Sunday Sermon by Rev. J. Michael Solberg given on June 28, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

“Loving Your Country, While Keeping God First”

(Mark 12:28-34, Romans 12:9 – 13:10)

                  Is this a great country, or what?  Those were the words that I spoke out loud to no one in particular when I arrived back in the United States after spending a month in Angola.  I didn’t actually do it, but I felt like imitating Pope John Paul II and kissing the ground when I arrived.  Oh, United States, how do I love thee, let me count the ways:

This place is clean.  I don’t know about cleanliness being next to godliness, but cleanliness is wonderful in any case, and things are reasonably well kept in this country, and having experienced how unpleasant other places can be, it is something I deeply appreciate our country.

We have the rule of law.  The rule of law is a good thing.  We are by no means perfect or free of corruption, but generally things run according to law around here, and that’s a beautiful thing.  You don’t have to pay off someone to get anything done.  You can have a level of trust that when someone legally agrees to do something, they will do it, or suffer legal consequences.  The rule of law makes things reasonably predictable and sets the environment in which you can do what you want to do in life.

We have an amazing education system.  It is not as good as it could be, and it is way too variable based on people’s income, but a decent education is available to most kids for the first 18 years of life, and education is a path to human betterment for many in our society.  And, of course, although often unavailable to low-income people, our university education system is, overall, the best in the world.

Of course, I could go on and on, and together we could make a list of a thousand things that we rightly love about this country.  So if anything else I say now upsets or challenges you, please remember where I have begun: I love the United States of America.

I love the United States of America, but I love God more.  And I think it is very challenging in our society today to know how to truly keep God first in our lives.  Remember the passage we have heard every week for four weeks now: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…and you shall love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself.”  Loving our country is one part of loving our neighbor, and loving our neighbor takes place within the context of loving God first of all.

I doubt anyone would disagree with the general idea that we have to love God more than we love our country.  Indeed, most would probably say that we have to love our country exactly because we love God.  The idea of “God and Country” is a central part of our society – and in spite of the growing secularization of our society, a particular type of civil religion sets the tone of our life together.  We do still have the phrase “In God we trust” on our money.  We still say in the Pledge of Allegiance that we are “One nation under God.”  It is hard for a politician to make a speech without concluding “…and God bless America.”  It is a striking feature of our society, which enshrines the separation of church and state, that our President, acting as President, can lead the nation in singing “Amazing Grace.”

The message given by all such language is that there is some natural and necessary connection between God and our country, or more strongly, a natural and necessary connection between God and the United States of America.  The result of that message is that it takes an extraordinary act of faith and even courage to keep God and country distinct from each other, and thus be able to keep God first.  And I think that is exactly what our faith, and what the Bible, calls us to do: keep God and country distinct from each other, and thus be able to keep God first.

I think it is important to see that this is what the Bible teaches.  We have to learn to tell the story of the Bible properly in this regard.  Let’s start with the first great political story in the Bible, the first story that places the love of God in the context of a great nation.  That’s the story of the Exodus, of course.  When the people of God, who at this time it is probably best to call the Hebrews, were enslaved by the most powerful nation of the time, God worked through Moses to bring them out of Egypt.  Indeed, the very meaning of the word “Hebrew” is likely something like “those who went to the other side,” – the implication being that God did not so much deliver a self-identified, cohesive people, as that those whom God delivered became a cohesive people.

But think of this group of people after they were delivered from slavery in Egypt.  Who were they?  They had no home.  They wondered in the wilderness for 40 years.  They were certainly becoming a self-identified, cohesive people – but in modern terms, they were certainly not a nation.  The thing that bound them together was that they worshipped the God who saved them from slavery in Egypt, and they tried to make their life together reflect the loving, saving nature of that God.  Again, the important point is that they were not a nation, but they were a people.

