Sunday, June 6, 2010

God and Government (Luke 20:20-26)*

I love Sundays. And I love the Fourth of July. Sundays and the Fourth of July; I love them both. That’s why I’m always a bit puzzled by the ambivalence I feel when they share the same square on the calendar as they do this year. I love them both – Sundays and the Fourth. Why the queasiness when they occupy the same space on the calendar?

I don’t know, really, but I think it might have something to do with the birth of our son. I was a pastor in southern Indiana at the time, First Baptist Church of Austin. It was the summer of our nation’s Bicentennial. It was also the summer after I had just completed my M.Div. degree and was about to begin my PhD studies at Southern Seminary. I don’t know what came over me – I guess I had too much time on my hands – but I came up with the idea that our church should hold Sunday services outside that year, in honor of the Bicentennial, July 4, 1976, which fell on Sunday, just as it does this year. And so I talked the deacons of the church into moving our services outside for the day. Thought it would be kinda neat to do something different on Bicentennial Sunday. It’s a trick we preachers use when we really don’t have anything to say. We use “smoke and mirrors” to distract you – use a gimmick – put balloons on the ceiling or pull out some other bag of tricks – and hope you won’t notice that we really don’t have anything to say! One of the deacons, Albert Thormyer, had a farm about twenty miles or so out of town, and he said that he’d mow the pasture, pull out a hay wagon for a chancel, and people could spread their blankets on the grass, and we could hold services there. After services, we would have an old-fashioned dinner on the ground, and I do mean ground, and then we could have an old-fashioned Gospel sing in the afternoon. Sounded like a plan.

Then again, they didn’t have a wife who was nine and one-half months pregnant at the time. The baby was already overdue, and Cheryl was getting more miserable with each passing day. And it was hot! The whole Midwest had been sweltering under a heat wave for weeks that summer, and the forecast for Bicentennial Sunday was temps in the mid 90’s with humidity to match. When I told Cheryl we were going to the Thormyers’ farm for outdoor Bicentennial Sunday services, she said: “Do you know how hot it’s gonna be on the Fourth? And with me overdue? You are so dead!” I said, “Not to worry. The baby will surely come before then.” He didn’t. And so out to the farm I traipsed with my wife great with child (to use the biblical idiom). I spread a blanket for her at the foot of the only tree on the property, and one of the women in the church, Margaret Harrell, agreed to sit with her and try to keep her comfortable while I conducted services. Well, because it was Bicentennial Sunday, the services went longer than usual, all the music and such, and by the time I got up to preach, the sun was almost directly overhead. Did I tell you it was hot that day? All hope of shade had vanished in the noonday sun, and there sat my wife, on a blanket under a tree producing no shade, nine and a half months pregnant. Before the sermon, I stole a glance at her and Margaret, and Margaret looked at me and mimed the words that sent a chill up my spine, she mouthed: “You are so dead!”

After the sermon, the women of the church told Cheryl that she should get up and walk; would help the baby come quicker. And so there she was, a woman under each arm, waddling around the pasture in the sweltering heat. Did I mention it was hot? They brought her by where I was holding forth with a group of men telling stories, and glaring at me, she whispered: “You are so dead!” My son has no idea just how close he came to being fatherless when he was born.

To this day I still get a bit queasy when the Fourth of July and Sunday share the same square on the calendar. Maybe that’s it.

Or maybe it’s because of something Jesus once said about the relationship between God and government. He said it in the temple in Jerusalem during the final week of his life. According to Luke, the religious leaders who had the most to lose by Jesus’ popular messianic movement because they were in cahoots with the Roman occupational army, attempted to discredit him before the people before whom he was teaching every day in the temple. They did it by asking him “trapping questions” designed to discredit him with one of the many popular religious factions of the day no matter what he answered. But Jesus deftly sidestepped first one question and then another, refusing to be snared in their trap. Then, Luke says, they “sent spies, pretending to be sincere, to exploit his answers and deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.” Don’t you just hate that – pious frauds trying to stir up trouble to their own benefit? “Teacher,” they asked, “is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” It’s a “Gotcha question.” If he says, “Well, of course we should pay taxes to Caesar,” then he’s discredited in the eyes of the people who wanted liberation from the Romans. But if he says, “No, we should not pay taxes to Caesar!” he’s guilty of treason, and the governor will have him arrested. And so, when the question was put to Jesus, everybody leaned forward and listened carefully for His answer.

And answer He did. He asked one of His interrogators to reach into his pocket and produce a coin. Then He asked: “Whose image is on that coin which, I might add, you took out of your pocket?” “Caesar's.” “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s!”

He did not deny the legitimacy of Caesar’s claim. Indeed, He reminded His interlocutors that Caesar’s claim was ubiquitous. They carried Caesar’s money in their pockets; they walked on roads Caesar had built; they enjoyed Caesar’s protection against would-be invaders. It was utter nonsense to try to claim that one could live in Palestine and have nothing to do with Caesar. But, what He did not say but clearly implied was: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s, but never give to Caesar what is God’s!”

