Faithful Citizenship

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Psalm 33
Luke 20:20-26

This Thursday we will be celebrating the 4th of July. Maybe you’ll be watching the celebration broadcast from the mall of Washington… or Boston… Maybe you’ll be watching local fireworks.

To be honest, in the church, we weren’t sure which weekend should be the weekend to offer focus to the fourth. I wanted to lead into the 4th with a focus this week.

Presbyterians ought to be glad to celebrate the fourth. We were very involved in the founding of our nation. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian pastor, and a congressman, signed the Declaration of Independence and helped shape the founding document of our country.

There is a cartoon I like from 1774, called “the patriotic barber of New York”. It depicts a Dutch barber who refuses to complete the shave of a British sea captain upon hearing that the British closed Boston Harbor.

In 1775, citizens, including many Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and Charlotte, NC passed resolves against what were perceived to be oppressive acts of the British Parliament.

In Augusta County, VA, where Presbyterians worshipped in the Augusta Stone Presbyterian church, the citizens passed a resolution in favor of freedom of conscience which they intended to defend as a God given gift in support of the Continental congress.

They all would have made John Calvin proud. Calvin was not only concerned with personal faith… but that the faith impacts every aspect of our lives—political, economic, social as well as religious. It all belonged to God.

So today, I want to lift up as a faithful practice for fruitful living the idea of Faithful Citizenship. I offer to you Psalm 33 and the text from Luke as a way to reflect upon faith and politics and what it means to be a faithful citizen.

I hope you know this is a very tricky subject for the pastor—because some of you are so passionate about your politics… and in today’s polarized political environment, it seems especially tricky.

But I draw on these two texts in addressing the subject. Psalm 33 where it says, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”—and the Luke text which is the classic text used in talking about matters of faith and politics and how a Christian is to relate to their nation.

I know I am treading on tricky grounds here. I’m reminded of a joke that  I heard and has been often repeated… There was an old and crafty and wise politician who was asked about a very controversial subject in his state.

The old politician responded by saying, “Well not, some of my constituents feel passionately in favor of this proposal. They see its merits and they are willing to make it the keynote issue in the upcoming campaign. And some of my constituents deeply question the wisdom of such a plan. They urge caution and they do not favor its passage. I, of course, support the position of my constituents!”

How is that for getting out of a trap?

Jesus might have admired him. The priests and scribes are publically trying to trap Jesus regarding a hot political issue. They have sent spies, disguised as well intentioned Jews to ask him a trick question designed to get him arrested and handed over to the Roman governor. With their scripture and centuries of tradition to back them up, they were sure Jesus was blaspheming against God… and they needed the state to help them to get rid of Jesus.

Their trap question would either expose him as a left wing revolutionary that refuses to pay tribute to Caesar… or it would show the crowds that he wasn’t the kind of leader they were looking for—by making him say that the “kingdom” was only a spiritual thing with no implications for everyday life.

How, the audience thinks, will Jesus get out of this one?

Well, we know by now that Jesus will not be led into a trap when he can see people are just playing games. He will not give himself to manipulation or showmanship or partisan politics.

Instead, he sidesteps their trap and presents them with an image and a story. And he forces them to answer a key question: “To whom do you ultimately belong: God or Caesar? You decide and act accordingly.”

Which is a good place to begin when thinking about faithful citizenship, don’t you think? Faithful Citizenship begins with faithfulness to God.

And what fidelity to God requires, is that we hold to the values that is consistent with our faith in Jesus Christ and the values we discern are of God’s concern as we read and pray over the Scriptures.

I’m not naïve’ enough to think that everyone will come to agreement on what that means.

Some of you will lift up texts that speak to you of personal morality that leads you to one set of positions… others of you will lift up texts that speak to justice, peace and care for the poor that may lead you in a different direction politically.

As one person noted:“Christians who are social conservatives insist that the Bible teaches moral stances against abortion and gay marriage that should be enacted into law; progressive Christians insist the Bible calls for climate reform and economic justice (and equality) …” (and policies promoting justice should be enacted into law)

But the key is that we ask these kinds of questions as we reflect upon any political proposal or position:

Is this consistent with what we know of God’s intentions for our lives?

Is this consistent with what we know of God’s movement towards life and peace?

Is this consistent with what we know of God’s demand for justice?

Is this consistent with the life, ministry and message of Jesus, God among us—as   we come to understand Jesus?

These are the kind of questions fruitful Christians and faithful citizens should be asking. Thus, if a conflict arises between our own self interests and what we understand to be our moral obligation, the Bible calls us to fall on the side of our moral and spiritual obligation.

