Pastor Baldridge has returned from San Diego with insights that are defying his best efforts at expression. Now he’s trying to figure out what lies ahead for him and for Crown and Cactus. He’s discovered a third way…but it’s hard to put into words.

Based on Matthew 22:15-22

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Pastor Baldridge and Helga didn’t get back from San Diego until late Thursday and folks at the church had begun to think that he wasn’t ever coming back. Loren Meade, the president of the council, had gone so far as to contact Pastor Phil from Sun Lakes to see if he would be available to fill in again this coming Sunday. So Pastor Phil had called…and when no one answered the phone…had left a message, which spurred Pastor Baldridge into returning. They’d been staying in a condo near the beach that belonged to an old classmate and it was so nice…and with no definite check-out time they had stayed longer than they had anticipated.

In all they were in San Diego for eight days, long enough to develop a routine that they loved. In the morning they got up as they pleased, went for an early walk and found a place for breakfast. They’d sit and talk…a couple of days they went to Balboa Park…but most of the time they just hung out. In the afternoons they’d sit on the balcony of the condo and look out over the harbor…some days they went down to the beach. Pastor Baldridge was trying to get his head straightened out. He’d spent an hour or two in silence and then talk with Helga…her perspective was always healing and helpful.

Basically he’s having a tough time figuring out whether he wants to continue as pastor of Crown and Cactus any longer. It isn’t that he wants to go somewhere else…he loves the people there…but things have changed and he’s not sure he understands how to be a pastor any more. Times are divisive and the country is becoming polarized…and with it his own political perspective has shifted. It’s as though there are only two ways of looking at things and people are on one side or another. He wonders if congregations have simply become spiritual tools of political parties. He’s remembering how the religious leaders came to Jesus with a trick question, whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. They tried to get him to choose a side, thinking there were only two possibilities, with either being a bad choice. Jesus had surprised them and come up with a third way…a way that left them speechless. Pastor Baldridge is wondering if there isn’t a third way for him, a non-political stance that will draw people together and not divide, and yet at the same way allow them to daily encounter Christ in the world in a loving, caring way. So far he’s just made his head hurt…and he hasn’t come to any decision…except he knew he did have to come back. He owes it to the people of Crown and Cactus.

When he did get back on Thursday he stopped by the church late in the afternoon just to see what was going on for Sunday and let people know that he’d be there. The staff members who were around were glad to see him…and filled him in on plans. They are so capable that he thinks they could probably do just fine without him and everything was all set. They asked how the time away had been and he gave all the right answers: refreshing, invigorating, fun. But no one asked what he’d been thinking about and he didn’t know what he would have told them had they asked.

He is going to talk about the third way during the sermon on Sunday though. He’ll be asking people not to be trapped by the divisiveness being promoted in our culture, and reminding them that all things belong to God…and perhaps the truth is more grey than black or white. He still doesn’t know exactly what he’ll say yet…he’s found it exceedingly hard to find the words that convey his growing convictions adequately.

Next week he’s going to go see the bishop though. Not the new one…that bishop doesn’t even know about Crown and Cactus…he’ll go see the old one, the one who finally figured out that mythical congregations are no different than real ones. Pastor Baldridge remembers vividly the time the bishop caught on…they’d been having coffee near the synod office and he was trying to explain his existence. All of a sudden it was as though a light went on for the bishop. He had said, “Your congregation is mythical, right? But it also has a strong commitment to the truth of the gospel. Your people, the ones you describe to me, are having the same faith struggles as people in real congregations. The only difference is that they don’t age and they don’t die.”

Pastor Baldridge had said that this was true…and it had been at the time of their conversation. Since then however, Myrtle Brier had died…a total shock to everyone…and even he can’t quite figure out how that happened. But ever since that conversation he’d had a good rapport with the bishop and they had gotten together regularly. The bishop liked to hear what was going on at Crown and Cactus…he said it was helpful to him in dealing with some of his congregations. Often he said that he wished there were more real congregations like Crown and Cactus. Pastor Baldridge wonders what he will say now…he’s anxious to get his advice.

On Friday, Pastor Baldridge had gone to see Ralph Mogen. Ralph had walked out during the sermon two weeks ago, his face red and hard. He’d gotten so angry at what he’d heard. Ralph was actually pleased that Pastor Baldridge sought him out…it meant a lot to him and they had a good conversation about a lot of different things. Pastor Baldridge mostly listened…Ralph is a good man, but his life experiences have given him other perspectives on life and how it shall be lived. He didn’t choose to have the convictions that he has…they’ve simply come to him…and now they belong to him. After a time he listened to what Pastor Baldridge had to say and even acknowledged that there had been a reason for his sermonic rant…and that maybe walking out hadn’t been the best thing for him to do. They talked a bit about the polarization in our world and the devastating impact of trolling and mindless social media connections. When they were done talking Pastor Baldridge hugged Ralph…and as he was going home realized that he’d had an experience with the third way…and it felt good. And he felt just a little bit more prepared for Sunday.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are faithful, the women are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.