June 30, 2019: Stuck in the Middle With You

June 30, 2019                                                                                   Rev. Rhonda Blevins, DMIN

 

Stuck in the Middle With You

Matthew 22:15-22

 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.  So 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They 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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

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 A couple of weeks ago, I went with folks from the church to watch the Tampa Bay Rays play. Baseball games are fun to enjoy with friends; there’s plenty of time to talk and laugh. Some of us were talking about the song each player has played when they come up to bat, and then somebody suggested that I should have a theme song played every Sunday when I stand up to preach. What an excellent idea! At first I was considering a couple of songs: “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” and “Help Me Rhonda.” Then I decided the songs should be more thematic, based on my sermon concept for the day. With that, here’s my entrance song for today:

Clowns to the left of me,

Jokers, to the right,

Here I am,

Stuck in the middle with you,

Yes I’m stuck in the middle with you,

And I’m wondering what it is I should do . . .[1]

 What does this song have to do with the message for today? Allow me to illustrate by bringing the American flag to the front of the chancel. Now let’s also bring the Christian flag forward and place it beside the American flag. Now let me stand between these two flags.   

 Now do you know what the song, “Stuck in the Middle With You” has to do with the sermon? We live life in the middle of two flags: one representing our country, and one representing our faith. As Christians and Americans, we are citizens of two realms, and (presumably) loyal to two flags.

 When I was a kid attending vacation Bible school, we would say pledges to both flags, as well as to the Bible. How many of you can recite by memory the pledge to the American flag? Keep your hand raised if you can recite the pledge to the Christian flag by memory. Admittedly, I had to look the pledge to the Christian flag up: “I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands; one brotherhood, uniting all mankind in service and in love.” There are actually a couple of versions, but I believe that’s the version I recited as a child.

 Pointing out the pledges to both flags prompts us to think about the fact that we are citizens of two realms. There is an inherent tension with this dual citizenship that we must navigate thoughtfully. Much of the time, we don’t think about the tension experienced as both Christians and as American citizens. But when the values of our faith rub up against the laws or practices of our government, what do we do?

 Fortunately, we’re not alone in this tension. Jesus and his followers experienced this rub as well; Jesus was both an adherent of the Jewish faith and a subject of the Roman government. So one day, the Pharisees and Herodians who hated each other and found a common enemy in Jesus, and they decided to use this tension between faith and government to attempt to trap Jesus. Trying to get Jesus to choose sides, they presented him with a “gotcha” question about paying taxes to Caesar. Jewish folks hated this tax almost as much as they hated being subject to Caesar. Yet Caesar’s government demanded it. So the catch-22 went something like this: “Jesus, you’re a God-fearing man—a good Jew. Tell us, should a good God-fearing Jew pay taxes to Caesar?” Gotcha! If Jesus said, “No,” then he’s in trouble with the law. If he said, “Yes,” then he falls out of favor with the Jews who follow him.

 Jesus was no fool. He saw through their trap, and with incredible wisdom he didn’t avoid their question, but tackled it head on. He used the question as a teachable moment, and simultaneously silenced his critics. “Show me a coin,” he said to them. “Whose picture is on this coin?” The denarius bore Caesar’s image. “Then render to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.” Had Jesus stopped there, his Jewish followers would have been peeved. He didn’t stop: “Render to God the things that are God’s.” And what belongs to God? Everything. Full stop. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ challengers were amazed by his answer; they walked away with their tails between their legs.

 It’s nothing new to be stuck in the middle between church and state. Most of the time, in our great nation, there’s a symbiotic relationship. But sometimes, there’s a rub; that’s when we feel the tension. “Stuck in the middle with you, and I’m wondering what it is I should do.”

 Brent Walker, an expert on church/state issues, names three ways in which “faithful discipleship and responsible citizenship require us to grapple with the tension between the two.”[2]

 The first rub Walker names for citizens of both America and the kingdom of God, is the rub between patriotism and faith.

 On one hand, a healthy patriotism is good, and perhaps even biblical. The apostle Paul writes to the church at Rome, encouraging them to respect the government and its leaders, suggesting that the authorities are in their positions because God has placed them there.[3] On the other hand, the same Paul also warns the church at Corinth to be discerning when it comes to following government leaders.[4] John of Patmos, in the book of Revelation, calls the state a blasphemous beast and a great harlot.[5] (Tell us how you really feel, John.)

 This tension between patriotism and faith is palpable to some on Sundays like today, when the occasion calls for the singing of patriotic songs in church.  

