Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 14)
Sunday, July 4, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (TLC Worship Service 07/04/2021)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

The task of preaching a Christian sermon on this Fourth of July national holiday reminds me of a quote from one of my former professors.  Father Bryan Hehir, a priest in the Diocese of Boston, teaches religion and politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and was quoted as saying this about faith and politics: “Talking about faith and politics is like brain surgery – it must be done, but it must be done carefully.”

I believe what Father Hehir said about faith and politics, can also be said about the  relationship between the church and state: we must talk about that relationship, but we must do so carefully. On this national holiday is it appropriate to sing patriotic/national hymns during our assembly? Do we decorate the Nave with American flags? Do we set aside worship of God, in order to worship county on this day? One of the foundational beliefs in this country is the separation of church and state, and yet, in so many ways, there is an entanglement and enmeshment, between religion and politics, church and state.

As we carefully consider the relationship between our faith and our participation in  national life, I think the 20th century book “Christ and Culture” is helpful. “Christ and Culture” was written by theologian H. Richard Niebuhr. In his book, Professor Niebuhr lays out five ways we can think about the relationship between Christ and culture. These are more descriptive than prescriptive – ways Christians have thought about this relationship that can help us think more clearly and carefully today about this important relationship.  And so, today, on this Fourth of July, I thought it would be helpful for us to consider these five categories, and find where we as Lutherans fit into Niebuhr’s categories.

Here are the five views:

[1] Christ against the state – In this view, the state is a manifestation of sin and must be withdrawn from.  Loyalty to Christ and the church entails a rejection of culture and society.  This view is expressed most clearly in the monastic tradition, where the faithful withdraw from society to live out their faith.

In terms of the 4th of July holiday, this holiday has no significance and might even be dangerous as it leads us away from faith and into devotion to country.  When the fireworks go off, these people might shut the windows and closes the curtains. They don’t want any part of glorifying the state.

[2] Christ of the state – This view is on the other end of the spectrum. In this view, Jesus is the fulfiller of society’s hopes and aspirations.  Niebuhr writes that people with this understanding view Jesus as “the great enlightener, teacher, and the one who directs the culture to the attainment of wisdom, moral perfection, and peace.” Jesus is the goal of a society that becomes more and more like him.

For those with this understanding, the 4th of July holiday has great significance as it reveals God’s work in the world. The holiday points our way to Christ who is our freedom.  While Niebuhr traditionally placed liberal protestant churches into this category, in the continual evolution of thought and politics, I think it might actually be conservative, evangelical churches who represent this view.

Churches decorated with the American Flag, singing patriotic hymns, where preachers preach God and country represent this view today.  The country becomes an extension of God’s work revealed in policies and candidates. When the fireworks go off, these people are already sitting in lawn chairs ready to see God in the fireworks – equating the fireworks with God’s glory.  

[3] Christ above the state – Niebuhr claimed this had been the dominant view of the church through history and was the view of the Roman Catholic Church of his day. This view recognizes Christ reigning supreme over both the church and the state.  This view might be understood as one of hierarchy – the state is basically good, and reveals God, but is secondary.  Humanity needs perfecting through the work of Christ and the church.

As the view of the Roman Catholic Church, the best way to celebrate is by going to Mass – giving thanks for God who holds both the church and the state in his hands and is revealed in both and perfects both.  When the fireworks go off, they look beyond the fireworks to see God holding all things in his hands.

[4] Christ and the state in paradox – This is the traditional Lutheran view.  As Lutherans we live in the paradox of seemingly opposite poles: God’s Word which is both Law (which puts to death) & Gospel (which raises to life); God’s simultaneous works of judgment of sin & forgiveness of sin; and humans existing as both sinners falling short of the kingdom of God, and saints redeemed and saved by God.   With a “two kingdoms approach” we embrace God’s work in the political/earthly realm, always confessing the reality of human sin existing in the same place. Niebuhr points to the Apostle Paul as an early advocate of this approach.

With this views, as Lutherans, we celebrate Independence Day thoughtfully and honestly by doing two things at once. We give thanks for the ways God’s work is revealed in our country. We can give thanks for God working in society through public officials and laws that restrain sin and protect and defend us. We giving thanks for the blessings we have received; that we can worship and live and move freely and without fear. 

