throughout all creation,

                how in the world do we give to God what is God's?

How do we claim a citizenship that is about more than possession of a social security number?

That as much value as we give them, there is a deeper reality than our grade point averages, listing of advanced degrees or annual income. What we do matters but even more, who we are.

We say that we are marked with the cross of Christ forever.

That through the waters of baptism, we know that our truest and deepest identity is "child of God."

We belong to God-mind, body, spirit-we live and move and have our being in God.

And not only us... but everyone.

And so, we are submerged into a reality and a set of relationships that we might not otherwise choose.

The LSTC faculty and now the Advancement staff and Alumni Board have recently been reading a book called Earthen Vessels: Hopeful reflections on the work and future of theological schools and here's an excerpt from Daniel Aleshire's writing that seems to connect to this struggle:

Most candidates for ministry begin theological study for lofty reasons, often at personal sacrifice, as people of faith who perceive that God has called them. The idealism and initial commitments of new seminary students typically change during seminary and this change can be perceived as a crisis, or even loss of faith. Most typically, this crisis is a normal developmental aspect of faith... ministry is a complex and difficult form of work. It requires faith that has encountered difficult questions and learned to live through them and with them.

And later he writes...

One definition often cited for theology is that it is "faith seeking understanding." Intellectual work is a friend of faith and stokes fires of commitment. It provides ballast for unsettling moments and understands when Mystery must be left to stand without parsing or explanation. (Aleshire p. 14-15)

It provides ballast...

  1. (nautical) Weight that is placed in the hold of a ship (or in the gondola of a balloon), to provide stability.
  2. (figuratively) Anything that steadies emotion or the mind.
  3. Coarse gravel or similar material laid to form a bed for roads or railroads.
  4. (electronics) device used for stabilizing current in an electric circuit ( a tube lamp supply circuit)  [definitions from]

Theology provides ballast and understands when Mystery must be left to stand without explanation.

"Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."

You are marked with the cross of Christ forever.


These are weighty words. To steady us in the face of crushing news, to form a grounding for the path ahead, to give calm in the storm.


These words ground us-so that we might be energized consistently for the work ahead, a complex and difficult form of work, that may bring us to places we never expected to be, like Pastor David Vasquez-places like Postville, Iowa; Washington D.C.; federal prisons. This work will require faith that lives through and with difficult questions.


"Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."

You are marked with the cross of Christ forever.


These words go with us to the table, where we bring only hands cupped to receive. Where we hear "given for you." Where we encounter Mystery that we cannot explain but that feeds and fills, claims and sends so that God's might be God's.



Matthew 22

Back to top