 This morning we sang, “America, America, God shed his grace on thee,” and we heard the choir sing, “God Bless the U.S.A.” On one hand, if we sing these songs as genuine prayer, in a spirit of worship, in humility, thanking God for the gift of this great land, then we have honored God. We have been faithful. If, on the other hand, we sing these songs with a spirit of triumphalism, in arrogance, with a boastful spirit, as if to say, “My country is better than your country,” then I fear we have dishonored our faith which is so much bigger than any one nation.

 So when we pray “God Bless America” we should also pray “God Bless the Whole World: No Exceptions.” And when we sing “God Bless America,” we should also sing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”[6]

 So today, in our worship, we sang “America the Beautiful” and we’ll close with “A Song of Peace” from our hymnal—it’s a beautiful prayer that simultaneously honors our nation while expanding our thoughts and our prayers to the whole world.

 The second tension thoughtful Christians will grapple with is the rub between church and state. Our constitution tackles this issue in the first amendment:

 Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

 Our founders gave us this first amendment that establishes both freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. Masterful. It demands that our government be neutral in relation to religion—not hurting it, not helping it. One of the beautiful things about America is that we are free to practice our faith as we see fit. But here’s the rub: “Government must accommodate religion without advancing it; protect religion without privileging it; sometimes lift burdens on our religious liberty without extending religion a benefit. Both of these clauses ensure our religious liberty; both require the separation of church and state. Full religious liberty is a goal; church-state separation is the political means of accomplishing that goal.”[7]

 It’s not always easy. The wall of separation between church and state protects both. We have seen, historically, what can happen without this wall: think the Crusades or Spanish Inquisition, or the Christian Nationalism that emboldened and empowered the Nazis and Hitler in the run up to the Second World War.[8]

 The wall between church and state must not be taken for granted as there are those who work to dismantle the wall for a few morsels of power. Under attack again this week, for instance, was the Johnson Amendment that prohibits houses of faith from endorsing candidates. I can think of nothing worse than pastors selling their pulpits to the highest bidder or the biggest super-pac. (But then again, I’ve always wanted to own a yacht.)

 The third rub we find as citizens of two realms is the tension between freedom and responsibility.

 We enjoy tremendous freedom in America, for which we give thanks. But we must remember that our freedom comes with limits. There’s an old saying, “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” The apostle Paul takes up this tension between rights and responsibility in Galatians 5:

 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

 Freedom and responsibility with love as the litmus test.

 A country as beautifully diverse as ours only works when we protect the religious freedom of all people. Adherents to the Christian faith, as the majority in the United States, bear particular responsibility to protect the freedoms of religious minorities. “My rights are no stronger than your willingness to stand up for them; your rights are no more secure than my courage to defend them.”[9]

 German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoeller was imprisoned by the Nazis for eight years. He spoke about what it was like in the 1930’s when Hitler was rising to power:

 First they came for the Communists, but we were not Communists, so we said nothing.

Then they came for the trade unionists, but we were not trade unionists, so we said nothing. Then they came for the Jews, but we were not Jews, so we said nothing. They then came for the mentally deficient, but we were not mentally deficient, so we said nothing. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to say anything.

 As Christians, our religious freedom is only secure when all people can practice their respective faiths freely. As Lee Greenwood wrote, the American “flag still stands for freedom, and they can’t take that away” for me, for you, for Muslim, for Jew, or (dare I say?) for the Scientologist down the street.

 There are many Christians who claim, “Religious liberty for me but not for thee.” It doesn’t work that way. If we want legitimate religious liberty, and more importantly, if we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we must defend religious liberty for all.

 Sisters and brothers in Christ, I’m so glad to be “stuck in the middle with you.” I’m so glad to live in a land of so many freedoms, and to have a community of faith with whom I can navigate the tensions inherent in this dual citizenship: patriotism and faith, church and state, freedom and responsibility.

 Happy Fourth of July! May we celebrate this great land as we continue to work toward the common dream of both our faith and our founders . . . that America would be a land with liberty and justice for all.

 

 

 

 


[1] Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, 1972.

 

[2] J. Brent Walker, “Two Sides of the Same Coin,” https://bjconline.org/two-sides-of-the-same-coin/.

[3] Romans 13:1-7.

[4] 1 Corinthians 2:6.

[5] Revelation 13 & 17.

[6] Walker, ibid.

[7] Walker, ibid.

[8] Austin Cline, “Hitler, Nationalism, and Positive Christianity,” https://www.learnreligions.com/adolf-hitler-and-christian-nationalism-248189.

[9] Walker, ibid.

Debbie Wilson