God and Country

This is the 5th sermon in our Pop Culture Series.
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I believe I should start today by saying that it’s easy to get this wrong. Preachers, and Christians, and people of all faiths have, for all time, often misrepresented either their faith or their nation in the interest of the other.

About God and country, it is easier to get things wrong then to get things right. So please pray with me that we get things more right than wrong. And that whether we get things right or wrong, that we do so motivated first and foremost buy our intent to follow Jesus no matter what.

<prayer>

I wanted to start this message with this: 8-10 seconds of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA“, but then thought better of it.  How would that go over?  Would I just be using that song to evoke a particular emotion or response?

What response would I want you to have if I played it?

Lee Iacocca tried to pay Springsteen for the rights to use it to represent Chrysler Corp.

Ronald Reagan didn’t ask for permission; he just used it. You get to do that if you are President.

I’m not sure either Iacocca or the Gipper ever actually listened to the song. Have you actually listened to “Born in the USA”?

I’ve told some of you that along my path as a Jesus-follower I was, for a time, a fundamentalist.  I do not use that label derogatorily at all: I described myself that way at the time.  That time included the period in my late teens when I burned all my rock and roll.

It was “devil music,” you see.  Or at least that’s what I came to believe at the hands of some pretty convincing preachers.

I owned some, so I burned it.  Why not just give it away?  What, and contribute to someone else’s delinquency?  Not a chance.

It’s been more than 35 years since I burned those albums.  I have, I’ll admit, re-aquired some of the music – of course, now it is in digital form.

One of the things that I gained from those experiences, though, was a strong desire to hear the words – to listen for the words of a song – and to understand the message.

Sometimes that isn’t easy with rock and roll, but I learned to do it.  It’s easier now, of course, with any search engine.

One of the arguments those pretty convincing preachers used against rock music was about the music itself. Some of them even referred to it as “African tribal rhythms” which were, of course, demonic.

I’m not sure you could get much more racist than that, but back then, I was just an impressionable teenager. I didn’t realize how racist we could be without even trying.

I think maybe we are learning how racist we can be without trying.  In fact, I believe that if we aren’t trying NOT to be racist, those of us in the majority, those of us with privilege, should learn to assume we are being racist at least some of the time. We ought also to befriend people who are different than we are.  I learned last fall during the uproar in Ferguson, that the average white american has one black friend.

Are you and I better than average?  We can be. We should be. We must be.

So, in 1984, when “Born in the USA” came out, I listened. To the music and the words.  The music makes it feel like it’s really upbeat, maybe even positively patriotic.

The words present a different message.

However, I don’t think this means it isn’t a patriotic song.  I think this means that Patriotism is probably best lived as something other than “MY country right or wrong.”

Countries are sometimes wrong.

This country, the US, was founded on such recognition!  The breakaway from the crown of Great Britain was, to a large degree, about freedom to be able to say what they feel needs to be said.

Sometimes today we forget this.  Sometimes it seems like of one questions the decisions of an elected leader one is said to hate the country.

My observations lead me to this conclusion: If your guy (or woman) is the person in elected office, opponents are un-American to question his or her actions.  If the person in elected office isn’t “your” person – is someone you didn’t vote for, you can not only question decisions, but motivations, personality, anything you want.

I don’t believe that kind of bickering and hateful arguing is patriotic. What’s more serious, I am pretty sure people who are trying to follow Jesus better every day don’t treat other human beings that way.

But I’m not here today to lecture or preach on how to be patriotic.  I’m here today to worship God and, particularly today, to offer some thoughts, hopefully inspired thoughts, about how we, as Christians in America, navigate being Americans and Christians in a world that is often mostly steered by Pop Culture.

First, we can and ought to give thanks that we live in a land where people are free to worship according to the dictates of their conscience.  This is one of the earliest truths and longest held truths about the US.

On the other hand, in a land where one can freely worship literally anything one wants to worship, it is hard to keep people focused on what or who ought to be worshiped.

And this is a place that Pop Culture really challenges us.  Worship means “expressing, feeling, or showing that one values – holds worthy – the object of worship. Typically a deity.”

What do we worship?  Let me ask this differently: What do we value? To what do we attribute worth?

Some of us worship sports teams.  Some of us worship particular bands.  Some of us worship some specific restaurant, or car company or band or television channel. Or shampoo or soft drink or caffeinated beverage (oouch!)

Pop Culture cultivates this wide-spread worship within us because producers of pop culture like money and advertisers like to sell product.

