Monday, April 16, 2012

Unity with Country, a Lenten Sermon

An introduction, then a sermon…

Our church has Wednesday evening communion services during Advent and Lent. You may recall that we just passed through Lent on our way to Easter. So, prior to that, I got a call from one of our lay leaders who was helping to organize the services, wondering if I would come preach and preside one evening. I checked my calendar and found I was only available on one Wednesday - March 28. She said that sounded great and we put it on our calendars.

Later, I talked with my pastor colleague who is the liaison for these services. She shared that the theme for the series was “Unity.” We’d be hearing about unity with our selves, unity with others, etc. I asked her what I had drawn by virtue of the day. My topic – Unity with Country. So here goes...

Scripture – Luke 20:20-26 (see also Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17)

So they watched him (Jesus) and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, "Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, "Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?" They said, "The emperor's." He said to them, "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.

This is a really hard subject for me. How are you supposed to be united with something that is so divided? Now, especially, as 4 Republicans seek a presidential nomination and 1 Democrat seeks re-election, we get to witness just how divided we can become as Americans. How is it that our states hold together? How do California and Mississippi agree to co-exist under one set of laws? How does Texas find common ground with New York except that we share semi-common geography?

I will confess that I don’t enjoy election years. It’s just plain unpleasant. It’s tempting to duck my head down, ignore what’s happening in the stratosphere of politics, and just go about my everyday life. But I know that we have a unique challenge and calling as Americans who find their identity in Christ.

When I first felt called by God to serve in some way, it was through the ministry of a military chaplain. It was right after the war in Afghanistan started and I realized how far from God that could feel, far from friends and family, being asked to do the things you had done in training, but never imagined really doing.

I don’t know why I pursued this form of ministry, except that it was the open door that I could see. Having not seen many women in ministry in the local church, I had a hard time seeing myself as a pastor. So, I served 2 summers as a chaplain candidate, learning about the Air Force, its mission, and how to minister to airmen. It was a powerful experience to see the young men and women who had dedicated their lives to this way of life. And I also knew it wasn’t for me.

I chafed against so many rules. Now, I’m not naïve – I know why they’re there. They need folks to obey because in many circumstances it could be life-saving. But I have a hard time in such an authoritarian structure. I realized I really didn’t like being away from my family for long stretches of time. And I realized that I deeply missed the local church.

I feel like I have a great appreciation for the structure of our country, even with all its very human failings. Even without the butter bars of a second lieutenant on my shoulders, I have a certain amount of power based on nothing I’ve done but be born here. I am an American adult in 2012. That gives me access and voice that most people around the world will never know.

I had a conversation with a First Meal guest this past Sunday. His name is John. He is African-American and an actor who regularly appears at the theatre in town. He was expressing his dissatisfaction with the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin. Outside the justice issue at the heart of this, he said, “I get so tired of black people stopping at city hall.”

I heard what he was saying – he was tired of actions that gain media attention for a while, but ultimately do nothing. So I did something that I rarely do – I owned my white-ness. This is something we rarely talk about, but I will tell you now what I told him then – I know I’m white. And I know that that’s not right, but it’s the way it is in this time and place. So I vowed to him as I’ve vowed to God many times - to do whatever I can to work for justice.

When I was at Perkins School of Theology, one of the capstone projects of a seminary education there was writing your credo – your masterpiece of 30 pages or less that sums up your understanding of Christian doctrine. I recall that in my section on God, I focused on 2 attributes among the many available – omnipotent, eternal, omniscient, etc. etc. In my understanding of God, 2 attributes were most real to me – God’s love and God’s justice.

They really are just flipsides of the same thing. God loves us. God loves us all. And unlike human parents who may not be able to help but love one child a shade more or differently than another, God loves us all the same. Which is abounding, outpouring, and free.

But God is also just. God wants us all to have enough. And in our Scriptures we can see those times when God shakes things up for those who have hoarded away too much while denying those who have too little.

In our Scripture reading for today, Jesus neatly sidesteps a clever trap set for him by the religious authorities. He’s made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and now the Pharisees, the Herodians, or the chief priests and scribes (depending on if you are reading Matthew, Mark, or Luke) are looking for a reason to take him down because he is a threat to their power.

So they’ve created a trap. These spies come with flattery that is actually true – Jesus is right in what he says and teaches. He shows deference to no one, but teaches the way of God in accordance with truth. Literally, the idiom here is that Jesus doesn’t “receive faces” – he makes no distinction between persons. God is loving and God is just.

As it says in Matthew 5 - "You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?”

So Jesus offers them an answer that amazes them, silences them, and (according to Matthew), makes them leave him and go away. Jesus says, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.”

I can’t help but love Jesus a little more at this point. You give the emperor what is the emperor’s and God what is God’s. It begs the question – and what is God’s?

It’s such a wonderful answer because it sidesteps the trap – if he had said you don’t pay taxes he would have been a popular revolutionary of the people and if he had said you do pay taxes, he could have lost his following and looked like a Roman lackey. Instead, he questions our priorities and true allegiances.

We have a unique challenge and calling as Americans who find their identity in Christ. We put on Christ in baptism. That’s why we only use our first and middle names in baptism – our family name becomes Christian.

And as members of the family, we are called to be loving and just. In following this calling, I refuse to be silent or ignore the things outside my ordinary sphere. I’ll pay taxes and serve on a jury and obey the laws, all the while working for change in the things that are not loving or just.

I pray God gives me the strength and courage to speak for the marginalized and oppressed when they are too scared or powerless to speak for themselves. And I pray fervently that there will be day when our country and all others experience God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven – even if it means giving away some of my power and privilege that I enjoy today. Because it’s loving and just.

That’s who we are called to be as God’s sons and daughters. Let us remember who we are and whose we are this Lent and always.

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