One would hope, of course that all Christians on the left and right would do this with a certain humility. Faith does not and cannot give us certainty about God’s will on every political issue. This does not mean that we can know nothing of God’s will. Clearly the God of the Bible delights in justice and life. Clearly the Holy One of Israel cares for the vulnerable and the oppressed… and calls us to live a holy and good life that reflects the holiness of God.

Yet in spite of our best efforts to discern God’s will, it is very difficult to have absolute certainty about the rightness or righteousness of our stance on particular political issues.

This is because political judgments are always human judgments. And human judgments are made by human beings who are finite, flawed and fallible.

So while we have an obligation to make our judgments in light of the best we have understood in terms of the teachings of Jesus Christ, that is not the same as claiming we completely know the mind of God or have God’s blessing for all the judgments.

There is a huge difference between saying,

“I believe this is what God calls us to do” and saying, “I speak for God on this.”

That distinction is lost on so many people—especially  political and religious leaders. Especially people caught up in the passion for their causes… One of the great temptations when you are caught up in your passion is to be tempted to believe that YOU know completely the mind and will  of God and those who disagree with you do not! (That’s how the political and religious leaders appeared to think when they dealt with Jesus)

One reason faith does not produce consensus in the Christian community is that we do not always come to the same conclusions.In every church there are a variety of views, including the Kirk…

The Presbyterian tradition has included such diversity as Billy Sunday (a revival preacher) and Williams Jennings Bryant (who attacked evolution). William Sloan Coffin—great progressive preacher at Riverside Church New York … Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and Woodrow Wilson—all affiliated with Presbyterians. Governor Jim Holshouser, the notable Republican governor who died recently, reached across the aisles, was an active Presbyterian.

Presbyterians come in all shapes, sizes and a variety of views.

But this we hold in common: we all seek to make our best political judgments in light of our faith, but we remember they are also human and fallible. Those are the principles that guide us as we seek to be faithful citizens – actively engaged in our world… knowing that God calls us to engage the world…

This can take many forms: holding political office… working for the government… serving on town boards or councils… writing your leaders… even better trying to have a conversation with those who represent us My friend Richard, a Presbyterian  mayor says he wishes more citizens would do this … marching for a cause that you believe expresses God’s intention for our community or society.

Faithful citizens find ways to engage the world … with passion to pursue God’s purposes… but also and always with humility.

Which leads me to my last point about what it means to be a faithful citizen.

We are called to live in the political process with a certain quality to our actions. Paul said in Philippians, “Let you manner of life be worthy of the Gospel”

And that’s true of the manner of our political lives, as well.

This has not been the case in recent years. If there is one judgment I would make on the Christian community and who Christians who are filling positions in politics, it is that we have failed far too often to follow Paul here.

Resulting in unhealthy conflict and controversy that is divisive. Some of us have allowed ourselves to be trapped in those controversies where, like those questioning Jesus, people want us to pick a side rather than engage in healthy conversation.

Which hurts our church and our Christian witness in the world.

Richard Rohr in commenting on this text noted that “Controversy undermines real faith because it destroys relationships and respect between people. In such discussions, people feel on the defensive or offensive. They don’t experience a safe atmosphere of love, but rather a competitive game where battling egos take the place of God’s truth- which is always relational…”

I think the church, rather than a place of controversy, is to be a model for the community of the way Christians with different political views can come together in harmony. It ought to be a safe place for conversation and discernment about the will of God for our lives. I would love for there to be a small group or Sunday School class intentionally consisting of people with differing views who are able to discuss issues with love and understanding. This would be a wonderful witness. The church ought to be a beacon in the community, of how diverse people can live together in fellowship and harmony. The church should be a meeting place, a meeting ground, where those who are divided in their questions of politics can realize afresh their unity and common loyalty to Jesus Christ.

Christians are called to live out their faith in the political world… but not like others. We are to live out our faith and politics with a certain quality to our actions. A quality the smacks of the Gospel and honors Jesus Christ.

May the Lord give us the grace to live out our faith with grace, humility, love and faithfulness… May the Lord give us grace to live not only as obedient disciples, but as engaged and faithful citizens with gratitude for this wonderful country where we are blessed with the freedom to practice our faith not only at home and at church but also in our community, state and nation. Amen. [1]

[1] Sources for this sermon include: Richard Rohr’s commentary: “The Good News According to Luke”; N.T. Wright’s commentary, “Luke For Everyone” ; a sermon by John DeBevoise, “Independence Day Reflections” from Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa, Florida, John Leith’s book, “Pilgrimage of a Presbyterian” ,   “Faithful Citizenship” by Greg Garrett and “American Presbyterians, a Pictorial History” by James Smylie.