Which makes for a perfect marriage.

We worship what we want, and, as Americans, we are free to worship anything we want!

I’m pretty sure this is not what either the Founders of the US or Jesus had in mind.

I believe we are missing the boat with this understanding of freedom of worship. We’re missing it on worship, and we’re also missing it on freedom.

Just briefly here’s how we are missing it on freedom. The kind of freedom Jesus talks about, and he does a lot of this talking in John 8, such as “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” A few verses later he says, “therefore, if the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”

Jesus is not talking about his followers about freedom of the press, freedom to assembly, of religion, or any of the other “freedoms” Americans know and value.

Because, let’s face it, we don’t follow Jesus because a government says it’s okay for us to follow Jesus. We follow Jesus because the One who created us calls us to follow – whether any government allows it or not.

Now, on to how we miss it on worship:

There’s a good reason the 10 commandments start this way:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You must have no other gods before me.

Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God (Exodus 20:2-5)

God knew then and God knows now that we are creatures hungry to worship. We’ve proven this true: you can find a person who worships anything!

But, of course, before we go pointing fingers at people who worship cats or dogs or trees or anything else, what do we worship?

Sure, we say we worship God – after all, we are here, right?! But on Thursday morning at 10:00, if we were to ask 5 people who knew you well what you worship, what would they say?

What does your calendar – the way you spend your time – say you worship?

What does your bank account or your credit card statement say you worship?

We worship God – the God we know first and foremost in Jesus – but this God is a passionate God, and wants, even demands, our worship.

While we are thankful that we live in a land where we are free to worship, we have to continually check our focus – what are we worshiping? Do I put God before every other thing that clamors for my attention, my money, my time?

Fast forward from Exodus 20 to 1 Samuel 8. The people, God’s people, have settled in the land God has given them. They have lived through several generations since Exodus 20.  They still tell those stories – reminding one another that God has delivered them; that God loves them!

By now, they’ve added other stories.  They’ve added stories about  Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and others.  God had raised up someone – called a Judge – to deliver God’s people whenever it was needed. But now, Samuel, the last Judge, was nearing death and the people wanted something else.

They wanted a king. Why? Because everyone else had a King!

So many years, so many generations, so little change!

We still want to be like everyone else. (But if everyone wants to be like everyone else, then who starts it?  We’ll talk more about this next week.)

God gave in to their request for a king.  Samuel wrote that this request for a king, driven by a desire to be like everyone else, is the people’s rejection of God.

We run the same risk when we want a king to take the place that God rightly holds in the lives of the people God has delivered.

Which brings us to the gospel reading for today. Which starts with this: “Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words.”

Have you ever known someone who tried to trap people in their words?  Are you someone who tries to trap people in their words?

Religion and politics were as challenging then as they are now!  God’s people had returned to their homeland, the Promised Land, but remained under the thumb of a king – Caesar.

The religious – the Pharisees – sought to trap Jesus – to catch him offending either church or state.  “Should we pay taxes?” they asked. If he answered yes, he favored Rome. If he answered no, they could turn him over to Rome for treason.  Either way, they would no longer have to deal with Jesus.

Yet Jesus was too wise for them.  We all know the middle way he chose: “show me the coin used to pay the tax,” he said.  It had Caesar’s picture on it, so, Jesus concluded that they should – and we should – “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

This sounds SO wise, so simple!

But how do we know the difference?

We learn the difference by following Jesus.

This passage is, of course, about far more than paying taxes.  It is about divided loyalty.

The challenge we have, even in America, is divided loyalty.  How do we know when to give Caesar our loyalty and when to give God our loyalty?  Please understand – though we don’t have a king (1 Samuel 8) and we don’t’ have a Caesar (Matthew 22), we have both.  I’ve called the President Caesar for more than 20 years now. Some like it more when I call Obama Caesar than George W. Bush, but the truth I believe God wants us to hear is that either, or both, in their elected position, function as Caesar.

Ah, but this is America!  The greatest Republic, the best representative democracy the world has ever known!  We have no Caesar!

There is some truth to this:  the place and time we are in history, this age of exceptional individualism, the rule of law being what it is, maybe the President isn’t Caesar.

If not, if we have been set free from the bondage of external royalty, then each of us has become his or her own King or Queen.

So: you are Caesar. I am Caesar.

And still, we must give to God what is God’s.

How do we learn, how do we know, what is God’s?

By following Jesus.

Sounds simple, right?  Let’s try it together.  For God and country.

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