At the same time, we confess the ways human sin has also been manifested in our country. We never idolize or glorify our or any country, because every country is made of humans who fall short of the glory of God. Recognizing this truth, even as we celebrate our country, we can also speak the truth of our country’s sin, mistakes, shortcomings, the many ways we’ve failed to live up to the ideals we espouse.  

In terms of fireworks, we celebrate the legal fireworks, perhaps giving thanks for public fundraisers that have funded the displays and for the brilliance of technicians who create and set of such beautiful fireworks. At the same time, we mourn and pray for those, who in their sin, will set off fireworks illegally, and blow fingers off, and end up in ER’s across the country.

[5] Christ the transformer of the state – This view embraces Christ as redeemer of all creation, and compels the Christian to work in the name of Christ to transform the state.  Niebuhr points to John as a biblical advocate for this perspective – eternal life begins in the present, and therefore we live out our faith in Christ by transforming society to the values of Christ.  

For those in this view, this holiday might be celebrated as a call to action.  Based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, and as an act of discipleship, believers in this view set out, in the words of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States” to form a more perfect Union …” The fireworks spark a renewed commitment to action to transform society.

So those are five ways we might understand the relationship between church and state: Christ against the state … Christ of the state … Christ above the state … Christ and the state in paradox … Christ the transformer of the state … Rather than one right way to think about the relationship, I think we might think of them as tools in our tool belt, as we discern God’s work in the world and enter into the mystery of faith. 

There are times the state must be resisted, and there are times we can celebrate God’s work in the state. Obviously, Christ is above both the church and state and works in both. And, as Christians, I do believe we are called, as we live out our faith, to work for society’s transformation from sin and death into healing and life.  

As a Lutheran, I appreciate the grounding and honesty of the fourth view: “Christ and State in paradox.”  For me, the power in this view is that it allows God to be God – to work at any place of God’s choosing in the world – to work in elections, and governments, and policies, and social justice movements. And, at the same time, it’s honest about human sin. In our sin we use these very same institutions and actions for selfish and self-centered pursuits. 

With this view of paradox, we can give thanks for, and see God’s work in, the freedoms we enjoy. We can give thanks that we can worship here this morning in peace and that we can live out our faith freely and openly. We can give thanks that we have the freedom to live and move and work and say and do what we want – we can give thanks.

And at the same time, we can be honest about our national sin. We can speak honestly about centuries of enslavement in this country upon which liberty and freedom for some was granted while denied others. We can be honest that while we say that all men were created equal, we can confess the ways we created and perpetuated racial hierarchy and limited where people live, work, eat, play, socialize based on skin color. At the same time we celebrate liberty and justice for all, we can confess the inequalities between the genders, the races, the classes that are perpetuated.

On this day we can receive both patriotic exhortations leading us in celebration … and the challenging words of the assigned lectionary readings for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost that call us to confession and repentance … as helpful messages for us to receive as patriotic Americans.

The Word of the Lord spoken through Ezekiel, is spoken to us as a country today:

Ezekiel 2:3-4:  He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of the United States of America, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.”

What are the ways our ancestors have transgressed, and in what ways do those transgressions persist to this day? What are the ways we as a nation are impudent and stubborn? What are the ways we have rebelled against God?

We can hear the gospel story and recognize messengers sent among us today: Mark 6:7, 12-13 – Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits … So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Who are the messengers sent among us calling us to repentance today? What are the demons we must oppose and cast out? What sicknesses are we called to heal?

The Good News today is that while we celebrate the glories, and confess the shortcomings of our country, our hope is found in Jesus Christ. Placing our hope in any human, in any team, in any organization, in any earthly pursuit, in this or any other country, is to place our hope in sin. Our hope is found in Jesus Christ. Our hope is found in Jesus Christ who leads us not to battle or war, but leads us to the font and table – there to celebrate the cross, the empty tomb, and the Holy Spirit poured out for all.

Alive in Christ, may we both celebrate and repent on this day. Alive in Christ, may we work in the world, so that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is truly granted each and every person who lives within the borders of this country, and who live on planet earth.

Thanks be to God. AMEN.