Most preachers that I know are on vacation this week. One reason, of course, is that it the Fourth of July Weekend, a time when many Americans take a vacation. The other reason is that is the the Fourth of July Weekend, a time when preaching the gospel of Christ can be more than a little tricky. For isn’t this the one topic that we are supposed to try to avoid, religion and politics? I tried to be gone today. Let Shannon worry about preaching. But the beach house that we wanted was already rented this week.
Because what preachers would like to do on this day is to preach a feel-good, God-bless-America-baseball-hot-dogs-mama-and-apple-pie sermon. We want to stand beside the stars and stripes and deliver a sermon that will make us want to go home and set fire to some sparkers and sing I’m Proud to Be An American with Lee Greenwood.
However, despite our efforts, despite our studying and despite our praying, if we are to be true to the gospel of Christ, while at the same time trying to deliver a sermon that is culturally, socially and politically relevant, we know that it is simply impossible to preach such a sermon.
One day, Jesus was facing his critics. They asked him a question in order to entrap him.
“Jesus should we pay taxes to Caesar?”
Jesus says, “My pockets are empty. Who’s got a coin?”
Someone pulls out a drachma, with the image of Tiberius stamped on it.
“Whose picture is on it?” Jesus asked.
“Well, it’s Tiberius Caesar.”
Jesus says, “Well give it to him. But you be careful. Don’t give to Caesar that which belongs to God.” End of lesson.
Here’s the frustrating part for me when I’m studying this: “End of lesson?” Did I miss something? Did Jesus ever really answer the question? Should we pay taxes or not?
What belongs to Caesar? And what belongs to God? And wait a minute, doesn’t everything belong to God?
Do you feel the frustration?
Here’s the only conclusion that I can draw. And believe you me, it’s the one conclusion that preachers who want to preach a God-bless-the- good-ol’-U-S-of-A sermon do not want to draw this weekend. That is, when it comes to what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, when it comes when it comes to faith and politics, perhaps we are supposed to be frustrated. When it comes to matters of church and state, God and country, prophets and politicians, gospel and government, maybe Jesus wants us to be uneasy. When it comes to patriotism, maybe Jesus wants us to be at dis-ease.
As a follower of Christ, have you ever placed your hand on your heart and said, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands,” and felt a little uneasy, a little uncomfortable? During that pledge, have you ever thought, “wait a minute, my heart, my soul, my allegiance belongs to God, not Barak Obama!”
Have ever held out your hands and said the pledge to Oklahoma, and thought, “hold on a second, my fidelity is to Christ, not Mary Fallin!”
My hope is that is why some Christians got so riled up a few years ago when a judge ruled to take “under God” out of the pledge. The government is under God, a step below God. God and only God has our ultimate allegiance.
And maybe this dis-ease, this angst, this tension between heaven and earth, is exactly what Jesus wants to us to experience this weekend.
Let me give you two great examples of great patriots who experienced this patriotic dis-ease.
Thomas Jefferson never did possess the moral courage to liberate slaves, even though he knew that slavery was evil. Yet, before he died, as he considered the institution of slavery, as he thought about the slaves he owned, Jefferson said, “I tremble every time I remember that God is just.” At least Jefferson had enough moral and ethical insight to be able to tremble.
Abraham Lincoln also trembled when he considered the paradox of war: using evil to end evil and the problem of God in the midst of it. Speaking of the two sides of the Civil War in his second inaugural address, Lincoln said:
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the seat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.
Jefferson and Lincoln both understood something about patriotic dis-ease. Their service to their country was undeniably loyal. However, their loyalty, to their country in the light of God made them incredibly uneasy.
A Jewish Rabbi was speaking one day defending the Jewish position against hunting. “A good Jew never hunts,” said the Rabbi. We are permitted to kill animals, but never for joy, never out of pleasure. We can kill, but we only kill with regret.”
Someone responded to the Rabbi, “Regret? Isn’t that a bit weak to serve as a basis of morality?”
“Don’t knock regret,” said the Rabbi. There are some things that are not so much right or wrong as deeply, unavoidably, regrettable.”
So, maybe the message that Christian Americans need to hear, more than anything else, is that when it comes to patriotism, the most Christian response is one of regret or dis-ease.
Perhaps the greatest sin is not to care, to never tremble, to never regret, to be completely at ease, entirely comfortable when we are saluting the flag, singing the national anthem, or watching our fireworks. Perhaps the greatest sin is to be completely comfortable when we pay our taxes with the knowledge of the waste, the immorality, the injustice, and the inequality that is so much a part of our government.
Aushwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, who passed away yesterday, once reminded us, “The opposite of love is not hate. it’s indifference.”
Those of us who are trying to follow Jesus should never be indifferent. We must always be willing to speak out when we think our nation is wrong, and do what we can to rectify those wrongs, because our love for Christ is stronger than our affection for our country.
The prophets who spoke out against the injustices wrought by Israel and the disciples who were imprisoned for disobeying Rome, teach us about this uneasiness. Our allegiance to country never means blindly accepting our faults, never questioning our past, and never second-guessing how current policies will affect our future. Allegiance means faithfully doing our part working to “mend thine every flaw.”
It means being loyal, law-abiding citizens. However, it also means working to change laws that need to be changed. It means honoring our civic duty of voting in elections. However, it also means correcting elected officials who dishonor our nation.
As Christians, the Commander-in-Chief is not our chief commander. The Supreme Court is not our supreme being. Our allegiance is first pledged to something that is bigger than our nation, even larger than our world. We don’t give to the government that which belongs to God.
It is an allegiance that informs our vote, rallies our civic duties, and yet, sometimes calls us to civil disobedience. For the Christian, it is the God revealed through the words and works of Jesus who becomes our civil conscience. We believe the law of God revealed through Christ supersedes every human law.
Immediately following Paul’s words regarding good citizenship and obeying the law in Romans chapter 13, we read that every one of God’s laws is summed up in just one law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said it this way: “On this hang all of the laws of the prophets “…that you love your neighbor as yourself.”
And just in case some are still confused to what “love” is, Paul defines love by saying: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”
This is the law of God. Jesus said, “There is no law greater.” It is as if Christ is saying, “If you don’t get anything else from Holy Scripture, if you don’t get anything else out of going to church, you need to get this: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Yet, as evidenced by the amount of division, hatred, racism, and bigotry that is in our nation today, in government policies, even in the American church, this supreme law is widely ignored, disobeyed or rejected all together.
There is much talk today about Christians standing up and speaking out to take our country back, to reverse the moral decay of our society. I believe there is still hope for us to be a great nation; if we would only pledge our allegiance to the supreme law of God, giving to God that which belongs to God.
For when we love our neighbors as ourselves, when in everything we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, it quickly becomes “self-evident that all people are created equal with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
So, when the flag passes us by tomorrow, or when we pay our taxes, or vote, when we are asked to support some government policy, when we are considering the future of our nation, state, and city, our councils and agencies, schools and prisons, military and police, may we never be so comfortable that we give to the government that which we ought to give to God.
Let us pray together.
When it comes to patriotism, O God, may we always tremble, may we always have some regret, may we always be at dis-ease, lest we give to the state that which we ought to give to you. Amen.