What did He mean by that? Just what is God’s that is never to be given to Caesar? Well, I don’t know for sure. But C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, has, as usual, helped me here. Lewis argues that when Jesus defined the fundamental obligation of every person in terms of “You shall love the Lord thy God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself,” He was laying down a double commandment. We are to love God in one way, “with all our heart and soul and mind and strength;” that is, with complete and unqualified devotion. But we are to love neighbor, and by implication, everything else, “as we love ourselves;” that is, with something less than the total, unqualified devotion. This we reserve for God alone. Lewis calls the first kind of love “worship-love,” and the second “nurture-love.” Only God is already perfect and complete in Himself, and the devotion I give to Him, Jesus says, should be of the kind that is appropriate to such a Reality, “…with all my heart and soul and mind and strength,” that is, Worship-love. But everything else, including myself, my neighbor, and my country, merits a different kind of love, a love that is nurturing and developing and which recognizes the “not-yet-completeness” of myself, my neighbor, and my country. Nurture-love. Get it? Both “worship-love” and “nurture-love” are proper for the Christian, but the former is always reserved for God alone!

I do love my country, and I’m reminded of it every time I travel overseas. I guide groups to the Holy Land with regularity and have done so nearly every year since the 1980’s. When I went to Gardner-Webb some years back, I teamed up with the president who also loved to travel to the Middle East and, like myself, had been doing so for many years. He had a little game he played with me called “Let’s take Wayne somewhere in Israel he’s never been before.” He tried diligently every year to find some place off the beaten path where the tourists did not go, but it never worked. In the 80’s I had stayed in Israel studying for an extended period of time, and hardly ever went where the tour groups go. “Been here?” he’d asked. “Yep,” I’d say. And he’d huddle up again with our Palestinian guide to try to find a place where I had never been. I’ve been to Israel so many times through the years that it almost feels like home…almost. And then I board the plane to fly back to the States. When I finally land on US soil and present my passport at Passport Control, the agent looks at it, looks at me, stamps it, hands it back to me and says: “Welcome Home!.” I can’t tell you how that makes me feel! No matter how many times I hear those words, my heart swells with pride and a chill travels down my spine. “Welcome home,” he says.

But for the Christian, no matter how much we love our country, no matter how much it feels like “home,” there is one home, and it’s not the USA, no matter how much we love it or take pride in it. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. But never give to Caesar what is God’s alone!” God alone is our origin and our destiny; God alone is our heart’s true home.

But if Jesus is to be our guide in this matter, one thing more needs to be said: While Jesus did not deny the appropriate place of government and the proper devotion to it, He also made it clear that His ultimate hope for humanity was not in government, anybody’s government; it was in the Kingdom of God! I find it intriguing that Jesus gave no public policy or offered any “social reforms” during His life and ministry. To be sure, He did champion the cause of the poor and the marginalized, but He never did so out of a concern for social policy or political system. He did so always in the context of His proclamation of the Kingdom of God! He did it because, at bottom, Jesus believed that all systems, no matter how altruistic and noble, were provisional. His hope for social justice and human welfare was inexorably tied not to what man could do, but to what God would do!

And sometimes even we Christians forget that and have to be reminded. That’s why the Early Church gathered at Table each Lord’s Day – for fellowship, for support, but most of all, to remember both who and Whose they were. They called their gathering The Supper. To be sure, they gathered at Table for fellowship and communion and forgiveness and grace. But they also gathered as an act of Hope, eagerly awaiting the Day when their little Supper would become a Feast, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb and His Bride, the Church. And when they gathered, they remembered what Jesus had said: “I’ll not eat or drink with you again, until I do it in the Kingdom!” They prayed this, you know! Maranatha – “Our Lord Come!” And so they sat at Table and ate the Bread and drank from the Cup and reminded each other that empires rise and fall, Caesar's come and go, but when the smoke clears and the dust settles, God alone is our Hope; God alone is our Home.

There’s a story about Billy Graham that, while I don’t know if it’s true, it certainly sounds like something he’d say. The story goes that when Ruth Graham died, the aging, frail Billy Graham insisted on attending her service and even surprising everyone by delivering her eulogy himself, despite the fact that his Parkinson’s disease had made standing and speaking nigh unto impossible. It was said that when the long ordeal was over and Dr. Graham was finally transported back to Montreat to rest and recover, Franklin escorted him inside the house that had been their home all these many years. And once inside, he turned to his father and said: “It’s good to be home, isn’t it Dad.” To which Billy Graham reportedly replied, “I’m not home yet.”

*This sermon is doing "double duty." It was prepared both to preach on July 4th of this year (which happens to be a Sunday), as well as serving as a "sample sermon" for a preaching workshop I am conducting for the Greater Cleveland County Baptist Association on June 7, 2010).

1 comment:

Gabe Clevenger said...

I love this post. You do a great job of ordering the loves that are required of us.
As is the case with so many things that many confuse with the Gospel -- social change, diversity, even evangelism -- these "good" things must be the byproduct of the Kingdom of God realized in Jesus Christ of Nazareth through the Holy Spirit. If ever we get these mixed up (as often is done in America, and other places), idolatry is the result.
Thank you for posting this.

Gabe Clevenger