And they basically lived that way for 500 years.  Only 500 years after the Exodus did the Hebrews create what we would think of as a nation.  And if you remember the story, God wasn’t too happy about it.  The people, still sharing their identity as the descendants of those God saved from slavery in Egypt, they start looking around them and realize that they don’t have as much power as other people do.  Other people have a king, and a king makes a people more powerful.  So the people say, God, we want a king, because we want to be powerful like these nations around us.  God says, “You already have a king: I am your king.”  But the people say they want  a real king, one they can see and who can make them powerful.  After further argument, God finally gives them a king.  And thus a nation, a state, was born.

But here is where the Biblical story begins to make us, Christians, different from any other people on earth.  Because when this nation was born, God’s people remained a people – it was still their worship of God, and their attempt to live for God, that defined who the people were.  The state was meant to serve the well-being of the people, and the people maintained the right and duty to hold the state accountable to the way of God.  Other nations on earth were different.  The people were defined by the king, the state.  But with our people, it was the other way around:  our people maintained their own identity no matter what the “nation” was, because as God had argued to them, God was their ultimate king.

And you ought to hear how the people held the earthly king accountable to the way of God.  You probably remember some of what is in the prophets of the Old Testament.  The harshest language of all is reserved for our own leaders, so to speak.  Over and over again, the prophets call the leaders to task for enriching themselves, abusing the poor, and generally letting this people, God’s people, act just like every other people on earth, fighting wars rather than building peace, loving money rather than loving their neighbors, thinking their job was to secure themselves, rather than find their security in God.  But the important thing is not the criticism itself, it is that the people still had an identity separate from the king and the state that allowed them to criticize the king and the state.  Because of that identity, it was their God given duty to criticize the king and the state.  To fail to do so would have been to give up on God.  To fail to criticize the king and the state would have been to fail to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and love their neighbor as themselves.

About 500 years before Jesus, the earthly king and the state fell for the final time.  But the genius of our God, the genius of our faith, is that the people still remained a people, even after the state fell.  They could still worship God and live for God in the world, because even with no king, no state of their own, they still knew who they were – the people of God.

Just after the time of Jesus, the New Testament uses a striking phrase to try and get to what this means for the followers of Jesus.  The New Testament says that the church is “a holy nation,” and it says that our “citizenship is in heaven.”  That is, as followers of Christ, our first nation, our primary state you may say, is the church.  Our identity, who we are, comes from God, and that is what is most important about us.  We love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  And, wherever we Christians are found in the world, no matter the nation in which we live, we are one people.

So who we are as Christians is separate and distinct from who we are as Americans, or as Angolans, or as Azerbaijanis, or as Argentinians, or as anything else.  And only by keeping our identity shaped by God first of all, can we fulfill our duty to love the neighbors we call our fellow residents of the United States of America.  Put simply, it is our duty to criticize and our duty to work to change this country, exactly because that is the only way to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

But let me get more specific about how this works in our particular context.  Our first identity comes from being followers of Christ.  But we live in a pluralistic society.  We have people who believe a hundred different ways, and telling our nation to do something because Jesus Christ said so isn’t really justifiable.  But we can and must hold the state, the government, to the best of what itself claims to be all about.  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  It’s a beautiful statement.  And as Christians it is our duty to hold the government to it.  Since the government claims to help make us a more perfect union, let’s see it.  Since the government claims to establish justice, let’s see it.  Since to government claims to help us promote the general welfare, let’s see it.  Let’s see it.  And let’s work to make it happen, because the first three words of that preamble to the Constitution are, “we the people.”

To love your country, but to love God first, means that our first identity has to come from God.  God, as shown to us in Jesus Christ, has to shape what we believe is good and more perfect and just and what leads to the welfare of all.  And we have to be well formed in this identity in order to have anything to offer the neighbors we call our fellow Americans.  Our true citizenship, our first citizenship, comes from right here, comes from this gathering in the name of Jesus Christ.  Only when we take that seriously will be able to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

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