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Isaiah 40:6-17, Romans 13:1-7
I love July 4th and the celebrations surrounding it. It is our most sacred secular holiday… It is a holiday when all the pressure is off—no gift giving, (for us in the church- no special services)… just time to grill, to be with family, to enjoy fireworks, sing patriotic songs, maybe a hike or a walk or a movie. A time to enjoy the freedom which was given to us at a price. And to give thanks for those who defend our freedoms today.
As a Presbyterian, I’m especially glad to celebrate: Presbyterians played no small role in the American revolution.
King George III reportedly denounced the American Revolution as “a Presbyterian rebellion.” Horace Walpole, told his fellow members of Parliament, “There is no use crying about it. Cousin American has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.” Many other British sympathizers in America blamed the Presbyterians for the war.
So, I am glad, as a Presbyterian and an American to enjoy the celebrations of the weekend.
Of course, I say this acknowledging that this is not so easy for some. As a child of the 60s and 70s, there were many Christians unsure of how to relate to a nation whose policies they said, put them at odds with their Christian faith. Just the other day, an email op-ed came across my computer with this title: “Just Jesus and Unjust July 4th– Why I don’t Celebrate Independence Day.”
Well, I do.
But it does reveal a long running discussion and debate in the Christian community over some basic questions:
How is a Christian supposed to relate to their country? How does one live both as a Christian and a patriot? How does one live with two loyalties—love of God and country?
Probe deep and these are not easy questions to answer.
Presbyterians revolted against the crown, their country.
Then when we turn to the Bible, we find no simple answer to our problem.
Isaiah declares that the nations are like a drop before a bucket. They are as nothing before God. That’s a humbling thought this weekend.
The prophets of Israel were very critical of the kings and leaders of their nation. On the other hand, the New Testament declares all authority is ordained of God. “Honor the emperor” is a Christian mandate. Yet the book of Revelation refers to the emperor as a satanic beast and Rome as the great harlot. Sounds like what I hear on FOX and MSNBC!
What are we to do?
Jesus when asked about paying taxes declares that we give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God… prompting the question: Who do we belong to? The nation or to God?
From the beginning, Christians struggled to understand how to relate to the nation they belonged to.
One early Christian, Tertullian, living about 200—at a time when the church was considered merely a cult or sect of some Jewish religion (like the Jehovah’s witnesses) —Tertullian thought that the church and empire were enemies. You could be Christian or emperor, but you could not be the two at the same time.
A century later, when Constantine, the emperor, became Christian, life turned around for Christians. Now they were in the majority. And another Christian came alone and said that in the Christian conversion of the emperor, we had seen the fulfillment of human history. All is good with God!
Then a tragedy struck that dismayed and confused the Romans every bit as we were after 9-11.Rome fell. Christians were blamed.
The old Romans Christianity had undermined the Roman Empire – that, when you thought about it, the teachings of Christianity were subversive of the social order. How can you have a stable social order when Christians advocated forgiveness of enemies and a policy of turning the other cheek? …When Christians declared that a person’s highest loyalty belongs not to the state, but to God; When over against the kingdoms of earth, Christians affirmed there is also kingdom in heaven that demanded a higher loyalty.”
During that time the great theologian and Christian Augustine tackled the problem.
He said, as a Roman, he was proud and celebrated the achievements of Rome… and said that the achievements of Rome were part of the blessing and providence of God.
But what he learned through their crisis was a hard lesson: that while Rome may have been the greatest empire that history had known, Rome too would fail and pass away. Rome was not perfect. It was not the kingdom of God on earth.
He began to refer to Christians as resident aliens. (we might say immigrants from heaven) As a resident alien, the Christian affirmed the achievements of Rome, indeed worked for the good and welfare of the country. The Christian should strive for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Including the nation.
But we should never confuse the kingdom of God with the kingdoms or nations of the earth.
Which returns us to our problem: how do we live with our dual citizenship in the kingdom of the earth, and the kingdom of God?
Perhaps we can join Augustine in celebrating the United States of America—God has blessed America… in spite of our troubling times, one only has to travel to many other parts of the world to recall how blessed we are. Think of Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq…Haiti, Guatemala…
We can spend this July fourth being thankful and also humble: For if we mean what we say, then it is God who has blessed us…. And we did not do this all by ourselves… all by our own efforts – we are here by the grace and providence of God.
We can also learn from the example of Jesus—from the teaching of Paul—and from the lessons of early Christians— of how to live faithfully as Christians in our nation:We can learn to do deeds of love, mercy and justice, to work to resolve our problems; to embody the purposes of God in our life together nationally and politically. We can lift up the best aspirations that reflect the values of the kingdom of God as values to be pursued in this earthly kingdom:
The Statue of Liberty is one of the symbols that shares such a vision:
You remember the words that appear the Statue’s pedestal:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Sounds like something God, the deliverer of Israel, and Christ, the compassionate one, would endorse to me!
Sometimes our work means re-forming our nation. We are reformers after all.
Presbyterians have always understood that no individual, group or nation is without sin or need of reform. So we work for reformation.
This is not easy work. Like the prophets who were rejected by Israel, sometimes we misunderstand the motives of the prophetic voices in our nation. We think them to be unpatriotic.
But William Sloan Coffin—one of those prophets, helped me understand their role. He said,“How do you love America?” Don’t say, ‘My country, right or wrong.” That’s like saying, “My grandmother, drunk or sober”; it doesn’t get you anywhere. Don’t’ just salute the flag, and don’t burn it either. Wash it. Make it clean. How do you love America? With the vision and compassion of Christ, with a transcendent ethic that alone can fulfill ‘the patriot’s dream that sees beyond the years, her alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears…”
John Calvin would no doubt like that. As someone who sought to reform a whole city… I imagine he would think that loving your country would mean to seek its welfare and reformation again and again. Not blind loyalty, but an open eyed love that seeks to fulfill great commandment to love God and love neighbor… to do justice especially for the least, the last and unlucky and the lost among us in our nation.
We do this of course with one thing in mind. We are resident aliens whose first citizenship is in heaven. We belong first and last to God. Our final trust is not in the United States to save us… but in God. We trust God above all and have realistic expectations of our nation. Our nation and its leaders are not our messiah or savior. This is a good thing to remember.
Augustine, it is said, could rejoice in the greatness of Rome without despairing over its failures. He knew that Rome was finite, limited and transient, and flawed by self seeking. He knew his final hope was not in Rome, but in God.
I think my Dad had it right. My Dad (as my brother will tell you) was a patriot. A World War II veteran… a reservist and retired Colonel… I remember him putting up the flag in our yard for every national holiday… and we’d light sparklers on the front yard…
But my Dad never forgot that he belonged to another kingdom. Out of the war, he came home to work for peace- seeking better understanding among people of all nations while serving on global missions committees for most of his life… All while serving our country in the reserves.
A few years ago before he died, he told me that he had three great loves and loyalties in his life and it was in this order for him—and all were dear to him…:
His first love and loyalty was to God above all.
His next was for his family.
His third was for his country…
He loved them all, but in the end… he knew… he really knew… that at the end of the day… it is in life and in death… we belong to God… and that our final hope was in God… and from God… he would learn how to love his family and his nation in ways that brought glory and honor to God.
May God so help us to love our God, our nation and one another in ways that are faithful to our Lord and fulfill the purposes of the kingdom of heaven, on earth. Amen. 
 Thanks to insights from John Leith’s address: “The City of God and the Nations of the Earth”, p 89ff, Pilgrimage of a Presbyterian.