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Sermon Madness III: Christianity and Patriotism

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  • Jesus sees right through them, so hinges our gospel passage today.
    • We find ourselves with Jesus at the temple, with scribes and chief priests all around.
    • Instead of coming to him directly, they send "spies," intent on trying to ensnare Jesus so that he could no longer be considered a threat.
    • And they ask him what feels a little out of left field - is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
      • If we massage this a little, we learn that it's less about legality and more about conscience, and less about taxes, and more about a tribute.
      • In the end, the question might also be "are we obligated to pay the levies of tribute against an occupying power?"
      • Jesus threads the needle in his response, inviting the spies to consider that there are things that should return to the state, and things that should be left to God.
    • When we discuss Christianity and Patriotism in 2022, I believe our situation looks similar.
      • On one side, off in the distance, there are people who share similar perspectives but clearly have valued something greater than the words Jesus Christ is speaking.
      • And I think we as people of faith have three choices:
        • We can either just be part of the chiefs and scribes on the side...
        • We can fall into the crafty trap... or...
        • We can find an answer that causes people to fall silent... that's the approach we'll try to pursue today.
  • This silencing response to what should be offered to the state is primarily about knowing what to offer back to the state, and what to offer to God. This seems like a good rule of thumb for any of us as Christians - while we believe that God created everything that we are called to be stewards, there are institutions and processes that are human in means and ends, and so we might approach them a little separately than things within the realm of the church... in our country in particular, there is a separation of church and state that allows us to make that easier.
    • But, Patriotism begins to complicate that
      • Most helpful for us this morning is from Igor Primoratz, a philosophy professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and argues in his book about patriotism that it "must involve special concern for one's country and compatriots. Patriotism is not the same as love of and concern for humanity; a patriot loves her country more than any other, and is more concerned for the interests of her country and compatriots than for the interests of other countries and their inhabitants."
      • This might be a start as to why it feels so controversial - from the outset, patriotism might begin to feel like a competition. It's not enough to perform one's civic duties faithfully, instead it becomes and embodied performance: we identify as patriots.
      • Over time, to continue to be the best and most patriotic, we start to ante more to the table.
        • And it does begin to come for what is God's.
        • It may be selective disregard for the stranger and the alien (which the OT mandates care for) because they're not American.
        • It may be feeling that we need to sing patriotic hymns on certain holidays, or we're upset we don't do more to celebrate the country. If we don't, we're perceived as unpatriotic.
        • But perhaps, over time, we raise the ante high enough that we go all in, and offer everything that is God's to Caesar.
          • And that can go two different directions, each that we've seen happen recently:
            • We turn the entire church into a patriotic image, as some churches have - they shill for political candidates, use Scripture only as a prooftext for political jeremiads.
            • Or, ironically I'd argue, it can turn into a push for Christian Nationalism: the idea that a country should be founded solely on Christian values without a separation of church and state.
          • In either case, then, when we've ceded all that is God's to Caesar, we've submitted what should be divinely cared for over the human hands, and human brokenness, and it begins to resemble what I mentioned to the children today - a world where we just try to be the cool kid, to be in the gang with the cool kid, or we're out of the group altogether.
    • So, it seems that we must carry a balance in us between what is God's and what is Caesar's - which beg's the question what is God's?
      • When Jesus offers the coin, he infers that what is the state's should freely return to the state. This would be something we could generally agree with - the functions of the state should be returned to it. We pay our taxes. We vote. We engage thoughtfully with the nation and culture where we live.
      • But what are we? What is our heart, our mind, our soul, our being? The things we love God with? The things God-breathed into us? Those would be the things that would offer to God, and not to Caesar.
      • By extension, the places where we offer our hearts, minds, souls and beings are what is God's and not Ceasar's. It's why while we were mark Memorial Day at the beginning of the service, we separate it from worship. It's not that we don't care for those who have died defending our nation, but it is not the only reason we gather to worship on that particular Sunday.
      • By offering ourselves to God, it invites us create different lenses as we think about what we offer the state
        • It means our primary read of the world is through Scripture. At times, that will necessitate critique of the state - as it had in Germany and South Africa as mentioned today. This is the prophets burden, for instance. It's not that the prophets didn't love Israel or Judah, but they understood it did not adhere to what God had commanded them to do.
        • It also reminds us that the our first commitment is to God, and not to any country. In fact, the scope of our community is far broader and deeper than just one country - our tradition has sustained beyond many governments and empires.
        • Finally, it shows us a world that is richer than one defined by giving everything to Caesar - think of the Lord's Prayer, or of the the table. Even our offering is different, and invites us to an aspiration that is something worth working towards.
  • In the end, I wonder if that might be what is so appealing to offer so much to the state in patriotism.
    • Think once again about the spies here - they were in the employ of the priests and scribes, who didn't want to engage with Jesus and his teaching, so they sent others.
    • I wonder if those spies thought they had finally found a purpose - to undermine Jesus and support an appeal to their religious and political leaders.
    • Jesus sees through them... he doesn't shame them, but instead offers them another way of thinking. Something deeper than apparently what was being offered to them that made them stop in cold silence.
    • As the church has become more transactional and marketable, it has also become more immanent - less sure that there is something more than here and now. Yet we still long for something more - our hearts want something more than just here and now. So we, like the spies, can find ourselves persuaded by all manner of transcendence, patriotism included. Yet they will always fail us.
    • But what could the world be like if lived like "thy kingdom come, thy will be done" is a real thing?

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